Literary Qualities

Breathing Lessons utilizes a third-person omniscient narrative. The book is divided into three parts: the first and third sections reflect Maggie’s interpretation of events, while the second part of the book is told from Ira’s point of view. The two viewpoints allow both Characters to provide their perspective on their lives and long marriage.

The novel can also be considered a “comedy of manners,” a work of literature that is witty and cerebral. In such works, the Characters struggle to uphold appearances and social standards. The plot normally revolves around a sexual affair or another sort of scandal. Like all comedies, the comedy of manners uses humor to teach a lesson. Tyler also uses comedy throughout her fiction. Much of the comedy in Breathing Lessons develops out of embarrassing situations that occur as a result of bad manners. For example, it is not proper on any occasion to sneak into your host’s bedroom and have sex there with your husband. It is especially improper to do so during a funeral dinner. Tyler pulls this off, in part because the reader will believe that Ira and Maggie have given up sex. The subtle touches are the key; Serena stares at Ira with “his open zipper and his shirttail flaring out.” Yet the scene does not simply end; Maggie tries to put a good face on it, and says, “well, bye now!” to everyone.

Although Tyler’s narrative gives us an Overview of a long marriage, the actual action of the story takes place in the course of one day. Tyler manages to convey the depth and length of her Characters’ lives via the use of numerous literary techniques, including the flashback. This device allows Tyler to disrupt the chronology of the day with episodes of reminiscence on the parts of Maggie or Ira.

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