Silver Water Themes
by Amy Bloom

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Silver Water,” which won a National Magazine Award when it was first published, is the best-known story, as well as one of three stories about Violet’s family, in Amy Bloom’s first collection of stories, Come to Me. The book was enthusiastically received because Bloom, a practicing psychotherapist, was able to make the reader sympathetic to such sensitive and taboo subjects as mental illness, voyeurism, and incest. Although “Silver Water” has been praised as an “unflinching look” at how mental illness can both destroy and unite a family, the story is absolutely unsentimental, using instead the comic point of view of Violet, the sister of the mentally disturbed Rose.

The key to the story’s thematic significance is Bloom’s treatment of Rose and her family’s means of coping with her mental illness. Although Rose has psychotic breaks and engages in inappropriate behavior, she is intelligent, talented, and witty. Also, although the family is clearly distressed by her illness, they laugh at her behavior and mock the family therapists they take her to see. For example, at one such session, when Rose begins massaging her breasts, her usual “opening salvo” for new therapists, the family laughs. When the therapist, in all seriousness, asks why everyone thinks Rose’s inappropriate behavior is funny, Rose burps loudly, and the family laughs again. When the therapist continually refers to Rose in the third person, Rose calls him Ferret Face and the family laughs again. When they leave, Violet says that Rose was still nuts, but at least they had had a little fun. This comic approach holds the family together.

What Bloom does in “Silver Water” is merge the serious medical condition of mental illness with the common notion of referring to any bizarre, comic behavior as “crazy.” In fact, when Rose begins acting strangely at age fifteen, her mother tells her father, who is a psychiatrist, that Rose is “going off,” that she is “going crazy.” Although such terminology for mentally ill people is often considered insensitive, Bloom accepts the fact that in spite of the fact that often the behavior of the mentally ill is frightening, it is also sometimes quite funny.

Rose and the family love Dr. Thorne precisely because he, like them, maintains a comic approach to Rose’s illness. For example, when Rose goes through a phase of wanting to have sex with everyone, he tells her that he just cannot make love to every beautiful woman he meets. When Thorne, a Texan who weighs three hundred pounds, dies of an aneurysm, Rose, confronted with seriousness once again, stops taking her medication and gets steadily worse. At this point in the story, as Rose becomes more and more uncontrollable, her behavior is not funny any more, but rather self-destructive. Consequently, Violet’s allowing her to die after taking an overdose of pills is seen as an act of love for one who has been completely transformed and is beyond hope of recovery.

Themes

(Short Stories for Students)

Illness
The theme of illness—specifically mental illness— and how that affects everyone it touches is one of the most important themes in ‘‘Silver Water.’’ After Rose’s first schizophrenic breakdown at the age of fifteen, the illness virtually controls her life, and as the narration makes clear, it also takes over the lives of her family. The illness is seen as a family problem. Not only does the entire family participate in group counseling to help Rose, but the mother and father try to help Rose’s fellow patients, as if saving others similarly afflicted will save their daughter. David, a psychiatrist, donates time to work in the hospitals and clinic that currently treat Rose, while Galen, a musician, offers salvation and peace through the only method she knows: through her music.

David and Galen, however, try to minimize Violet’s involvement; they want her to be free to lead a normal life. Thus, after Dr. Thorne’s death, when Rose is to spend a month and a half at home,...

(The entire section is 1,257 words.)