Themes and Meanings
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,578 words.)