When ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters’’ appeared in the New Yorker in the winter of 1977, it arrived in a climate of economic instability and social sobriety. The 1970s, the post-Vietnam years in America, were marked by feelings of disillusionment. Working-class people lost faith in government, believing that their vote would not make a difference, and high unemployment created a sharp contrast between the wealthy and the poor.
Households headed by women, similar to Bet Blevins’s in Tyler’s story, were especially hard hit economically. Salary discrepancies for women and men working in similar jobs became a focus of the feminist movement, and efforts of the movement elicited slow change for economically disadvantaged female workers. The positive news for working mothers was a shift in social perspective that freed women to work and raise families without feeling social ridicule. More and more mothers entered the workforce out of ﬁnancial obligation, but increasingly, women entered the workforce as they searched for self-fulﬁllment.
The search for self-fulﬁllment became a prominent theme in 1970s life, one that Bet shares in the story. She questions her identity and feels a palpable need to escape her current life and its hardships. Many Americans felt that need in the post-Vietnam era and, like Bet, were hindered in their quest by socioeconomic situations that greatly limited their possibilities.
The search for self-fulﬁllment led, for many, to a shift in priorities that placed personal needs ahead of family. This shift would ultimately mark the birth of the ‘‘Me Generation’’ that became prevalent in the 1980s. In the late 1970s, this growing attitude had a negative impact on marriages, resulting in a dramatic rise in the divorce rate. A society that had once admired marriages in which difﬁcult circumstances were endured and obligations to others were placed ahead of personal happiness gave way to disillusionment and the normality of divorce and abandonment. Bet’s absent husband, Avery, is an example of this trend and the relational wreckage that scarred many lives.
Self-fulﬁllment also led to rampant self-expression, which came in many forms, some of them unlikely, such as denim jeans. For rich and poor, the personalization of jeans in the 1970s provided contrast to the plain jeans and black, beatnik sweaters of the 1960s. Whereas only collegians and rebels wore jeans in the 1960s, jeans in the 1970s became a national uniform. In ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters,’’ Bet worries that Arnold’s jeans are not faded or worn enough, and that this makes him appear unreal. The use of jeans to symbolize her worries about her son’s character is an apt one for the 1970s, an era when jeans helped deﬁned the person.
The person of the president was deﬁned in the decade ﬁrst as Republican Richard Nixon, who resigned from ofﬁce after the Watergate scandal and was later pardoned by his former vice president, Gerald Ford. In 1977, Ford relinquished his inherited presidency to a man many people called ‘‘the non-politician,’’ Jimmy Carter. Formerly a peanut farmer, then Governor of Georgia, Carter won the election as a Washington outsider. At the end of the decade, just as at the end of ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters,’’ an ambiguous view of government and patriotism took the stage. Bet is ‘‘saved’’ by the mayor in what she believes is a kind of act of fate. She believes that the government people ‘‘had come just for her sake.’’ As the decade came to a close, there was a similar public attitude toward government. The Democratic Party was leaving ofﬁce and the country was welcoming Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party to Washington along with a new era of politics that promised to focus on individual needs.
1970s: The 1970 census reveals that three million women are raising families by themselves.
Today: The 2000 census reports that over ten million women, many of them by choice, raise families as single mothers.
1970s: Late in the decade, British scientists report that they have determined, for the ﬁrst time, the complete genetic structure of a living organism.
Today: Scientists from the Human Genome Project ﬁnish drafts of the human genome, one of the largest scientiﬁc undertakings of all time, and determine that the human genome contains between 26,000 and 40,000 genes.
1970s: Post-Vietnam America, plagued by economic instability, widespread civic distrust of government, and an energy crisis, begins to rebound as government agencies concentrate on the domestic agenda.
Today: Post–September 11, 2001, America, plagued by economic instability, concerns over national security, and threats of bioterrorism, focuses on a domestic agenda that strives to make America safe and economically stable once again.
1970s: ‘‘Let’s talk about me,’’ a line borrowed from author Tom Wolfe, becomes the unofﬁcial slogan of America, creating an atmosphere in which people begin to publicly share personal history, strife, sacriﬁce, and turmoil. Complete disclosure becomes a distinctive national style.
Today: American citizens tell their personal stories on daytime television programs and sell their stories to national magazines, while nightly news is criticized for featuring private glimpses into the lives of elected ofﬁcials and celebrities.
Tyler’s ‘‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters’’ manifests 1970s ideologies, cultural phenomena, and values, but what is most notable about the story is that its time and place are relatively irrelevant. Tyler’s story, and much of her other work, has a distinct universality about it that allows it to speak across generations. This is one reason this story, in particular, keeps cropping up in anthologies. Students of the text still ﬁnd something relevant in its message and ﬁnd the historical and cultural framework of the story easily adaptable to the current day.
David Galens – Short Stories for Students_ Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories (Volume 17)-Gale (2003), Short Story by Anne Taylor