Analysis of Anne Tyler’s Stories

Classified by critics as a southern writer, Anne Tyler (born October 25, 1941) focuses on modern families and their unique relationships. Her underlying theme is that time inexorably changes the direction of people’s lives. The past determines the present and the present determines the future. Her stories show that life moves in generational cycles and that conflicts almost inevitably arise as time passes and settings change. Within families, the perspective of love evolves, children grow up and leave home, and death and grief sever connections. When a character’s freedom is restricted by too many demands on energy or resources, the individual must make choices, adapt to changing circumstances, and endure insecurity and hardship before reaching a temporary equilibrium. Tyler says that life is a “web, crisscrossed by strings of love and need and worry.” Her humanistic worldview focuses on individuals, isolated and unable to communicate complex emotions such as love, grief, despair, or guilt. Missed connections, language, social class, age, religious beliefs, ethnicity, and other barriers prevent communication.

Tyler is always aware of the writer/reader connection. What draws a reader are “concrete details, carefully layered to create complexity and depth, like real life.” Characters must be individuals with unique qualities, and their dialogue must flow like conversation. Tyler often uses multiple points of view as a third-person observer. She says she is able to assume a convincing masculine persona in her narrative because most human experience has no particular gender. She makes effective use of flashbacks, in which a character’s memory travels to the past and links it to the present and future.

Your Place Is Empty

The idea for this story occurred when Tyler accompanied her husband, Taghi Modarressi, to Iran to meet his large family. Before the journey, Tyler, like the character Elizabeth, taught herself Persian and spoke it well enough to communicate on a surface level, but she soon discovered that mere words could not express complex emotions or overcome her feelings of being an outsider in a foreign culture.

The situation is reversed in “Your Place Is Empty.” Mrs. Ardavi arrives in the United States for a six-month visit with her son Hassan, his American wife Elizabeth, and their small daughter. Hassan has lived in the United States for twelve years and is a successful doctor. Upon arrival at the airport, his mother does not recognize him. She reminds him that his place at home is still empty and urges him to return to Iran. Hassan has not forgotten his heritage, but he has changed, an underlying theme of the story.

Another theme shows how conflicts arise when people from different cultures cannot adapt. At first Elizabeth tries to make Mrs. Ardavi welcome, but soon language and culture become barriers to communication. As Mrs. Ardavi attempts to express her personality and infuse her son’s home with Iranian customs, Elizabeth feels resentful and isolated, as if her freedom within her own home is restricted. Food preparation symbolizes their conflict. Elizabeth serves bacon, a taboo food for Mrs. Ardavi, who clutters Elizabeth’s kitchen with spices and herbs, pots and pans, as she prepares Hassan’s favorite lamb stew. She thinks that Elizabeth’s meals are inadequate and that she is a negligent mother. Like an unsuccessful arbiter, Hassan stands between his mother and Elizabeth.

Tyler uses a narrative point of view that shifts between Mrs. Ardavi and Elizabeth. Insight into both women’s personalities evokes reader sympathy, especially for Mrs. Ardavi. In flashbacks, she recalls her traditional Muslim girlhood; an arranged marriage to a man she never loved; his prolonged illness and death; grief over her oldest son’s unhappy marriage and his untimely death; problems with the spoiled and pregnant wife of her youngest son; and the small comfort of “knowing her place” within the family circle of thirteen sisters who gossip and drink tea each afternoon. Elizabeth expresses resentment at her mother-in-law’s interference with icy silence, zealous housecleaning, and private complaints to Hassan. Realizing that the situation has reached an impasse, Hassan suggests that for the duration of her visit, Mrs. Ardavi move to a nearby apartment, away from the intimacy of his family. Unable to find “her place” in her son’s American home, Mrs. Ardavi returns to Iran.


Average Waves in Unprotected Waters

This story shows how the passage of time causes physical and emotional changes for Bet, a single mother, and Arnold, her mentally disabled son. Avery Blevins, Bet’s “grim and cranky” husband, deserts her after a doctor diagnoses their baby as mentally disabled, the result of a fateful genetic error. Without family (her parents are dead), Bet supports herself and her child at a low-paying job. Arnold’s increasingly wild tantrums force her to place him in a state hospital. Bet’s landlady and longtime baby-sitter is a kindly woman, who has grown too old to control Arnold’s aggressive behavior. His lack of response to her tears and special gift of cookies when he leaves indicates his infantile emotional level. On the train he enjoys watching the conductor scold a black woman for trying to ride without a ticket and cheers loudly as if they are actors in a television comedy. Arnold ignores the hospital setting and the nurse until his mother leaves. Then, like a small child, he screams loudly enough for Bet to hear him in the driveway as she climbs into a taxi. The train is late; so Bet dries her tears and watches strangers draping bunting on a speaker’s stand in preparation for a ceremony dedicating the antiquated depot’s restoration. She observes their actions while she waits for the train to take her life in a new direction.

Tyler describes how the passage of time erodes concrete objects and compares it to changing human relationships. The shabby boardinghouse has peeling layers of wallpaper, symbolic of passing time and the people who once lived there. Bet is worn down physically and emotionally by Arnold’s hyperactive behavior, his short attention span, and his loud, incoherent speech. Marble steps at the mental hospital are worn down by the feet of care-givers and patients who have climbed them. The hospital dormitory is stripped of color and warmth. Only a small, crooked clown picture indicates that children might live there. The nurse disengages emotionally when Bet tries to tell her about Arnold’s unique qualities. The train conductor, taxi driver, and station attendant are coldly impersonal, showing lack of empathy for Bet and Arnold. In the past, they have witnessed many arrivals and departures like Bet’s and no longer respond to them.

The title “Average Waves in Unprotected Waters” indicates how the main characters, Bet and Arnold, adapt to “waves” in their lives. Bet faces disappointments and griefs, just as she once allowed “ordinary” breakers in the ocean to slam against her body, “as if staunchness were a virtue.” The waves are not life-threatening; they are unhappy experiences to which she and Arnold must adapt in environments of “unprotected waters.” Bet must endure life without family, goals, or resources, and Arnold must endure life in an impersonal mental hospital without his mother’s love and protection.

Teenage Wasteland

Originally published in Seventeen magazine, this story shows how lack of communication between a troubled adolescent and his parents results in tragedy. Tyler’s title, “Teenage Wasteland,” comes from a popular song by the musical group the Who. Contributing factors to fifteen-year-old Donnie’s “wasted” life include Daisy and Matt’s inept parenting skills, a tutor’s destructive influence, and Donnie’s changing needs as an adolescent. Poor grades, petty thefts, smoking and drinking, and truancy are symptoms of Donnie’s low self-esteem.

Tyler tells the story from a third-person point of view, limited to Daisy, a mother who agonizes over her guilt and inadequacies as a parent. Significantly, Matt, the father, does not get directly involved in guiding or disciplining his son. Neither parent is able to talk to Donnie about his personal problems. They focus on academic performance. At first, the parents make strict rules, and Daisy helps Donnie complete his assignments. However, her best efforts result in minimal improvement and cause major emotional storms.

Humiliated and unable to cope, Daisy takes Donnie to see Cal, a young counselor and tutor whose office is in his house, where other students lounge around, playing basketball and listening to rock music by the Who. Cal “marches to a different drummer” and encourages Donnie and other adolescents under his tutelage to rebel from “controlling” adults, like parents and school authorities. Accepting responsibility for one’s actions, setting goals, and studying are not part of Cal’s agenda. Donnie gradually withdraws from his family in favor of “hanging out” at Cal’s with teenagers like himself.

Donnie is expelled from the private school he attends after authorities find beer and cigarettes in his locker, and his academic performance drops even lower. Instead of going home, he runs to Cal’s. Donnie claims it was a “frame up,” and Cal excuses the boy by saying that the school violated his civil rights. Angry and frustrated, Daisy takes Donnie home and enrolls him in public school, where he finishes the semester. Miserable and friendless, Donnie runs away, his youth wasted, and Daisy wonders what went wrong.

People Who Don’t Know the Answers

This story, published in The New Yorker, is a revised chapter from Tyler’s novel Saint Maybe. Doug Bedloe, a recently retired schoolteacher, realizes that nobody has the final answers to life’s mysteries. The passage of time changes everything. To fill the void in his life, he tries several boring and unproductive hobbies. Then he becomes interested in some foreign students who live across the street. Like actors in a comedy, they enjoy a casual lifestyle and are fascinated by American gadgets, music, language, and clothing, far different from the “real” life and family responsibilities they have known in distant lands.

Doug compares their experimental lifestyle to his own static existence. Seen through the foreigners’ window screen, his house reminds him of a framed needlepoint picture, something “cozy, old-fashioned, stitched in place forever.” Yet Doug’s family has changed. His wife Bee has become disabled with arthritis. Death has taken their oldest son Danny, whose children now live with them. Beastie, Doug’s old dog and companion, is buried under the azalea. Adult siblings, Ian and Claudia, have gradually assumed family authority. Doug feels physically fit, but his life has no anchor. His past is gone, and he must somehow endure the present.

Ian invites his family to a picnic sponsored by the Church of the Second Chance, viewed by some as a cult, or “alternative religion.” Brother Emmett and church members have helped Ian endure his overwhelming sense of guilt over Danny’s accidental death and support his role as surrogate father to Danny’s children. Doug acknowledges that sharing one’s joys and sorrows would benefit him, but Bee remains cynical. Doug’s past and the present reality make him feel split, like the foreigners’ old car, parked half inside their garage with the faulty automatic door bisecting it.

Major Works
Children’s literature: Tumble Tower, 1993 (illustrations by Mitra Modarressi).
Novels: If Morning Ever Comes, 1964; The Tin Can Tree, 1965; A Slipping-Down Life, 1970; The Clock Winder, 1972; Celestial Navigation, 1974; Searching for Caleb, 1976; Earthly Possessions, 1977; Morgan’s Passing, 1980; Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, 1982; The Accidental Tourist, 1985; Breathing Lessons, 1988; Saint Maybe, 1991; Ladder of Years, 1995; A Patchwork Planet, 1998; Back When We Were Grownups, 2001; The Amateur Marriage, 2004; Digging to America, 2006.

Bail, Paul. Anne Tyler: A Critical Companion.Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Croft, Robert W. Anne Tyler: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.
Harper, Natalie. “Teenage Wasteland.” In Masterplots II: Short Story Series, edited by Charles E. May. Rev. ed. Vol. 7.Robertson, Mary F. “Anne Tyler: Medusa Points and Contact Points.” In Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985.
Salwak, Dale, ed. Anne Tyler as Novelist. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994.Stephens, C. Ralph, ed. The Fiction of Anne Tyler. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
Thorndike, Jonathan L. “The Artificial Family.” In Masterplots II: Short Story Series, edited by Charles E. May. Rev. ed. Vol. 1. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Tyler, Anne. “Still Just Writing.” In The Writer on Her Work: Contemporary Women Writers Reflect on Their Art and Situation. Edited by Janet Sternberg. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980.
Voelker, Joseph C. Art and the Accidental in Anne Tyler. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989.

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