This section contains 5,843 words
(approx. 20 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Essay by Gene Koppel
SOURCE: "Maggie Moran, Anne Tyler's Madcap Heroine: A Game-Approach to Breathing Lessons," in Essays in Literature, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, Fall, 1991, pp. 276-87.
In the following essay, Koppel discusses the game playing in Tyler's Breathing Lessons and the assertion that a balance between game playing and responsibility is necessary to live successfully.
When Maggie Moran, a nursing assistant in a home for the elderly and the central character of Anne Tyler's novel Breathing Lessons, tries to locate a favorite patient during a fire drill, the resulting fiasco bears more than a coincidental resemblance to a slapstick scene from an I Love Lucy episode. Maggie ends up in a part of the home off-limits to her and leaps into a laundry cart to conceal herself when she thinks she detects the approach of a supervisor:
Absurd, she knew it instantly. She was cursing herself even as she sank among the crumpled linens. She might have got away with it, though, except that she'd set the cart to rolling. Somebody grabbed it and drew it to a halt. A growly voice said, "What in the world?"
It is not a supervisor, but a fellow employee. The latter, however, having discovered Maggie inside the cart, mischievously calls over another attendant standing nearby and together the two noisily and rapidly push the cart down the corridor. At the end of Maggie's ride stand, of course, the two people who can embarrass her the most, Mrs. Inman, "the director of nursing for the entire home," and the man Maggie was seeking, Mr. Gabriel. The latter is a dignified gentleman whom Maggie admires and who (she believes) had admired Maggie for her competence and self-command. He will think of her this way no longer.
That Anne Tyler expects the reader to compare Maggie Moran's laundry-cart episode to television situation comedy is clearly indicated one page later:
Maybe [Mr. Gabriel] could view her as a sort of I Love Lucy type—madcap, fun-loving, full of irrepressible high spirits. That was one way to look at it. Actually, Maggie had never liked I Love Lucy. She thought the plots were so engineered—that dizzy woman's failures just built-in, just guaranteed. But maybe Mr. Gabriel felt differently.
But Mr. Gabriel is not amused by his real-life Lucy; his idealization of Maggie ends with this incident. The reader's interest in Maggie, however, continues. Unlike Mr. Gabriel, the reader has never had illusions about Maggie. That aspects of her character are similar to Lucy Ricardo's has probably occurred to him before. For example, in the opening scene of the novel Maggie calls for the family car at the body shop; the moment she pulls into the street she collides with a truck [she had turned on her radio to a local talk show and mistakenly thought she heard the voice of her former daughter-in-law announcing an approaching second marriage]. Hearing the crash, the manager of the body shop rushes out; when he yells,
"What the …? Are you all right?" she stared straight ahead in a dignified way and told him, "Certainly. Why do you ask?" and drove on before the Pepsi driver could climb out of his truck, which was probably just as well considering the look on his face.
Maggie's resemblance to Lucy has been implicit since the beginning of the novel.
If a reader wishes, it would be easy to argue that the above Lucy-passages work to undercut the positive elements in Maggie's character; some of the early reviewers of Breathing Lessons disapproved of Tyler's associating her heroine with a popular television character. Still, I do not believe that most readers will respond to Maggie's failures with the easy, condescending laughter that they give to the shallow farce of a typical television comedy. For both Maggie's games and the textual world which contains them are related to actual life in complex ways which Lucy's games are not.
While many of the pursuits and activities of our everyday world are often casually referred to as "games," most people (not only book reviewers) look askance at those, like Maggie, who seem to have difficulty distinguishing "real life" from actual games. Ira Moran clearly disapproves of Maggie's confusion of life and play:
And his wife! He loved her, but he couldn't stand how she refused to take her own life seriously. She seemed to believe it was a sort of practice life, something she could afford to play around with as if they offered second and third chances to get it right. She was always making clumsy, impetuous rushes toward nowhere in particular—side trips, random detours.
The truth is—if we judge him by our society's standards of financial and social success—Ira Moran has fared no better than Maggie in the real world. Both were highly intelligent, promising high-school students. After high school, however, Ira reluctantly took over his family's picture-framing shop to support his hypochondriac father and two agoraphobic sisters instead of pursuing his plan to become a doctor. Maggie more willingly gave up her chance to go to Goucher College, becoming instead a nurse's aid in a retirement home. Both are quite aware that they are, in the usual sense of the word, failures. Ira laments that he "was fifty years old and had never accomplished one single act of consequence." And, during a depressed moment, Maggie makes an assessment of their lives that is even more depressing than Ira's:
What Maggie's mother said was true: The generations were sliding downhill in this family. They were descending in every respect, not just in their professions and educations but in the way they reared their children and the way they ran their households.
Thus the Morans realize that the great majority of their contemporaries must consider them to be almost completely inept at the game of success—a game which many believe is the most serious thing in life.
On the other hand, Maggie and Ira are also aware that the game of material success is not "the only game in town." During a rare family outing to the Baltimore harbor, when he seriously considers the value of the commitments he has made, Ira's regrets disappear:
He hugged [his sister Dorrie's] bony little body close and gazed over her head at the Constellation floating in the fog…. And Junie had pressed close to his other side and Maggie and [his father] Sam had watched steadfastly, waiting for him to say what to do next. He had known then what the true waste was: Lord, yes. It was not his having to support these people but his failure to notice how he loved them.
Ira is only human and thus cannot sustain this intense awareness of his love for these helpless, difficult people for more than an "instant," but there is no doubt that this love plays an important role in authenticating his existence. And the reader also does not doubt that Maggie finds in her work and in her efforts (wise and otherwise) to love and help her family what she needs to consider her life worthwhile.
Ira's disapproval of Maggie's less-than-serious approach to life might lead the reader to suppose that Ira himself has little room in his life for playing games, but this would not be true. There are two pastimes that Ira holds dear. The first is an elaborate form of solitaire in which he indulges as often as possible; the second is losing himself in books which center on the adventures of lonely explorers: "It struck [Maggie] as very significant that Ira's idea of entertainment was those interminable books about men who sailed the Atlantic absolutely alone." These books obviously provide Ira with vicarious adventures which give him relief from his daily routines and responsibilities, but Maggie is correct about the significance of his preference for solitary heroes. Earlier we learned that "Ira didn't have any friends. It was one of the things Maggie minded about him." And we also learn that Ira cannot cope with life's grimmer contingencies(which is rather ironic, when one remembers that he had longed to be a doctor):
How peculiar [Ira] was about death! He couldn't handle even minor illness and had found reasons to stay away from the hospital the time she had her appendix out…. Whenever one of the children fell sick, he'd pretended it wasn't happening…. Any hint that he wouldn't live forever—when he had to deal with life insurance, for instance—made him grow set-faced and stubborn and resentful.
Perhaps, then, Ira's favorite game of solitaire, which he plays with a deck of cards he keeps in his pocket (he even carries it on the funeral journey that takes up the first section of the novel), provides him with a framework within which he can cope with and even enjoy the element of contingency which terrifies him in the actual world. And as there is nothing in our lives that is either more important or more undependable than our fellow human beings, it is clear why Ira's imaginings are most comfortable when they center on vicarious voyaging with men whose isolation makes them impervious to the unreliability of any other person. The books about solitary explorers and the games of solitaire provide him with frameworks within which he can confidently face the unpredictable element in life—as his making and selling of picture frames provide him and his family another kind of "framework" to order life in a way they find tolerable. (There is a roughly parallel situation in The Accidental Tourist with Macon Leary and his family; the latter are also more terrified of the unpredictable world and even more irrationally compulsive in their routines than Macon himself.)
The readers of Breathing Lessons, like the viewers of I Love Lucy, know that the heroine's game-strategies are comically doomed from the beginning. And Maggie—as Lucy would be in her place—is pathetically sincere about her devious, far-fetched scheme of reuniting her terminally immature son, Jesse, with his former wife, Fiona, and his daughter (and Maggie's only grandchild), Leroy. First, on their way back from the funeral, Maggie persuades Ira to detour to the small town where Fiona is living with her mother. Next, she manipulates Fiona and Leroy into riding back with her and Ira to their home in Baltimore where (through a surreptitious telephone call from Fiona's home) she has arranged for Jesse to appear at dinner.
The reunion dinner proves to be a fiasco. Jesse, fearful that his ex-wife and his family view him as a "loser" (the word that game-players dread hearing above any other), is too tense and defensive to control his childish ego and his temper long enough to establish any kind of meaningful communication with his wife and daughter. But it is Ira who brings the dinner to a sudden end with a brutally frank condemnation of his son. He reveals to Fiona that Jesse is living with another woman and then describes what he believes is his son's permanent inability to overcome his inadequacies:
This is the way things are … [Jesse] never was fit husband material! He passes from girlfriend to girlfriend and he can't seem to hold the same job for longer than a few months; and every job he loses, it's somebody else's fault.
As a result of this speech, Jesse (rapidly followed by Fiona and Leroy) walks out on Maggie's reconciliation dinner.
What conclusion is the reader supposed to draw from this incident—that Ira sees Jesse and others as they really are and Maggie sees them as she would like them to be? As Ira had explained to Fiona earlier, "It's Maggie's weakness: She believes it's all right to alter people's lives. She thinks the people she loves are better than they really are, and so then she starts changing things around to suit her view of them."
Is the reader, then, to conclude that Maggie views life as a game she can play according to her own rules and for her own amusement, in the course of which she is free to manipulate others? And, of course, to treat people as objects to be manipulated is unKantian, unChristian, and generally inhumane. This is certainly a possible interpretation of Maggie, but other factors are present in the text to qualify or even to reverse these conclusions. Maggie's rose-tinted glasses can be seen partly as weakness, partly as charity towards others. Similarly to Miss Bates in Emma, Maggie actually sees those she loves as better than they are: she is convinced that Jesse is nearly the young man she wants him badly to be and that he could be happily reunited with his family:
She was in trouble with everybody in this house, and she deserved to be; as usual she had acted pushy and meddlesome. And yet it hadn't seemed like meddling while she was doing it. She had simply felt as if the world were the tiniest bit out of focus, the colors not quite within the lines—something like a poorly printed newspaper ad—and if she made the smallest adjustment then everything would settle perfectly into place.
If Maggie's inability to see life in all its grim reality can be considered, at least in part, a positive side to her character, Ira's clear-headed realism has its negative aspect. Ira has a deep fear, it will be recalled, of life's contingencies. Since his mother's death when he was fourteen, he has tried to avoid all thoughts of sickness or death or any other of life's unpleasant surprises. He refuses to make friends, obviously because friends, more often than family, disappoint one or prove unreliable. Thus there is a distinct possibility that his unchanging, bleak view of his son owes as much to his fear that hope will lead to disappointment as it does to the presence of an inner strength which always leads him to see things realistically. When Maggie interferes in the lives of Jesse and Fiona, it is to reunite them. When Ira interferes, it is to end the suspense associated with the shaky relationship of his son and Fiona. In this way Ira brings about the sad but secure state of a defeated relationship; Ira need no longer be disturbed by the insecure hope that his son will make a success of his marriage. It is a fear of life as much as the courage to face reality that underlies Ira's refusal to entertain illusions. On the other hand, Maggie is open to life in all its unpredictabilities: "Oh, Ira, you just don't give enough credit to luck," she says at one point. "Good luck or bad luck, either one." But giving credit to luck, to the unpredictability of life, is what Ira fears most.
Since Ira and Maggie are so different in their attitudes toward the contingencies of life, it might appear at first glance that the success of their marriage is either poorly conceived fiction or outright miracle. How somber, defensive Ira, with his rigidly ordered approach to life can tolerate, much less love his outgoing, recklessly playful wife is not an easy problem to resolve. There is no doubt, however, that Ira does love Maggie: "Well, face it, there were worse careers than cutting forty-five-degree angles in strips of gilded molding. And he did have Maggie, eventually—dropping into his lap like a wonderful gift out of nowhere." This unexpected development in his life Ira accepts without regret! I believe that the insight of Tony Tanner into the happy relationship of Jane Austen's stuffy hero, Fitzwilliam Darcy, and her light-hearted heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice will also serve for Anne Tyler's contrasting couple:
… in their gradual coming together and Darcy's persistent desire for Elizabeth we do witness the perennial yearning of perfect symmetry for the asymmetrical, the appeal which 'playfulness' has for 'regulation', the irresistible attraction of the freely rambling individual for the rigidified upholder of the group. Indeed it could be said that it is on the tension between playfulness and regulation that society depends, and it is the fact that they are so happily 'united' by the end of the book which generates the satisfaction produced by the match.
The insight that successful relationships and successful societies need both the spirit of the game and the spirit of discipline not only explains Maggie and Ira Moran's satisfying marriage, it also explains why their son Jesse, who as a child loved to make up stories that "had in common the theme of joyousness, of the triumph of sheer fun over practicality," fails at every relationship and every task he attempts. What Jesse does not have, as Ira pointed out above, is perseverance, a sense of duty or responsibility which is necessary to sustain any relationship. Without this even Jesse's potential for love, which is very real, is largely wasted. As important as love is in Anne Tyler's fictional world, it cannot survive unless those who love are willing to adjust to and often simply to endure the complexities and strains which are always present in adult relationships. Ira's love for his emotionally maimed father and sisters is an obvious example of how much strength and sustained sacrifice can be demanded by those whom one loves. And in the central relationship in the novel, Ira and Maggie had to make drastic changes in their romantic expectations of each other. In the bedroom of Serena's house after the funeral Maggie discovers Ira alone, playing his game of solitaire, and reminisces with him about the early days of their marriage:
He pondered a king, while Maggie laid her cheek on the top of his head. She seemed to have fallen in love again. In love with her own husband! The convenience of it pleased her—like finding right in her pantry all the fixings she needed for a new recipe.
"Remember the first year we were married?" she asked him. "It was awful. We fought every minute."
"Worst year of my life," he agreed, and when she moved around to the front he sat back slightly so she could settle on his lap. His thighs beneath her were long and bony—two planks of lumber. "Careful of my cards," he told her, but she could feel he was getting interested.
Of course, Maggie and Ira both have their moments of regretting the lost dreams of youth, the dreams of the perfect mate. Maggie realizes that her nursing-home friendship with Mr. Gabriel (before the Lucy-side of her emerged and destroyed his image of her) was a subconscious attempt to revive her (and Ira's) youthful romantic fantasies: "All Mr. Gabriel was, in fact, was Maggie's attempt to find an earlier version of Ira. She'd wanted the version she had known at the start of their marriage, before she'd begun disappointing him." But Maggie and Ira's love has survived the rough journey into reality. Jesse's love for his wife, Fiona, is capable of little more than beginning the trip.
Thus Breathing Lessons makes an unambiguous point about the need for the game-spirit to be accompanied by a sense of responsibility and by the ability to endure through adversity. Without this "rule" of an underlying stable commitment the marriage-game has little chance of lasting long enough to bring fulfillment to the players. But there is also no doubt that the main emphasis of the novel is on the need of a spirit of play if a person is to be truly fulfilled.
The very form of the work itself attests to this. Ira Moran, it will be recalled, is frequently exasperated by Maggie's refusal to recognize that life is a deadly serious business; instead of living in dread of making wasteful errors, "She was always making clumsy, impetuous rushes toward nowhere in particular—side trips, random detours." And at the center (both literally and figuratively) of Anne Tyler's plot there is such a side trip, a seemingly random—and quite lengthy—detour with no apparent purpose. It comes about on the Morans' return trip from the funeral. Irritated by the erratic driving of an elderly African-American in front of them, Maggie shouts at the driver as Ira finally manages to pass him that his wheel is coming off. Then, guilt stricken, Maggie forces Ira to return to where the old man has stopped and gotten out of his car to contemplate his (falsely) suspect wheel. After some consideration, Mr. Otis (the name of the old man) gets into the Moran Dodge and Ira detours off the main highway and drives him to a Texaco station managed by his nephew, Lamont. There, while waiting for Lamont to return from a service call, Mr. Otis describes how his wife threw him out of the house because she had dreamed that he stood on her needlepoint chair and trampled on some of her embroidery. After Lamont arrives and learns what has happened, he castigates his old uncle both for his erratic driving and his childlike marital conduct (although ironically Lamont, like Jesse Moran, is divorced). Mr. Otis's reply to Lamont, which comes at the approximate center of the novel, is so important that both men's speeches are worth quoting at length:
"You two act like quarrelsome children," Lamont told him.
"Well, at least I'm still married, you notice!" Mr. Otis said. "At least I'm still married, unlike certain others I could name!"
Ira said, "Well, at any rate—"
"Even worse than children," Lamont went on, as if he hadn't heard. "Children at least got the time to spare, but you two are old and coming to the end of your lives. Pretty soon one or the other of you going to die and the one that's left behind will say, 'Why did I act so ugly? That was who it was; that person was who I was with; and here we threw ourselves away on spitefulness,' you'll say."
"Well, it's probably going to be me that dies first," Mr. Otis said, "so I just ain't going to worry about that."
"I'm serious, Uncle."
"I'm serious. Could be what you throw away is all that really counts; could be that's the whole point of things, wouldn't that be something? Spill it! Spill it all, I say! No way not to spill it. And anyhow, just look at the times we had. Maybe that's what I'll end up thinking. 'My, we surely did have us a time. We were a real knock-down, drag-out, heart-and-soul type of couple,' I'll say. Something to reflect on in the nursing home."
Lamont rolled his eyes heavenward.
Lamont doesn't understand his uncle's musings on the essential importance of appreciating the non-essential, apparently foolish or wasteful aspects of life, and during a first reading perhaps the reader also doesn't understand why Anne Tyler has "thrown away" the central portion of her novel on an episode apparently unrelated to the main plot and characters. (Random House's recent cassette-recording condensation of Breathing Lessons, read by Jill Eikenberry, omits the entire Mr. Otis episode.)
But the detour to Lamont's station is no more wasted than the "unsuccessful" lives of Maggie and Ira Moran. Breathing Lessons' irregular form, as well as its characters and events, is a warning against taking the games of life and of art too seriously, or more accurately, against trying to make all women and men and all artists play the same kind of game, devoted to achieving the same kind of goal. At the same time, of course, Anne Tyler is providing us with a game; she eschews the obvious tight plot or transparently coherent form in which important, organic developments neatly fall into place without too much effort from the reader, and provides us instead with an eccentric, episodic plot which invites us to experience and evaluate the chain of events not in the spirit of a tight artistic logic but of adventure, of creativity.
Thus the psychology and spirit of game-playing permeate Breathing Lessons, shaping its characters, events, themes, and basic form. And in its central concern with game-playing the novel explores the nature of art itself. Hans-Georg Gadamer has based a large part of his philosophy on the assumption that art is a kind of game; thus a literary work such as Breathing Lessons accomplishes its purposes by stimulating us to enter the playing field of its textual world. We become players, responding to fictional events as though they were real. At the same time we are aware that the world of the novel is not real. Thus our experiences as readers both insulate us from the real world and its dangers and yet constantly draw on our experiences in that real world. Gadamer forcefully argues that we must never let the game-like apartness of a work of art, the discontinuity of our experiences of art from our everyday existences, tempt us to consider those experiences as purely aesthetic, unrelated to our understanding of the rest of our lives, or to the understanding of the culture that has shaped us.
In all of his discussions of the arts, Gadamer holds to both sides of the paradox that art, as a kind of game, is set apart from real life and at the same time vitally and necessarily related to actual existence. Concerning the first part of the paradox, he states: "Beautiful things are those whose value is of itself apparent. You cannot ask what purpose they serve. They are desirable for their own sake … and not, like the useful, for the sake of something else." But, again, there is always the emphasis that when one enters upon the playing-field of a work of art and gives oneself up to its game—"Play fulfills its purpose only if the player loses himself in his play"—the world of that work of art will reveal its structure to the participant. The result is an increase of knowledge, an Aristotelian "recognition" which has significant relationships to the reader's life:
The being of all play is always realisation, sheer fulfillment, energeia which has its telos within itself. The world of the work of art, in which play expresses itself fully in the unity of its course, is in fact a wholly transformed world. By means of it everyone recognises that that is how things are.
This paradox that the game of art is at the same time separated from real life and yet meaningfully related to our actual lives is obviously at work in the form of Breathing Lessons and in the fictional world revealed through that form. And as neither the novel's world nor ours is simple and unambiguous, the insight that we gain from the novel that "that is how things are" can not be reduced to a tidy little moral about the nature of happiness—or, for that matter, about the nature of Maggie Moran.
Near the end of the novel Maggie has severe doubts about her own basic character: perhaps her lack of practical sense has prevented her from accomplishing anything for those she loves. Immediately after her Fiona-and-Jesse reunion plot collapses, she has "a sudden view of her life as circular. It forever repeated itself, and it was entirely lacking in hope." And later that night, after describing to Ira another of her dreadful miscalculations which years before had badly embarrassed her friend Serena and Serena's ill, aged mother, Maggie comments, "I don't know why I kid myself that I'm going to heaven." At this point the reader might conclude that the textual world in which Maggie lives has thoroughly discredited any pretensions that either she or the reader has held that her character and her life should be viewed positively.
But another interpretation is possible. When Maggie contemplates her poor chances of getting into heaven, the reader might recall that during a Moran family trip to the Pimlico race track Maggie had advised (with what success isn't certain) the women of the family to bet on a horse named Infinite Mercy. Infinite mercy is, of course, what we all need from God if we are to get to heaven, and as much of it as possible from our fellow human beings, if we are to get through life. Further, Maggie's depressed mood clears away by the time she is ready for bed. She becomes quite cheerful again as she begins to generate another plot—which will be immediately shot down by Ira—to convince Fiona to send Leroy to live with them for the sake of Leroy's education, and she watches Ira enjoying his favorite game of solitaire:
He had passed that early, superficial stage when any number of moves seemed possible, and now his choices were narrower and he had to show real skill and judgment.
Similar to Ira's game, Ira's and Maggie's lives are now at a mature stage, and to play them out satisfactorily will demand their best efforts. Maggie's best efforts will involve her adapting her spirit of play, her vivid imagination, to human relationships as they really exist—to realize that her grown son and her almost grown daughter (not to mention her separated daughter-in-law and granddaughter) will be playing their own games, on their own fields, all unrelated to Maggie's own fantasies and desires. As part of this realization, Maggie must also more fully grasp what the author who created her has always (from her first novel, as a matter of fact) known: loving, understanding relationships between men and women are difficult to achieve, but they are possible; romance, however, is always an illusion. Occasionally, Maggie has realized this:
Why did popular songs always focus on romantic love? Why this preoccupation with first meetings, sad partings, honeyed kisses, heartbreak, when life was also full of children's births and trips to the shore and longtime jokes with friends?… It struck Maggie as disproportionate. Misleading, in fact.
But this kind of hard look at the shallowness of the rules and roles demanded of those who play at romance has been too unpleasant for Maggie to sustain. It is more typical of her to give way to the kind of sentimental, gushing emotions that caused her to sentimentalize Mr. Gabriel or to believe that even where Jesse and Fiona were concerned, love would conquer all:
Then Jesse wrapped his arms around [Fiona] and dropped his head to her shoulder, and something about that picture—his dark head next to her blond one—reminded Maggie of the way she used to envision marriage before she was married herself…. She had supposed that when she was married all her old problems would fall away…. And of course, she had been wrong. But watching Jesse and Fiona, she could almost believe that that early vision was the right one. She slipped into the house, shutting the screen door very softly behind her, and she decided everything was going to work out after all.
But, of course, it didn't.
This growing, painful realization of the futility of the sentimental aspects of her vision of life causes Maggie to exclaim despairingly, "Oh, Ira … what are we two going to live for, all the rest of our lives?" Ira embraces her, giving her the loving, supportive response that she needs:
"There, now, sweetheart," he said, and he settled her next to him. Still holding her close, he transferred a four of spades to a five, and Maggie rested her head against his chest and watched. He had arrived at the interesting part of the game by now, she saw. He had passed that early, superficial stage when any number of moves seemed possible, and now his choices were narrower and he had to show real skill and judgment. She felt a little stir of something that came over her like a flush, a sort of inner buoyancy, and she lifted her face to kiss the warm blade of his cheekbone. Then she slipped free and moved to her side of the bed, because tomorrow they had a long car trip to make and she knew she would need a good night's sleep before they started.
On this positive note the novel ends, and it is up to the reader to decide whether it is ironic (as I believe the optimistic final paragraph of Morgan's Passing is) or whether the text as a whole encourages us to believe that Maggie has gained enough insight, and that she and Ira share enough love, to continue their lives successfully. Of course, any growth Maggie experiences will certainly not involve her losing the spirit of play that lies at the core of her personality. For those like Maggie Moran and (as Tony Tanner pointed out) Elizabeth Bennet view life in much the way that the rest of us think of a game: it is there to be enjoyed. After all, one chooses to play a game; if one "plays" mainly out of a sense of duty or obligation then one's participation becomes mechanical and the essence of the game is destroyed. Of course, all aspects of life cannot be approached in the spirit of play. Jesse Moran and (again in Pride and Prejudice) Lydia Bennet do themselves and others a great deal of harm by not realizing this. And at times Maggie Moran also goes too far in "playing with" people's lives without their consent or knowledge. Most of the time, however, Maggie understands and honors the central relationships of life and the duties that belong to them. And when she does blunder and end up looking like a fool, her resulting fits of futility and self-loathing are soon swept away by her innate love of living, her underlying certainty that life is basically good and that the games she chooses to play are worth playing for their own sakes—not for the social and financial prizes that our popular materialistic culture awards to the winners of its favorite games. Maggie's wisdom clearly reveals to her (and to us) that the most important goals of life, loving relationships, are certainly not damaged or lost by one's possessing a joyful spirit.
What all of this amounts to, this peculiar mixture of optimism, futility, charity and irony which Breathing Lessons brings to a reader, will depend upon the total response to the text (and to his own life) of each reader. In spite of the apparently light, breezy nature of this novel, each reader will become aware, as he experiences his day with the Morans, that he, like Ira during that final game of solitaire, is being challenged, and as he advances in his solitary pursuit of the text his interpretive skill is increasingly important. For playing games of life and art to human beings is like friendship or marriage or even breathing. These activities come naturally to us, yet at times, as Maggie tries to convince the pregnant Fiona when they discuss childbirth classes, they demand all of our effort, all of our skill if we are going to successfully play our "natural" roles. As Maggie does with Fiona and Jesse, Anne Tyler can lure us into the game, and keep us playing until the end. However, Tyler, unlike Maggie, knows that when each reader decides, "That's how things are," the exact nature of "that" must be decided by the reader. In determining the final effect of a work of art, in contrast to the outcome of a competitive game, or one of Maggie's elaborate schemes, Anne Tyler knows that relinquishing ultimate control is the way in which an artist wins.
This section contains 5,843 words
(approx. 20 pages at 300 words per page)