The Accidental Tourist

by Anne Tyler

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772

Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist is a comment on the desensitization of society caused by violence. The character of Macon Leary is representative of the apathy that arises in a society where random violence is an everyday occurrence. Tyler is deeply concerned with people and how living in a desensitized society affects them. One of her main messages in the novel is that people who react passively to the world around them are not really living.

One of Tyler’s strengths is her ability to create characters that are true to life. They are real people with real problems. Macon Leary is a very believable character who has stopped caring and has taken refuge inside himself. He is closed up emotionally as well as physically. His career as an anonymous writer of the series The Accidental Tourist in . . . , travel books for those who must travel but do not enjoy it, demonstrates his alienation from the outside world. The advice that his books offer is clearly suggestive of someone who wants to go about the business of living without the complications from interacting with others. On his frequent plane trips, he carries along a thick and plotless book entitled Miss MacIntosh, which he uses to hide himself away from seatmates who may want to talk to him.

Sarah, Macon’s wife, is his opposite. She likes people and parties. She is at ease with the world and enjoys the chaos of it. Sarah willingly accepts that the world is not a neat and orderly place, and her disorganized apartment reflects this fact. When Ethan is murdered, Sarah’s faith in humanity is shaken, but it is not broken. Unlike Macon, she refuses to believe that people are born simply to die. There is a purpose to life that Macon has forgotten, so she leaves him to escape from his apathy. Her time away from Macon allows her to discover her creative self, and in the process she begins to heal.

Muriel, who is like Sarah in many ways, acts as a healer and therapist to both Macon and Edward. Muriel is a divorce survivor who works three jobs to support herself and her son. She is scarred by the world, but instead of giving up, she fights back. Macon sees her scars, and he begins to move out from himself. He finds himself talking to people on airplanes and enjoying it. He begins to participate in the world instead of having things happen to him accidentally. Edward, once uncontrollable and angry, becomes happy and complacent living with Muriel and her ten-year-old son, Alexander. As Macon rightly points out, Edward needs a boy.

Another strength in Tyler’s novel is her use of setting. There are three houses in Tyler’s novel, and each house represents a stage in Macon’s transformation. The first house is the one that Macon shared with Sarah. This house lacks the warmth normally attributed to a home. In Macon’s eyes, it is closing in on him. He feels that he is too big for the house, but what he really means is that the house that was once filled with the sounds of a child laughing is now filled with silence. The house is not closing in on Macon, but the loneliness that he feels living there without Sarah and Ethan is.

The second house in Tyler’s novel is the Leary family house. Like the previous house, Macon does not feel at home here. It seems to have become frozen in time. For the Learys who live in this house, there seems to be no progress. Both of Macon’s brothers, after their wives divorced them, moved home to have their younger sister take care of them. These men have regressed to a childlike state in which they are no longer active participants in the world, never growing up and never moving on.

The third house in Tyler’s novel is Muriel’s home on Singleton Street, which represents the chaos and disorder of the world. Unlike the Leary house, this house is moving constantly; people come and go, and there is a constant chatter. Macon feels comfortable here. He is connected to the outside world through this house. He talks to the neighbors, and becomes involved in the social give-and-take of the people on Singleton Street. In essence, Macon has become an active participant in the world, and the final test of Macon’s view of life comes when he must decide whether he wants to return to Sarah and become passive again or to remain with Muriel. Macon chooses Muriel and an active life.

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