The central theme of Tyler’s novel is the dynamic of modern American families. Within that theme, Tyler focuses on the fact that an individual’s initial sense of identity derives from one’s relationship with one’s family. For Tyler, the family acts as a force on an individual, in both positive and negative ways. In Breathing Lessons, each character has an individual interpretation of the concept of family that coincides with his understanding of his own identity. Ira feels trapped by his family: “his sisters’ hands dragged him down the way drowning victims drag down whoever tries to rescue them.” This view extends from Ira’s perception of himself as someone cheated out of his dreams. One of those dreams is that a family is loving, loud, boisterous, and fun. Ira’s view of his own family as a trap is mirrored in his job as a picture framer. For Ira, the image never changes and it never matches his envisaged ideal portrait.
Maggie’s idealized family is busy, exciting, and flexible: she believes that the family can be created with whomever she chooses to make family. In her frenetic and endless family creation, she resembles a mother hen more worried about her extended brood than about herself. Maggie’s meddling in the affairs of Jesse and Fiona exposes her concern not so much with marriage, but with keeping her family together. Unlike Ira, Maggie does not give much thought to her own blood relations. Thus, it is ironic that she cites bloodline as her reason for stealing her granddaughter away from Mrs. Stuckey, stating, “we’re Leroy’s grandparents till the day we die.”
Within the context of family, a recurring motif is the exploration of the idea of an ideal marriage. Everyone has a theory about marriage. Maggie’s friend Serena married because it was time to marry. Maggie married because she thought she had found her soul mate. Maggie’s son Jesse thinks of marriage as a bad habit, the “same old song and dance.” As the novel points out, there are rituals and a repetitive pattern to marriage-“the same jokes and affectionate passwords”-and the same “abiding loyalty and gestures of support and consolations.”
The title of the novel metaphorically captures the answer to the question, according to Maggie and Ira. Regular breathing, the exchange of gases or the giving and taking of breath, is life. Similarly, the life of marriage is full of giving and taking. During the novel’s one day, Maggie and Ira reveal the many layers of their 28 years together. They are constantly arguing and making up, remembering petty feuds and wondrous delights. When they speak aloud they are not “bickering” but “compiling our two views of things.” Marriage is all about sharing the everyday feel of life with another person, and it is this aspect that most bothers the widowed Serena. As she tells Maggie over the phone, she is realizing that Max is not present for discussions about “what the plumbing’s up to, and how the red ants have come back in the kitchen.” When Maggie offers to discuss the mundane, Serena answers, “but they’re not your red ants too, don’t you see? I mean you and I are not in this together.”
Mr. Otis and his wife, Duluth, present another view of marriage. As their nephew Lamont describes it, their marriage consists of childish bickering. Mr. Otis corrects him, insisting that his marriage with Duluth is full of life and passion. To Mr. Otis, marriage should be something you can look back on fondly from the nursing home. Mr. Otis says he will remember his partnership with Duluth as “a real knock-down, drag-out, heart-and-soul type of couple.” Anything else would be dull and worthless, and liable to fall apart like Lamont’s marriage.
Tyler’s Characters negotiate their lives and their relationships with one another in what critic Alice Petry has described as “a messy chaotic world of happenstance.” For Tyler, happenstance is what life is all about, and her Characters deal with situations many readers will understand. The ways in which Tyler’s Characters carry out their negotiation through everyday life differ, giving rise to the humor and the tension of the novel. The clearest example stems from a comparison of the Morans. Ira is very serious as he tries to play with the hand he has been dealt in the form of a full house: crazy siblings, an “ailing” father, an incompetent son, and an introverted daughter. On the other hand, Maggie is playing games. As Ira reflects: 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.