The Accidental Tourist Essays and Criticism
by Anne Tyler

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Traditional and Nontraditional Roles of the Female Characters in The Accidental Tourist

(Novels for Students)

In her article in the New York Times Book Review, Katha Pollitt takes an overview of Anne Tyler's work and concludes that her fiction does not reveal a firm sense of time or place. She argues that Tyler's novels "are modern in their fictional techniques, yet utterly unconcerned with the contemporary moment as a subject, so that, with only minor dislocations, her stories could just as well have taken place in the twenties or thirties. The current school of feminist-influenced novels seems to have passed her by completely: her women are strong, often stronger than the men in their lives, but solidly grounded in traditional roles." Other critics have also noted that Tyler's characterizations take precedence over her setting details in her work, including in her tenth novel, The Accidental Tourist.

Tyler focuses the narrative in this novel more on Macon's struggles with family life rather than where the families reside. However, she does situate the novel in its historical moment. Through her characterization of Macon, Tyler reflects the paranoia over increasing crime rates in the 1980s, when the novel was written and published. The novel also illustrates the decade's growing concern with the dysfunctional family and its causes and effects. Finally, Tyler explores changing roles for women. All the female characters show their strength in The Accidental Tourist. Some exert it as they are firmly entrenched in traditional roles, while others reveal their courageous attempt to adopt more modern attitudes.

All the female characters in the novel are involved or want to be involved in a marital and/or family relationship. This, granted, is considered to be a traditional role for women, but all the characters, male and female, express this desire, which becomes one of the novel's dominant themes. The characters also, however, end up separating themselves from these relationships, as noted by Joseph C. Voelker in Art and the Accidental in Anne Tyler. The characters in the novel, he argues, distance themselves from the complex feelings they have for their families. Voelker determines that they experience a "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)."

Rose Leary is the most traditional female character in the novel. She has accepted the role of caretaker for her entire family at one point or another. She cared for her ailing grandparents, and after her brothers' marriages failed, she welcomed them back into the family home and promptly took over the role of nurturer. She reinstated family rituals, like cooking baked potatoes for their evening meal, which used to comfort them as children when left alone by their mother. The narrator notes there was "something vague about her that caused her brothers to act put-upon and needy whenever she chanced to focus on them."

At first Rose appears to be content with the orderly, isolated existence she and her brothers share. However, she soon begins to feel "a sickness of home" as she chafes under her brothers' narrow idea of her role in their lives. When she begins a relationship with Julian, she discovers a new sense of self, and is strong enough to break away from her old ties. Her need to feel useful, though, causes her to return to her traditional role, and eventually she becomes wife and mother when she and Julian move in with Porter and Charles.

Sarah, Macon's wife, also breaks out of a traditional role for a period of time, but instead of moving from one family unit to another, she expresses a desire to live alone. Annoyed by Macon's "little routines and rituals, depressing habits, day after day" and his inability to comfort her, she decides to leave him and establish a place of her own and a more complete sense of self. She admits she has been pulled into Macon's pessimism, and as a result, she too is...

(The entire section is 4,590 words.)