The Accidental Tourist

by Anne Tyler

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

The centrality of sibling relationships, a common theme in many of Tyler’s novels, is the backdrop against which the events of The Accidental Tourist occur. It is also the litmus against which Tyler measures the degree of change occurring in her characters. In The Accidental Tourist, Tyler explores the effects people have on one another and the changes wrought by their interactions.

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Julian, the quintessential preppy playboy, is enthralled by the homey atmosphere in the Leary house. He abandons his single life for a pedantic upper-middle-class world. Driven by his desire, Julian even manages to learn Vaccination, the only spouse to do so. For her part, Rose steps out of the groove in which she appears firmly entrenched and goes sailing on the Chesapeake.

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When Sarah first leaves Macon, his grief over Ethan’s death and his own sudden bachelorhood nearly overwhelm him. When he moves into the working-class neighborhood in which Muriel rents a broken-down row house, he leaves behind a persona that is at least partially an artificial construct formed during his courtship of Sarah. Muriel’s flamboyance, her inner strength, and her joie de vivre in the face of nearly overwhelming hardship allow Macon at once to heal and to become, as Muriel calls him, soft-hearted. The original accidental tourist, Macon even finds himself extolling the virtues of San Francisco to a weary native Baltimorean who is a devotee of Macon’s books.

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Latest answer posted June 25, 2007, 9:09 am (UTC)

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The Accidental Tourist is, of course, a metaphor for Macon’s life. He is passively swept along by events. While he is a competent and basically good-hearted man, Macon lacks Muriel’s inner strength. Through her influence, he is forced finally to make decisions in his life.

With its diverse historical traditions and distinctive neighborhoods, Baltimore provides a rich background for Tyler’s eccentric characters. Two sections of this multifaceted city are given clarity in The Accidental Tourist, Macon’s upper-class Logan Park and Muriel’s inner-city neighborhood of row houses. Before he meets Muriel, Macon’s entire life is spent in an old neighborhood of detached houses and tree-lined streets. The houses are spacious and private compared to Muriel’s domain, which consists of decrepit row houses with fake stone fronts, families sitting on front steps leading directly to the pavement, and unemployed men standing on streetcorners making small talk. Macon is a visitor in a strange world, a world in which he initially wonders how anyone can feel safe, but a world that ultimately he finds vibrant and thriving.

Social class consciousness permeates The Accidental Tourist as it does Baltimore. Because of their different classes, Macon’s family disapproves of his relationship with Muriel. His brothers refer to her as “this Muriel person,” and Sarah tells Macon that with Muriel he will be permanently on the fringe, a member of one of those couples who fit nowhere. It is a measure of Macon’s growth that he rejects these class biases and makes an active decision to return to Muriel.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 333

In this novel, Tyler pokes serious fun at the narrowness of characters' lives when they resist moving beyond the comfortable boundaries of home — their families or their country. Her protagonist, Macon Leary, therefore learns in the course of the novel that living fully means being open to new and different experiences.

Another theme that appears in this novel and elsewhere in Tyler's canon is the question of order — how much is necessary for a sense of control over one's life and how much is stultifying because it eliminates spontaneity. Macon, for instance, thinks his ability to order his life enables him to cope well with the inconveniences of travel, his wife's leaving him, and the tragedy of his son's death, but in fact, it reduces his ability to share his feelings. In this and other Tyler novels, characters like Muriel Pritchett who rebel against too much order or who thrive on an outwardly chaotic lifestyle are admirable because of their emotional freedom. In this novel, Macon's life, run according to his "systems," is really a mess; he cannot work or think clearly. It is only when he moves into Muriel's messy but homey apartment that he evolves from a life of isolation to openness.

With openness and caring come danger, however. To love puts one in danger of losing; but as Tyler clearly points out, isolation is only imaginary protection. There is no protection from life's vagaries; with isolation one misses the felicitous pleasures and still must suffer the trials and tribulations of life. Macon is shattered when his son is murdered in a holdup at the Burger Bonanza; unfortunately, his method of coping is to keep his emotions' tight reins on, to act sensibly and carry on, mowing the grass and giving away the boy's things. He avoids commitment to Muriel's son in an effort to avoid the pain of loss again; until he gives in, however, he also misses the love and sense of being needed that the boy can provide.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 746

Death
Ethan's death triggers the novel's initial conflict. At first it leads to the dissolution of Sarah and Macon's marriage. The past year had been "miserable" for both of them, with "months when everything either of them said was wrong." When Sarah admits, "Now that Ethan's dead I sometimes wonder if there's any point to life," Macon responds, "It never seemed to me there was all that much point to begin with." This pessimism spurs Sarah's decision to leave Macon. She feels he is not grieving as much as she, nor is he providing her with the comfort she requires. Macon looks for someone to blame for Ethan's death, including Sarah and himself.

Order and Disorder
Ethan's death coupled with Sarah's departure throws Macon into a state of disorder that he desperately tries to remedy with an obsessive search for order. This need for organization is a consistent theme in Macon's life, evidenced by the pleasure he takes "organizing a disorganized country" for the readers of his guidebooks. After the death of his son, it provides him with his only pleasure, since it gives him "the sense of warding off a danger." Ultimately, though, his need for order pushes him to the breaking point. In an effort to reorganize the house and thus his life, he invents the Macon Leary Body Bag, which becomes his personal cocoon and allows him to retreat every night from the outside world.

Alienation and Loneliness
Sarah accuses Macon of not being able to maintain a meaningful connection with her or anyone else and cites this as the reason she leaves him. Ethan's death has eventually led him to give up on life, on "everything that might touch [him] or upset [him] or disrupt [him]." Macon cannot dispute Sarah's insistence that "there's something so muffled about the way you experience things ... You're encased. You're like something in a capsule. You're a dried up kernel of a man that nothing real penetrates." He admits that he avoids contact with other people because it "made him draw inward like a snail." As a result, he has become "a fairly chilly man." Sarah fears that she is beginning to adopt Macon's pessimism as well as his desire to alienate himself from the world. Before Ethan died, she had been a social person, but now she, like Macon, avoids contact with others. In order to save herself, Sarah leaves, telling him, "I don't have enough time left to waste it holing up in my shell." The loneliness that results from the loss of his son and his wife submerges Macon into the "bleakest period of his life."

Apathy and Passivity
Macon responds with apathy and passivity in the face of his suffering. At first, he is devastated by Sarah's departure, but he soon comes to accept it. After he breaks his leg, he moves in with Rose, who takes care of all his needs. Ironically his apathy and passivity cause him to enter into a relationship with Muriel, who is fiercely determined to forge a connection with him. When he goes to her apartment, intending to inform her that he cannot have dinner with her because he does not want to explain what has happened to him, he allows her to change his mind. Muriel gently coaxes him to open up to her and express his grief. Before he realizes it, and almost against his will, Macon begins to reconnect with the world.

Change and Transformation
Macon's relationship with Muriel and Alexander helps transform him from a passive and apathetic man who hides from the world, to a man who is strong enough to make his own decisions and to face life's challenges. He realizes that when he was with Sarah, he had been "locked inside the standoffish self he'd assumed when he and she first met. He was frozen there ... Somehow, his role had sunk all the way through to the heart." Muriel allows him to explore his true self, which he acknowledges to Charles when he tells him that with her, "I'm more myself than I've been my whole life long." Muriel and Alexander also help Macon reconnect with the world, even though the process is painful for him. After recognizing his growing attachment to Alexander, Macon admits he feels "a pleasant kind of sorrow sweeping through him. Oh, his life had regained all its old perils. He was forced to worry once again about nuclear war and the future of the planet."

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