The Accidental Tourist

by Anne Tyler

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

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1342

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 cutting herself off from the rest of the world. When she leaves, she tells him, "I don't have enough time left to waste it holing up in my shell."

Sarah, however, is unable to assuage the grief she feels over Ethan's death and so moves back in with Macon and returns to her traditional role as wife, because of its familiarity. She admits to Macon, "I think that after a certain age people just don't have a choice. You're who I'm with. It's too late for me to change. I've used up too much of my life now."

Muriel Pritchett's nonconformity makes her unique among the novel's other female characters. She also wants to enter into a relationship with someone, but if she is unable to accomplish this, she makes it clear that she can take care of herself. She appears to have been left alone virtually all of her life. Her interaction with her mother suggests that Muriel experiences a "sickness from family." She displays what Voelker calls the "psychic wounds that human beings inevitably carry as a result of having had to grow up as children in families." Muriel's wounds emerge in the picture she gives her mother, in which Macon notices that she appears "wary and uncertain, and very much alone." Macon notes that when Lilian Dugan pays attention to her daughter, which happens rarely, she most often criticizes her. Muriel admits that her family considers her to be the "bad one" and her sister the "good one."

Muriel's wounds, though, seem to have helped her develop a strong sense of independence and resilience. When her husband leaves her and her young son, Muriel raises him by herself, aided by her sharp entrepreneurial skills. She also reveals her independent nature when Macon expresses his concern over her quitting one of her jobs. She tells him, "Don't you know [I] can always take care of [myself]? Don't you know [I] could find another job tomorrow, if [I] wanted?" She can also take care of herself in her dangerous neighborhood. Once while coming back from the supermarket, a teenager emerges out of a shadowy doorway and demands that she give him the contents of her purse. She responds, "Like hell I will," and attacks him. As a result, Macon admits "he felt awed by her, and diminished."

Muriel retains her unconventionality even when acknowledging that it does not always appeal to Macon. She tells Macon that she knows "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." She does try, briefly, to adopt a more conventional look, when she tries to model herself after Rose, but she soon reverts back to her eccentric but honest self. Finally, "the surprise of her" and her careless enthusiasm for life win Macon over. When Muriel gives Macon a picture of her as a child, he cherishes it, deciding, "she meant, he supposed, to give him the best of her ... her fierceness—her spiky, pugnacious fierceness as she fought her way toward the camera with her chin set awry and her eyes bright slits of determination." Unlike Sarah, Muriel does not try to change Macon, yet her openness and acceptance, and ultimately her independence, enables him to emerge from his protective shell.

Tyler explained in an interview with Marguerite Michaels in The New York Times Book Review that "the real heroes to me in my books are first the ones who manage to endure and second the ones who somehow are able to grant other people the privacy of the space around them and yet still produce some warmth." According to her definition then, Muriel, with her independent yet loving spirit, is a real hero.

Source: Wendy Perkins, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.
Perkins is an associate professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Maryland and has published several articles on British and American authors.

Life Is a Foreign Country

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1543

In Anne Tyler's fiction, family is destiny, and (nowadays, at least) destiny clamps down on one in Baltimore. For an archeologist of manners with Miss Tyler's skills, the city is a veritable Troy, and she has been patiently excavating since the early 1970's, when she skipped off the lawn of Southern fiction and first sank her spade in the soil which has nourished such varied talents as Poe, Mencken, Billie Holiday and John Waters, the director of the films Pink Flamingos and Polyester.

It is without question some of the fustiest soil in America; in the more settled classes, social styles developed in the 19th century withstand, with sporelike tenacity, all that the present century can throw at them. Indeed, in Baltimore all classes appear to be settled, if not cemented, in grooves of neighborhood and habit so deep as to render them impervious—as a bright child puts it in The Accidental Tourist—to everything except nuclear flash.

From this rich dust of custom, Miss Tyler is steadily raising a body of fiction of major dimensions. One of the persistent concerns of this work is the ambiguity of family happiness and unhappiness. Since coming to Baltimore, Miss Tyler has probed this ambiguity in seven novels of increasing depth and power, working numerous changes on a consistent set of themes.

In The Accidental Tourist these themes, some of which she has been sifting for more than 20 years, cohere with high definition in the muted (or, as his wife says, "muffled") personality of Macon Leary.

Like most of Miss Tyler's males, Macon Leary presents a broad target to all of the women (and even a few of the men) with whom he is involved. His mother; his sister, Rose; his wife, Sarah; and, in due course, his girlfriend, Muriel Pritchett—a dog trainer of singular appearance and ability—regularly pepper him on the subject of his shortcomings, the greatest of which is a lack of passion, playfulness, spontaneity or the desire to do one single thing that they like to do. This lack is the more maddening because Macon is reasonably competent; if prompted he will do more or less anything that's required of him. What exasperates the women is the necessity for constant prompting.

When attacked, Macon rarely defends himself with much vigor, which only heightens the exasperation. He likes a quiet life, based on method and system. His systems are intricate routines of his own devising, aimed at reducing the likelihood that anything unfamiliar will occur. The unfamiliar is never welcome in Macon's life, and he believes that if left to himself he can block it out or at least neutralize it.

Not long after we meet him, Macon is left to himself. Sarah, his wife of 20 years, leaves him. Macon and Sarah have had a tragedy: their 12-year-old son, Ethan, was murdered in a fast-food joint, his death an accidental byproduct of a holdup.

Though Macon is as grieved by this loss as Sarah, he is, as she points out, "not a comfort." When she remarks that since Ethan's death she sometimes wonders if there's any point to life, Macon replies, honestly but unhelpfully, that it never seemed to him there was all that much point to begin with. As if this were not enough, he can never stop himself from correcting improper word choice, even if the incorrect usage occurs in a conversation about the death of a child. These corrections are not made unkindly, but they are invariably made; one does not blame Sarah for taking off.

With the ballast of his marriage removed, Macon immediately tips into serious eccentricity. His little systems multiply, and his remaining companions, a Welsh corgi named Edward and a cat named Helen, fail to adapt to them. Eventually the systems overwhelm Macon himself, causing him to break a leg. Not long after, he finds himself where almost all of Miss Tyler's characters end up sooner or later—back in the grandparental seat. There he is tended to by his sister. His brothers, Porter and Charles, both divorced, are also there, repeating, like Macon, a motion that seems all but inevitable in Anne Tyler' s fiction—a return to the sibling unit.

This motion, or tendency, cannot be blamed on Baltimore. In the very first chapter of Miss Tyler's first novel, If Morning Ever Comes (1964), a young man named Ben Joe Hawkes leaves Columbia University and hurries home to North Carolina mainly because he can't stand not to know what his sisters are up to. From then on, in book after book, siblings are drawn inexorably back home, as if their parents or (more often) grandparents had planted tiny magnets in them which can be activated once they have seen what the extrafamilial world is like. The lovers and mates in her books, by exerting their utmost strength, can sometimes delay these regroupings for as long as 20 years, but sooner or later a need to be with people who are really familiar—their brothers and sisters—overwhelms them.

Macon's employer, a man named Julian, who manages to marry but not to hold Macon's sister, puts it succinctly once Rose has drifted back to her brothers: "She'd worn herself a groove or something in that house of hers, and she couldn't help swerving back into it." Almost no one in Miss Tyler's books avoids that swerve; the best they can hope for is to make a second escape, as does the resourceful Caleb Peck in Searching for Caleb (1976). Brought back after an escape lasting 60 years, Caleb sneaks away again in his 90's.

The Accidental Tourist is one of Anne Tyler's best books, as good as Morgan's Passing, Searching for Caleb, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. The various domestic worlds we enter—Macon/ Sarah; Macon/the Leary siblings; Macon/Muriel—are delineated with easy skill; now they are poignant, now funny. Miss Tyler shows, with a fine clarity, the mingling of misery and contentment in the daily lives of her families, reminding us how alike—and yet distinct—happy and unhappy families can be. Muriel Pritchett is as appealing a woman as Miss Tyler has created; and upon the quiet Macon she lavishes the kind of intelligent consideration that he only intermittently gets from his own womenfolk.

Two aspects of the novel do not entirely satisfy. One is the unaccountable neglect of Edward, the corgi, in the last third of the book. Edward is one of the more fully characterized dogs in recent literature; his breakdown is at least as interesting and if anything more delicately handled than Macon's. Yet Edward is allowed to slide out of the picture. Millions of readers who have managed to saddle themselves with neurotic quadrupeds will want to know more about Edward's situation.

The other questionable element is the dead son, Ethan. Despite an effort now and then to bring him into the book in a vignette or a nightmare, Ethan remains mostly a premise, and one not advanced very confidently by the author. She is brilliant at showing how the living press upon one another, but less convincing when she attempts to add the weight of the dead. The reader is invited to feel that it is this tragedy that separates Macon and Sarah. But a little more familiarity with Macon and Sarah, as well as with the marriages in Miss Tyler's other books, leaves one wondering. Macon's methodical approach to life might have driven Sarah off anyway. He would have corrected her word choice once too often, one feels. Miss Tyler is more successful at showing through textures how domestic life is sustained than she is at showing how these textures are ruptured by a death.

At the level of metaphor, however, she has never been stronger. The concept of an accidental tourist captures in a phrase something she has been saying all along, if not about life, at least about men: they are frequently accidental tourists in their own lives. Macon Leary sums up a long line of her males. Jake Simmes in Earthly Possessions is an accidental kidnapper. The lovable Morgan Gower of Morgan's Passing, an accidental obstetrician in the first scenes, is an accidental husband or lover in the rest of the book. Her men slump around like tired tourists—friendly, likable, but not all that engaged. Their characters, like their professions, seem accidental even though they come equipped with genealogies of Balzacian thoroughness. All of them have to be propelled through life by (at the very least) a brace of sharp, purposeful women— it usually takes not only a wife and a girlfriend but an indignant mother and one or more devoted sisters to keep these sluggish fellows moving. They poke around haphazardly, ever mild and perennially puzzled, in a foreign country called Life. If they see anything worth seeing, it is usually because a determined woman on the order of Muriel Pritchett thrusts it under their noses and demands that they pay some attention. The fates of these families hinge on long struggles between semi-attentive males and semi-obsessed females. In her patient investigation of such struggles, Miss Tyler has produced a very satisfying body of fiction.

Source: Larry McMurtry, "Life Is a Foreign Country," in The New York Times Book Review, September 8, 1985, pp. 1, 36.

Anne Tyler's Family Circles

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1705

With each new novel ... it becomes ever more clear that the fiction of Anne Tyler is something both unique and extraordinary in contemporary American literature. Unique, quite literally: there is no other writer whose work sounds like Tyler's, and Tyler sounds like no one except herself. Extraordinary, too: not merely for the quietly dazzling quality of her writing and the abidingly sympathetic nature of her characters, but also for her calm indifference to prevailing literary fashion and her deep conviction that it is the work, not the person who writes it, that matters. Of The Accidental Tourist one thing can be said with absolute certainty: it matters.

It is a beautiful, incandescent, heartbreaking, exhilarating book. A strong undercurrent of sorrow runs through it, yet it contains comic scenes—one involving a dog, a cat and a clothes dryer, another a Thanksgiving turkey, yet another a Christmas dinner—that explode with joy. It is preoccupied with questions of family, as indeed all of Tyler's more recent fiction is, but there is not an ounce of sentimentality to be found in what it says about how families stick together or fall apart. There's magic in it, and some of its characters have winning eccentricities, yet more than any of Tyler's previous books it is rooted firmly, securely, insistently in the real world.

That world is of course Baltimore, which in Tyler's fiction, as indeed in actuality, is both a place and a state of mind. By now Baltimore belongs to Tyler in the same way that Asheville belongs to Thomas Wolfe, Chicago to James T. Farrell, Memphis to Peter Taylor, Albany to William Kennedy; like these writers, she at once gives us the city as it really exists and redefines it through the realm of the imagination. When the protagonist of The Accidental Tourist, Macon Leary, drives along North Charles Street, he is on the map; when he arrives at Singleton Street, he is in uncharted territory. But there can be no question that Singleton Street, though fictitious, is real...

He was beginning to feel easier here. Singleton Street still unnerved him with its poverty and its ugliness, but it no longer seemed so dangerous. He saw that the hoodlums in front of the Cheery Moments Carry-Out were pathetically young and shabby—their lips chapped, their sparse whiskers ineptly shaved, an uncertain, unformed look around their eyes. He saw that once the men had gone to work, the women emerged full of good intentions and swept their front walks, picked up the beer cans and potato chip bags, even rolled back their coat sleeves and scrubbed their stoops on the coldest days of the year. Children raced past like so many scraps of paper blowing in the wind—mittens mismatched, noses running—and some woman would brace herself on her broom to call, "You there! I see you! Don't think I don't know you're skipping school!" For this street was always backsliding, Macon saw, always falling behind, but was caught just in time by these women with their carrying voices and their pushy jaws. Singleton Street is not Macon's natural territory. Though by no means wealthy, he belongs to that part of Baltimore north of downtown where houses are detached, have yards, are shaded by trees; this is the world in which he grew up and in which until quite recently he lived all his life. But now, at the age of 43, he is finding that world come apart on him. A year ago something unspeakably awful happened; his 12-year-old son, Ethan, off at summer camp, was murdered in a fast-food restaurant, "one of those deaths that make no sense—the kind where the holdup man has collected his money and is free to go but decides, instead, first to shoot each and every person through the back of the skull." Now he has been left by Sarah, his wife of 20 years, who has been devastated by her son's death and believes that she must start life over because "I don't have enough time left to waste it holing up in my shell," a shell she thinks Macon played a crucial role in constructing.

So there he is, alone in the house with Helen, the cat, and Edward, the rowdy little Welsh Corgi to whom he stubbornly clings because the dog was Ethan's. Macon is a creature of firm if peculiar habit who believes that a system can be devised to meet each of life's difficulties; his stratagems for breakfast, bedclothes and the laundry are nothing if not ingenious, even if they don't exactly work. Change and disruption frighten him, which makes him perfectly suited to be the author of guide-books "for people forced to travel on business," accidental tourists who, like Macon, hate travel and much prefer to be at home:

He covered only the cities in these guides, for people taking business trips flew into cities and out again and didn't see the countryside at all. They didn't see the cities, for that matter. Their concern was how to pretend they had never left home. What hotels in Madrid boasted king-sized Beauty-rest mattresses? What restaurants in Tokyo offered Sweet'n'Low? Did Amsterdam have a McDonald's? Did Mexico City have a Taco Bell? Did any place in Rome serve Chef Boyardee ravioli? Other travelers hoped to discover distinctive local wines; Macon's readers searched for pasteurized and homogenized milk. It is as Macon heads off on one of his research trips that his life begins to change. The veterinarian who has boarded Edward in the past now refuses to accept him—"Says here he bit an attendant," the girl tells Macon. "Says, 'Bit Barry in the ankle, do not readmit'"—so in desperation Macon pulls into the Meow-Bow Animal Hospital. There Edward is cheerfully admitted by "a thin young woman in a ruffled peasant blouse," with "aggressively frizzy black hair that burgeoned to her shoulders like an Arab headdress." Her name is Muriel Pritchett, and when Macon returns to reclaim Edward she tells him that she is a dog trainer on the side, with a specialty in "dogs that bite." As Edward's bad habits become steadily worse, Macon at last turns to her in desperation. It is the beginning of the end of his old world.

He'd been right on the edge. His grief over Ethan's death and the pain caused by Sarah's desertion had just about done him in, just about turned him into "some hopeless wreck of a man wandering drugged on a downtown street." Enter Muriel— Muriel with her "long, narrow nose, and sallow skin, and two freckled knobs of collarbone that promised an unluxurious body," Muriel babbling away like "a flamenco dancer with galloping consumption," Muriel with her bewildering array of odd jobs and her pathetic young son by a broken marriage and her rundown house on Singleton Street. Love at first sight it is not: "He missed his wife. He missed his son. They were the only people who seemed real to him. There was no point looking for substitutes."

But life deals things out whether you're looking for them or not. Muriel, a fighter all her days, fights her way into Macon's heart: "Then he knew that what mattered was the pattern of her life; that although he did not love her he loved the surprise of her, and also the surprise of himself when he was with her. In the foreign country that was Singleton Street he was an entirely different person. This person had never been suspected of narrowness, never been accused of chilliness; in fact, was mocked for his soft heart. And was anything but orderly." The accidental tourist has become a traveler—"Maybe, he thought, travel was not so bad. Maybe he'd got it all wrong"—whose journeys now are in the heart, whose world has grown larger than he had ever before imagined possible.

Where those journeys at last lead him is Tyler's secret, though it is no indiscretion to say that in the novel's final pages he faces wrenching, painful choices. But those choices are really less important than the change that has already taken place. Macon Leary has been given the gift of life. A man who had seemed fated to spend the rest of his days in a rut—"Here he still was! The same as ever! What have I gone and done? he wondered and he swallowed thickly and looked at his own empty hands"—has been given new connections, with himself and with others.

This is the central theme of Tyler's fiction: how people affect each other, how the lives of others alter our own. As are her previous novels, The Accidental Tourist is filled with connections and disconnections, with the exaltation and heartbreak that people bring to each other; she knows that though it is true people need each other, it is equally true "that people could, in fact, be used up—could use each other up, could be of no further help to each other and maybe even do harm to each other." The novel is filled as well with the knowledge that life leaves no one unscarred, that to live is to accept one's scars and make the best of them—and to accept as well the scars that other people bear.

And in The Accidental Tourist there are many others: the large and bumptious Leary family, Macon's wonderfully unpredictable boss, the people of Singleton Street, and most certainly Edward, the funniest and most loveable dog within memory. They occupy what indisputably is Tyler's best book, the work of a writer who has reached full maturity and is in unshakable command, who takes the raw material of ordinary life and shapes it into what can only be called art. The magical, slightly fey and otherworldly tone of her previous books is evident here, but more than ever before Tyler has planted her fiction in the hard soil of the world we all know; The Accidental Tourist cuts so close to the bone that it leaves one aching with pleasure and pain. Words fail me: one cannot reasonably expect fiction to be much better than this.

Source: Jonathan Yardley, "Anne Tyler's Family Circles," in Washington Post Book World, August 25, 1985, p. 3.

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Critical Overview