Contemporary writers arrive on the literary scene with a force of history behind them. They arrive after major literary movements and eras and are sometimes compared to the romantics, the humanists, the southern school, or the Victorians. Sometimes a writer ﬁts neatly into a category or the melding of a few categories. Anne Tyler, in a career that began in the 1960s and continues today, has been compared to all of these seemingly disparate schools and eras of literature. Not only can critics of a tormented inner world and a troubling outer one.’’ At the beginning of the story, the reader knows only that something is happening on this day that is different than other days. Otherwise, Bet’s concerns are normal, daily concerns. She is concerned that her son, Arnold, look clean. She worries that he not become agitated. She worries that they will miss their bus and frets over giving him gum on the train. All of these are the worries of an ordinary mother.
Most ordinary lives contain a twist, and it is not until Bet is on the train that the reader truly learns, though he or she may have suspected, that Arnold is handicapped. The twist in Bet’s life is this burden, and the reader is meeting this ordinary woman on the day in which she is to institutionalize her son. Through characterization, or the way a character is portrayed, a reader may have guessed that there was something different about Arnold, but not until Bet begins to remember his birth is the full truth about Arnold revealed. Bet questions the ‘‘evil gene’’ that caused Arnold’s disability. She wonders if it came from her or from her husband, Avery, who left when they found out Arnold was handicapped. Ultimately, in questioning the gene, Bet questions the beginning of life and identity. Throughout the story, Arnold’s identity is vague. His jeans are too blue. Bet worries that he does not ‘‘look real.’’ It is his lack of identity and the origin of this lack that concerns Bet. Is it her fault? Did this handicap and vacancy come from her? As she recalls, ‘‘she never could do anything as well as most people,’’ and this revelation seems to include not only her biological contribution to Arnold’s life but also her role as Arnold’s caregiver.
As Bet wonders about her son and her worth as a mother, she also questions her own identity and the road she has taken to arrive at this time and place in her life. Bet recalls her ‘‘old life’’ that was ‘‘beautifully free and spacious.’’ The beauty and spaciousness of her remembered home is juxtaposed, or set in opposition, with her current life. As Croft states about many of Tyler’s characters, ‘‘the individual sometimes begins to feel restricted or even imprisoned.’’ Because her life is restricted, Bet chooses memory as a way to understand. She recalls her father trying to teach her how to body surf, how before he could ‘‘arrange his day’’ he had to listen for the tides and the ‘‘height of average waves in unprotected waters.’’ Bet recalls being unable to body surf instead, just standing ‘‘staunch’’ and letting the waves ‘‘slam into her.’’ This whole series of images acts as an extended metaphor, or a Ultimately, however, the action of institutionalizing her son paralyzes Bet. Arnold will ﬁnally get the care he requires from trained individuals, but Bet, who has identiﬁed herself as a mother and caregiver and has endured hardship, no longer has a son to raise or a hardship to endure. In one day, she has lost the things that deﬁne her, thus, it is her identity that is in peril.
At the conclusion of ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters,’’ Bet indicates that she is prepared to disengage from life. Life has become ‘‘just something on a stage for her to sit back and watch.’’ Bet’s pivotal journey through memory has led her to a kind of understanding that does not initiate action but creates a kind of paralysis. Karen Levenback in her article ‘‘Function of (Picturing) Memory’’ in Anne Tyler as Novelist, says, ‘‘The key to using memory wisely and well has less to do with realizing the signiﬁcance of memories today than with what we do with this sense tomorrow.’’ Bet’s choice for tomorrow is to let go of life, to watch it rather than live it. For one who has deﬁned herself in terms of endurance and standing staunch in adversity, the sudden freedom coupled with her perceived failure as a mother, creates paralysis. She idealized her ‘‘old life’’ as one that was ‘‘spacious’’ and free, but when provided with these very things, the decision to live spaciously and freely is too great a burden. She is the one, not her son, who ends up losing identity, because her identity has been so tied to the things she has just lost: her son, her family. Charlotte Templin, in her article ‘‘Tyler’s Literary Reputation’’ in Anne Tyler as Novelist, cites a review by Vivian Gornick in the Village Voice, that talks about Bet’s very decision to disengage. Gornick writes, ‘‘A pity: A good writer being rewarded for making virtue out of the fear of experience.’’ Gornick’s reﬂection on Tyler’s use of fear pertains to Bet, who ﬁnds the possibility of experience paralytic. But, the question about virtue remains. What is the reader to understand about Bet? Is she a hero? And is Tyler truly making virtue of Bet’s fear? What readers glean from this text has been and will continue to be a response to the elements of their own ordinary lives found within it. Gornick seems to suggest that literature should provide role models, or people from whom the ordinary person can model behavior. With Bet, Tyler seems to suggest that daily decisions are difﬁcult decisions and sometimes they simply get the better of people. Through Bet, Tyler teaches that learning to surf through the difﬁculties of life is perhaps the only way to ensure a future in which a person has enough energy and hope to remain actively engaged. Bet never learned to live ﬂexibly, or body surf. She stood staunch and took every slam life had for her, and the end of her story ﬁnds her in a bleak kind of nothingness. A reader may not ﬁnd something in Bet to emulate or model but may empathize with her hardship and realize that her choice is not the choice to make and not the life to emulate, but to avoid.
Tyler has been criticized for being either too rosy or too bleak, opposites that ultimately must be resolved by her reading audience. Just as Bet can be read as a hero and coward, so can many of Tyler’s characters. The reader is the ﬁnal arbiter of truth, and hence literary categories, which have emerged to explain the writing of contemporary authors and place them in tidy categories, do not work for Tyler. Her work deﬁes pre-deﬁned categories and does so under the guise of writing about average life. The ordinary life, it seems, is a multifaceted, nuanced endeavor that thousands of readers have found and identiﬁed with in Tyler’s ﬁction. Readers of her stories and novels meet in Tyler’s words what Croft calls the ‘‘typical Tylerian situation—a person attempting to endure the hand that life has dealt him or her.’’ Critics are conﬂicted about the typical Tylerian situation, offering both praise and criticism, which Tyler seems to suggest, throughout all her work, is just one of ordinary life’s complications.
David Galens – Short Stories for Students_ Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories (Volume 17)-Gale (2003), Short Story by Anne Tyler