The Accidental Tourist (Magill's Literary Annual 1986)
Middle-aged Macon Leary—the focal character portrayed with striking clarity and completeness in Anne Tyler’s tenth novel in twice as many years—writes a series of “Accidental Tourist” guidebooks for business travelers who would much rather remain ensconced at home. The logo for the books pictures a comfortable armchair that has sprouted a huge pair of angel’s wings. Armchair tourists traditionally sit in the comfort of their living rooms dreaming of travel to realms of gold; accidental tourists, reluctantly forced into travel—as Macon himself is when researching material for his books—want to do everything they can to foster the illusion that they have never left home. So for their benefit, Macon dutifully tracks down Kentucky Fried Chicken and pita bread in Stockholm and restaurants with names such as the Yankee Delight and My American Cousin in London. Yet, while the purchasers of these guides literally hate foreign travel, Macon has, metaphorically, been a more insidious kind of accidental tourist in life, fearful of anything the least bit unexpected or unknown.
Macon’s siblings, two older brothers and a sister, who still reside in the grandparents’ home where they were reared after their mother was widowed in the war, are also victims of this fear of the unpredictable. Foreign travelers in life, they suffer “geographic dyslexia”...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist is a novel about pain, isolation, and the rebirth of the human spirit. Each character in Tyler’s novel has been broken by the world, especially Macon Leary. He is broken by the death of his son and the failure of his twenty-year marriage to Sarah. The main focus of Tyler’s novel is Macon’s journey toward discovering himself, as he learns that he can survive his loss of his son and marriage.
The novel opens with the Learys returning from an aborted summer vacation at the beach. The relationship between Macon and Sarah is strained, but the death of their son, Ethan, has severed the relationship altogether. The chapter ends with Sarah asking Macon for a divorce. Separated and alone, Macon is forced to confront the death of his son. He creates a system of housekeeping designed for saving energy—his own, not simply electrical energy. He hooks up a coffee maker and a popcorn popper to his clock radio, so that he will not have to go downstairs to the kitchen for breakfast. He fills his bathtub with dirty clothes to be washed when he takes his nightly showers, he unplugs the dryer vent to provide the cat with a door, and he pours detergent into the dish-filled kitchen sink to eliminate the need to wash the dishes.
Macon must also deal with Edward, Ethan’s Welsh corgi who has become increasingly hostile since Ethan’s death. Macon’s livelihood involves frequent travel: He is the anonymous...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Like Tyler’s previous novels, The Accidental Tourist upends the traditional role of Southern women who are wives and mothers to husbands and sons, without their own identities as women. Tyler’s contribution to the genre of psychological realism is her movement away from the all-too-familiar literary convention of “hysterical women” that dominated nineteenth century literature, of which the most famous examples are Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899). Both women in these novels are confined to the role of wife or mother, and both attempt to break free of this role; one becomes insane, and the other commits suicide.
The women in Tyler’s novels, however, are not forced into being wives or mothers. Tyler is more concerned with self-discovery as a way of coping with the breakup of the family caused by the random violence dominating the twentieth century. The Accidental Tourist is a celebration of the strength inside the human heart to overcome the apathy that is often created by this type of society. Tyler’s women, especially Muriel Pritchett, act as healers and leaders to men who are emotionally dead. Tyler’s warmth and sense of humor in conjunction with her lessons of life’s harsh realities make The Accidental Tourist a valuable contribution to twentieth century literature.
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Teenage Homicide Rates
According to the United States Bureau of the Census, the teenage homicide rate soared 169 percent between 1984 and 1993. Studies conducted on this increase conclude that the crack cocaine epidemic and easy access to firearms were to blame. These sobering statistics helped create an atmosphere of fear in the 1980s, when crime became a major concern for the American public. Tyler tapped into this fear through her characterization of Macon Leary, who, at the beginning of the novel, is still grieving the loss of his son, Ethan. As Ethan was eating lunch at a fast-food restaurant, a teenager entered and randomly executed him. After the murder, Macon withdrew from a world he feared.
Divorce Rates in America
The Census Bureau reported that in 1970 there were 4.3 million divorced adults in America; that number rose to 17.4 million in 1994. During that period, the percentage of divorced Americans over eighteen-years-of-age climbed from 3 percent to 9 percent. Many experts determined that the primary cause was no-fault divorce laws, first adopted in California in 1969. Sociologists linked the high divorce rate to what they considered to be the breakdown of the American family. As a result of this perceived breakdown, a new focus on what was termed "the dysfunctional family" emerged.
Dysfunction in a family results from serious crises such as divorce, sexual abuse, alcoholism, or infidelity. Unexpected...
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Point of View
Tyler creates an effective narrative structure in the novel by presenting the other characters through Macon's point of view. Although the novel is written in the third person, the narrator limits the perspective as readers observe Macon's interactions with and observations of others. This structure more fully reveals Macon's transformation during the course of the novel. For example, readers understand Macon's confusion over his relationship with Muriel when the narrator reveals his shifting and sometimes contradictory visions of her. Muriel notes this confusion when she tells Macon, "One minute you like me and the next you don't. One minute you're ashamed to be seen with me and the next you think I'm the best thing that ever happened to you." Macon admits "he had never guessed that she read him so clearly."
Tyler employs several symbols to reinforce Macon's sense of isolation and passivity. The first symbols are his logo and the title of his guidebooks. Noting his reluctance to experience life, Sarah tells him, "That traveling armchair isn't just your logo; it's you." Macon not only travels "with his eyes shut and holding his breath and hanging on for dear life," he travels through life in the same manner. Throughout much of the novel, he wanders "in a fog ... adrift upon the planet, helpless, praying that just by luck he might stumble across his destination." The cast on Macon's broken leg and his...
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The dark humor that appears in works like Celestial Navigation, Searching for Caleb, and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is also found in this work. But there is a new hilarity and a lighter touch that demonstrate a development of Tyler's skill with humor.
Trying to cope with Sarah's leaving him, Macon is both ridiculous and pitiful. He washes the day's dirty clothes by sloshing them underfoot as he showers at night. He invents the Macon Leary Body Bag of sheets to keep from having to make the bed. Readers find themselves laughing, but the humor is always tempered by the character's serious emotional struggle.
Bits of slapstick are new elements in Tyler's developing humor. Macon's description of his cat entering the clothes dryer through the vent, for example, is perfect, if only momentary, comic relief: Macon "pictured her eyes pressed into slits, her ears flattened back by a lint-filled gale." Unhappy, but unharmed, the cat survives the wild ride in the dryer and escapes "looking just slightly rumpled." Macon is not so lucky. His slapstick ride in a laundry basket on wheels results in a broken leg.
An unusual technique, one found only in this novel, is using an animal, Edward, Macon's dog, as a foil for the protagonist. Edward is a character in his own right, with a distinctive personality; but his behavior also both reflects Macon's unexpressed feelings and points to Macon's recovery. While Macon struggles to...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
In addition to the typical theme of family relationships, topics for discussion Ideas for Group Discussions
In addition to the typical theme of family relationships, topics for discussion of The Accidental Tourist could include control of one's life, particularly its illusory nature. Macon Leary, for example, assumes he can order his life, but random violence shows that his assumption is an illusion. Discussing the characters' attitudes toward what is new and different, especially Macon's and Muriel's, can further develop the preceding topic. Only by not worrying about control can one learn to live fully.
1. What issues of control does Macon face? What does he conclude about his ability to control his life?
2. What is the turning point for Macon? How is he transformed?
3. Discuss the humor in this novel. What makes it "dark" humor?
4. How is Edward, the dog, an alter ego for Macon?
5. What is the significance of the trip to Paris?
6. How does Macon's recovery at the home of his brothers and sister prepare us for the change he undergoes?
7. Compare the female characters in this novel.
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The violence that appears so regularly in newspapers and on the nightly television news is at the heart of The Accidental Tourist. Macon Leary's son is one statistic of that violence, an innocent bystander murdered at a robbery. The random nature of the violence and its indication of his inability to control all his experiences disturbs Macon, who along with his son, is a victim of the violence. By having the action take place offstage and before the events in the novel begin, Tyler avoids the sensationalism often seen on the news and focuses attention on the suffering of the survivors.
Part of that suffering for Macon is the destruction of his marriage. Grieving in different ways, he and his wife are no longer compatible. They do not hate each other; but his wife leaves him and, in the end, Macon chooses someone else. Although divorce is part of the fabric of twentieth-century family life, Macon never expected it to happen with his marriage, and the prospect of a divorce throws his life out of kilter.
Tyler also touches on the hard life of the single parent. Muriel Pritchett must support and rear her son without the financial assistance or balancing influence of a father. Although Tyler regularly exposes the myth of the perfect nuclear family, it is clear that Muriel's son's life is better for having Macon around as a father figure. For the first time, the boy is allowed the independence to choose the clothes he likes and is relieved...
(The entire section is 258 words.)
Topics for Further Study
Define the term "dysfunctional family" and research the causes and effects of different kinds of dysfunction. Can the families in the novel be considered dysfunctional? If so, how?
Compare the movie version of The Accidental Tourist to the novel. How do the characters compare to the way you imagined them after reading the book?
Investigate the psychological effects of losing a loved one and compare your findings to Macon's and Sarah's behavior.
Many critics find southern elements in Tyler's works. Investigate the qualities of a "southern writer" and determine whether or not you find those qualities in the novel.
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The mixture of humor and pathos and the concentration on the ordinary in this work are also the hallmarks of other contemporary writers like John Cheever. Cheever's short story "The Swimmer," for example, begins with a picture of ordinary upper class people at a summer party. The protagonist decides, on a whim, to swim home by way of all his friends' and neighbors' pools. His actions seem silly and funny at first. Only slowly does Cheever spoil the image of summer and success, revealing that failure has robbed this character of both his memory and his dignity. The story begins in light humor and ends in pathos. In this particular story, the protagonist becomes less and less likeable, unlike Tyler's characters, who inevitably are, like Macon Leary, sympathetic.
Tyler's characters are also more eccentric than Cheever's. For example, Macon is a travel writer who hates to travel; his sister, Rose, organizes her kitchen alphabetically so that allspice may be next to ant poison. Nevertheless, Rose describes the family as extremely conventional. Despite the characters' eccentricity, however, this and other novels remain rooted in a reality that separates Tyler's narratives from bizarre tales like The World According to Garp (1978), by John Irving.
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Themes in The Accidental Tourist focus on the danger of physical and emotional isolation. Similar concerns appear in Celestial Navigation, where Jeremy Pauling departs briefly from his agoraphobic life lived within the confines of one house.
Jeremy is an extreme case, an artist who is only comfortable in the home where he grew up. Marrying Mary and even fathering children is only a brief interlude in his isolation. Ultimately he chooses to return to that isolation and loses his wife. Macon, on the other hand, learns that isolation is stultifying and lack of human contact shrinks the soul. Instead of choosing the solitary life, Macon chooses Muriel and opens up his world.
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The Accidental Tourist was made into a movie in 1989. Geena Davis won an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Muriel, and the movie won the New York Film Critics Best Picture of the Year Award.
The movie was true to both the theme and the storyline of the novel. What viewers miss that readers have is the third person perspective, by which the narrator tells them, for example, what is going on in Macon's head.
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What Do I Read Next?
Breathing Lessons, Anne Tyler's 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, focuses on family relationships and chronicles a woman's determined efforts to encourage people to connect with each other.
Independence Day, Richard Ford's 1995 novel, reflects the comic and sobering realities of American life in the 1980s as it follows the story of Frank Bascombe, a middle-aged real estate salesman, and his struggles with his career, his ex-wife, his girlfriend, and his children.
The Stone Diaries, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel written by Carol Shields, presents a fictionalized autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett. It recounts her long history as daughter, wife, mother, and widow, and her struggles to finally understand herself and her world.
In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, published in 1982, Anne Tyler focuses on family life through the eyes of dying Pearl Tull, who remembers the difficult task of raising three children on her own.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
John Blades, in Chicago Tribune Book World, July 20, 1986.
Richard Eder, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 15, 1985, p. 9.
Library Journal, Vol. 110, September 15, 1985, p. 96.
Larry McMurtry, in The New York Times Book Review, September 8, 1985, p. 1.
Elizabeth Mahn Nollen, "Fatherhood Lost and Regained in the Novels of Anne Tyler," in Family Matters in the British and American Novel, edited by Andrea O'Reilly Herrera, Elizabeth Mahn Nollen, and Sheila Reitzel Foor, Popular Press, 1997, pp. 217-36.
Peter Prescott, in Newsweek, September 9, 1985, p. 92.
For Further Study
Joseph C. Voelker, in Art and the Accidental in Anne Tyler, University of Missouri Press, 1989.
Voelker focuses on family relationships in Tyler's novels. He finds the characters in The Accidental Tourist to be in a "utopian emotional state," where they experience "sickness for home (longing, nostalgia) but also sickness of it (the need to escape from the invasiveness of family) and sickness from it (the psychic wounds that human beings inevitably carry as a result of having had to grow up as children in families)."
Paul Binding, "Anne Tyler," in his Separate Country: A Literary Journey through the American South, University Press of Mississippi, 1988, pp. 171-81.
Binding argues that Tyler follows...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Almond, Barbara R. “The Accidental Therapist: Intrapsychic Change in a Novel.” Literature and Psychology 38 (Spring/Summer, 1992): 84-105. Discusses Macon’s character development in psychological terms. Sees Muriel as functioning as Macon’s therapist.
Bail, Paul. Anne Tyler: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Bail takes a critical look at Tyler’s work. His discussions focus primarily on individual novels, including The Accidental Tourist. Students and general readers will appreciate the sections on plot, characters, themes, literary devices, historical setting, and point of view. Biographical information is also included.
Crane, Gwen. “Anne Tyler.” In Modern American Women Writers, edited by Elaine Showalter et al. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1991. This very informative volume provides biographical information and textual criticism on each of the writers covered. Crane offers a brief biographical history of Tyler and includes portions of an interview with her. The entry also includes brief textual criticism on Tyler’s novels.
Croft, Robert W. An Anne Tyler Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. A comprehensive and detailed guide to Tyler’s works, this volume includes biographical material, as well as critical pieces on her...
(The entire section is 861 words.)