Anne Tyler Tyler, Anne (Vol. 205) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anne Tyler 1941-

American novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Tyler's career through 2004. See also Anne Tyler Criticism (Volume 7), and Volumes 11, 28, 103.

Tyler is regarded as one of the best novelists in contemporary American literature. She is known for her quiet, subtle fiction that explores complex, dysfunctional family relationships and individuals' search for meaning and identity in a changing world. Often discussed as a representative of a new generation of Southern writers, Tyler is compared to such iconic Southern authors as Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor.

Biographical Information

Tyler was born on October 25, 1941, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 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. As a young child, she was educated at these communes, and at the age of eleven, she began attending public school in Raleigh, North Carolina. The alienation she felt at this time resurfaces as a consistent theme in her later 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 in 1963 and moved to Montreal so that her husband 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, but her writing slowed while she raised her two daughters. In 1967 she moved with her family to Baltimore and began to focus on her writing full time. Starting with The Clock Winder (1972), Baltimore became the permanent setting for her fiction. Tyler has continued to write short stories and essays for periodicals. She has received several awards for her work, including an Award for Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1977, a PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction in 1983, a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985, and a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Breathing Lessons (1988).

Major Works

Tyler writes narratives that deal with the dynamics of familial relationships; family communication, or the lack of it, is an essential element in her fiction. One recurring message in Tyler's work is that clutter in one's life is inescapable. Characters such as Morgan in Morgan's Passing (1980) and Delia in Ladder of Years (1995) try to flee from emotional baggage only to find themselves in the same situation all over again. This pull between returning home and running away is a frequent theme in Tyler's work. In A Slipping-Down Life (1970) Evie runs away from her father's home to marry a rock star, only to return there after her father's death. In the process, she explores her own identity and finds peace. 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 a family. The Clock Winder chronicles the unlikely marriage of the staid, steady Matthew Emerson and the unpredictable Elizabeth Emerson.

Family disintegration and reformation are the central focus of Celestial Navigation (1974). An agoraphobic artist, Jeremy, marries a single mother who moves into his large boarding house. For years, Jeremy struggles with the intricacies of family life and his art, but he fails and eventually his wife leaves him. Searching for Caleb (1976) also concerns an individual struggling with family ties. When Justine marries her first cousin, Duncan, she reluctantly supports her new husband's efforts to sever the bonds with his stifling family. In Earthly Possessions (1977), Charlotte is kidnapped by an armed robber but ends up helping the young criminal with his personal relationships. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982) Pearl Tull holds herself and her children together through valuable relationships with outsiders when her husband abandons them. The Accidental Tourist (1985) brings together many of Tyler's themes. The main character, Macon Leary, must choose between the safety of loneliness and the uncertain comforts of human love. The novel was adapted as a widely celebrated film in 1988. Tyler again takes up the theme of difference in Breathing Lessons. The novel traces a day in the married life of Ira, a realist, and Maggie, a dreamer, with flashbacks showing key moments in their shared past. Tyler demonstrates the compromises, disappointments, and love that comprise a marriage, and reveals how diversity can nourish a relationship.

In Saint Maybe (1991) and A Patchwork Planet (1998) Tyler revisits the themes of escape and the resilience of the human spirit. Ian Bedloe, the protagonist of Saint Maybe, feels trapped by the responsibilities caring for three orphaned children. When he finds romance it renews his interest in religion and he achieves peace within his life. In A Patchwork Planet Barnaby Gaitlin rejects his family's wealth and social connections to work for an agency that performs services for senior citizens. As Barnaby struggles to get his life together, he is accused of stealing money from one of his clients. The ensuing controversy provides him with an opportunity to assess his own life and his relationships with those around him. Back When We Were Grownups (2001) focuses on the character of Rebecca Davitch, the matriarch of a close-knit family, who feels dissatisfied with her life. Out of loneliness, she makes contact with her college boyfriend, only to discover that she must accept her past choices and her life as it is. Tyler's most recent novel, The Amateur Marriage (2004), chronicles the thirty-year marriage of Michael and Pauline Barclay. Inherently incompatible, they struggle through years of growing estrangement until their divorce. The novel focuses on the ability of individuals to adapt to changing circumstances and the human capacity for love and forgiveness.

Critical Reception

Critics view Tyler as one of America's most talented novelists. They praise her wit, her deft use of detail, and her understated, seamless prose. 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 commentators point out the connection between tragedy and comedy in Tyler's fiction, and they commend her talent at depicting both. However, some critics deride the lack of a moral dimension as well as historical and social context in Tyler's novels. Many reviewers have underscored the role of family in her work and have examined her depiction of dysfunctional parent-child and husband-wife relationships. Feminist critics have investigated Tyler's portrayal of changing gender roles in the American family in her fiction; some have censured her for ignoring the progress women have made since the feminist movement began and for falling back on traditional gender expectations. The connection between place and identity in her novels is another recurring topic of critical discussion. She is often placed within the context of the Southern literary tradition and her work is frequently associated with the key figures of that movement.

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

A Patchwork Planet (novel) 1998

Back When We Were Grownups (novel) 2001

The Amateur Marriage (novel) 2004

Sanjukta Dasgupta (essay date winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dasgupta, Sanjukta. “Towards Harmony: Social Concern in Anne Tyler's Fiction.” Indian Journal of American Studies 27, no. 1 (winter 1997): 71-5.

[In the following essay, Dasgupta asserts that Tyler's fiction “may be regarded as a felicitous fusion of social and individual consciousness with emphasis on the latter, a common characteristic of postmodern literary art.”]


Anne Tyler's first novel If Morning ever Comes was published in 1964 when she was twenty-three years old. Writing consistently since then Tyler has published thirteen novels in the course of over thirty years apart from four dozen short stories, numerous...

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Elizabeth Mahn Nollen (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Nollen, Elizabeth Mahn. “Fatherhood Lost and Regained in the Novels of Anne Tyler.” In Family Matters in the British and American Novel, edited by Andrea O'Reilly Herrera, Elizabeth Mahn Nollen, and Sheila Reitzel Foor, pp. 217-35. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Nollen examines three father figures in Tyler's fiction: Jeremy Pauling in Celestial Navigation, Ian Bedloe in Saint Maybe, and Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist.]

Understandably, the most common critical approach to the works of Anne Tyler is to study her depiction of the American family. Doris Betts claims that...

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James Grove (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Grove, James. “Anne Tyler: Wrestling with the ‘Lowlier Angel.’” In Southern Writers at Century's End, edited by Jeffrey J. Folks and James A. Perkins, pp. 134-50. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

[In the following essay, Grove discusses Tyler as a Southern writer and elucidates the role of place in Morgan's Passing.]

Place is one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction, perhaps the one that gazes benignly enough from off to one side, while others, like character, plot, symbolic meaning, and so on, are doing a good deal of wing-beating about her chair, and feeling, who in my eyes carries the crown,...

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Linda Simon (review date August 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Simon, Linda. Review of A Patchwork Planet, by Anne Tyler. World and I 13, no. 8 (August 1998): 274-77.

[In the following review, Simon praises Tyler's characterization of Barnaby, the protagonist of The Patchwork Planet.]

In her fourteenth novel [A Patchwork Planet], Anne Tyler illuminates heroism in the small gestures of ordinary life.

In an interview early in her career, Anne Tyler admitted that one of her motivations for writing fiction was a desire to inhabit other characters, to live other lives. Asked what kind of work she would do if she were not a writer, Tyler revealed an attraction “toward manual labor, mainly. I'd...

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Joyce R. Durham (essay date fall 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Durham, Joyce R. “Anne Tyler's Vision of Gender in Saint Maybe.Southern Literary Journal 31, no. 1 (fall 1998): 143-52.

[In the following essay, Durham explores the shifting gender roles in Saint Maybe.]

In a 1982 lecture at Waterloo University on “Writing the Male Character,” Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood suggested to male and female writers alike: “Maybe it's time to do away with judgement by role-model and bring back The Human Condition, this time acknowledging that there may in fact be more than one of them” (422). Over a decade has passed since this indictment of gender-related role models, and certainly the study of sexual...

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Cheryl Devon Coleman (essay date summer 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Coleman, Cheryl Devon. “Metaphorical Redemption in Anne Tyler's The Clock Winder and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.Christianity and Literature 49, no. 4 (summer 2000): 511-32.

[In the following essay, Coleman considers the role of redemption in The Clock Winder and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.]

Anne Tyler's literary career spans more than thirty years and includes fourteen published novels, approximately fifty short stories, and numerous book reviews for the National Observer, New York Times, Washington Post, and New Republic. The recipient of a citation from the American Academy and Institute of...

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Nora Foster Stovel (review date January 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stovel, Nora Foster. Review of A Patchwork Planet, by Anne Tyler. International Fiction Review (January 2001): 120.

[In the following review, Stovel deems The Patchwork Planet “an amusing and enlightening odyssey.”]

Tyler, author of over a dozen novels and dozens of stories, may be the best novelist writing in the United States in recent decades. Her latest novel, A Patchwork Planet (originally published by Viking), is true to the tradition of her best-known works: The Accidental Tourist (1985; filmed 1988), Breathing Lessons (1988; televised 1994), and Saint Maybe (1991; televised 1998). Admired for her ironic...

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Heidi Slettedahl Macpherson (essay date spring 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Macpherson, Heidi Slettedahl. “Comic Constructions: Fictions of Mothering in Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years.Southern Quarterly 39, no. 3 (spring 2001): 130-40.

[In the following essay, Macpherson explores Tyler's use of fantasy and metafiction in Ladder of Years and discusses the role of the mother in the novel.]

Anne Tyler is a popular novelist, and even today, such a designation is more likely to warrant animosity than admiration in academic circles. Of the critical reviews or articles centered on Tyler, many are, indeed, critical—of her subject matter (the family), of her style (realism), of her narrative voice (wry,...

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Anita Brookner (review date 2 June 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. Review of Back When We Were Grownups, by Anne Tyler. Spectator 286, no. 9017 (2 June 2001): 40.

[In the following mixed review, Brookner argues that although Back When We Were Grownups “is as accomplished as ever there are signs that the formula may be showing its age.”]

Anne Tyler's protagonists [in Back When We Were Grownups] are dutiful, wistful people who, after a lifetime of looking after others, plan a timid and almost overlooked rebellion, such as walking away from a family picnic, or contacting a long-lost friend. Rebecca Davitch has every excuse for leaving her nearest and dearest, since they all have names...

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Ellen Cronan Rose (review date July 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rose, Ellen Cronan. “A Fork in the Road.” Women's Review of Books 28, nos. 10-11 (July 2001): 30.

[In the following review, Rose offers a favorable assessment of Back When We Were Grownups.]

“Wasn't it strange how certain moments, now and then—certain turning points in a life—contained the curled and waiting seeds of everything, that would follow?” Rebecca Davitch asks herself forty pages into Anne Tyler's new novel [Back When We Were Grownups]. The moment she has in mind happened when she was nineteen years old, attending an engagement party for her college roommate in a Baltimore row house whose first floor—named The Open Arms—was...

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Rita D. Jacobs (review date spring 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jacobs, Rita D. Review of Back When We Were Grownups, by Anne Tyler. World Literature Today 76, no. 2 (spring 2002): 154.

[In the following review, Jacobs claims that although Back When We Were Grownups is a good read, it is not one of Tyler's best novels.]

Anne Tyler's characters can be so familiar and so fully imagined and presented that reading a Tyler novel is a bit like visiting with the family down the road, albeit a family with many quirks. in Back When We Were Grownups Rebecca Davitch, a fifty-three-year-old grandmother who runs a catering business, The Open Arms, in her home, is trying to make sense of her past and define her...

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Barbara Harrell Carson (essay date fall-winter 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Carson, Barbara Harrell. “‘Endlessly Branching and Dividing’: Anne Tyler's Dynamic Causality.” Soundings 85, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 2002): 301-21.

[In the following essay, Carson considers the topic of free will in Tyler's novels.]

Anne Tyler's fifteen novels distinguish themselves from the usual run of novels of manners and social comedy with which they are sometimes associated, by asking life's really big questions:1 What is the nature of time? What characterizes a good life? Where do we turn for meaning when our foundations collapse? Is reality external or internal? How do we locate—and live—our authentic identity? Perhaps the biggest...

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Paul Christian Jones (essay date spring 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jones, Paul Christian. “A Re-Awakening: Anne Tyler's Postfeminist Edna Pontellier in Ladder of Years.Critique 44, no. 3 (spring 2003): 271-83.

[In the following essay, Jones perceives Ladder of Years as a “postfeminist revision” of Kate Chopin's The Awakening.]

Following the 1995 publication of Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years, familiar comments about the author's much-debated stance on feminist issues once again appeared in book reviews. For example, in the Yale Review, Lorrie Moore described the Baltimore of Tyler's novel as “a land and time unto itself, untouched by such things as feminism […] or politics of any kind”...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 22 December 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 51 (22 December 2003): 37.

[In the following review of The Amateur Marriage, the critic maintains that “the range and power of this novel should not only please Tyler's immense readership but also awaken us to the collective excellence of her career.”]

Because Tyler writes with scrupulous accuracy about muddled, unglamorous suburbanites, it is easy to underestimate her as a sort of Pyrex realist. Yes, Tyler intuitively understands the middle class's Norman Rockwell ideal, but she doesn't share it; rather, she has a masterful ability to make it bleed. Her latest novel...

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Anita Brookner (review date 3 January 2004)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “A Disturbing Absence of Disturbance.” Spectator 294, no. 9152 (3 January 2004): 29-30.

[In the following mixed review of The Amateur Marriage, Brookner compares the novels of Tyler and Carol Shields.]

Anne Tyler has written 15 excellent novels—this is her 16th [The Amateur Marriage]—which proceed according to a formula she has made her own: romantic comedy of a prelapsarian kind, set in the suburbs of Baltimore in the blameless days of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, before greater disappointments set in to trouble the American consciousness.

This was the age of the best Hollywood films, in which a scatty,...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bail, Paul. Anne Tyler: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1998, 212 p.

Offers analysis of Tyler's novels.

Carroll, Virginia Schaefer. “Wrestling with Change: Discourse Strategies in Anne Tyler.” Frontiers 19, no. 1 (1998): 86-109.

Argues that Breathing Lessons and Ladder of Years are not fully appreciated for their poignant and insightful examinations of middle-aged women dealing with the emotional and physical changes of menopause.

Croft, Robert W. An Anne Tyler Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1998, 302 p.

Full-length critical study.

Gómez-Vega, Ibis. “Intersecting Oppressions and the Emotional Paralysis of the Working Poor in Anne Tyler's ‘Average Waves in Unprotected Waters.’” Southern Quarterly 41, no. 3 (spring 2003): 109-20.

Provides a feminist and socioeconomic perspective on Tyler's short story “Average Waves in Unprotected Waters.”

Kissel, Susan S. “Anne Tyler's ‘Homeless at Home.’” In Moving On: The Heroines of Shirley Ann Grau, Anne Tyler, and Gail Godwin, pp. 69-98. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1996.

Maintains that Tyler's fiction “attests to the continuing paralysis resulting from the weakness, absence, or actual death of the white southern father” and contrasts her view of the Southern patriarchy with that of Shirley Ann Grau.

Kline, Karen. “The Accidental Tourist on Page and on Screen: Interrogating Narrative Theories About Film Adaptation.” Literature/Film Quarterly 24, no. 1 (1996): 70-83.

Applies four prominent paradigms of film adaptation to the cinematic version of The Accidental Tourist.

Koppel, Gene. “Mansfield Park and Morgan's Passing: Jane Austen's and Anne Tyler's Problem Novels.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal On-Line 20, no. 1 (summer 1999).

Compares and contrasts Morgan's Passing and Jane Austen's Mansfield Park.

Pelorson, Jaqueline. “Withdrawals and Returns in a Page of Anne Tyler (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, pp. 270-72): Embers Glowing under the Ashes.” Mississippi Quarterly 52, no. 4 (fall 1999): 593-614.

Analyzes an important passage near the end of the novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

Schneiderman, Leo. “Anne Tyler: The American Family Fights for Its Half-Life.” American Journal of Psychoanalysis 56, no. 1 (1996): 65-81.

Investigates parent-child interaction and the depiction of the American family in several of Tyler's novels.

Stout, Janis P. “Escaping the House: Anne Tyler's Fictions of (Leaving) Home.” In Through the Window, Out the Door: Women's Narratives of Departure, from Austin and Cather to Tyler, Morrison, and Didion, pp. 105-46. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.

Explores the theme of leaving home in Tyler's novels.

Sweeney, Susan Elizabeth. “Anne Tyler.” In The History of Southern Women's Literature, edited by Carolyn Perry and Mary Louise Weaks, pp. 559-62. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.

Brief overview of Tyler's novels.

Town, Caren J. “Location and Identity in Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years.Southern Quarterly 40, no. 1 (fall 2001): 7-18.

Considers the complex relationship between place and identity in Ladder of Years.

Whittemore, Katherine. “Ordinary People.” Atlantic Monthly 287, no. 5 (May 2001): 112-17.

Notes the cross-referencing between Back When We Were Grownups and earlier Tyler books, viewing the recent novel as a recycled work.

Additional coverage of Tyler's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 18, 60; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 12; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 11, 33, 53, 109, 132; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 7, 11, 18, 28, 44, 59, 103; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 6, 143; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1982; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1:2; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vols. 2, 7, 10; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 17; Something About the Author, Vols. 7, 90; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; and Twayne's United States Authors.