The Accidental Tourist

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

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” if they venture too far afield from the sheltering routine established over the years: groceries arranged in alphabetical order on the cupboard shelves, baked potatoes for dinner every night, and, for entertainment, a card game so esoteric in its rules that only they can play. Even as simple a thing as a trip to the hardware store might result in their getting lost for hours. Ill-prepared for long-term emotional commitment to anyone outside the Leary family, Macon’s older brothers have already divorced and come back to live with their sister when the novel opens; the sister Rose attempts marriage briefly and unsuccessfully with Macon’s publisher, Julian, but returns precipitately to her familiar groove. After Macon’s breakup with his wife and a freak accident that temporarily incapacitates him, he too retreats for a long while to the security of the ancestral home; being partially immobilized in a cast, mummified, seems somehow comforting. The long-established protocol of the brother/sister relationship is relatively safe and undemanding, though it is threatened by the erratic behavior of Edward, the Welsh corgi that Macon brings along.

A year earlier, the dog Edward had responded almost uncontrollably to the death of his young master Ethan, Macon and Sarah’s twelve-year-old son, who had been senselessly murdered during a Burger Bonanza holdup the first time he went away to camp. It is Ethan’s death that leads Macon and Sarah to divorce: Never perfectly suited temperamentally—he ever “methodical and steady,” irksome in the way he habitually corrects imprecise word choice; she, on the other hand, “haphazard, mercurial”—they are divided by their sharply differing responses to this trauma. On the evidence of her heavy personal loss, Sarah begins to see the whole world as evil, falls into despair, and vows never to have another child. Though she was at first attracted to Macon because he was a rock, she is revolted by his coldness, aloofness, and seeming lack of reaction, wondering whether he is emotionally paralyzed, somehow incapable of feeling. She does not realize that he can only endure the anguish by muffling his emotions.

It is not that Macon’s heart is underdeveloped; it is simply that he has always felt the need to overprotect it as a coping...

(The entire section is 1495 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 572 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Teenage Homicide Rates
According to the United States Bureau of the Census, the teenage homicide rate soared 169 percent between...

(The entire section is 441 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
Tyler creates an effective narrative structure in the novel by presenting the other characters through Macon's...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The dark humor that appears in works like Celestial Navigation, Searching for Caleb, and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is...

(The entire section is 392 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In addition to the typical theme of family relationships, topics for discussion Ideas for Group Discussions

In addition to the...

(The entire section is 179 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The violence that appears so regularly in newspapers and on the nightly television news is at the heart of The Accidental Tourist....

(The entire section is 258 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Define the term "dysfunctional family" and research the causes and effects of different kinds of dysfunction. Can the families in the novel...

(The entire section is 99 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The mixture of humor and pathos and the concentration on the ordinary in this work are also the hallmarks of other contemporary writers like...

(The entire section is 201 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Themes in The Accidental Tourist focus on the danger of physical and emotional isolation. Similar concerns appear in Celestial...

(The entire section is 112 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Accidental Tourist was made into a movie in 1989. Geena Davis won an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her portrayal...

(The entire section is 79 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

The Accidental Tourist was adapted as a film released by Warner Brothers in 1988. It starred Kathleen Turner, Geena Davis, and William...

(The entire section is 36 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Breathing Lessons, Anne Tyler's 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, focuses on family relationships and chronicles a woman's determined...

(The entire section is 141 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

John Blades, in Chicago Tribune Book World, July 20, 1986.

Richard Eder, in the Los Angeles Times...

(The entire section is 382 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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....

(The entire section is 861 words.)