Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523

Inherent in the title “Water Liars” is a theme that dominates much of Barry Hannah’s fiction—the dishonesty that pervades human life and the difficulty humans have in facing truth. The “water liars” tell stories that are, by mutual consent, always outrageously improbable, often involving the supernatural, and never about themselves or known persons so that no one will be hurt. The storytellers prefer to live in a world of illusions, a world in which it is permissible to tell stories of humans having sexual relations with ghosts, but not stories involving the sexual activities of their daughters or wives. When faced with a story that concerns a real incident, they recoil and shun the storyteller.

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Like most of Hannah’s protagonists, the narrator is lonely, wounded, and self-reflexive. Because of his recently discovered private truth that his wife was not a virgin when they married, he is particularly vulnerable and unable to retain objectivity about the stories he hears. His knowledge and private suffering therefore color both his hearing of the stories and his telling of them for the reader. Awareness of his wife’s sexual history comes at a crucial time in his life. Thirty-three years old, confronted with money problems, he obviously needs to feel heroic and tries to think of himself, like Jesus, “coming to something decided” in his life, something free from ambiguity, unquestionable, fully resolved.

However, the truth-telling session with his wife, after a night of drinking, accomplishes the opposite, providing him with more ambiguity and uncertainty. The narrator has to face not only the truth of his wife’s sexual history but also the truth of his reaction to it. He acknowledges intellectually the illogic of his having expected her to be a virgin while he himself was sexually active, but emotionally, psychologically, he cannot rid himself of the sense that he has been betrayed.

Tension thus comes from within the protagonist who is conscious of the destruction of a dream based on the cultural expectation of the sexually dominant male hero who marries the pure virgin. Even though he recognizes the sexism, even perhaps the immorality, of such a dream, he cannot let go of it. Instead he feels an “impotent homicidal urge.” His own sense of manliness has been severely damaged. He wants to destroy those he holds responsible, those who “trespassed” his wife, but he finds himself utterly helpless.

Both the original title of the story, “Homeless,” and the title of the longer work in which it was incorporated in its first publication, “Behold the Husband in His Perfect Agony,” suggest that the truth damages and perhaps even destroys the narrator’s marriage. Unlike the “water liars” who tell stories to escape reality, however, the narrator is apparently telling his story now, as the man who told the story of his daughter did, not to escape truth, but to try to understand it. Confronting the truth brings him agony and little real understanding; however, he comes nearer to facing truth than most of Hannah’s narrators. He also finds some comfort in recognizing that he is not completely alone in his suffering.

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