Historical Context

Political Apathy
Poor economic conditions at the end of the 1970s led to a change in the political landscape of America. In 1980...

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Breathing Lessons

In her tenth novel, The Accidental Tourist (1985), Anne Tyler depicted the dissolution of a twenty-year marriage following the violent death of a couple’s son. In Breathing Lessons, her eleventh book, she presents the reverse, the duration of a marriage for twenty-eight years despite the countless grievances and compromises that come with any enduring relationship. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Breathing Lessons is the story of Maggie and Ira Moran’s long-standing love and tolerance for each other. Told primarily through flashbacks as the two journey to the funeral of Max Gill, the husband of Maggie’s girlhood friend Serena, the novel covers nearly thirty years in one September day and contrasts the Morans’ courtship and marriage with the relationship of their son, Jesse, and his now former wife, Fiona. Because Fiona and her daughter, Leroy, the Morans’ only grandchild, live near the town of Deer Lick, Pennsylvania, where the funeral occurs, Maggie, the novel’s heroine, uses this proximity to convince her husband to visit Fiona and Leroy. Indeed, from its beginning, Breathing Lessons concerns not only Ira and Maggie’s bickering and adjustments to change but also Maggie’s sole struggle to reconcile Jesse and Fiona and bring Fiona and Leroy “home at last.”

Set in Deer Lick and Cartwheel, Pennsylvania, where Fiona lives, and in Baltimore, the Morans’, home, Breathing Lessons has three principal divisions, each told from a limited third-person point of view. The first and third sections focus on Maggie’s consciousness, while the middle section, which constitutes something of an interlude, centers on Ira’s thoughts. The first section consists of the journey from Baltimore to Deer Lick; the funeral itself, with vividly described and hilariously funny repeat performances of love songs sung at Serena and Max’s wedding nearly thirty years earlier; and the gathering of old friends, all alumni of the same high school, at Serena’s house following the memorial service. Somewhat reminiscent of the film The Big Chill (1983), this first section is witty and satiric in its depiction of 1950’s music and mores. More significant, it introduces the motif of life and growth as a journey through time and demonstrates Tyler’s skillful use of flashbacks to provide exposition. Here the device of a home movie of Serena’s wedding serves as a trigger for Maggie’s memories of her initial involvement with Ira. The second part of the novel depicts a side trip during which Maggie and Ira become temporarily involved with an elderly black man, Daniel Otis, who has left his wife of fifty-plus years and spends his days traveling the Pennsylvania country roads. Since it is centered on Ira’s thoughts, this section provides his responses to his wife’s and children’s behavior, including his son’s marriage, as well as Ira’s only family history and motivation. As in the first section, Tyler reveals a masterful handling of exposition and conflicts through internal thought sequences and flashbacks. This section also introduces a minor story of considerable human interest, that of Otis, offering thereby a parallel commentary on the squabbles and adjustments that characterize enduring marriages. The novel’s third section, which introduces the characters of Fiona and Leroy and Fiona’s mother, Mrs. Stuckey, focuses again on Maggie’s thoughts, but this time the center of attention is her memories of Fiona and Jesse’s relationship. Indeed, a lengthy flashback traces the entire history of that relationship from the earliest dates through marriage and eventual divorce. The visit to Cartwheel and the return to Baltimore with Fiona and Leroy complete this section. Tyler depicts the cyclical nature of experience, a central theme of the novel, when Fiona and Leroy explosively depart yet a second time from the Morans’ house.

As this plot summary and structural analysis suggest, there are four marital relationships presented in Breathing Lessons, two in much greater detail than the others: the long-standing marriages of the Otises, the Gills, and the Morans, and one of short duration, Fiona and Jesse’s. From Searching for Caleb (1975) to the present work, Tyler’s novels have skillfully balanced a lighthearted, humorous view of human nature with a depth of insight into the darker side of marital experience. With a sharp eye, she captures the amicable surface of Max and Serena Gill’s marriage, their joking manner of calling each other by their last names, Gill and Palermo, while also recording Serena’s pain at Max’s lack of financial dependability and, ultimately, his passive suffering and death from cancer. Maggie and Ira’s marriage, while superficially a sound balance of two contrasting personalities who can bicker and then reconcile, has...

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From the moment that Maggie Moran picks up the newly repaired family Dodge at the garage, becomes distracted by the radio, and speeds into the path of a Pepsi truck, it is clear that the day described by Anne Tyler in her novel BREATHING LESSONS will not be uneventful. In fact, the Saturday when Ira and Maggie Moran travel ninety miles from Baltimore to Deer Lick, Pennsylvania, in order to attend a funeral, becomes a summary of the twenty-eight-year marriage of two people who are opposites in temperament and interests, who are constantly at cross-purposes, and who are plagued by difficult in-laws and disappointing offspring. No wonder that the day is marked by quarrels, confrontations, detours, accidents, and disasters; however, like the marriage, it is saved by the fact that Maggie and Ira keep falling helplessly in love.

Like Anne Tyler’s other novels, BREATHING LESSONS is pervaded by a sense of place. The place is Baltimore, a Southern city, where this book begins and ends, and indeed whose atmosphere seems to move with Ira and Maggie as they travel. Tyler’s characters in BREATHING LESSONS are similar to those in her other works: people who are ordinary in station but extraordinary in imagination, people who have the strength to espouse their eccentricities. While Tyler’s characters never realize their dreams, they have the will to keep trying and the power to love. Perhaps one reason for her popularity is the tone of her books. Like Eudora Welty, Tyler writes of real people, sometimes comically, sometimes seriously, but always affectionately. The reader must respect her characters, who, although they seem to keep returning to the same place and the same situations, continue to grow in stature.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIV, July, 1988, p. 1756.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, July 1, 1988, p. 931.

Library Journal. CXIII, September 1, 1988, p. 184.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 11, 1988, p. 3.

Ms. XVII, September, 1988, p. 86.

The Nation. CCXLVII, November 7, 1988, p. 464.

The New York Times. CXXXVIII, September 3, 1988, p. 13.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, September 11, 1988, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXIV, November 28, 1988, p. 121.

Newsweek. CXII, September 26, 1988, p. 73.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, July 1, 1988, p. 67.

Time. CXXXII, September 5, 1988, p. 75.

Literary Style

Point of View
Breathing Lessons utilizes a third-person omniscient narrative, with the middle section told from Ira's point...

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Ideas for Group Discussions

In interviews and articles about her writing life, Tyler has often given a glimpse of her own marriage and family. Her children are grown...

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Social Concerns

Although Breathing Lessons is primarily about a long-lasting marriage, it also deals with the problems common to marriages of partners...

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Topics for Further Study

The legal issues of child custody and visitation rights have become more complex recently. What rights have the courts awarded to...

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Techniques / Literary Precedents

Limiting the action of a novel to one day in the life of ordinary people was an experiment for James Joyce in Ulysses, and it is a new...

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Related Titles

Once again Tyler creates characters that are at once quirky and ordinary, and she continues to employ humor with great skill. In Breathing...

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A made-for-television movie version of Breathing Lessons (1994) starred Joanne Woodward as Maggie and James Garner as Ira. The New...

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Media Adaptations

The television film adaptation of Breathing Lessons was released in 1994. Under the direction of John Erman, the movie starred James...

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What Do I Read Next?

Star employee of Baltimore's Rent-a-Back, Inc., Barnaby Gaitlan is the protagonist of Tyler's most recent novel, A Patchwork Planet...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Bennett, Barbara A., review, in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 60, No 1, January, 1995, pp. 57-75.


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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Booklist. LXXXIV, July, 1988, p. 1756.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, July 1, 1988, p. 931.

Library Journal. CXIII, September 1, 1988, p. 184.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 11, 1988, p. 3.

Ms. XVII, September, 1988, p. 86.

The Nation. CCXLVII, November 7, 1988, p. 464.

The New York Times. CXXXVIII, September 3, 1988, p. 13.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, September 11, 1988, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXIV, November 28, 1988, p. 121.

Newsweek. CXII,...

(The entire section is 65 words.)