Anne Tyler Tyler, Anne (Vol. 103) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anne Tyler 1941–

American novelist, short story writer, critic, nonfiction writer, and editor.

The following entry presents criticism of Tyler's work through 1995. For further information on her life and career, see CLC, Volumes 7, 11, 18, 28, 44, and 59.

Tyler is best known as the award-winning author of the novels The Accidental Tourist (1985) and Breathing Lessons (1988). She writes fiction depicting tense family situations that result in lonely, confused members who long for connection and meaning in their lives, focusing on everyday occurrences instead of more dramatic events. While family history has a strong influence on her characters, she rarely puts them in a historical or social context. Known as a representative of a new generation of Southern writers, Tyler is often compared to Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and Flannery O'Connor.

Biographical Information

Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 25, 1941, to an industrial-chemist father and a social-worker mother. Her parents were members of the Society of Friends and long-time activists in liberal causes. Tyler lived her childhood years in various communes in the Midwest and the South with her parents and three younger brothers. She received her early education at the communes, but at the age of eleven she began attending public school. The alienation she felt at this time became a consistent theme in her work. Tyler attended Duke University on scholarship, graduating Phi Beta Kappa at the age of nineteen with a degree in Russian. While she was at Duke she twice received the Anne Flexner Award for creative writing, and she began publishing her short stories in magazines. She then studied Russian at Columbia University for a year. In 1962 she worked as the Russian bibliographer in the Duke University Library. She married Taghi Modaressi, a psychiatrist, in 1963, and the couple moved to Montreal so he could continue his medical studies. While looking for a job in Montreal, Tyler wrote her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes (1964). This was followed a year later by The Tin Can Tree (1965), but her writing slowed while she raised her two daughters. Tyler and Modaressi moved to Baltimore in 1965. With her daughters in school, Tyler began to focus on her writing full time. Starting with The Clock Winder (1972), Baltimore became the setting for her fiction.

Major Works

Tyler writes narratives that deal with the internal strife and relationships of families. Family communication, or lack of it, is an essential element in her fiction. While generational influence is important to Tyler, she excludes social or historical context as an influence on her down-to-earth characters: there are no fancy surroundings or sophisticated speech, and generally the people who inhabit her novels are not concerned with material wealth. One continuing message in Tyler's fiction is that clutter in one's life is inescapable. Characters such as Morgan in Morgan's Passing (l980) and Delia in Ladder of Years (1995) try to escape from life's baggage only to find themselves in the same life all over again. This pull between returning home and running away occurs often in Tyler's work. Tyler also asserts the importance of differences in life and she frequently brings opposites together, a circumstance she considers nourishing and integral to the ongoing health of the family. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), for instance, Pearl Tull holds herself and her children together through valuable relationships with outsiders when her husband abandons them. The Accidental Tourist, which earned her the National Book Critics' Circle Award, brings together many of Tyler's themes. The main character, Macon Leary, must choose between the security of loneliness and the uncertain comforts of human love. Tyler again takes up the theme of difference in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons. The novel traces a day in the married life of Ira, a realist, and Maggie, a dreamer, with flashbacks showing the importance of their shared past. Tyler shows the compromises, disappointments, and love found in a marriage, and once again shows how differences can be nourishing in a relationship.

Critical Reception

Tyler's earlier novels were not given much critical attention, being most often noted as indicators of the author's potential. It was not until novelist Gail Godwin reviewed Celestial Navigation (1974) and John Updike called readers' attention to Searching for Caleb (1976) that Tyler gained widespread acclaim. Critics praise Tyler for her wit and her ability to render detail. While some reviewers complain that her characters are implausible, even bizarre, others assert that she presents them with such compassion that their oddities become simply human. Many reviewers point out the connection between tragedy and comedy in Tyler's fiction, and praise her talent at dealing with both. However, some critics complain of the lack of a moral dimension in Tyler's novels: characters are not good or evil; they are just mistaken or confused. There is much debate over Tyler's relationship to the Southern literary tradition, but there are obvious influences in Tyler's fiction from Faulkner, O'Connor, and Welty. Reviewers point out that Tyler, like Faulkner and O'Connor, emphasizes the importance of personal history. Critics often compare Tyler to Welty in the way she writes about everyday people and their lives, instead of just chronicling major events. However, Tyler's novels do not contain the Gothic overtones typical of her Southern predecessors.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If Morning Ever Comes (novel) 1964
The Tin Can Tree (novel) 1965
A Slipping-Down Life (novel) 1970
The Clock Winder (novel) 1972
Celestial Navigation (novel) 1974
Searching for Caleb (novel) 1976
Earthly Possessions (novel) 1977
Morgan's Passing (novel) 1980
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (novel) 1982
The Accidental Tourist (novel) 1985
Breathing Lessons (novel) 1988
Saint Maybe (novel) 1991
Ladder of Years (novel) 1995

Mary F. Robertson (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Medusa Points and Contact Points," in Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, The University Press of Kentucky, 1985, pp. 119-42.

[In the following essay, Robertson analyzes how Tyler changes traditional ideas about family and its interaction with outsiders in her novels.]

John Updike, a fan of Anne Tyler's work, remarked in a review that "Tyler, whose humane and populous novels have attracted (if my antennae are tuned right) less approval in the literary ether than the sparer offerings of Ann Beattie and Joan Didion, is sometimes charged with the basic literary sin of implausibility." Indeed, Tyler's novels do not seem a promising hunting ground for critics, who seek advances in the experimental surface of fiction. Her most palpable narrative virtues are by and large traditional ones: memorable characters, seductive plots, imaginative and hawk-eyed descriptions. Tyler is adept with the simile, acute as a psychologist, and quite good at the meditative pause in dramatization, although the reflections usually come as ruminations of a character rather than as autonomous philosophical sorties like George Eliot's.

On first opening Tyler's novels—and perhaps until having read several—a reader is apprehensive that he or she has only encountered still more domestic dramas, seemingly oblivious of the public dimension of the life of men and women in society. A social critic might feel that Tyler's very limitation of subject matter confirms an ideology of the private family to the detriment of political awareness, and a feminist reader might think that only female actions having more public importance than Tyler's seem to have can help the cause of women. In this essay, however, I shall argue that Tyler's unusual use of narrative patterns accomplishes much that should interest the feminist and the social critic alike. To see how, perhaps Updike's word implausibility should be examined. This trait in Tyler's work might be a sticking point for some serious readers because of prejudices about what is realistic in the plots of novels about families. Words such as zany and magical that appear regularly on her book jackets amount to labels that are likely to encourage such prejudices, to invite readers to resist the uncomfortable psychological and political seriousness of Tyler's vision, and to settle for a "good read" instead. Such prejudices, however, are ultimately thwarted by Tyler's fiction; in fact, thwarted prejudices are exactly the point. Tyler's implausible narrative form is a door through which the reader passes to a deeper sense of realism.

Families are, of course, a traditional subject of fiction. Novels about families can be divided into two groups: those that explore the interior psychology of a family—Mansfield Park, Sons and Lovers, and To the Lighthouse are diverse examples—and those that use family sagas to represent larger historical changes—works ranging from Absalom, Absalom to Giant and The Thorn Birds. In either case, the genre depends traditionally on features that produce certain narrative expectations in the reader. Foremost, perhaps, is a clear conception of the boundary between the insiders of a family and its outsiders. The typical family novel reserves its emotional center for the insiders. No matter how many forays or entanglements the members of the family have with outsiders, such a novel gains its power from a clear definition of the traits of both the individual members and the family as a whole. One narrative consequence of this conventional boundary that a reader, accustomed to it, might not notice is that dialogues or interchanges among members of a family are usually more portentous for the themes and outcomes of the book than those between members of the family and outsiders. Even if family problems are not solved thematically in such moments, these moments are the points in the narrative at which the significance of the story accrues. There is a centripetal impetus in such interchanges in the traditional family novel that the narrative design does nothing to question.

This conventional attachment of weight to family interchanges produces a preference for formal purity in the narrative shape of the novel as a whole. The strategy of maintaining the boundary between insiders and outsiders is reflected in the reader's awareness of what is plot—action concerning the family history—and what is subplot—contingentaction concerning outsiders who function thematically and narratively to push a character to some momentous choice as he or she develops the family's destiny but who then either recede or are absorbed into the family, for example, through marriage. Such peripheral matters as affairs or business dealings function, if anything, to make clear by contrast the central skein of reciprocal effects of members of the family on one another. Often, too, the chapters of such novels are organized according to the points of view of insiders to reflect the central significance of the family.

Independent of the particular thematic content of individual family novels, such generically conventional narrative patterns constitute a second-order system of signs. They imply a certain ideological relationship among family, identity, and history. The family is shown or implied to be the principal determinant of adult identity and the primary social unit. In conventional family novels a kind of binary thinking rules the narrative. The characters can either submit to or reject the family's ways and values; the family as a whole can either triumph or be destroyed. In either instance the concept of the private, inward-turning family remains coherent and ideologically definitive. Something about families, happy or not, makes them one of the very names of narrative order. If they "break down" in divorce, miscommunication, betrayal, or catastrophe, the reader is as uneasy as if people spoke to him or her in disrupted, nonsensical syntax. If families survive in even some good measure, the reader feels that something has been set right with the universe. In addition, even when the family is historically representative of general cultural movements, such an emphasis on the power of the family projects a certain idea of history. History is implicitly reduced to a narrative about families of unquestioned centrality. Families are perhaps the human race's oldest mode of plotting history, and long after more primitive family chronicles have been outgrown as the dominant mode of recording history, the family survives metaphorically in political histories of monarchies and nation-states.

Anne Tyler's narrative strategies disrupt the conventional expectations of the family novels, and thus the disruptions themselves also constitute a second-order system of signs that helps to dislodge the ideology of the enclosed family and the notion that the family is the main forum for making history. These disruptions are undoubtedly responsible for the feeling of implausibility in Tyler's fiction; Tyler does not respect the usual patterns of the genre. The first "itch" caused by her narratives comes at what I shall call Medusa points. These are points at which a certain pattern obtains in the dialogues and interchanges among members of the family. The second itch arises from Tyler's unwillingness to manage the narrative so as to form a clear line of demarcation between insiders and outsiders. The outsiders assume roles that are more than contingent yet not quite surrogates for family roles. The points at which this ambiguity occurs I shall call contact points. The third itch, the result of the first two, is that the pure narrative shape of the family novel is upset. Because the boundary between insiders and outsiders is continually transgressed, the progress of Tyler's novels is felt more as an expansion of narrative disorder than as a movement toward resolution and clarification. This larger narrative movement of disorder usually includes both negative and positive moments. A member of the family typically both sheds—somehow becomes unencumbered from his other family relations—and incorporates—forms significant new relationships with outsiders. If the reader is alert to the meaning of the disruptions of usual expectations of the genre, it becomes clear that Tyler's most pervasive structural preoccupation is with the family as a sign of order or disorder in personality and society.

This structural obsession with the family as a contender for the signs of identity manifests itself especially in Tyler's three most recent novels. In Earthly Possessions a middle-aged housewife named Charlotte, who has been thinking of leaving her preacher-husband, Saul, and her two children, goes to the bank to withdraw money for that purpose and is taken hostage by a bank robber, Jake Simms. Until the end of the book she is held captive in this stranger's peripatetic stolen car, which he has chained shut on the passenger's side, and is allowed out only under close surveillance. This sudden traumatic intimacy, symbolized by the closed space of the car, is a parody of the very familial claustrophobia Charlotte had planned to throw off. Yet it proves to be an important opportunity for revelations about otherness and helps her to arrive at some mature distinctions she had not been in the habit of making. Since Tyler interweaves flashbacks to Charlotte's childhood and married life throughout the book, the implications of her eventual choice to risk at gunpoint leaving the robber and returning to her family can be appreciated fully.

In Morgan's Passing the overall tone is more lighthearted, but the structural pattern is similar. The two chief characters are Gower Morgan, an eccentric—who cannot resist impersonating others—with seven children and an unflappable wife, and Emily Meredith, a young married woman. The story opens with Morgan's delivering Leon and Emily Meredith's baby in a car after telling them untruthfully that he is a doctor. At first Morgan haunts the Merediths in a creepy way by trailing them; finally he is let into their lives as a valued friend. After a few years he reciprocates by allowing them into the life of his family. Later yet, he and Emily fall in love, have an affair, leave their marriages for each other, and produce a new child. This account does not begin to do justice to the disorder to be found in either of Morgan's households, nor to the ambiguous way his presence confounds the distinction between insider and outsider, no matter where he resides; but for the moment it is enough to show that, once again, a stranger disrupts a family's ordered life and alters its self-definition irrevocably.

In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant the action takes us from the time when Pearl Tull, the self-sufficient mother, is dying, back through the history of her marriage and her children's adulthood, full circle to her funeral, when her long-lost husband, Beck, shows up for the day. This book might be read only as a dramatization of what one therapist calls the family crucible; Tyler is very good at showing how neurotic traits ricochet off one another in a family and are passed on to the next generation. If that were all, however, the novel would be nothing special. Its particular virtue lies in the way it places the family's children, Jenny, Ezra, and Cody, in various exogenous relationships that prove as formative and valuable to them as do their family ties.

On numerous occasions in these novels there is a pattern of misconnection—what I call a Medusa point in the narrative—such as this one between Ezra Tull and his mother:

"I'm worried if I come too close, they'll say I'm overstepping. They'll say I'm pushy, or … emotional, you know. But if I back off, they might think I don't care. I really, honestly believe I missed some rule that everyone else takes for granted; I must have been absent from school that day. There's this narrow little dividing line I somehow never located." "Nonsense: I don't know what you're talking about," said his mother, and then she held up an egg. "Will you look at this? Out of one dozen eggs, four are cracked."

Here is a similar interaction between Morgan and his wife, Bonny, who tries to assume the role of bride's mother for her engaged daughter:

"Morgan, in this day and age, do you believe the bride's mother would still give the bride a little talk?" "Hmm?" "What I want to know is, am I expected to give Amy a talk about sex or am i not?" "Bonny, do you have to call it sex?" "What else would I call it?" "Well …" "I mean, sex is what it is, isn't it?" "Yes, but, I don't know …" "I mean, what would you say? Is it sex, or isn't it?" "Bonny, will you just stop hammering at me?"

In Earthly Possessions the pattern is not dramatized but revealed through Charlotte's memories. A stubborn separate-ness at the center of the relationship of Charlotte with each member of her family—mother, father, husband—is emphasized. Though Charlotte's father adores her in one way, he makes her feel she can never please him. She cares all her life for her grotesquely obese mother, but never breaks through to her candidly about her fears and feelings. She is separated most from her husband, whom she plans to leave almost from the beginning and did not even really make an active decision to marry. Here is the way they become engaged:

In May he bought me an engagement ring. He took It out of his pocket one night when the three of us were eating supper—a little diamond. I hadn't known anything about it. I just stared at him when he slipped it on my finger. "I thought it was time," he told me. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Ames," he said. "I can't wait any longer, I want to marry her." Mama said, "But I—" "It won't be right away," he said. "I'm not taking her off tomorrow. I don't even know what my work will be yet. We'll stay here as long as you need us, believe me. I promise you." "But—" Mama said. That was all, though. I should have refused. I wasn't helpless, after all. I should have said, "I'm sorry, I can't fit you in … But I didn't."

None of these characters tries maliciously to damage his or her family interlocutors; in general, they try to help each other in the mundane ways of life. But in their minds and hearts they feel cut off, paradoxically because each feels suffocated by the other. After exposure to several Tyler novels a reader learns to bypass themes of the individual novels and understands that such nonsequiturs as occur in the conversation between Morgan and Bonny and such failures of communication as Charlotte's are best not read as individuals' character problems but as a narrative pattern drawn by Tyler to make a point about family relations in general. These points in the narrative assume a significance that stands apart from their particular content. Through them Tyler shows that situations calling for responses considered proper in certain spousal and filial roles petrify people in both senses of the word: the constant intimate gaze threatens to turn people to stone and also scares them into stratagems to evade the threat, just as Perseus could not look at the Medusa directly but mediated the slaying with the mirror. Thus the phrase "Medusa points" seems useful for such moments in Tyler's narratives when a character refuses or is unable to respond to a family member in the way that member desperately needs or desires. These Medusa points are registered, if not in the reader's petrification, at least in exasperation, because what is "supposed to happen" in a family novel—that is, connection between intimates or at least a definitive antagonism—does not happen. Thus the narrative pattern is mirrored in the reading process as resistance.

The Perseus-Medusa image is appropriate for Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in an even more special way. Tyler seems deliberately to invoke Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples, in which this myth is quite important. The connection becomes explicit when Beck Tull, who leaves his wife and children early in the book, just as King McLain does in The Golden Apples, returns to Pearl's funeral—King returns to Katie Rainey's funeral; Tyler writes: "King-like, he sat alone." The Golden Apples is itself a mysterious and complex book, far more dreamlike and mythical than Homesick, but the two books dwell on the same two problems: people's existence in time and the profound ambivalence of human beings about identification with others. People suffer from their separateness and are especially drawn to merging with strangers who are exotic to them; yet, no sooner have they done so than they feel the petrification begin to set in and they fantasize evasion, abandonment, wandering. At the end of The Golden Apples, Virgie Rainey remembers the picture that hung on her piano teacher's wall of Perseus holding the Medusa's head. She thinks:

Cutting off the Medusa's head was the heroic act, perhaps that made visible a horror in life, that was at once the horror in love—the separateness…. Virgie saw things in their time, like hearing them—and perhaps because she must believe in the Medusa equally with Perseus—she saw the stroke of the sword in three moments, not one. In the three was the damnation … beyond the beauty and the sword's stroke and the terror lay their existence in time—far out and endless, a constellation which the heart could read over many a night…. In Virgie's reach of memory a melody softly lifted, lifted of itself. Every time Perseus struck off the Medusa's head there was the beat of time, and the melody. Endless the Medusa, and Perseus endless.

Tyler shares with Welty the modified view of the heroic Perseus and Medusa reflected in this passage. The principal difference from the classical view lies in Virgie's recognition that the struggle is never finished. Likewise the Medusa is never really killed in Tyler's novels. Indeed, in Tyler's fiction the Medusa points signify primarily by their irony because they are the points in the narrative at which the occurrence of climactic movements, connections, and definitive severances is expected but never witnessed. Thus in and of themselves these Medusa points signify Tyler's refusal to regard the family as the most significant agent of character development and social representation. A crucial stylistic difference between Tyler and Welty aids this narrative message. Welty's poeticizing style, uplifted and abstract, creates a transcendent aura somewhat at odds with the content of Virgie's insight about time. The style itself has away of lifting and resolving what is unresolved in the subject. In contrast, Tyler's more ordinary prose stylistically places the Medusa syndrome in real historical time. Her prose enacts stylistically the full force of the "fall into time" of those potential Perseuses—characters or readers—who would finish off forever the Medusa of a too complete family communication or would be totally vanquished by it.

In each of the Tyler novels mentioned certain characters are identified most strongly with the Medusa influence. In Homesick, Pearl Tull, after being left with three young children and forced to become the breadwinner, defensively develops a rigid, claustrophobic family style. She has no friends, does not visit with the customers at the store where she works, does not encourage her children to bring friends home. For years, in her stubborn pride, she refuses to admit to her children that their father has left them—the abandonment was simply never mentioned as such during all the time they were growing up. Besides this steely silence, Pearl encourages an unhealthy self-sufficiency and iron discipline. When the young Ezra, who is the most sensitive of the three children and the one who takes on the role of family nurturer, asks Pearl whether she would let him stay home from school one day if on that day alone money grew on trees, she answers with a severe "No," and in response to further pleading erupts, "Ezra, will you let it be? Must you keep at me this way? Why are you so obstinate?" A thousand such exchanges in the life of the family produce personalities inclined to give up on real candor and expression of feelings in the family arena. We see this when Cody, the oldest son, is about to leave for college. Pearl has finally brought herself to mention the most pervasive fact in each of their lives—their father's absence:

"Children, there's something I want to discuss with you." Cody was talking about a job. He had to find one in order to help with the tuition fees. "I could work in the cafeteria," he was saying, "or maybe off-campus. I don't know which." Then he heard his mother and looked over at her. "It's about your father," Pearl said. Jenny said, "I'd choose the cafeteria." "You know, my darlings," Pearl told them, "how I always say your father's away on business." "But off-campus they might pay more," said Cody, "and every penny counts." "At the cafeteria you'd be with your classmates, though," Ezra said. "Yes, I thought of that." "All those coeds," Jenny said. "Cheerleaders. Girls in their little white bobby sox." "Sweater girls," Cody said. "There's something I want to explain about your father," Pearl told them. "Choose the cafeteria," Ezra said. "Children?" "The cafeteria," they said. And all three gazed at her coolly, out of gray, unblinking, level eyes exactly like her own.

In time Tyler's reader learns that the trick at such moments in the narrative is not to read them conventionally as the portrayal of psychological cripples and tragic family failures. The Medusa points are semantically complex because, while they depict the characters as stony to others in the family, they show at the same time (in the children's oblique comments just quoted, for example) the healthy partial escape from total petrification. Such points show characters who have learned to turn their eyes away from the monster of family self-absorption and to seek their maturity and identity by means of other resources.

The second generic disruption in narrative form that develops an independent significance in Tyler's novels is the altered treatment of outsiders. Pushed, like the characters, to swerve from the inconclusiveness of the Medusa moments and denied the satisfaction of the partial closures usually provided in the family interchanges, the reader must look closer at the supposedly marginal characters of the novel to find a new pattern of significance. The reader then realizes that Tyler shapes an unusual nexus of characters that forces him or her to take seriously Morgan's remark that "our lives depend on total strangers. So much lacks logic, or a proper sequence." If said in a certain tone, of course, this statement could suggest an alienation like that of Joan Didion's characters and might reflect anomic acceptance of provisional but meaningless encounters with strangers—even intimates who feel like strangers. But alienation is not the contract offered by Tyler through such a thought. The concept of alienation depends on a firm conceptual boundary between the strange and the familiar, inside and outside; Tyler's narrative disposition of characters transgresses this boundary without eradicating it. The outsiders take over some of the usual functions of family, but their ultimate difference from family is their most significant trait. Such characters are signs of permanent human strangeness, but Tyler's work presents this strangeness as the very resource by which to prevent alienation.

Throughout her life an alienated woman, Pearl Tull, on her deathbed, reflects on the foolishness of holding herself inviolate from disruption: "It was such a relief to drift, finally. Why had she spent so long learning how?… She kept mislaying her place in time, but it made no difference." This drift is not a feckless passivity such as that which leads Jenny, Emily, and Charlotte into their first marriages, but an ability to open oneself to the disorder and uncertainty that strangers bring into one's life; it is the ability to be enriched by these strangers, even to be derailed by them, without trying to erase their radical difference from oneself. Narratively, this theme of disorder is registered in a tension produced by Tyler's blurring of the boundary between insiders and outsiders. In their surface organization, whether linear or flashback in manner, her novels give the impression that she is interested in tracing chronological developments of certain families; but the real movements—spiritual, emotional, even material—occur in the marginal relations of members of the family with outsiders. Eventually, the image of the family in each novel becomes an empty presence. The reader feels like a person in a canoe who, while being carried forward by the straight-running current, is also swept sideways by a strong crosswind. In the phenomenological movement of reading, the reader, like the characters, is forced to drift into...

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Bradley R. Bowers (essay date Winter 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anne Tyler's Insiders," in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 47-56.

[In the following essay. Bowers discusses the inside knowledge that Tyler shares with the readers of her novels.]

In her most successful novel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler's central character, Pearl, reacts to her husband Beck's abrupt announcement that he "didn't want to stay married":

"I don't understand you," she said. There ought to be a whole separate language, she thought, for words that are truer than other words—for perfect, absolute truth.

Tyler does not create...

(The entire section is 3566 words.)

Paula Gallant Eckard (essay date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Family and Community in Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XXII, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 33-44.

[In the following essay, Eckard compares Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Carson McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.]

At eighty-five, Pearl Tull is blind and dying. She drifts through dreams and recollections, sliding back and forth through time as she remembers the grandfather who smelled like mothballs, the aunts scented with pomade and lavender water. Pearl even recalls her cousin Bertha, who carried a bottle of crystals to ward off...

(The entire section is 5149 words.)

Susan Gilbert (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anne Tyler," in Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, The University of Alabama Press, 1990, pp. 251-78.

[In the followingessay, Gilbert presents an overview of Tyler's work and major themes.]

Anne Tyler, with ten novels, the last the winner of the National Book Critics' Circle Award, has a secure critical reputation and a large and faithful audience. Her fictional world is well defined. It is a personal world. The concerns of her characters are the persistent and primary psychological anxieties of life. Children hunger for their mothers' approval. They feel grief and guilt at the death or disappearance of a parent. Siblings' rivalries and dependencies,...

(The entire section is 12754 words.)

Jay Parini (review date 25 August 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Accidental Convert," in The New York Times Book Review, August 25, 1991, pp. 1, 26.

[In the following review, Parini states that Tyler's Saint Maybe is "a realistic chronicle that celebrates family life without erasing the pain and boredom that families almost necessarily inflict upon their members."]

Anne Tyler likes to break America's heart, and she will do it again in Saint Maybe. Her subject, as ever, is family life, with the family pictured as a kind of leaky but durable vessel that ferries her motley characters down the tortuous river of time. Ms. Tyler is fascinated by the unexpected ways that people affect one another, for good and...

(The entire section is 1297 words.)

Gene Koppel (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Maggie Moran, Anne Tyler's Madcap Heroine: A Game-Approach to Breathing Lessons," in Essays in Literature, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, Fall, 1991, pp. 276-87.

[In the following essay, Koppel discusses the game playing in Tyler's Breathing Lessons and the assertion that a balance between game playing and responsibility is necessary to live successfully.]

When Maggie Moran, a nursing assistant in a home for the elderly and the central character of Anne Tyler's novel Breathing Lessons, tries to locate a favorite patient during a fire drill, the resulting fiasco bears more than a coincidental resemblance to a slapstick scene from an I Love Lucy...

(The entire section is 5911 words.)

John Sutherland (review date 12 March 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lucky Brrm," in London Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 5, March 12, 1992, pp. 23-4.

[In the following excerpt, Sutherland discusses the humility of Ian, the main character of Tyler's Saint Maybe, and calls him "the accidental hero" of the novel.]

Anne Tyler's stories are set in Baltimore, a city which many readers will neither know nor feel guilty about not knowing. That there will be many readers of Saint Maybe, however, is a certainty. It is Anne Tyler's 12th novel, and she has a loyal and growing band of admirers. Her last effort, Breathing Lessons, won a Pulitzer and the title before that, The Accidental Tourist, was made into an...

(The entire section is 707 words.)

Patricia Rowe Willrich (essay date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Watching Through Windows: A Perspective on Anne Tyler," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 68, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 497-516.

[In the following essay, Willrich presents an overview of Tyler's life, career, and approach to writing.]

Novelist Anne Tyler has spent most of her 50 years observing from a distance, using her imagination to satisfy her curiosity. In an essay published in 1976–"Because I Want More Than One Life," Tyler commented:

"It seems to me often that I'm sort of looking from a window at something at a great distance and wondering what it is. But I'm not willing to actually go into it. I would rather...

(The entire section is 6523 words.)

Alice Hall Petry (essay date Fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bright Books of Life: The Black Norm in Anne Tyler's Novels," in The Southern Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 7-13.

[In the following essay, Petry discusses how Tyler uses black characters as repositories of wisdom and knowledge in her novels.]

To be frank, black characters do not loom large in the twelve novels of contemporary Baltimore novelist Anne Tyler. Most of them function as domestics, such as the housekeeper Clotelia of A Slipping-Down Life or Richard the gardener in The Clock Winder; others are barely-delineated background figures, like the superstitious clients of the fortune-teller Madame Olita in Searching for Caleb...

(The entire section is 2928 words.)

Barbara A. Bennett (essay date January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Attempting to Connect: Verbal Humor in the Novels of Anne Tyler," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 60, No. 1, January, 1995, pp. 57-75.

[In the following essay, Bennett outlines the various types of verbal humor Tyler employs in her novels.]

In the essay "Still Just Writing," Anne Tyler comments on her unusual characters: "People have always seemed funny and strange to me"; in a letter to me dated November 24, 1991, she clarified what she means in describing people that way: "I think of 'funny and strange' as wonderful traits, which always make me feel hopeful when I spot them." Some reviewers have faulted Tyler, however, for exaggerating her characters to...

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Roberta Rubenstein (review date 30 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Woman Who Went Away," in Chicago Tribune Books, April 30, 1995, p. 1.

[In the following review, Rubenstein praises Tyler's Ladder of Years as "virtually flawless."]

Anne Tyler's wonderfully satisfying 13th novel begins with a newspaper headline: "BALTIMORE WOMAN DISAPPEARS DURING FAMILY VACATION." The accompanying news item includes the few facts related to the sudden disappearance of Cordelia Grinstead, whose eyes are "blue or gray or perhaps green…." Then Tyler circles back to let us see the circumstances that trigger Delia's unpremeditated decision to vacate her current life—withouteven saying goodbye—to assume a new one.


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Richard Eder (review date 7 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Trying on a New Life," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 7, 1995, p. 3.

[In the following review, Eder complains that Tyler's Ladder of Years fails to sustain its momentum.]

Why does Delia Grinstead run away from her overbearing physician husband, her three sulky children and her depressive suburban life? With any of our realistic chroniclers of American middle-class life the answer would He in the question. With Anne Tyler it lies there too, but the really interesting answer is: because her cat's name is Vernon.

Tyler only seems to be a realist. It is true that in such novels as The Accidental Tourist, Dinner at the...

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Cathleen Schine (review date 7 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "New Life for Old," in The New York Times Book Review, May 7, 1995, p. 12.

[In the following review, Schine praises Tyler's Ladder of Years.]

The French have said that William Wyler, the great director of movies like Dodsworth and The Best Years of Our Lives, had a "style sans style." Anne Tyler has this same deceptive "style without a style." Opening one of her books in the middle and picking a page at random, a reader might not immediately recognize her individual rhythm or idiosyncratic temperament. She does nothing fancy, nothing tricky. But so rigorous and artful is the style without a style, so measured and delicate is each...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Binding, Paul. "Anne Tyler." In his Separate Country: A Literary Journey through the American South, pp. 171-81. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988.

Analyzes the South in Tyler's novels and asserts that she carries on the tradition of the great southern writers.

Brown, Laurie L. "Interviews with Seven Contemporary Writers." In Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, pp. 4-22. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984.

Contains a collection of interviews with Anne Tyler, Lisa Alther, Ellen Douglas, Gail Godwin,...

(The entire section is 290 words.)