Sanjukta Dasgupta (essay date winter 1997)

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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 articles and excellent book reviews. Her literary career up to now spans three important decades of American socio-cultural history. But even after the publication of her seventh novel Anne Tyler was merely regarded as just another writer representing “the gradual decentralizing of American culture that characterizes the post-Vietnam period” (Braudy 1979:128). Such a lukewarm response can be attributed to the fact that the unpretentious format of her domestic-psychological novels lacked the dynamism of her contemporary writers Mary McCarthy, Eudora Welty, Randall Jarrell and John Updike among others.

However since 1985 the reclusive, sober and sedate Anne Tyler has become the focus of critical interest. She has been the recipient of America's two prestigious literary awards. She won the national Book Critics Circle Award for The Accidental Tourist in 1985. This is also Anne Tyler's first novel which has been made into a movie. She received the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons in 1988. She has been compared with Jane Austen, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Saul Bellow. Critics have detected discernible traits and influences of all these writers in her fiction.

Anne Tyler's work is important for through her fictive world she emphasizes the need for a sense of harmony absent in the fragmented lives of her intrinsically good, average characters belonging primarily to the middle middle-class. This need is what her protagonists feel and this urge for accommodation and harmony can be identified as a positive step towards a more integrated self and society. Her domestic-psychological novels are primarily patterned exposures of some of the common complexities that oppress post-modern American society. The conflicts Tyler identifies are graphically represented on a personal level but have wider, impersonal implications. Her focus of attention is the average middle-class American family and its members, but simultaneously the focus is on the American social culture that such families typify.

Close reading of a text ignoring the context is restrictive and often misleading. “Literature is a social institution, using as its medium language, a social creation. … Literature is really not a reflection of the social process, but the essence, the abridgment and summary of all history” (Wellek and Warren 1986:94-95). Literature through the ages has recorded, assimilated and sublimated tradition, culture, innovations and idiosyncrasies. The French historian Hippolyte Taine identifies three co-ordinates race, milieu and moment, which determine the sociological implications of a text. Regional geography, history, religion, politics, the socio-economic power structure have all been an integral part of literary texts from pot-boilers and best-sellers to classics.

Regarding literature as “asocial,” “amoral” or “transcendent” is attributive to a misdirected reader-response for literature assimilates social culture and tradition which become implicit and interiorized in a text. Historicity is an inevitable aspect of literature. The historicity of texts and the textuality of history is a reciprocal concern according to the New Historicism theorist Louis Montrose. Literature does not represent a “trans-historical” aesthetic realm which is independent of economic, social or political awareness.

From such a point of view Anne Tyler's fiction may be...

(This entire section contains 2963 words.)

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regarded as a felicitous fusion of social and individual consciousness with emphasis on the latter, a common characteristic of postmodern literary art. Twentieth century literature reflects the “imperative inwardness of modern society” (Simpson 1980:269). There prevails a marked tendency to internalize history. The philosopher Benedetto Croce's 8 observations sum up the modern consciousness with insight, “we no longer believe … like the Greeks, in happiness of life on earth, we no longer believe, like the Christians, in happiness in an other-worldly life. We no longer believe like the optimistic philosophers of the last century, in a happy future for the human race … we no longer believe in anything of that, and what we have alone retained is the consciousness of ourselves, and the need to make that consciousness ever clearer and more evident, a need for whose satisfaction we turn to science and art” (Hughes 1961:428-429).


Most of Tyler's characters are white Americans of Baltimore, but this does not make her novels tedious or repetitive. On the contrary due to this reason the middle middle-class American society that she represents appears more convincing. The fixed locale in Tyler's novels recalls the celebrated exchange between Darcy and Elizabeth in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Darcy's supercilious remark, “In a country neighbourhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society” is countered by Elizabeth's perceptive reply, “But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed forever.”

Anne Tyler is never over-ambitious with her objectives and her remarkable restraint and ability to restrict herself within her well comprehended limited orbit is perhaps one of the distinctive features of her texts. While not ignorant of Freud, Lacan or sexual-textual politics, the virtue of Tyler's art lies in its sincerity. While modern writers represent self divorce from society, Tyler concentrates on portraying self in society.

Unlike Jane Austen who excels in pre-marriage and courtship complications, Tyler's domestic-psychological novels are generally narratives of marriage years after the first flush of ecstasy. The mid-life progress novel that Tyler writes represents the daily experiences, expectations and frustrations of the American family often on the verge of disintegration. Her earlier novels explore and expose disintegration or fragmentation but her last four novels Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), The Accidental Tourist (1985) Breathing Lessons (1988) and Saint Maybe (1991) reveal an inclination towards a more decisive and positive conclusion.

The novelist John Updike notices a lack of development in her novels as her characters do not show any recognizable evidence of growth or change—“a tendency to leave the reader just where she found him” (Stephens 1990:12). Tyler's penchant for authenticity restrains her from idealizing the insular, average, bourgeois American man and woman, leading a placid life where involvement, shock, disappointment or happiness emanate from domestic crisis or domestic harmony. Unlike the existential protagonists of Sartre or Camus, Tyler depicts her middle class characters exactly as they are instead of as they should be. John Updike's criticism does not seem quite valid, for inclusion of growth or change patterns in her average American characters would have been a glaring superimposition, taxing credibility.

The plots of her novels are such that subtle variations, realizations, resolutions and readjustments register greater positive impact than a noticeable change or a radical transition from the starting point. Maggie Moran, the prototype American middle aged mother in her late forties with adult children queries, “what are we two going to live for, all the rest of our lives?” (Tyler 1988:326). She finds the answer as the novel concludes as she realizes that tomorrow is a new day and her conjugal life would continue in the same spirit of shared love and understanding. Similarly in Saint Maybe Ian, the non-conformist detached participant, realizes, “Tomorrow he would view this in a whole new light” (Tyler 1991:243). Tomorrow to Tyler as to Margaret Mitchell promises a new beginning, holding fresh hopes for the disenchanted, or disillusioned, person.

A discerning reader will discover two levels of issues competently blended in Tyler's novels. The personal-familial issues form the primary level of her texts. The non-domestic or social issues occupy the secondary level. On the primary level personal-familial issues range from adolescent rivalry, jealousy, boredom, lack of idealism to matrimony, divorce, negativism, moral and spiritual vacuum, lack of religion, secular attitude, identity crisis, lack of personal and familial integrity.

The non-domestic social issues comprise teenage marriages, divorce, single parenthood, abortion, mugging and gangsterism, rock and pop culture, racial discrimination and war. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant there are two references to the Vietnam war: “So she went to Illinois in July, traveling with a train load of fresh faced boy soldiers on their way to Vietnam” (Tyler 1982:181). In the second sequence Tyler writes, “on the evening news, a helicopter crewman who'd been killed in Laos was buried with full military honors. An American flag, folded into a cushiony triangle, was handed to the parent …” (ibidem:201). The mother speaking on the microphone declares that they are “strong and fine.” One of the children listening to the news reacts promptly … “it's just a bunch of hogwash …” she ought to say, “Take your old flat: I object: I give up” (ibidem). But Tyler does not linger on this socio-political issue. Attention is immediately transferred to some old snapshots as a “distraction” (ibidem:202).

Anne Tyler seems uniformly reticent about social issues that she represented. She does not qualify, criticize or make value judgments. In Breathing Lessons the racial issue, which is very much a part of life in Baltimore, Maryland is presented in an indirect and subtle manner. Though the digressive incident of Mr. Otis and the loose wheel is apparently quite funny and inconsequential, but a few remarks reveal the undesirable background of racial discrimination which is a reality—“not only was he old. … He was black” (Tyler 1988:136), “He thinks we're racist or something and lied about his wheel to be cruel” (ibidem:137), “Next time you might not be so lucky. Some crazy white man going to shoot your head off next time.” The other non-domestic issues that Breathing Lessons explores are the impulsive marriage of teenagers, equally impulsive divorces, the misery of single parenthood affecting both child and parent and abortion. Tyler describes in some detail the anti-abortion picketing in front of a nursing home. Fiona the estranged daughter-in-law of Maggie Moran is seventeen when she becomes a mother. She is compelled to bring up her daughter without a proper home, job or life partner, while she is not more than a girl herself.

Also, in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant there are occasional references to the dismal law and order situation, the dangers of carefree rambling: “Every alley in this city is full of muggers. … Every doorway and vacant building … every street of Baltimore” (Tyler 1982:243). The statements in the context of the novel seem exaggerated when uttered by a paranoid woman. But in Tyler's very next novel, The Accidental Tourist, the apprehension becomes a reality. The twelve year old Ethan, son of Macon Leary, is killed in a fast food restaurant by a trigger-happy gangster without provocation. Gangsterism is another serious social problem that Tyler highlights.

But social issues occupy the periphery of Anne Tyler's domestic-psychological novels. Tyler's primary concern is with the middle class American family focusing on two or three generations—grandparents, parents and children. Tyler's sensitive portrayal of children from infants to adolescents and young adults is executed with uncanny veracity. Similarly middle-aged parents, married and unmarried young adults and aging grandparents are presented with enthusiasm and artistry. Tyler seems to conform to T. S. Eliot's view that the primary channel of transmission of culture is the family.

In one of her latest novels Saint Maybe (1991) Tyler projects an extremely daring and controversial issue—the need for religion in postmodern America. Restructuring the cliched Abel-Cain biblical anecdote, Tyler's protagonist, Ian holds himself responsible for the accident—suicide(?) of his elder brother Danny. Guilt-stricken and mortified, Ian seeks solace in religion. He atones for his error by being a surrogate father to Danny's three children, thereby sacrificing opportunity for higher studies. He works as a carpenter in a furniture shop and Tyler emphasizes that Jesus himself was a carpenter. Ian exercises admirable self-restraint abstaining from pre-marital sex, and is derisively described as “King Careful. Mr. Look-Both-Ways—Saint May Be” (Tyler 1991:264).

Yet when invited to be formally ordained into priesthood Ian declines. Not unlike Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath Ian feels that he cannot be a spokesperson for organized religion. But Ian feels the need for prayers and visiting the church. Ian's need is cogently summed up in Philip Larkin's poem, Church Going:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground. …

(Twaithe 1988:97)

Whenever he is perturbed uncertain or confused Ian turns to the church, “To steady himself he bowed his head and prayed. He prayed as he almost always did not, forming actual words but picturing instead this spinning green planet safe in the hands of God, with the children and his parents and Ian himself, small trusting dots among all the other dots” (Tyler 1991:266). Ian's reliance and sense of security derived from his faith in God, may be Tyler's message to the perplexed and uncertain Americans to return to the reassurance of the Church for moral and spiritual support and harmony. Saint Maybe is Tyler's bildungsroman.

Also, in Breathing Lessons Maggie Moran appears in some respects as an unflinching seeker of harmony without realizing it. Her feminine intuition, care and concern set her apart as a dynamic middle class American mother who, though leading an insular life, plays a significant role as friend, wife and mother. Maggie Moran is neither Doris Lessing's Martha Quest nor Sylvia Plath's Esther Greenwood, but a mellower and more integrated woman. She is not a self-obsessed feminist, hostile towards a complacent phalocentric society. In her we witness no protests, no desire for independence, no eagerness for striking out a new path. Neither politics nor religion inspire her in any way, yet her preference for a simple and happy domestic and social life reveals her as a more committed social activist than many members of women's organizations.

Some of the binary oppositions which recur in Tyler's fictive world are masculine/feminine, complex/simple, external/internal, social/personal, universal/domestic, reflective/perceptive, aggressive/passive, self centered/compassionate, white Americans/blacks and foreigners. Tyler's dialectical approach is directed towards integrating antithesis through negotiation and interaction in order to arrive at a synthesis which is satisfactory for many, not one. This conscious resolution of the polyphonic voices in her domestic psychological novels is indicative of a positive attitude when contemporary writing is mostly evasive, ambiguous, ambivalent and open-ended. Tyler's characters, Babbitt like, measure out their lives with coffee spoons, participating endlessly in such activities as super market visits, watching TV or cooking, washing, cleaning and visiting. Yet as they readjust to the demands of their families, their environment and their own consciousness they become vibrant individuals and also representative members of middle class American society.

Anne Tyler writes with astonishing precision, in a quiet, unobtrusive, dignified style with an undercurrent of humor, seeing the universal in the particular, preserving the local flavor without ignoring wider implications. Such a style as Tyler's is destined to stand the test of time despite present literary taste demanding a much more accelerated grimace. Anne Tyler's emphasis on adjustment, reconciliation and androgyny is not a tame succumbing to the patriarchal system, it is not a negative process of resignation and mindless acceptance but a positive motivation towards harmony and integration. Unlike her previous novels as A Slipping Down Life (1970) or The Tin Can Tree (1965), in her later novels Tyler shows that it is possible to step out of the self-imposed prison of one's self and reach out to others in a spirit of tolerance and understanding. Such an attitude has a therapeutic worth which the cynical postmodernist intellectual milieu finds difficult to accept. Despite her overtly passive manner of approach and style, Anne Tyler is actually a committed crusader for harmony and adjustment, the two prerequisites of a happy family life everywhere.

Interestingly, in one of her letters (January 19, 1995) to me, Anne Tyler writes, “I would tend to agree there's more social concern in my later books, just because as I grow older I see more to be concerned about—but it has not been a conscious literary development.” Such a candid and matter-of-fact self-appraisal is rare. Anne Tyler's ability to state the truth simply yet convincingly is one of the singular virtues of her texts.

Jean Paul Sartre's observation, “No writer is an instantaneous consciousness, a pure timeless affirmation of freedom, nor does he soar above history, he is involved in it,” (Trivedi 1984:140) bears out the fact that while maintaining artistic distance social concern is an inevitable part of the consciousness of a mature artist. Social concern is distinctly implied in Anne Tyler's later fiction and this is all the more remarkable for she simultaneously maintains her characteristic artistic detachment. Alice Hall Petry's (1990:17) summing up, “Humanists like Anne Tyler are after all, very rare indeed,” is undoubtedly a precise and perceptive assessment of Anne Tyler.

Works Cited

Braudy, Leo. 1979. “Realists, Naturalists, and Novelists of Manners.” In Hoffmann: 84-152.

Hoffman, Daniel. (Ed.) 1979. Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hughes, Stuart H. 1961. Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought. New York: Vintage Books.

Petry, Alice Hall. 1990. Understanding Anne Tyler. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press.

Simpson, Louis P. 1980. The Brazen Face of History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Stephens, Ralph. 1990. Editor. The Fiction of Anne Tyler. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.

Trivedi, Harish. 1984. Editor. The American Political Novel. New Delhi: Allied Publishers.

Twaithe, Anthony. 1988. Editor Philip Larkin: Collected Poems. London: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Tyler, Anne. 1982. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

———. 1985. The Accidental Tourist. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

———. 1988. Breathing Lessons. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

———. 1991. Saint Maybe. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Wellek, Rene and Austin Warren. 1986. Theory of Literature. Harmondsworth: Penguin.


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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.

Elizabeth Mahn Nollen (essay date 1997)

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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 “Family and its clutter remain her metaphor for life” (31). John Updike notes her “fascination with families” (qtd. in Salwak 115) while Ann Romines details Tyler's use of “the home plot” (qtd. in Salwak 163). Jay Parini praises her ability to “celebrate family life without erasing the pain and boredom that families almost necessarily inflict” (qtd. in Salwak 170). And finally, Jessica Sitton describes the “signature element” of Anne Tyler's work, which she says is evident in The Accidental Tourist, as “lovingly drawn, eccentric characters who come into conflict with themselves and each other as they either slip or jostle their way through life, simultaneously nurtured and stifled by their families and their past” (qtd. in “Anne Tyler” 320).

Paralleling recent sociological and psychological research, there is much emphasis in studies of Tyler on her portrayal of the many and varied forms of dysfunction—or “ultra-functionality”—represented in her thirteen novels (Humphrey qtd. in Salwak 148). While much attention is paid to her disquieting pictures of broken marriages, failed relationships, and child abuse, some critics complain that her novels do not represent the reality of the contemporary family, lack realistic portrayals of sex and violence, and provide parallels with low art, like soap operas, that appeals to the escapist, wish-fulfillment fantasies of its audience. These critics speak of Tyler's candy-coated, saccharine, even “Nutra-Sweet” quality (John Blades qtd. in “Anne Tyler” 321). Or, in a more positive light, her fiction is classified as belonging to the comedy of manners (Salwak 179, 189). In either case, the redemption/regeneration of certain characters has not been taken as seriously as it might be. One example of this, which becomes very important given the emphasis on family in the Tyler canon, is the insufficient attention paid to the striking representations of effective parenting, especially fathering, in her works. While critics have praised her male characters, they have largely over-looked their sometimes impressive fathering skills. Nevertheless, a notable oversight in Tyler criticism to date, one that is apparent in literary criticism generally, is a study of fathers who provide essentially positive, if complicated, examples of parenthood.1

Three fathers come immediately to mind: Jeremy Pauling in Celestial Navigation (1974), Ian Bedloe in Saint Maybe (1991), and Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist (1985). The stories of these three fathers, albeit not chronologically, lie along a continuum of parental effectiveness in the Tyler canon. Linda Wagner-Martin rightly pronounces that “fathering has come into its own in a very positive sense in Tyler's work” with the publication of Saint Maybe (qtd. in Salwak 171). I contend, however, that it is earlier, with the publication of The Accidental Tourist, that fathering really comes into its own, and in a more positive sense than in Saint Maybe.

Before moving to a more extended discussion of the three novels in question, a brief overview of this continuum of parental effectiveness and how Tyler's three father figures fit into it will be presented. Initially, Celestial Navigation's artist figure, Jeremy Pauling, is humanized by his experience with step-fatherhood and then fatherhood as he becomes increasingly involved with Mary Tell almost despite himself. When there at last seems to be a chance for Jeremy to become a real full-time father to Darcy and his children by Mary, he finds he lacks the strength to rescue them from the squalid existence they share with their mother in the fishing shack. In the end, as Jeremy tearfully returns to his lonely life at the boarding house, art wins out over life. In Saint Maybe, Ian Bedloe reluctantly assumes the “burden” of caring for Danny's children as penance for his brother's suicide and then is given a “second chance” at effective parenting with his own child, which promises to be a more joyful, if still worrisome, undertaking. Whereas art won out over fatherhood in Jeremy's life, fatherhood wins out over religion as Ian Bedloe turns down the leadership of the Church of the Second Chance, offered to him by “Father” Emmett, to himself become a father. The Accidental Tourist's Macon Leary is also given a “second chance” at parenting after the tragic accidental death of his son Ethan as he accepts the role of stepparent to Muriel's sickly son, Alexander. Knowing that Muriel cannot give him his own child, Macon shows that his commitment to fatherhood is totally unselfish and complete.

Thus, in Tyler's continuum of effective fathering, we move from Jeremy, who is neither allowed to nor capable of developing his budding paternal instincts, to Ian who has the potential to become an effective father to his own biological child after forcing himself out of misplaced religious zeal to parent his brother's children as a penance. Finally, in Macon Leary, the author presents what is, in the Tyler canon, the apogee of good fathering. This is a man who only learns to be a positive parental role model after the loss of his only son and the subsequent step-parenting of his lover's son.

Of the three Tyler novels containing good or potentially good central father figures, it is only The Accidental Tourist that has an unqualified happy ending. Although this ending has been criticized for its “sugar coated sweetness”—Tyler herself considering an alternate ending—it is the only closure the author could choose to get her message across: that fatherhood matters—that it can be a redemptive and healing force. After an examination of Tyler's depiction of fatherhood in Celestial Navigation and Saint Maybe, I will turn to a full examination of parenting in The Accidental Tourist with emphasis on Macon Leary's impressive development of fathering skills.

Fatherhood is thrust upon the needy sculptor, Jeremy Pauling, in Celestial Navigation when he is forced to take in boarders after his beloved mother's death. Tyler presents Jeremy as the sickly favored child who lives at home with his mother. In an ironic recasting of Tennessee Williams' tragic drama The Glass Menagerie, Jeremy becomes a male version of Laura Wingfield, a “pasty and puffy-faced” (13) agoraphobe whose existence is just as colorless as his body (11).2 The significantly named Mary and her young daughter Darcy intrude on Jeremy's “silent golden period” when “childless, wifeless, friendless” (153) he could devote all his time to his sculpture (153). Very much like the post-Sarah/pre-Muriel Macon Leary, Jeremy is described as a man marooned on an island (97) in need of mothering. Mary is indeed an earth mother who is never happier than when she is in her nearly perpetual state of pregnancy (61).3 From the very beginning, she, like Muriel, seems to be a total mismatch for Jeremy. Whereas Mary is able to meet real life head-on, unlike the neurotic sculptor, she is out of her element in his world. Her limited artistic vision is represented by her domestic doodles of “steam irons and tricycles and Mixmasters” (128) while Jeremy's sculpture is worthy of one-man shows. However, much as Macon slips “accidentally” under Muriel and Alexander's spell, so too is Jeremy entranced by Mary and Darcy, and before either he or the reader can imagine it, he has fathered five children with Mary. Curiously, Jeremy, like the Biblical Joseph of the nativity story, seems to have little real importance in his family's life. The births of Jeremy's five biological children are described as virgin births; his children, like Jesus to Joseph,4 seem to have no real links to him:

He could find no physical resemblance to himself. He thought that was natural, for Mary's pregnancies appeared to be entirely her own undertakings. … Where had all of them [the children] learned to march so fearlessly across the teeming streets, to brave their way through the city schools, and shout and cheer and throw oranges without a trace of self-consciousness?


We are reminded here of the striking differences between the huddled figure of Macon Leary and his biological son, Ethan. We are also reminded that later on it will be Macon who is responsible for Alexander's transformation from a sickly, germy (significantly, Jeremy's childhood nickname) boy to a healthy, sunny child reminiscent of Ethan.

Mary herself nevertheless comments that Jeremy loves children, and this seems to be borne out by certain touchingly paternal gestures in the novel. The painfully agoraphobic Jeremy forces himself on one occasion to walk seven blocks to attend Darcy's school play and proceeds to embarrass her by loudly applauding all by himself the moment she delivers her line. Before what turns out to be his extremely painful final leave-taking of his children in the fishing shack, Jeremy shops for special surprises for each of them. Thus it is all the more disappointing for the reader when this sensitive artist figure, who has indeed shown what is for him a “stubborn, hidden strength” in dealing with his new domestic responsibilities, allows himself to be thrust out of his family's lives at the end of Celestial Navigation (195).

Ironically, as Jeremy Pauling returns to his lonely life at the boarding house, his final work of art reflects his situation. Voelker, in an interesting discussion of “Tyler's boardinghouse of fiction” notes the emptiness and lifelessness of Jeremy's final work in the novel, a miniature boarding house (76). Tyler describes it this way:

Only in Jeremy's piece there were no people. Only the feeling of people—of full lives suddenly interrupted, belongings still bearing the imprint of their vanished owners. Dark squares upstairs full of toys, paper scraps, a plastic doll bed lying on its side as if some burst of exuberance had flung it there and then passed on, leaving such a vacancy it could make you cry.


Tyler sees the “imaginary family” Jeremy has suggested through this final work as clearly inferior to the one he has lost (223). As Barbara Bennett states, finally “Jeremy successfully communicates with society only through his art” (73). In the final sentence of the novel, as he and Miss Vinton lock themselves away behind their drawn window shades, the reader mourns the loss of a fragile yet promising father figure. In this portrait of the conflicted artist/parent figure, we see mirrored Tyler's own ambivalent feelings about art versus family. Despite her comments about needing a “stern white cubicle” of her own much like Jeremy's attic room in order to practice her art, her enviable family situation is living proof, unlike the tragic reversal at the end of Celestial Navigation—a promising father shunned and a once enviable example of motherhood now allowing her children to live in squalor—that art and domestic responsibility can successfully coexist (“Because I Want” [“Because I Want More Than One Life”] G7).5

In Saint Maybe, we see another reluctant father figure in the character of Ian Bedloe as he accepts the “burden” of caring for Danny's children to assuage his own terrible guilt feelings for the part he played in his brother's suicide. Like Jeremy, Ian proves to be a better father than either he himself or the reader might have expected. Ian, without the full weight of neurotic baggage that Jeremy carries, is in fact a very effective father, despite his complaints of “wasting” his youth and his self-aggrandizing talk of penance (234). The theme of penitence, however, becomes so heavy handed in Saint Maybe that the reader is not convinced by the end of the novel that Ian will be able to embrace fatherhood enthusiastically when his own wife Rita becomes pregnant. Thomas, Agatha, and Daphne have turned out well, and Ian claims that “You could never call it a penance to have to take care of these three. They were all that gave [my] life color, and energy, and … well, life” (229). Ian has paid a price, however. He resembles the agoraphobic Jeremy Pauling as he is described as an “eccentric, middle-aged … uncle” that the children “loved” and “winced for” at the same time (267).

Nevertheless, there is definite hope for Ian Bedloe at the end of Saint Maybe as he turns down Rev. Emmett's offer to be the next minister of the Church of the Second Chance. Unlike Jeremy Pauling, who ultimately chooses art over fatherhood, Ian promises to place fatherhood above the religion he had convinced himself he was serving by fathering Danny's children. As he turns down the offer to become the next “Father” of the Church of the Second Chance, he accepts the challenge of becoming a real father himself. He sets about the task of creating a home after he discovers that the “family” of the Church of the Second Chance is a poor substitute for a family of his own. As Ian Bedloe carves a cradle for his first biological child, much as the carpenter Joseph might have done for Jesus, he thinks to himself, “All his years here, he had worked with straight lines. … Now he was surprised at how these shallow U shapes satisfied his palm” (347-48). He, like Jeremy, has become more flexible as a result of his parenting experience.

However, as he ponders his own imminent fatherhood, “the notion brought forth … worry and excitement and also, underneath, a pervasive sense of tiredness” (346). He tells Rita that as he served as step-father for Danny's children, he alternately felt boredom and terror: “Some days I felt like a fireman or a lifeguard or something—all that tedium, broken up by little spurts of high drama” (344). These are certainly plausible responses for a “fortysomething” father-to-be, but what is missing is the sheer wonder and joy that parenthood brings.

At the end of Saint Maybe, the reader is left with a touching picture of Ian holding his new son, but also with lingering doubts about the parenting abilities of this middle-aged father. Will he come to perceive his son as a burden as he did Danny's children, who devoured his youth? As he picks up the baby from the cradle, the child is described as “a burden so light it seemed almost buoyant; or maybe he was misled by the softness of the flannel” (372). Perhaps here Tyler is simply registering the realities of parenthood as she does for the family as a whole in her works—that it comes with inherent burdens as well as blessings. Even earth mother Mary Tell describes her cherished children as tent poles holding her down at one point in Celestial Navigation (126). Nevertheless, the ending of Saint Maybe, with this final picture of father and son and Ian's flashbacks of Danny and the adulterous Lucy, is not an unqualifiedly happy one. Although Tyler leads the reader to believe that Ian, Rita, and Joshua will have the happy family life that so tragically eluded Danny and Lucy, the ending is purposely left open-ended.

The Accidental Tourist's Macon Leary, more than either Jeremy Pauling or Ian Bedloe, learns to enjoy, and indeed joyfully embraces, fatherhood by the end of the novel. Jeremy of course tearfully forsakes fatherhood at the end of Celestial Navigation (246) and is tragically presented as one half of “an elderly couple … arriving at the end of their dusty and unremarkable lives,” locked away from the world (248). Tyler ends Saint Maybe with the possibility of a happy life for Ian, Rita, and their new son, Joshua. In The Accidental Tourist, however, Tyler presents the most complex and ultimately satisfying picture of the blessings and burdens of parenthood, especially in regard to fatherhood and step-fatherhood. Although Macon Leary has suffered what many people consider to be the ultimate loss, that of a child, he learns to be an even better parent to Muriel's son than he was to his own—and teaches her to be a better mother in the bargain. While Ian Bedloe takes the first tentative steps toward seemingly model fatherhood at the end of Saint Maybe, the reader actually sees the process unfold in the second half of The Accidental Tourist. Therefore, this novel affords a unique opportunity in the Tyler canon to view the reciprocal regenerative process in which Macon is both humanized and transformed into a truly effective and joyful parent at the same time Alexander is humanized and transformed into a healthy, happy little boy.

The Accidental Tourist has been criticized for what some perceive to be its candy-coated, sentimentalized ending. Alice Hall Petry provides a useful summary of these negative reviews:

Lee Lescaze argues that Tyler's “plot is conventional and telegraphs its twists in advance,” while occasionally it “totters toward sentimentality” (22). Adam Mars-Jones bemoans its “patches of cuteness or banality,” while admitting that “they are always surrounded by passages that treat the same material with confident freshness” (1096). The anonymous commentator in The Antioch Review 44 (Spring 1986) called it “a standard soap-opera plot” (249). Even Updike admits that Muriel's regenerative impact on Macon is “predictable” (108).

(Understanding Anne Tyler 232, note 15)

What these critics and reviewers have overlooked is the importance of the regenerative process and Alexander's key role in it. They seem to believe that such a process should be relegated to examples from children's literature such as Darcy Niland's The Shiralee,6 Johanna Spyri's Heidi, Frances Hodgson Burnett's Little Lord Fauntleroy, and particularly the latter's The Secret Garden. They tend to overlook the fact that The Accidental Tourist shares this important theme with George Eliot's Silas Marner, which may stand as the premier example of effective fathering in the novel.7 One must also remember that Tyler herself sees Alexander's character, and by inference Macon's special relationship with him, as crucial to her work. In a 1989 interview with Alice Hall Petry, Tyler said, “I wrote an entire final chapter in which Macon stayed with Sarah and then realized I couldn't do it—not only because it spoiled the dramatic line of the plot but also because it meant abandoning Alexander” (Salwak 160; Petry, Understanding Anne Tyler 231-32, note 14). Much has rightly been made of Muriel's role as “improbable therapist,” but little critical attention has been paid to the crucial relationship between Macon and Muriel's son (Voelker 155). Alexander is much more than a plot convenience, and his presence in the novel becomes as important as Ethan's as Tyler sets up a crucial counterpoint between the remembered father-son encounters of Macon and Ethan and the current step-father/step-son encounters of Macon and Alexander.

In addition to this revealing counterpoint of fathering scenes, Tyler's tenth novel presents a unique opportunity to explore parent-child relationships as they affect both the major characters in the novel, especially Sarah, Muriel, and Macon, and certain minor ones. These parent-child relationships all have a crucial impact on the dynamic relationship of Macon and Alexander. What sets The Accidental Tourist apart in the Tyler canon is the wide variety of parent-child relationships, excluding of course the overt violence of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. There are, for example, many variations of parenting, ranging from the neglect of Macon by his mother, Alicia, to the well-intentioned, but ineffective, parenting of Ethan by Macon, and finally to Macon's regenerative and transformational relationship with Alexander. It is appropriate that an effort be made to recover “the good father” in the novel, and there is no better place to start than Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist.

When we are first introduced to Macon Leary, he is an unhappy middle-aged man left childless by the senseless murder of his only child a year earlier. Ethan's death has not brought him and Sarah closer together but, like his birth, has only served to bring out the differences between them. Sarah is “haphazard, mercurial” whereas Macon is “methodical and steady” (16). She has been suffering deeply, wrestling with the problem of senseless, random evil in the world while Macon has been unable to comfort her in her despair. She is angry and hurt by his apparent inability or lack of desire to confront his grief. Meanwhile he has been trying unsuccessfully to bury his sorrow by erasing all visible reminders of Ethan from the house as quickly as possible and by retreating into a series of increasingly bizarre systems for daily living. When Sarah can no longer cope with her husband's seemingly uncaring attitude, his “muffled” (135) reaction to this ultimate family tragedy, she leaves him. Macon then slips further and further into neurotic, self-destructive behavior in a futile attempt to escape the pain of memory.

This neurotic behavior, characterized by such bizarre inventions as the Macon Leary Body Bag, is simply a parodic extension of the obsessive behavior he exhibited as Ethan's father. Their entire strained twelve-year relationship is neatly and tragically summed up by Tyler in one telling sentence: “And Macon (oh, he knew it, he admitted it) had been so intent on preparing [Ethan] for every eventuality that he hadn't had time to enjoy him. … A chortling, sunny little boy, he'd been, with Macon a stooped shape above him wringing his hands” (16). Of course, no one could have prepared Ethan for the terrible day of his death, yet Macon guiltily tortures himself through much of the book for not doing exactly that. Only through his relationships with Muriel, and then Alexander, will Macon free himself from the haunting memories of Ethan's youth and the ineffective parent he then was. Only through interactions with his new family will Macon learn to embrace the “accidental” in life, both good and bad, and become not only a whole person but a wonderful father.

From the day his son is born, over Sarah's protestations, Macon has attempted to turn him into a child he cannot be, someone like himself. When Ethan is six, Macon is “fierce” in teaching him how to swing a bat fearing his son will be chosen last for the team (16). And during the entire fall of Ethan's third-grade year, even after his son has lost interest, Macon “doggedly” brings home Wacky Pack stickers in a vain attempt to get the one final sticker that has eluded them (16). Even when Ethan is old enough to make fun of his father and his systems, Macon still tries to systematize every aspect of his son's life, even their seating arrangements at the movies.

Macon's excuse for his obsessive, inept version of fathering is that it represents his attempt to avert the few possible evils we have some control over in this “accidental” life. Sarah, of course, whose mode of mothering is a hands-off, come-what-may attitude, is bemused and somewhat confused by Macon's intrusive parenting style. When Ethan is alive, she seems to pass off his worried fathering as relatively harmless and probably somewhat touching. After Ethan's death, however, she cannot fathom his apparently uncaring attitude as he immediately strips the Wacky Pack stickers off his son's walls and embarrasses the neighbors by virtually forcing the dead child's belongings on them.

A fascinating passage provides a clue to Macon's strange behavior after the murder. Once, when Ethan was no more than two or three, Macon had watched helplessly as his son ran out into the street to retrieve a ball and had been nearly killed by a pickup truck. After Ethan's death, nearly a decade later, Macon marvels at how easily he had “released his claim” on the boy at that moment and wonders if that experience had made it somehow easier for him to face his son's death when it actually happened: “In one split second he adjusted to a future that held no Ethan—an immeasurably bleaker place but also, by way of compensation, plainer and simpler, free of the problems a small child trails along with him” (136). It is this sense of paternal detachment that Sarah cannot accept and that leads directly to their divorce.

This sense of self-imposed insularity must be deeply rooted in Macon's own childhood experiences. His own father, like Jeremy Pauling's, is fundamentally absent from Macon's life. When his father is killed in the war, Macon and his sister and two brothers are left in the care of their mother, Alicia, an endlessly enthusiastic, “giddy young war widow” who always seemed “about to fall over the brink of something” (65). Her strained relationship with her four children is effectively represented by the image of her Macon conjures up as he gazes at the portrait of the four young Learys: he imagines Alicia standing “just outside the gilded frame in a pink kimono,” lustfully eyed by the artist who clearly would much rather be painting her than these four glum children (63).

The portrait still hangs in Grandfather Leary's home where Macon's sister, Rose, cares for “the boys,” Porter and Charles, who have retreated there after their own failed marriages and where Macon, after his accident, will also retreat. The old maid, Rose, has become the mother she and her brothers never had. In the unconventional mother-child relationship between Alicia and her daughter and sons, it is the children who are described as dependable and steady (64) and who are constantly being made uncomfortable by their mother's antics, such as the time she enrolled them in a combination school and nudist colony.

The Leary children have much in common with the Pauling children and Alexander Pritchett, as none of them seem to have anything in common with one of their two parents. The Leary children's childhood is marked by an ever-changing series of father figures and new addresses as Alicia regularly changes boyfriends. There is no comforting stability in their young lives. One year the family moves so much that every day after school Macon has to make a conscious effort to remember where he lives before setting off for home. And Rose is often pictured pathetically sucking her thumb and stroking her mother's old fur stole as the little girl awaits her return. Macon remembers his childhood with Alicia as “a glassed-in place with grown-ups rushing past, talking at [not with] him, making changes, while he himself stayed mute” (65). There was neither real communication nor comfort there.

To compensate for the lack of parental supervision in his own childhood, Macon goes to the other extreme with Ethan. Instead of Alicia's flighty and careless approach to parenthood, Macon will prove an obsessive, intrusive parent. Luckily he has such a carefree, normal child in Ethan, partly due to Sarah's normalizing mothering and partly due to “accident,” that Macon apparently finds it impossible to warp him. Eventually, when Alicia finds that her serious children are cramping her style, she ships them off to their “severe, distinguished” Leary grandparents in Baltimore and “flits” off on her way to four husbands (65). From this time on, she is like a “foreigner” to her own children, “some naughty, gleeful fairy [who] … darted in and out of their lives leaving a trail of irresponsible remarks” (65). She and her “guarded and suspicious” children apparently have nothing in common either physically or spiritually (65). Of course, when Macon meets a younger version of Alicia in Muriel, he will discover that he is not completely a Leary after all.

Fortuitously, it is Ethan's dog, Edward, who brings together Macon and the wild-haired dog trainer, Muriel, who will prove to be not only Edward's, but Macon's, “improbable therapist” and savior (Voelker 155). Edward, like his master, has not responded well to Ethan's death. Macon has suppressed his anger and grief over his son's murder by cocooning himself off from all normal human interaction and burying himself in a job whose goal is to eliminate the foreign, the spontaneous, the “accidental” from life. Macon's buried anger at the uncontrollable in life that claimed his son breaks out in Edward's angry, uncontrolled attacks. When Macon ponders whether dogs can have nervous breakdowns, he is effectively bringing into question his own precarious mental stability.

Tellingly, Muriel proves to be the only person capable of controlling Edward, who falls in love with her at first sight, as she does with his master. As she sternly takes the incorrigible corgi in hand, she transforms him from a dog who “hates the whole world” to a happy, well-adjusted animal (117). Of course, as she trains her charge, so does she train his owner. Her unrelenting chatter and brashness turn Macon from the limping, “encased” neurotic, literally and figuratively crippled by his crazy systems, into a healthy, socially adept man, who can finally confront Ethan's death and the frightening, yet thrilling, uncertainty of life (136). Although Muriel's version of tough mothering is critical to Macon's recovery, it is ultimately Alexander who, in filling the void left by Edward's master, will restore Macon to full health.

Fittingly, Macon gets his first glimpse of Alexander, “a small, white, sickly boy with a shaved-looking skull,” in the doctor's office (185). Just before meeting the child, when Muriel tells Macon that her son is seven, the grieving father flashes back to a fond memory of his own son at the same age. Macon pictures Ethan pedaling away from him on his bicycle for the first time, in one of those critical preparatory leave-takings of childhood that prepare parents for the final leave-taking from home and family. The description of Ethan in this fondly remembered scene is in stark contrast to the description of Alexander, further underlining his painfully isolated, abnormal status. As Muriel's son sits alone like a miniature adult, “His eyes were light blue and lashless, bulging slightly, rimmed with pink, magnified behind large, watery spectacles whose clear frames had an unfortunate pinkish cast themselves. He wore a carefully coordinated shirt-and-slacks set such as only a mother would choose” (184-85). Ethan, on the other hand, “rode away from [Macon], strong and proud and straight-backed, his hair picking up the light” (184).8 Muriel had earlier explained to Macon that Alexander's biological father, Norman, had only married her because of her pregnancy and had quickly left because he was unable to cope with the responsibility of a sickly, non-human-looking child. This is yet another example of failed parenting in the novel.

Muriel seems to have done little to guide Alexander on the road to physical and mental health as Macon will. In an initial fatherly gesture, Macon questions whether such a young child should be left on his own. As Muriel assures a doubting Macon that Alexander's “used to it,” we get a first hint of her strange mothering style—at once smotheringly intrusive and neglectful (185). We soon learn that Muriel, in her endless pursuit of gainful employment and/or a new meal ticket for herself and her son, passes Alexander off to an endless array of baby sitters. This worries Macon throughout the book but, strangely, never seems to concern Muriel, who enthusiastically enumerates Alexander's enormous list of medical woes on several occasions. It seems he is even “allergic to air” (185), an unfortunate trait that makes him “a living emblem of the dangers of the outside world,” as Alice Petry suggests (Understanding Anne Tyler 226). We are reminded here too of the Leary children's favorite game, Vaccination, their unique card game whose strange rules make it impossible for any “outsiders” to play, setting these children even further apart from their “ordinary” peers. At the very time Muriel is ignoring her son by leaving him to his own care or to the care of others, she seems intent on feeding into the myth of Alexander's fragile physical state by maintaining strict control of his diet and lifestyle and convincing everyone she talks to that without her supervision, he would be dead the next day. She even seems intent on maintaining his “nerdish” outsider status as she buys him incredibly out-of-style clothing.

Even though Macon would have been more comfortable with a more serious child, as the Leary grandparents were, his efforts to counter Sarah's influence and turn Ethan into a quiet, careful child failed. Muriel, on the other hand, seems to have been wonderfully successful in creating a sickly social outcast who, because of his largely imaginary physical ills and poorly-chosen wardrobe, has trouble coping with all facets of life from homework to mechanical projects to the neighborhood bullies. Three important scenes showing Macon's and Alexander's mutual regeneration are directly related to Muriel's efforts to maintain her son's status as abnormal outsider and Macon's attempts to reverse this. These are the faucet-fixing lesson, the encounter with the school bullies, and the shopping trip.

Several scenes in the book serve to point out the steps in the mutual regeneration of Alexander and Macon. It is significant that they are all very low-key, ordinary encounters between human beings, either family members or soon-to-be family members. There is no high drama here, and that is surely no accident on Tyler's part. There is simply a series of apparently innocuous everyday happenings that show us the steps in the regenerative process between man and boy.

The first scene comes soon after the initial meeting in the doctor's office. Macon is pictured driving to Muriel's home on Singleton Street, humming to himself and getting the steering wheel messy as he steals toppings from the pizza he is delivering to his newfound family. This happy, impulsive man is a far cry from the guilt-ridden neurotic who would never have considered contributing to the ill health of a minor by encouraging him to eat something he was allergic to. Ironically, as Macon arrives, Muriel is berating her mother for neglecting Alexander and never inquiring about his health.

The next scene is an especially revealing one. Tyler uses a simple faucet-fixing lesson to underline the traditional teacher-student scenario that defines many parent-child relationships. Instead of Dommie Saddler, the baby sitter, giving lessons to Alexander about waxing a car, it is now Macon teaching his future step-son how to complete a simple household task, but one that will, in Macon's words, make him a “real man” (206). Over Muriel's protestations that Alexander is not up to the job, Macon patiently guides the nervously intent child through the steps until he proudly completes the task by himself. Macon reminds Alexander that he will be able to fix the faucets for his own wife one day, a comment that suggests that, with Macon's help, this dysfunctional child will grow up to be a dependable, loving husband as Macon will likely be with Muriel. At the close of this important scene, Macon happily resigns himself to the fact that he has “got himself involved” once again in an important family relationship (206).

Soon afterwards, Macon takes the big step of truly moving in with Muriel and her son as he moves in his dog, Edward, whom Anne Ricketson Zahlan calls “the id in canine form” (88). The budding relationship between Macon/Edward and Alexander parallels the earlier remembered ball incident between Macon and Ethan, but now with a much more positive tone. It is true that Macon, by giving up his house for Muriel's, is sacrificing part of his freedom. By extending himself as a father figure to Alexander, he is accepting the same countless responsibilities and risking the same awful hurt he suffered as Ethan's father. However, he and Alexander have much to gain. As Voelker rightly points out, this is just one of several scenes in the novel that “quietly and credibly [mark] the stages in Alexander's blossoming under the influence of Macon and his dog” (162). Of course the blossoming is mutual. As Ethan's dog, Edward, takes an immediate liking to his new young master and demonstrates his devotion by playing fetch with him, Macon can turn the painful memory of his own son's nearly being killed in another ball incident into a pleasant plan for the future with his step-son-to-be. As Edward joyfully bounds after the matchbox Alexander has thrown for him, “Macon made a mental note to buy a ball first thing in the morning and teach Alexander how to throw” (222).

In preparation for the next key encounter between Macon and Alexander is a short, but important, scene in which Macon helps the child with his homework. We learn that up until Macon's joining their household, the seven-year-old Alexander had been the quintessential latchkey child coming home to an empty house. As Alexander now comes home to milk and cookies lovingly supplied by the new house-husband-in-residence, Macon, Tyler offers yet another critical description of this pathetic child:

Macon had the feeling that school never went very well for Alexander. He came out of it with his face more pinched than ever, his glasses thick with fingerprints. He reminded Macon of a homework paper that had been erased and rewritten too many times. His clothes, on the other hand, were as neat as when he'd left in the morning. Oh, those clothes! Spotless polo shirts with a restrained brown pinstripe, matching brown trousers gathered bulkily around his waist with a heavy leather belt. Shiny brown shoes. Blinding white socks. Didn't he ever play? Didn't kids have recess anymore?


It is obvious how far Macon has progressed when it is he who describes Alexander as “limited” and “constricted,” two words that would have aptly described him when he first met Muriel (227). Although he is now very much involved in this little boy's daily life in “all sorts of complicated ways,” Macon feels he can still withdraw from him, and he considers this option a luxury he did not have with own son (227). He catches himself thinking of Ethan and being thankful and relieved that this is “not his own child” (227). Of course, in the next crucial scene, when Macon decides he can never leave Alexander, he is still neither his biological child nor a replacement for Ethan: he is simply, and importantly, a beloved human being Macon has come to realize he cannot live happily without.

The second key episode involving Macon and Alexander comes when Leary defends the little boy from some jeering bullies. It should be noted that Macon uses his dead son's dog, Edward, to come to the rescue. The dog, who has become healthy and whole once again through Muriel's training and Alexander's love, momentarily turns into his old angry self, but this time, of course, for a very different reason, as he scatters his new master's tormentors. It is during this climactic scene that Macon steps over that threshold from which there is no return. As Alexander slips his hand into Macon's:

Those cool little fingers were so distinct, so particular, so full of character. Macon tightened his grip and felt 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. He often had the same secret, guilty thought that had come to him after Ethan was born: From this time on I can never be completely happy.

Not that he was before, of course.


This is the point at which Saint Maybe ends. The Accidental Tourist allows us to read beyond the worries of a middle-aged father to see Macon, in the final portion of the work, finally coming to terms with his past, present, and future. Whereas the conclusion of Saint Maybe is open-ended, The Accidental Tourist's is not. By the end of this novel, the father has come to terms with his ex-wife, his family, his future wife and step-son, and most important, his son's death.

Soon after the encounter with the school bullies comes the last important scene involving Macon and Alexander. By this point in the novel, Macon seems to have taken over all the important roles of both mother and father, as he takes the child clothes shopping. In an apparent final gesture in his ongoing battle to erase Muriel's negative influence from Alexander's life, Macon transforms the hesitant, “nerdish” child with his navy polyester blazer into a happy, confident little boy who is proud of his oversized T-shirts and jeans. All this happens as a result of a simple shopping trip to a store where Macon used to take Ethan. While there, Macon encounters not only an old friend of Ethan's and his mother, but his fashionable ex-mother-in-law, Paula Sidey. His encounter with Ethan's now teenaged friend causes Macon to confront the fact that life does indeed keep flowing, a favorite theme of Tyler's, despite its sometimes tragic “accidents” along the way. This sets up the final scene in the book in which Macon, devoid of the “baggage” of his former life, encounters the French teenager who so reminds him of Ethan; at this moment, he decides once and for all to return to his life with Muriel and Alexander. Finally, Macon's encounter with Sarah's mother allows him to show her publicly that he has moved on with his life.

As Alexander exits the dressing room wearing his new clothes, he is a child transformed:

He wore an oversized T-shirt that slipped a bit off one shoulder, as if he'd just emerged from some rough-and-tumble game. His jeans were comfortably baggy. His face, Macon saw, had somehow filled out in the past few weeks without anybody's noticing; and his hair—which Macon had started cutting at home—had lost that shaved prickliness and grown thick and floppy.


We are immediately reminded of Colin Craven in Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. Just as Colin finally did not have a humped back and crippled legs and was not doomed to an early death, Alexander has gradually, yet seemingly suddenly, been transformed into a healthy, fun-loving child who can finally embrace life as can his father. Of course in Hodgson Burnett's work, the agent of change is not the father, as it is in Tyler's novel. At the end of the scene, Tyler has Alexander confidently exclaim, “I look wonderful!” (253). She uses the same language to describe the character of Alexander when she tells the interviewer, Alice Hall Petry, that she could not bear to eliminate the child from her work for both artistic and personal reasons. Tyler views her chosen ending as a positive one for Macon and Muriel, and especially for Alexander: “I see Macon and Muriel in an edgy, incongruous but ultimately workable marriage, Macon forever frustrated by Muriel's behavior and yet more flexible than his old self. Alexander turns out wonderfully. (By that I mean: happy)” (Petry, Understanding Anne Tyler 232, note 14).

It becomes clear that Macon has triumphed in his role as step-father extraordinaire shortly after the shopping scene. When Muriel insists that Alexander wear a suit to Rose's wedding, Macon says that a white shirt and jeans are sufficient. She ends up deferring to him as the narrator tells us she has been doing of late where Alexander's shoes and diet have been concerned. We learn that despite his mother's dire predictions, like the housekeeper's in The Secret Garden, the worst her son has suffered from lately is an occasional skin rash.

Thus, Macon has established a full, healthy relationship with the child he has come to look upon as his own. The trouble, however, is that Macon has still not totally exorcised the haunting guilt surrounding Ethan's death. Although he has been able to discuss Ethan with Muriel, as a troubled patient would with his therapist, he is still having trouble adjusting to the notion of committing himself totally to a new life with a new wife and child.10 He slips temporarily into his old way of life with Sarah, but he finds that her now tragic outlook on life does not square with his new positive one. Zahlan suggests that this final attempt to flee Muriel results from the fear and resentment he felt toward his own mother during his childhood and that he is reacting to the fact that the free-spirited Muriel reminds him of Alicia (93).

The reason for his temporary return to Sarah is much more complicated than that, however. Macon Leary is no longer the repressed Lucas Loomis or Miss MacIntosh but the smiling savior of Mrs. Daniel Bunn. He does not want to return to the old life and even turns down Sarah's proposal to have another child in order to spend the rest of his life with a woman who he knows can have no more children. Only when he is finally able to face the painful memory of identifying Ethan's body in the morgue, can he bury the tormenting pain of the past and start living for the future. When he has confronted once and for all the fact that what remained of his son after the murder was no more than a “shell” of his former lovable self (306), can Macon embark on “the real adventure” of living (342). Sarah, embittered and paralyzed by her grief, is unable to do this.

In the hotel room in Paris, Macon chooses not to swallow Sarah's tranquilizer, thus making the conscious choice to confront life head-on, hazards and all. By consciously refusing to climb back into the shell that he once used to encase himself, Macon is symbolically reborn—this time from an emotionally dead father to a vital, effective step-parent. By becoming one half of a mismatched couple, life will not always be easy. It will, however, be full of fascinating challenges and delightful surprises. With Muriel—and especially Alexander—at his side, Macon will at last be able to appreciate fully its “good parts” (100). And through his newfound parenting skills and the second chance at fatherhood he has been granted, Macon will be able to guide a second son to a fulfilling, “wonderful” adulthood.

Therefore, in The Accidental Tourist's Macon Leary, Anne Tyler clearly represents the apogee of effective fathering. Whereas Jeremy Pauling turned away from his family and society to once again concentrate on his art, Macon has broken out of his shell of self-destructive grief and memory to forge strong bonds of sympathy with his newfound family and with the world at large. Like Saint Maybe's Ian Bedloe, Macon has been granted a second chance at parenting. Ian, however, has not proved he can live up to his full potential as a good father to Joshua. Macon Leary, through the transformational relationship he shares with Alexander, shows that fatherhood skills, once lost as a result of the tragic accidents of life, need not be lost forever. They can be regained and improved upon through confronting the pain of the past and moving on to face the thrilling challenges of the future.


  1. The abandoning, murdering, or suicidal mother figures of such works as Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper,” or Gail Godwin's short story “A Sorrowful Woman” have monopolized critical attention. Neither parallel negative father figures nor positive mother or father figures have received the critical attention they deserve.

  2. There are many obvious allusions to The Glass Menagerie in Celestial Navigation. For example, Jeremy's sister is named Laura, and when the Paulings' father leaves the family, he bids them farewell by way of a simple postcard as the Wingfields' father did.

  3. For interesting reading on Anne Tyler's special brand of “feminism,” see Petry's “Tyler and Feminism” in Salwak 33-42.

  4. My colleague Renate Muendel reminded me that Joseph is the patron saint of adoption, which gives this interpretation added relevance.

  5. See Betts and Voelker 3, 67, and 82.

  6. The Shiralee is a relatively obscure Australian novel that tells the story of a tough swagman named Macauley, who reluctantly cares for his young daughter, Buster, as he treks across the outback in search of work. Shiralee is an aboriginal word for the swag or blanket-roll carried by such itinerant tramps as Macauley. The title thus calls attention to the novel's main theme, one common in Tyler's work, of children as both burden and blessing. After the little girl is kidnapped by her mother and nearly killed in an automobile accident, Mac no longer considers her a burden and becomes an exemplary father. The same theme of children as mixed blessings is explored in Margaret Drabble's The Millstone, in which the female protagonist Rosamund's out-of-wedlock baby, Octavia, who is born to her as she is attempting to write her dissertation, is the “millstone” of the title. Like Buster, however, Octavia serves to be both burden and sustaining and humanizing agent for her initially reluctant parent.

  7. If Silas Marner is the premier example of “good fathering” regained, perhaps Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter is the corollary example of “good mothering.” Both Eppie and Pearl are viewed as burdens by the society that scorns their parents. Another striking example of a “good father” who warrants critical attention is the protagonist of E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News.

  8. This scene is reminiscent of the one at the center of the poem “To a Daughter Leaving Home” by Linda Pastan. In this poem, a mother has just taught her eight-year-old daughter to ride a two wheeler, and as the child rides away, the mother describes her as “screaming / with laughter, / the hair flapping / behind you like a / handkerchief waving / goodbye.”

  9. Critics have noted the special significance of clothing in Tyler's work. See, for example, Ruth O. Saxton's “Crepe Soles, Boots, and Fringed Shawls: Female Dress as Signals of Femininity” in Salwak 65-76.

  10. Another key scene that shows Macon's growing parenting skills is that in which he invites his niece Susan to accompany him on a business trip to Philadelphia, probably not coincidentally the Quaker city of brotherly love, and sensitively listens to her reminiscences and worries about Ethan.

Works Cited

“Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist.Contemporary Literary Criticism 44 (Yearbook 1986). 311-22.

Betts, Doris. “The Fiction of Anne Tyler.” Interviews with Seven Contemporary Writers: 23-37. Southern Quarterly 21.4 (1983): 23-38.

Petry, Alice Hall. Understanding Anne Tyler. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1990.

Salwak, Dale, ed. Anne Tyler as Novelist. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994.

Stephens, Ralph, ed. The Fiction of Anne Tyler. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1990.

Tyler, Anne. The Accidental Tourist. New York: Berkley, 1985.

———. “Because I Want More Than One Life.” Washington Post 15 Aug. 1976: G1, G7.

———. Celestial Navigation. New York: Ivy, 1974.

———. Saint Maybe. New York: Ivy, 1991.

Voelker, Joseph C. Art and the Accidental in Anne Tyler. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1989.

Zahlan, Anne Ricketson. “Traveling Towards the Self: The Psychic Drama of Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist.The Fiction of Anne Tyler. Ed. Ralph Stephens. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1990: 84-97.

Principal Works

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 65

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

James Grove (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8000

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, soars highest of them all and rightly relegates place into the shade. Nevertheless, it is this lowlier angel that concerns us here.

—Eudora Welty, “Place in Fiction”

Place is one of the lesser angels watching over the racing hand of Anne Tyler's fiction. Like Welty, whom she admires, Tyler believes that character is the highest angel of literature because of its great capacity to embody human feeling. At the same time, Tyler also supports Welty's contention that a sense of place is essential for fiction since it helps make character sing by confining and defining it—by creating a believable outer surface that holds and objectifies what the writer strains to express (Welty, “Place in Fiction,” 120, 122). Thus, Tyler praises Welty because “in telling a story, she concerns herself less with what happens than with whom it happens to, and where” (“Fine, Full World” [“The Fine, Full World of Eudora Welty”] D1). This sense of “where it happens” makes Welty distinctly Southern for Tyler, who casts an eye toward her own art in this homage to her distinguished predecessor.

Tyler, like Welty, connects place to many of the recurrent concerns within her fiction: the potential for familial relations to nurture and stunt; the pressure that time puts on human beings; the problems and satisfactions of marriage; the mixed blessings of America's pastoralism; the precarious nature of everyday life; the difficulty of creating a coherent identity in modern America; and the deep split in the American psyche between staying put or moving on. Furthermore, for Tyler, as with Welty, place is the repository of the characters' “visible past” while being the stage for the ephemeral present (Welty, “Place in Fiction,” 128-29). Since Tyler's art has a similar emphasis, it is not surprising that she has been praised for her sense of place—and sometimes defined by it. For example, Sandra Gilbert identifies one of the major attributes of Tyler's Southernness as her heavy reliance upon the same setting in novel after novel. And John Updike has written that “she is at peace in the semi-countrified, semi-plasticized, Northern-Southern America where she and her characters live. Out of this peace flow her unmistakable strengths” (“Loosened Roots” 88).

While Tyler's use of place gives her fiction a solid base of reference and a Southern flavor, it also has a persistent tenuousness which counterpoints, or at least qualifies, the “peace” Updike projects upon her. Undoubtedly, this uncertainty is rooted in Tyler's own life. Born in Minneapolis in 1941, she lived in the Midwest until she was six years old. Then her Quaker family moved to a quite insulated religious community in western North Carolina. In 1952, Tyler's family resettled in Raleigh, where she spent her teenage years as “a Northerner growing up in the South, longingly gazing over the fence at the rich, tangled lives of the Southern neighbors” (“Fine, Full World” D1). She felt both inside and outside the South—a duality reinforced and enriched in her adulthood.

In 1967, Tyler's sense of place acquired another significant dimension when she and her husband decided to settle in Baltimore, where they still live. Since The Clock Winder (1972), Tyler has repeatedly and extensively used this city in her fiction, for she likes its urban complexity with its “many different things to poke around in. And whatever it is that remains Southern in me has made it easy for me to switch to Baltimore” (quoted in Cook, “New Faces,” 40-41). With its many pressures and opportunities, Tyler has found Baltimore to have “a lot of gritty character … that's good for a novel to have” (quoted in Willrich, “Watching through Windows,” 506). Moreover, its identity, just like hers, straddles the North and the South—something she stresses in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982) when Pearl and Cody Tull, whose shared placelessness mightily contributes to their mutual enmity, cannot agree if Baltimore is a Northern or Southern city.

Tyler's identification with the South and its rich literary tradition, along with her feelings of being outside this region, have resulted in place becoming a complex and protean catalyst for her art. It is a restless presence: expanding and contracting, yearned for and rejected. It shapes her characters while being physically and symbolically shaped by them. And nowhere is her quicksilver treatment of Welty's “lowlier angel” more apparent or interesting than in the enigmatic, critically controversial, and too often neglected Morgan's Passing (1980), an ambitious novel about the problem haunting most place-absorbed literature: how do human beings endure and understand a world so unsatisfying in so many ways?

The first paragraph of Morgan's Passing, a reminiscence about an annual Easter Fair in Baltimore, idyllically revolves around images of childhood happiness, wonder, and security. Tents and rides sit on a “long, gentle hill” (3). the air smells of buttered popcorn, a kind “rabbit” hands out jelly beans, and there is an egg hunt. In The Accidental Tourist (1985), Charles Leary sarcastically says that Baltimore's weather is always “either too hot or too cold” (249); and it is certainly too chilly for the miserable, huddled adults in Morgan's Passing, who watch their egg-hunting children and who “seemed to have strayed in from the wrong season. It would have been a better fair with no human beings at all” (4). Here, the city's extreme, unpredictable climate is not only the cause but also a reflection of the grown-ups' feelings of exposure, distance, and disillusion. In the third paragraph, there initially appears a fusion of these disparate worlds as the shivering children and adults watch a puppet show where a displaced Cinderella praises the prince's palace. The audience knows her placelessness will soon end, knows that the prince is about to give Cinderella his love and protection. They count on this happy ending. But then this artificial, fairy-tale world unexpectedly breaks down—its illusion overwhelmed by the reality of displacement again—as Cinderella's voice suddenly disintegrates. The voice now “belongs” to a frightened woman about to give birth, who does not know what to do or where to go.

A six-foot rabbit. Some very uncomfortable adults. An uncompleted performance of Cinderella. A frightened young woman. With its startling juxtapositions, with its questioning what is a safe place, with its ambivalent portrait of the Baltimore landscape, and with its emphasis upon the act of pretending, this skewed opening is a brilliant preparation for Tyler's handling of her dislocated protagonist, Morgan Gower—one of the most place-confused characters in modern American literature.1

For some critics, however, Morgan is the most irritating and baffling protagonist in Tyler's canon. They see his characterization as a jumble of interesting, far-fetched, or ridiculous pieces. For instance, Eva Hoffman writes that “Morgan's peculiarity seems without purpose, it drives the reader to ask the most naive questions: What's wrong with him? What does he want? Why doesn't he do something? … the novel remains suspended in a chilly, murky, ozone-thin limbo” (97). Others agree. They argue that Tyler fails to give Morgan's personality credibility or ironic depth. For A. G. Mojtabai, much of the complexity of Morgan's situation is lost because there is no “external vantage point from which the reader [can] reflect upon it” (99). In short, these critics see Morgan's Passing as one of Tyler's less successful works.2

This judgment is a mistake. For one thing, Morgan's Passing does hold answers to Hoffman's “simple” questions—albeit, very tentative ones consistent with Tyler's belief that human nature is enigmatic and that any search for truth must embrace the grayness of life. Second, this novel is not as random as it sometimes feels; it is not like Pearl Tull's diaries, where events “[flit] past with no apparent direction” (Homesick Restaurant 274). Of course, the practices of everyday life swirl around Morgan without any apparent cohesion or overriding meaning, and a recurrent feeling of absurdity is one cause for his placelessness. Yet Tyler also gradually gives narrative shape to this confusion, revealing it in slowly evolving patterns of behavior whose contradictions she does not try to explain away. Finally, Tyler's development of Emily Meredith—short-shrifted in most criticism—serves as a persistent “vantage point,” from which the reader achieves the distance, through ironic comparison and evaluation, to appreciate Morgan's ambivalent responses to place.3

The causes of Morgan's placelessness form a network of identifiable internal and external forces, which have helped make his everyday environment time-worn, unconnected, and oppressive. As Edward Relph writes in Place and Placelessness: “Placelessness describes both an environment without significant places and the underlying attitude which does not acknowledge significance in places. … At its most profound it consists of a pervasive and perhaps irreversible alienation from places as the homes of men” (143). Morgan feels so much tension because he cannot reject the significance of place or accept that his alienation may be permanent. At the same time, he cannot, or will not, find an environment that will soothe his angst.

Morgan is deeply ambivalent about his “Fool house! Something had gone wrong with it, somehow.” Too large and demanding, too crowded with people and possessions, too layered with memories, too much like the fragile crayoned houses his children once drew, it is a reminder that his life has not become what he wanted. If a person's home is, as place critics often stress, “a representative profile of one's very essence” (Salter and Lloyd 22), the Gowers's house with its marks of transience and imperfection speaks to Morgan's strong sense of middle-age inadequacy and unwillingness to accept the inevitable limits upon his identity.4 The house's physical cobwebs press upon his sense of mortality. Its symbolic threads of familial responsibility entangle his confused desires for independence, space, attention, and love. His bedroom is an image of emotional and marital burnout: “The sheets were a shattered, craggy landscape; the upper reaches of the room were lit by a grayish haze, like the smoke that rises from bombed buildings” (27). Morgan's unease is further heightened because he envies and distrusts his wife's comfortable sense of place as she accepts the sloppy clutter of their domesticity. Finally, there are Morgan's children, whom he nostalgically remembers as once being less complicated and less critical of him. Now they have become another reminder of the meaninglessness of his home life, which he defines as “the particles of related people's unrelated worlds” (24).

Something has certainly gone wrong with Morgan, a fact that Tyler reinforces by highlighting his uncertain relationship with Baltimore. Although Morgan frequently appears quite at home on the city streets, he still associates Baltimore's deterioration with his abiding sense of being “unassembled.” Like Willie Loman, he looks outside his house and wonders how his surroundings could have become so crowded, so noisy, so “deep in the city.” Morgan believes that he cannot turn his back on this antagonistic environment; it is always chipping away at his security. To make matters more disconcerting, his place of work, a hardware store, is so far within the inner city that his family never goes there because it is not safely located. While lamenting this separation, Morgan also understands his family's apprehension. He admits always fearing for his children's safety in the city and feels something like their uneasiness when passing the neighborhood of his childhood, now lost to urban blight.

Morgan's placelessness would be less severe if he were not also carrying his father's death with him. Morgan's emptiness after his father's death fits into a major pattern within Tyler's fiction, one which connects family, place, and time to a persistent concern about human responsibility and worth. Because Morgan has never resolved the suicide, he has trouble moving past the stunted sense of place it bequeathed him—symbolized by his father's filebox filled with obsessively alphabetized instruction sheets for various household tasks. Like Pearl Tull, who only feels comfortable and strong when she fights time by fixing things, Morgan has the compulsion to order everything, an urge causing frustration and despair since he sees time's disorder everywhere. Like the space travelers in the science fiction he writes, Morgan is a caged bird of passage facing the prospect of a burned-out world: “They weren't just buzzing earth for the hell of it; they were ascertaining what equipment would be needed to transfer us all to another planet in a stabler, far more orderly solar system” (24). Thus, when feeling “ill-contained,” Morgan follows his father's example and writes detailed instructions to save his loved ones from the chaos creeping up on them.

The abiding question, then, is whether Morgan, like his father, will be destroyed by this rage for order. And how will he attempt to satisfy his yearnings for a fixed, safe, and pure refuge? Will he move toward sealed-in places like Pearl Tull's insulated yet always fragile house or like Jeremy Pauling's upstairs art studio in Celestial Navigation (1974), a controlled world antithetical to the messy and unpredictable family life downstairs at the boarding house? Will Morgan, like Charlotte Emory in Earthly Possessions (1977), finally attempt to escape the whole demanding notion of place through movement for its own sake, through willingly becoming a “foreigner”? Or will he eventually acquire the stamina that Daniel Peck values in Searching for Caleb (1975)? The old man, who never loses his North Baltimore identity no matter where he travels, criticizes his wandering grandson for not having staying power: “He couldn't endure, he wouldn't stay around to fight it out or live it down or sit it through, whatever was required. He hadn't the patience. He wanted something new, something different, he couldn't quite name it. He thought things would be better somewhere else” (Searching for Caleb 8). But what will happen to Morgan if he discovers this stamina? Will it demand a soul-crunching compromise? Or will it result in a healthy reconciliation where Morgan finds that place can be physically and spiritually nourishing, even with all its imperfections?

Understanding Morgan's eccentric search for a “true country” is more difficult than identifying the causes behind his displacement. But patterns exist within his behavior. The romantic Morgan is an improviser who privately and publicly assumes one identity after another, while attempting to recreate many of the places where he must exist. Finding his dreams frequently stunted by everyday pressures, Morgan remains psychologically vulnerable until, like the space travelers in his unfinished novel, he ascertains how to “transfer” to a less oppressive place or role.

For example, while waiting for a bus Morgan wistfully imagines that it is “an entire civilization … cruising through space,” much like the redemptive machines in his science fiction dreams. But when he gets on, the vehicle's violent lurching, as well as the intimidating isolation of the other passengers, destroys his daydream by scraping at his “unsupported,” weak self-concept. A similar deflation occurs when his daughter gets married. Morgan tenderly contemplates living with the young couple as a “bereft old man” who would gain their love by putting their apartment in order. However, this daydream quickly dissipates when he remembers that his children would not want him around, for they know his weaknesses too well. There is also the episode in the hardware store when Morgan pretends that he and a female clerk are married and owners of a Ma-and-Pa store, that they have an idyllic relationship within their sturdy, homey business establishment. This dream—so different from the fragmentation of Morgan's actual family life—ends when he loses track of himself, calls the clerk “Ma,” and scares her away. And then there is his pastoral dream, in which he and his wife escape their Baltimore clutter and “get a house in the country, maybe, live off the land.”5 However, the pragmatic Bonny Gower immediately punctures this idea by reminding Morgan that he would soon become bored away from the city. Finally, there is his imaginative reconstruction of the Merediths' domestic world. Projecting his longings for a simplicity upon them, Morgan pictures this family living a pure, uncluttered life of honorable poverty, just surviving, always just ahead of some disaster. Needing this vision of them, Morgan tries to block Emily's recurrent and resentful reminders that they live an ordinary life filled with the normal problems and pleasures, that he has misjudged them.

Yet Morgan's pretending must go on and on. He must resist the truth about the Merediths because it would take him back to mundane domesticity, and he lacks the stamina and desire for such a return. Yet in his confusion, Morgan also contradictorily maintains the illusion that he can somehow combine the idyllic Meredith household with his own, that he can somehow escape his home without having to leave it permanently.6 He must continue pretending because fantasy is his primary stay against exposure and because it maintains his hope for a clean, well-lighted place where he can safely experiment with life. At the same time, the possibility always exists that Morgan's imagination will run out of alternative plots for his life—just as he has come to a standstill in his space novel, where he cannot find a way to start chapter two. This anxiety, which fuels Morgan's restlessness, is why he needs to live and work in Baltimore. While the city sometimes frightens and depresses him, its variety of stimuli, its anonymity, its constant change also give his imagination the “scope” it demands. As Frank Shelton notes, Morgan needs “a large city where the contact between individuals tends to be fleeting and a role can be sustained for the short period of time necessary” (“Houses” 856). Unlike Jeremy Pauling, who hides from the city as he creates a “pretend” world through his art, Morgan plunges into Baltimore's heart so that he can keep recreating himself within a perpetual present. Still, in the end, Morgan's and Jeremy's actions are done for basically the same reason. Both want to escape—to negate—their inability to accept how time inevitably unfixes place.

Morgan thus wanders around Baltimore, imagining permanent havens, passing through various communities, creating ephemeral identities and relationships, while paradoxically shying away from any extended attachment to a fully lived-in environment. He is most at home eating at the No Jive Cafe, soaking up the atmosphere while comfortably separated from its black customers; making his rounds as “the street priest of Baltimore”; playing upon people's sympathy as a lonely immigrant; or dancing down a strange city street, singing like Fats Domino, and bowing melodramatically—to people he really does not want to know for very long.

On the one hand, such behavior attracts Emily to Morgan, for he conveys a romantic readiness that makes the ordinary seem more spacious and interesting. It gives him the appearance of unfocused vitality. On the other hand, it is also disturbing because his behavior often seems so self-involved, so parasitic, so careless, and so temporary. Unlike Macon Leary, who increasingly connects with Muriel Pritchett's neighborhood in The Accidental Tourist and thus sheds his insularity, Morgan remains quite apart—comfortable only when he can feed off his surroundings without really entering them. Riding on the bus, “he sank into the lives of the scattered people sitting on their stoops. … A soothing kind of emptiness began to spread through him. He felt stripped and free, like the vacant windows” (39).

Morgan seems so unconventional. Yet he depends upon his routines to provide him with enough activity so that he does not have to slow down and think. Therefore, like many of Tyler's characters, he travels “the same streets for years without seeing them,” his eccentric routines blinding him “to the significance of life or to the sense of self” (Gilbert 273). To temper this drifting and to gain some self-awareness, he would have to break through his frenetic role-playing and become more like Elizabeth Abbott in The Clock Winder, Mary Pauling in Celestial Navigation, Muriel Pritchett in The Accidental Tourist, Maggie Morgan in Breathing Lessons, and Ian Bedloe in Saint Maybe. These characters do not float above the troubling yet rich surface of everyday life. Instead they courageously, foolishly, unsuccessfully, reluctantly, and humorously wade into the sometimes fast-flowing, sometimes stagnant, and always restrictive waters of place. They face its daily commitments and responsibilities. At first glance, they seem much more mundane than the mercurial Morgan. But a longer look reveals a stamina that saves themselves and others. Thus Morgan needs to quit running from himself long enough to think about his placelessness and fear of life. Only then can he achieve the balance—the hard-wrought peace—that Justine Peck and Macon Leary tentatively achieve in Searching for Caleb and The Accidental Tourist.

Tyler has been criticized for giving Morgan very little self-knowledge. As Updike remarks, “Though we are admitted to Morgan's head now and then, we never hear him talking to himself in the level, calculating voice that would make his ‘act’ plausible, as the strategy of a sane masculine person” (“Imagining” 100). Usually very perceptive about Tyler, Updike does not appreciate the main point behind her treatment of this character. Indeed Morgan is a disordered person who refuses to calculate his actions as a “sane masculine person” (whatever that means). Her characterization of him rests on the possibility that he will never come to any self-knowledge and never accept the mixed blessings of place. In fact, Tyler structures Morgan's Passing around the sporadic revolutions of Morgan's alienation while not allowing the novel's formal demands to undercut the complexity and persistence of his confusion. In addition, when we are admitted into Morgan's consciousness (which is more frequently than Updike indicates), Tyler reveals the pain and uncertainty behind his comic facade, behind his childlike infatuation with Emily.

Tyler's most revealing window into Morgan's mind occurs during the Gowers's vacation at Bethany Beach, Delaware, a brilliant episode which occurs halfway through the novel. It suggests the depth of Morgan's place-tension since nothing is easy for him during this vacation. Tyler does not make it easy for her audience, either, since so many contradictions flow from Morgan's dissociation.

In his role-playing, eccentricity, unpredictability, and longing for something new, Morgan seems set on stretching and celebrating the human search for possibility. Yet at the beach, he is disturbed by “the sound of the ocean [which] reminded him of possibilities unfolding: everything new and untried yet, just around the corner. He opened his eyes and heard the ocean … the very same ocean he'd lain beside with Laura Lee, but he himself was middle-aged and irritable and so was Laura Lee, he supposed” (150). One might expect, with his fears of being closed in, that Morgan would be like Jenny Tull, who would never live too far from the ocean because she “liked knowing that she could get out anytime. Wouldn't midwesterners feel claustrophobic?” (Homesick Restaurant 83). Just as Jenny is oppressed by the dark, cramped, and grimly spartan atmosphere of her mother's house, Morgan is depressed by the pervasive mutability and incongruent clutter of the beach cottage. But Morgan's response to the water indicates that he is even more placeless than the lonely, timid Jenny. After being traumatized by her family, after some very bad relations with men, after suffering a severe nervous breakdown, Jenny in middle-age finally finds refuge and meaning through the chaotic domesticity of her third marriage. In contrast, the middle-aged Morgan cannot relax because he is much more like Pearl and Cody Tull, who want to escape “the hazy and swarming landscape” (Homesick Restaurant 27) of daily life for an endlessly perfect day at the beach, for a perfectly ordered house, for the perfect life of a country gentleman—in short, for a perfect life “on such a beautiful green little planet” (Homesick Restaurant 284).

To Jenny Tull, then, the ocean speaks of the future, of the potential for escape and fulfillment. To Morgan, it speaks of the past: all the mistakes, the restrictive “walls,” the vanished possibilities, and the lost relationships. It is a danger. And he does not like swimming in it either, for the water's relentless power demands concentration and staying power, thus throwing him back upon himself. Ironically, he wants to escape the water for the same reasons he wants to escape his run-down cottage and the over-stuffed house in Baltimore. He restlessly wants to free-float in the present, remaining placeless, consuming time without having to think about time.

However, almost everything about the vacation conspires against Morgan's desire not to think, not to remember, not to swim in time. Thus he complains, “We're city people. We have our city patterns, things to keep us busy. … It's dangerous, lolling around like this” (154). Forced inward, Morgan admits that he must do something with his life; admits that he's “traveling blind” (154); wonders if he is self-destructive like his father; blames his familial breakups for causing him to feel like a “foreigner” everywhere; senses that fear has undermined his attempts to start a viable “new life” (158); understands that his manic letter writing is a symptom of this fear; and even recognizes, fleetingly, that he needs to be alone to “finally have the chance to sort himself out” (173). Finally, when his brother-in-law, Robert, attempts suicide in the ocean, Morgan's anger stems from his repressed identification with this placeless man who cannot accept time. Moreover, Morgan believes that this messy act—as part of this messy vacation—reflects the persistent messiness of his family.

This vacation, which ends with Morgan's flight back to “less dangerous” Baltimore, helps readers evaluate his actions for the rest of the novel. We now have a better sense of how conscious he is and know that he is very conflicted about radically changing his life. Like Ian Bedloe, he fantasizes about doing something “violent and decisive, like leaping into space” (Saint Maybe 129). On the other hand, we also understand why floating remains attractive to him. Like Jeremy Pauling, he is afraid of making a sudden leap into uncertainty, of being marooned. Part of him wants to remain a “foreigner” in a circumscribed, fairy-tale world with a net allowing him to remain uninvolved, protected, and various in his identities. Yet, as Muriel Pritchett says, people “can take protection too far”; so she invites Macon to leap with her “on thin air” (Accidental Tourist 97, 165). Morgan would understand her advice, take her hand, and then suddenly and temporarily become “someone else” who does not want to leap. He is trapped within himself, and the novel's drama revolves around whether he will be able to resolve this potentially paralyzing inner tension.

As Morgan's infatuation for Emily Meredith becomes deeper and more loving, she increasingly serves as a touchstone for holding on to his development, because her responses to him and to her own placelessness help us clarify and remain more objective about Morgan's choices. As a teenager, Emily flees college and the South by eloping with Leon. She is afraid of drying up, like her female relatives, in the “heavily draped parlors” of her hometown, Taney, Virginia. Like Pearl Tull, who marries Beck to escape a spinster's life in North Carolina, Emily depends upon finding refuge in a husband. This belief that marriage can automatically stabilize one's sense of place commonly occurs in Tyler's fiction; and often it leads to disillusionment because the “saving” lovers are flawed human beings, not fairy-tale princes or princesses. Either these “saviors” run away from their legitimate responsibilities or they rebel against their spouse's excessive demands. Either way, the dependent persons discover that any answers to the problem of place fundamentally rest within themselves and not within others.

Emily's placelessness is pervasive. Orphaned at a young age, she is haunted by absence—by the smells of people long after they have left rooms or by the desolation of her suddenly quiet apartment after her child goes to sleep. Occasionally, she places the puppet, Rip Van Winkle, into strange roles where he doesn't belong, projecting her loneliness through the private “edge” this displacement gives the performance. Not a swimmer or a wader of life at the beginning of the novel, she is frightened by the “liquid darkness” of Baltimore's alleyways. She is also alienated from the iciness filling the home of Leon's parents.

Furthermore, there are her long walks and runs—ambivalent activities much like Morgan's travels through the city—which waver between confronting place and escaping it. Sometimes, Emily seems in motion just for the sake of movement—a temporary annihilation of her marital and place problems. She paradoxically can escape her everyday placelessness by becoming lost within the temporary abstraction of a run where she skims by one neighborhood after another. Tyler's vague, generic description of her movement mirrors how Emily's self-absorption often strips the surroundings of immediate meaning for her. Yet she seems to be training “for some emergency—a forced flight, a national disaster” so that she can find a more emotionally satisfying environment. Also at night, when she closes her eyes in bed, Emily specifically remembers the places she passed so absently earlier in the day, slowly, painstakingly, and vicariously connecting with them as if she belonged. Emily, then, is partially drawn to Morgan because they are surprisingly similar in some ways. Both are escaping hemmed-in places while searching for lost security, are ignoring everyday reality while losing themselves in the present, and are hoping for new possibilities while fearing that any change will break their present routines.

But as Morgan's Passing progresses, differences increasingly emerge in how Emily and Morgan react toward place, for she, despite her fears, wants to connect. This desire is even more apparent when she arrives at Bethany Beach since Emily intimately and appreciatively explores the small town and its beaches. For a change, she feels comfortable, and her happiness unsettles Morgan, who expected her not to wade into this setting which he detests. He has wanted her to remain his “fairy dancer,” true to the needs of his imagination. Later, when Morgan sees Emily's photos of the vacation, he grimaces. They hold a suspended, unreal, golden world far different from his bad vacation, where the patched road, the smelly fish, the flat sunset threatened him.7 Yet these photos do catch the tone of Emily's “wonderful time,” and this fact is also threatening because her vacation might foreshadow other dips into the waters of everyday life.

Through this vacation, Tyler suggests that it might be very dangerous for Emily to fulfill Morgan's image because she would have to remain essentially placeless. Emily has to relax in time and reflect on her past so that she can understand why she feels so “foreign.” She begins to do this at the beach, and her inner journey intensifies when she travels back to her childhood home in Virginia. There Emily confronts who she once was, what she might have been, and who she has become.

At first, on the drive to Taney, it seems as if she might again be skimming away from her problems on “thinner and lighter” air, moving for moving's sake. But Tyler soon indicates that Emily is not only escaping from the city, but also noticing everything around her—in contrast to the blur of her drive to the beach with Leon: “She smiled at every driver she passed. She was fascinated by the private, cluttered worlds she glimpsed.” Although still insulated in the car, Emily specifically notices the towns and farmland as she glides past them; and this landscape, familiar yet foreign, causes her to remember the world of her childhood. She doesn't feel trapped.

Caught between Taney and Baltimore, between the past and the present, between her loyalty and resentment toward Leon, Emily reaches the small Southern town and finds everything (her aged aunts, the old trees, the crowded old houses, the quiet of the Friends' meeting house) telling her something: that she made the right move fleeing this stunted place and not becoming like her aunts; that the cost of abandoning her roots was too high since it has led to a life of transience and loss; that she would always hold this world in her memory, whether she wanted to or not; that she had always wanted to join the “big group” and this has led her to “the great rush” of the anonymous, noisy, crowded city. Tyler ends this episode with Emily, overwhelmed by the closeness of this stuffy world, fleeing back to Baltimore, which she had fled a few days earlier because it was so constrictive. At this point, Emily has reached a point similar to the one Morgan reaches at the beach. She has looked inside herself, faced some things, and recoiled from what the experience might say about her present and future life.

Eventually, Morgan and Emily “leap” into marriage—a decision that ironically promises newness within the same settings that have worn them both out in the past. Will place overwhelm them again or will their relationship recreate place so that it isn't stunting and dangerous? The answer is much clearer with Emily. She thrives. Living with this eccentric man, Emily is always surprised by new stimuli. So many people and things from his former household move in with her. Her apartment's once spare rooms now overflow. She has the new baby. Everything stimulates the part of her that liked running because movement freed her from being tied to one place and gave her the sense of visiting foreign places. Now she does not have to leave her house: “You could draw vitality from mere objects. … They were too foreign to be hers. Foreign: that was the word. All she touched, dusted, and edged around was part of a foreign country, mysterious and exotic” (270). Such a reconciliation of the foreign and domestic is the goal behind the journeying of so many Tyler characters. The tight apartment and, later, the more crowded trailer, satisfy her in the same way that Ezra Tull's eccentric restaurant meets his emotional needs.

For Morgan, the consequences of leaping are more mixed and fluid. Bonny Gower's perceptive, albeit bitter, insights about her former husband point to why he remains so conflicted. He still has a fragmented self-concept: “All alone in the bathroom, he's no one. That's why his family doesn't count. They tend not to see him; you know how families are. So he has to go out and find himself in someone else's line of vision” (269). He also still carries the inclination to be “everything.” And because of these traits, he still “likes to think he's going through life as a stranger.” Although he wants to find a place to rest, Morgan must struggle for, and against, the reconciliation that Emily achieves, primarily because place-tension has become so crucial to his tenuous identity.

Morgan in many ways is a loose composite of Jeremy Pauling and Duncan Peck, whose common attributes are their willful foreignness, eccentric creativity, distrust of the mundane, and connection to daily life through their wives. Being so insecure, Morgan must, like Jeremy and Duncan, tie love and place together by feeding off a woman's confirmation of his worth, by seeing her as the antidote to his placelessness, by projecting his erratic ideals of place upon her, and by worrying that the relationship he so deeply needs will inevitably imprison him again. This is a volatile combination. No wonder Bonny is disgusted with him; no wonder Emily must find various stays against his chaotic needs; no wonder we have difficulty managing his character.

After the breakup with Bonny, Tyler stresses Morgan's dependence: “He pictured having to sleep on the couch in his office forever—a man unkempt, uncared-for. Like someone who had fallen between two stepping stones in a river, he'd let Bonny go without yet being certain of Emily. He could not imagine life as a bachelor” (248). Always afraid of swimming, especially alone, this self-pitying placelessness is in tension with the expansiveness that catches Emily. It also makes us pay attention to Bonny's criticism of him and become more wary of his sustained efforts to idealize Emily as a kind of place-goddess. Soon after their affair begins, Emily visits his house, which is stifling Morgan. It is a murky “sea of bodies,” with too many adults talking about too many topics, with too many fussing children, with too many Jiffy bags scattered over the floor (222-23). Emily, however, is the house's “single point of stillness.” She is the “most proper person he had ever met,” with her Southern small-town orderliness (224-28). Later, when he watches her run, Emily is outside of time and place for him. She has an “eternal” quality which Morgan appreciates and appropriates. He “felt himself grown weightless with happiness, and he expanded in the sunlight and beamed at everything with equal love” (230-31). Again, as he has done on the bus, Morgan empties himself and escapes his placelessness, not by accepting his environment, but by momentarily abstracting and transcending it.

Tyler's warnings about Morgan's tendency to idealize Emily raise some questions about the future of their relationship. As their marriage becomes more familiar and crowded with responsibility, will Morgan have “to go out” again, thus leaving Emily behind? How will he eventually handle not being Emily's romantic stranger? What in this marriage with a woman who increasingly loves the clutter of life will continue to satisfy his spirit?

Tyler does not conclusively resolve these issues. As a result, there have been very different readings of Morgan's final state. Shelton and Alice Hall Petry see him as achieving a “necessary balance” (Shelton, “Distance and Sympathy” 180); he is “finally a happy man, responsible to his loved ones while honoring his true self” (Petry, Understanding, 166). Hoffman and Mojtabai, in contrast, never see Morgan's fog of disconnection as lifting; he is in “an unfamiliar state of continual crisis, a condition for which there exists no charts or manuals ready at hand” (Mojtabai, “Continual Crisis,” 100). He is permanently lost. And Gordon Taylor sees Morgan and Emily remaining “constant in their continual redelineation” of “their separate and mutual fates, free and unfree of themselves as of the world.” While keeping their spirits alive, these dynamic redefinitions of self will also do “real damage” to those left behind (70).

Taylor's more provisional interpretation of the ending most effectively captures the complexity of Tyler's intentions, especially in regard to Morgan. Despite the transience of living in a trailer and being a puppeteer, Emily appears happy and settled. Morgan, however, is as restless and contradictory as ever, although there is no question that he loves Emily and their child. He wants to treat them properly, wants to be powerful for them: “Maybe he would never have any more purpose than this: to accept the assignment gracefully, lovingly, and do the best he could with it” (247). Maybe. But there are signs that this may be a very difficult task for Morgan in the long run. While climbing the steep stairs of responsibility to Emily's apartment, he is fearful that her rooms are becoming over-stuffed. While entering the “sea of hats and clothes” through his leap with Emily, he worries that he has steered off course and that he should run away with “no luggage, no fixed destination” (256). While trying to be strong for his family, he complains that he needs some place bigger—perhaps a large, bare farmhouse in the country. He cannot breathe in their crowded apartment. While trying to accept the more constricted space of their next home (the packed trailer which unsuccessfully tries to look rooted), he has a dream which suggests that “he'd been traveling so long, such a distance, that a sudden stop was impossible” (300).

Morgan is still deeply divided. He cannot stop moving or imagining different lives for himself. His makeshift solution is to journey not into the unknown, but back to the home he abandoned in Baltimore. This choice of destination is telling. He is a foreigner who deeply needs security and order; who craves adventures within circumscribed, familiar settings; who wants to be loved, but is unreliable in giving and receiving love. Making this unexpected, clandestine visit to Bonny's house thus fulfills his contradictory needs and enables Tyler to end her story on a profound note of uncertainty. On this trip, Morgan clearly indicates that life with Emily has not changed him much. He is still bothered by time and cannot make his past cohere with the present. He both laments and enjoys being an outsider to his old family. He gets a thrill by sneaking around as a “burglar” unearthing the secrets of this house. He obsessively worries about the bats in this home where he no longer belongs. And he empties himself into a “suspended state of mind,” while searching for his old places within the city, while dreaming about finding Emily and Leon “still leading their pure, vagabond lives, like two children in a fairy tale” (308-9).

Because Tyler has paralleled Emily and Morgan so effectively in the latter half of the novel, she has given us the vantage point to evaluate his trip “home.” It is an escape back to where he escaped from. It is yet another attempt to find himself by escaping from his present self. And, in contrast to Emily's balance, it seems rather desperate, even pathetic. He must keep redefining himself, must keep reevaluating his sense of place. So Morgan remains an enigma to the end: writing instruction lists for Bonny, pretending he is a postman, holding back other people's letters so he can discover some of their secrets, and finally feeling great joy when he sees his wife and son. “He started walking faster. He started smiling. By the time he reached Emily, he was humming. Everything he looked at seemed luminous and beautiful, and rich with possibilities” (311). Because of the many twists Tyler gives to Morgan's characterization, it is very difficult to read this very romantic ending straight, to read it without any resistance, without any apprehension for Morgan and Emily's future together. The passage's possibilities are laced with irony, and its irony is laced with Morgan's great imaginative energy.

Morgan Gower is Anne Tyler's means for meditating on the modern predicament that Leonard Lutwack describes in The Role of Place in Literature:

the despair of deracination is countered with hope of restoring attachments to remnant places, expatriation alternates with return to the impaired homeland, disaffection is answered with accommodation to the new places of our time. Writers for whom neither alienation nor recommitment is acceptable turn to other choices: escape into nostalgia, distortions of place through fantasy and hallucination, and the rejection of place altogether in favor of other dimensions of existence such as time and motion.


What makes Morgan so bewildering and fascinating is that he intensively exists in this limbo between place and placelessness; and in attempting to escape it, he turns—sometimes in quick succession—to all the alternatives Lutwack identifies. As a result, the romantic, spacious, and unpredictable side of Morgan's personality continues to rub against his many fears, his passivity, and his conservative desire to find the ideal refuge. As these characteristics play off one another as the novel winds down, Morgan remains persistently elusive. This is Tyler's intent. She is asking that we not rush toward interpreting his “strange malady,” but that we remain tentative, flexible, and non-reductive. She wants us to struggle with Morgan and thus struggle with the lowly angel of place. As a result, Morgan's Passing is yet another potent example of Alfred Kazin's thesis that the “greatest single fact about our American writing … [is] our writers' absorption in every last detail of this American world, together with their deep and subtle alienation from it” (Native Grounds ix).


  1. Hoffman has noted that this opening seems “out of kilter” (95), and Spoiler says this is “a book in which things tend not to be quite what they seem. … The puppet world of the novel is an unpredictable place” (1221).

  2. Also see Grier and Updike (“Imagining”) for reserved and negative responses to the novel.

  3. Gordon Taylor helpfully suggests that “an attempt to encompass Morgan's Passing should begin and end … with a sense of the narrative as surging out from, and subsiding back into, Morgan's relentless reactivity to the world” (66).

  4. Many analyses of Tyler's work talk about the importance of houses in her fiction, with Shelton's “Houses” being the most focused treatment of this subject.

  5. In discussing Searching for Caleb, Gilbert writes: “Here and always [Tyler] paints folkways with more affection. … This country domesticity may have added to Tyler's appeal for some readers in the last two decades, with their flourishing fads of healthful, simple countryness” (262). Tyler's ironic treatment of Morgan's dreamy pastoralism indicates that Gilbert's statement needs to be tempered and qualified, especially since there are other instances of this irony (for example, the issue of Cody Tull's country home in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant).

  6. See Gullette for an excellent discussion on how this contradictory attitude toward place is pervasive within Tyler.

  7. Tyler sometimes uses flatness literally and metaphorically as a negative image of place. For another example, there is Pearl Tull's suffocated response to the hot flatness of Illinois when she visits Cody there. Lutwack gives a valuable overview of how flat landscapes have been used in literature (39-40).

Works Cited

Cook, Bruce. “New Faces in Faulkner Country.” Saturday Review (4 Sept. 1976): 39-41.

Gilbert, Sandra. “Anne Tyler.” Southern Women Writers: The New Generation. Ed. Tonette Bond Inge. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1990. 251-78.

Grier, Peter. “Bright Novel That Overstretches Credibility.” Rev. of Morgan's Passing, by Anne Tyler. Christian Science Monitor (14 Apr. 1980): B9. Rpt. in Alice Hall Petry, ed., Critical Essays on Anne Tyler, 101-2.

Gullette, Margaret Morganroth. “Anne Tyler: The Tears (and Joys) Are in the Things.” The Fiction of Anne Tyler, ed. C. Ralph Stephens. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1990. 97-109.

Hoffman, Eva. “When the Fog Never Lifts.” Rev. of Morgan's Passing, by Anne Tyler. Saturday Review (15 Mar. 1980): 38-39. Rpt. in Alice Hall Petry, ed., Critical Essays on Anne Tyler, 95-97.

Kazin, Alfred. On Native Grounds. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1942.

Lutwack, Leonard. The Role of Place in Literature. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1984.

Mojtabai, A. G. “A State of Continual Crisis.” Rev. of Morgan's Passing, by Anne Tyler. New York Times Book Review (23 Mar. 1980): 14, 33. Rpt. in Alice Hall Petry, ed., Critical Essays on Anne Tyler, 98-100.

Petry, Alice Hall, ed. Critical Essays on Anne Tyler. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992.

Relph, Edward. Place and Placelessness. London: Pion, 1976.

Salter, C. L., and W. J. Lloyd. Landscape in Literature. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Geographers, 1977.

Shelton, Frank W. “Anne Tyler's Houses.” In C. Ralph Stephens, ed., The Fiction of Anne Tyler. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1990. 40-46.

———. “The Necessary Balance: Distance and Sympathy in the Novels of Anne Tyler.” Southern Review 20 (1984): 851-60. Rpt. in Alice Hall Petry, ed., Critical Essays on Anne Tyler, 175-83.

Spoiler, Nicholas. “Taking of parts.” TLS (31 Oct. 1980): 1221.

Taylor, Gordon O. “Morgan's Passion.” Stephens, The Fiction of Anne Tyler, 64-72.

Tyler, Anne. The Accidental Tourist. New York: Knopf, 1985.

———. Breathing Lessons. New York: Berkeley Books, 1989.

———. Celestial Navigation. New York: Berkeley Books, 1984.

———. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. 1982. New York: Berkeley Books, 1983.

———. “The Fine, Full World of Eudora Welty.” Washington Star (26 Oct. 1980): D1.

———. Ladder of Years. New York: Knopf, 1995.

———. Morgan's Passing. New York: Knopf, 1980.

———. Saint Maybe. 1991. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.

———. Searching for Caleb. 1975. New York: Berkeley Books, 1983.

Updike, John. “Imagining Things.” Rev. of Morgan's Passing, by Anne Tyler. New Yorker (23 June 1980): 97-101.

———. “Loosened Roots.” Rev. of Earthly Possessions, by Anne Tyler. Hugging the Shore. New York: Knopf, 1983. Rpt. in Alice Hall Petry, ed., Critical Essays on Anne Tyler, 88-91.

Welty, Eudora. “Place in Fiction.” The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews. New York: Random House, 1978. 116-33.

Willrich, Patricia Rowe. “Watching through Windows: A Perspective on Anne Tyler.” Virginia Quarterly 68 (1992): 497-516.

Further Reading

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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.

Linda Simon (review date August 1998)

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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 like to run a repair shop for toys. I'd like to start an herb farm. And it wouldn't be so bad working for one of those companies that takes on odd jobs for old ladies—driving them to their palmists, collecting their ground-rents for them.”

Now, in A Patchwork Planet, her fourteenth novel, Tyler has decided to explore the last option: She gives us 30-year-old Barnaby Gaitlin, a hardworking employee of Rent-a-Back, a company that sends its staff out to do odd jobs—cleaning attics, moving furniture, running errands—for its mostly elderly clientele. The job puts Barnaby into contact with a handful of typically Tyleresque characters: the aged Maud May, for example, “who smoked cigarettes in a long ivory holder and drank martinis by the quart”; Mr. Shank, so lonely that he would call to have a shutter secured in the middle of the night; and the frail and endearing Mrs. Alford, who has been working for years to complete a patchwork quilt of the planet Earth.

Tyler has a special affection for the elderly: “I'd like to spend the rest of my life writing about old men,” she once said. But there is something disquieting in the portraits that emerge in A Patchwork Planet. Now nearly fifty-seven, a widow after thirty-five years of marriage, Tyler reflects on growing older with a sense of foreboding and anxiety. A “decent old age,” she has Barnaby realize, is “a matter of pure blind luck.” Instead, the elderly are likely to suffer depression and indignity, loneliness and frustration: “The jar lids they can't unscrew, the needles they can't thread, the large print that's not quite large enough, even with a magnifying glass. The specter of the nursing home lurking constantly in the background. …”

The children are grown and focused on their own future; there is nothing much to do but clean out an attic full of memories and perhaps, as Mrs. Alford hopes, to leave some evidence of their lives, some mark of their creativity, some coherent legacy. What Mrs. Alford manages to create seems odd, though, even to the generous-hearted Barnaby: “mismatched squares of cloth no bigger than postage stamps, joined by the uneven black stitches of a woman whose eyesight was failing. Planet Earth, in Mrs. Alford's version, was makeshift and haphazard, clumsily cobbled together, overlapping and crowded and likely to fall into pieces at any moment.” Life, Tyler shows us here, is fragile and precarious-and not only for the elderly.

Barnaby, after all, is no less lonely than his clients: He has been divorced, his relationship with his ten-year-old daughter is foundering, his parents see him as a failure, and he has not quite figured out what to do with the rest of his life. Although he enjoys his work at Rent-a-Back, although serving in itself seems admirable to him, he knows that others consider it menial and inconsequential labor; their disapproval troubles him. Why has he made this choice, he asks himself. What does his work mean to him? What does it mean to be a productive member of a community? These are the questions that Tyler sets out for Barnaby, and the questions that, by the end of the novel, he can begin to answer. Self-effacing, unreflective, and, at times, somewhat bewildered by his own feelings, Barnaby is the quintessential Tyler hero. His story emerges as a gentle tale of self-affirmation and even of a quiet, modest epiphany.


As we discover early, Barnaby is an unlikely candidate for a service job. His wealthy parents expected him to complete college and take a position—as his brother did—at the Gaitlin Foundation, a charitable organization begun by his great-grandfather and now headed by his father. His mother, Margot, an energetic social climber, cannot forgive Barnaby for failing to fulfill her own vision of his future. But her condemnation of him has other reasons, as well. It seems that Barnaby, in his youth, had been a serious problem: “Back in the days when I was a juvenile delinquent,” he tells us, “I used to break into houses and read people's private mail. Also photo albums. I had a real thing about photo albums.” While his accomplices raced though the house looking for cigarettes and liquor, Barnaby would sit looking at wedding pictures. Sometimes, he took curios or mementos—a “little snow globe once from a nightstand in a girl's bedroom” or “a brass egg that stood on scaly claw feet and opened to show a snapshot of an old-fashioned baby inside.” When his crimes were discovered, the Gaitlins agreed to repay his victims to avoid the shame of his being prosecuted. The financial cost was $8,700; the emotional cost could hardly be calculated.

Margot allows Barnaby to forget neither: She reminds him constantly that he owes her money, and she demeans his choice of a job. When will he finish college, she asks? When will he move out of the seedy basement apartment in which he barely subsists? When will he repay her? When will he become a responsible member of the community? When, in short, will he change to become the son she deserves?

Change, of course, is a central theme for Tyler, and in this novel she again casts her vote for consistency of personality and behavior. “I think something that tends to come out in all my books is an utter lack of faith in change,” she once told an interviewer. “I really don't think most people are capable of it, although they think they are.” When Barnaby rifles through photo albums, he notices repeatedly that people “tended to assume the same poses for every shot, the same expressions. … What I'd wanted to know was, couldn't people change? Did they have to settle for just being who they were forever, from cradle to grave?”

Barnaby hopes that change is possible. He does not want to remain the ne'er-do-well that his mother thinks he is; he wants to feel worthy of the trust that his clients and employer place in him; he wants a respectable life. And like most people who hope for a transformation, he looks to outside forces to help him realize his dreams.


Although the Gaitlins appear ordinary in all respects, a family legend sets them apart from other people: The male members of the family are visited, occasionally, by angels. Barnaby's great-grandfather, for example, manufactured shoe trees and artificial limbs and would have continued doing so if a tall, golden-haired woman had not come into his shop one day and made a surprising suggestion. “What women really need is a dress tree,” she said. “A replica of their entire persons.” With a dress tree, she explained, women could assemble outfits and judge their suitability.

Certain that this woman was his personal angel, Great-grandfather Gaitlin speedily set to work inventing the “Twin-form,” which made him so rich that he was able to start the Gaitlin Foundation. Barnaby's brother also had a visit from an angel—who advised him to get out of the stock market just before Black Monday. And Barnaby has no doubt that an angel will appear to him as well. When she comes, he fervently believes, she will change his life.

It is no wonder, then, that when he sees Sophia Maynard at the Baltimore train station one morning, he decides that this tall, blonde, serene woman is his designated angel. He is entranced by her golden hair, to be sure, but more by an act of benevolence—she agrees to take an urgent parcel from a father to his daughter—that she seems to do so naturally and unquestioningly. “So honorable, Sophia had been,” Barnaby thinks. “So principled. So well behaved even when she thought nobody was looking.”

Barnaby contrives to meet Sophia, and the two begin a friendship that gradually becomes a love affair. Sophia gives him helpful advice about his relationship with his daughter; Barnaby adds Sophia's aunt, Grace Glynn, to his Rent-a-Back customer list. And all seems to be going well until Mrs. Glynn accuses Barnaby of stealing more than two thousand dollars from the flour bin in which she stores her savings.

Barnaby knows that he has often been tempted to take a letter here or a souvenir there, stopping himself only through great exertion of will; but he also knows that he never would steal someone's money, and he is devastated by both the accusation and Sophia's apparent doubt of his innocence. The incident complicates and dooms their relationship, convinces Barnaby that Sophia is no angel, and ultimately serves to teach him something essential about his own identity.


“Oh, what makes some people more virtuous than others?” he asks himself. “Is it something they know from birth? Don't they ever feel that zingy, thrilling urge to smash the world to bits? Isn't it possible,” he wonders “… that good people are just luckier people?” Or is it possible, Tyler implies, that goodness is totally compatible with “that zingy, thrilling urge” to rebel?

In the hands of a more sentimental novelist, Barnaby's enlightenment about virtue might come through his daughter (named Opal, in a sly allusion to Hawthorne's redemptive Pearl) or through the older—and presumably wiser—men and women for whom Barnaby does chores. But as Tyler sees it, old age imparts no secrets. On the contrary, growing older seems only to generate new questions. “Isn't it ridiculous,” a recently widowed client comments, “how even in the face of death it still matters that the price of oranges has gone up, and an impolite produce boy can still hurt your feelings.”

What the elderly do teach Barnaby, though, is to value small gestures of kindness and to respect, as Tyler does, “day-to-day endurance.” Barnaby sees that his clients appreciate not only his help with errands and cleaning but, even more significantly, his presence in their lives. He is, as one client tells him, a “good boy” because of his patience and generosity. He does not stint in his attentions to them; he is kind rather than dutiful; he is loyal and even loving. After he is accused of theft, they rally around him, contriving additional tasks for him to do, affirming their unequivocal trust in him. That affirmation eventually allows him to feel trust in himself. He discovers, in the end, that virtue is defined by the accumulation of small acts of grace, and that he is—and always has been—a virtuous, an eminently trustworthy, man.

Nothing changes in Barnaby except his own self-perception. And yet, Tyler shows us, this change in perception may allow us to see the world as a bit less haphazard and incoherent, and to celebrate our place, however modest, on our own makeshift patch of the planet.

Joyce R. Durham (essay date fall 1998)

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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 stereotyping and gender shifts in American literature is no longer a new pursuit. In a chapter called “Psychoanalysis, Gender, and Fiction” from Feminine Fictions (1989), Patricia Waugh calls for a more complicated analysis of gender stereotypes in today's culture that will ultimately allow both men and women to “achieve a sense of identity which consists of accepting both connection and separation, so that neither is experienced as a threat” (86). Women writers, she feels, are exploring these themes, and we can turn to literature as one site of “the expression of the desire for, and fear of, such change” (87). More specifically, women writers who are exploring changing family contexts are providing relevant insights into the study of gender shifts in American fiction.

Many critics believe that it is southern women writers who are primarily responsible for keeping the family unit alive in novels. Susan Gilbert, in speaking of southern literature generally and the novels of Anne Tyler and other women writers specifically, confirms the view that fictional females bear the responsibility as well: “A distinct mark of Southern life, if not of Southern literature, prominent in Tyler's works is the degree to which families are female affairs” (256). Yet even more relevant here is the commentary of Doris Betts, modern southern fiction writer and critic, who maintains in the introduction to Southern Women Writers (1992) that “our [women novelists'] depiction of male characters is improving faster for us than in reverse for today's male novelists” (6). She goes on to point out that the “distinctions of both gender and region are blurring” (7). This “blurring” or blending of gender roles and, in fact, the treatment of how fictional families can be male affairs will be the subject of this discussion of Anne Tyler's 1991 novel, Saint Maybe.

Carol Gilligan, in her psychological study of women's development, In a Different Voice (1982), makes an important point about this shift in gender roles in American life: “The discovery now being celebrated by men in mid-life of the importance of intimacy, relationships, and care is something that women have known from the beginning” (17). Recent studies like Gilligan's from the social sciences, although certainly limited in their immediate application to fiction, have heightened our awareness of gender roles. Because they also allow us to see how fiction writers are reflecting the issues of conformity to or defiance of stereotypes outside the area of social science, they have presented fresh perspectives on those changes. In addition, although this discussion is restricted neither to a “southern” nor a “feminist” approach, epithets generally ignored by Anne Tyler herself, it is obvious that discussions of fictional male characters created by women writers owe a great debt to research from studies in both areas.

Anne Tyler, whose twelve novels have illustrated and endorsed the worth and importance of intimacy and concern about relationships, has in her past few novels, taken some care to create male protagonists who are concerned about how they relate to intimacy, family life, and personal relationships well before the midlife points Gilligan refers to. More recently, Tyler has carefully combined these masculine and feminine attributes and invested them in one of her most successful characters to date, Ian Bedloe, of the recent Saint Maybe. While Tyler has been reluctant to label herself a southern writer, Alice Petry comments: “Whether it is attributed to her Southern literary background or to her communal upbringing, from the outset of her career as a novelist Tyler has evinced a keen interest in the complicated relationship between the individual and the family” (23). It is no surprise to find this interest culminate in a masterful gender blending in her 1991 novel in which a young male leaves his education behind to assume a parental role usually attributed to the female.

Saint Maybe features Ian Bedloe, seventeen years old in 1965 in Anne Tyler's version of the South, Baltimore. After being responsible for his brother's death, he learns that guilt alone won't do; he must take on the care of his brother's children. Throughout the novel, Ian vacillates between resenting the role foisted upon him and accommodating to his new life defined by the children. In many ways, Ian is a “modern” man, no doubt a product of the women's movement and the men's movement, although those influences are as characteristically absent as are other social forces in the Tyler novels. Fortunately, expectations have changed considerably, and few readers would require extensive explanations or consider Ian's sacrifices and compromises even remotely eccentric. Perhaps it is also because Tyler earlier had set up a prototype in Ezra, the young caregiver from her 1982 novel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, who because of his own mistake for which his brother is blamed, is “left unforgiven—not relieved, as you might expect, but forever burdened” (122). Because he feels responsible for the dissolution of the family, he spends part of his life caring for his mother and the restaurant owner, Mrs. Scarlatti, and the other part trying to bring his family back together. As Mary Elkins points out, Ezra is “the earth-mother” (129). In another study of family relationships in Dinner [Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant], “Medusa Points and Contact Points,” Mary Robertson observes that the author “never uses gender stereotypes; men can be nurturing as well as women, and women can exhibit patriarchal attitudes” (132). Doris Betts has observed that later in Breathing Lessons (1988), published between Dinner and Saint Maybe, Tyler “dares make almost stereotyped assumptions about gender roles in America” (“Tyler's Marriage of Opposites” 11).

Nonetheless, as Tyler expands this earlier theme of guilt and focuses on the nurturing male in Saint Maybe, the exploration of assumptions about gender seems appropriate. When Ian impulsively releases “a handful of tossed-off words” (96), which cause his older brother Danny to commit suicide, his sister-in-law to follow suit, and his three nephews and nieces to be left in his charge, Ian's life takes a course that the reader is somewhat prepared for. When he turns to the Church of the Second Chance for consolation, Ian takes on the search for forgiveness and the care of the children. He hopes his own parents won't allow it, but they, in fact, encourage the arrangement.

Before the accident that changes his life, Ian exhibits rather pronounced stereotypical male traits. Tyler tells us: “He had always been very conscious of muscles” (14-15); he joyfully beats the children at their games; and at seventeen, he cares more about bedding down his girl-friend than he does the children. But as the novel commences, as Ian ages, and as his responsibilities grow, he takes on more characteristics of the female caregiver. Tyler has well prepared Ian (and the reader) for his own sacrifice. We learn that he has always identified with his mother, has baby-sat frequently for the children when their parents were alive, although he wonders even then “how people endured children on a long-term basis” (46), and reacts in typical female ways to their smells, the inconveniences they provide (“No wonder Lucy wanted a break!”) (27), and the importance of that care. The reader is reminded of Biff Brannon, a male character who frequently contemplates the dichotomy between the roles of the sexes and yearns to “mother” his young niece in Carson McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940). However, unlike Biff's feelings of sexual ambiguity, Ian's young manhood seems completely unchallenged as he contemplates the female role with awe, frustration, and, it would seem, resentment:

Women were the ones who held the reins, it emerged. Women were up close to things. Men stood off at one remove and were forced to accept women's reading of whatever happened. Probably this was what Ian's father had been trying to tell him in that talk they had a few years ago, but Ian hadn't fully understood it at the time.


It is clear as the story commences that Ian never gains a real understanding of the differences, even as he shares those reins and makes his own readings of the events in his family life, nor does a reader familiar with the Tyler portrayal of women seem to require further explanations. Unlike Carson McCullers, Tyler is not much interested in the psychological exploration of these differences, either. In a 1976 review called “Women Writers: Equal but Separate,” Tyler writes: “Only a portion of my life—and almost none of my writing life—is much affected by what sex I happen to be”; Saint Maybe gives no indication that she has become so affected. In this story, she is content to transfer “women's ways of knowing” to her male surrogate mother with no further ado. Even Ian's apparent attraction to Lucy and subsequent abandonment of sex throughout much of his life are only casually treated. In fact, Ian's virtual abstinence (cultivated quite self-consciously throughout the novel) lends to the androgynous nature of the character.

Metaphors, like character traits and themes, reappear from earlier works, with one recurring image linking Ian Bedloe to a female caregiver. In Celestial Navigation (1974), Tyler uses an image in which Mary Tell reflects on her own care-ridden life with the withdrawn Jeremy. She concludes, as Tyler herself apparently believes and as her females who are the accommodating creatures know, “We have such an ability to adjust to change! We are like amoebas, encompassing and ingesting and adapting and moving on, until enormous events become barely perceptible jogs in our life histories” (194). In Saint Maybe the image is repeatedly used by Ian, who becomes like that amoeba, “absorbing the fact of Danny's death” (88), and later feels unable to accommodate when he learns that he had maligned his sister-in-law, “the one last little dark dot I can't possibly absorb” (108). Even Mary Tell's situation, in which a Tyler female typically considers the feelings of others over her own and opts for the well being of those others, turns out, after all, to be only a temporary solution for Ian Bedloe. Initially Ian thinks that confessing his guilt to his parents “would make him feel better, all right, but it would make the others feel worse” (89). Yet when forced to defend his newly acquired religious zeal and need for atonement, Ian eventually tells his parents the truth. Even so, it is not his instinctive reaction to do so.

In her first novel, If Morning ever Comes, published in 1964, Tyler created another young man who leaves law school to assume responsibility for his family problems. However, when Ben Joe Hawkes does not find a receptive audience he bemoans, “Why can't they all just let me take care of them?” (145). Ultimately he discovers they can function without him and he remains a thwarted caregiver. Ian, however, leaves college after one semester and becomes apprenticed to a carpenter who allows him the freedom to commit himself as a successful primary “parent.” Few question his decision and even his own father had earlier observed quite matter-of-factly: “He looks downright domestic” (102). Likewise the reader, although aware that Ian somewhat resents the role foisted upon him, also realizes that it seems very natural to him. In fact, at the moment of his confession and his decision to be responsible for the children, Tyler has Ian discard the remnants of his past life, noticeably male objects: Playboy magazine, an ad for a record club, and a suggestive card from his roommate. At that moment, we are told, “He saw that he was beginning from scratch, from the very ground level, as low as he could get. It was a satisfaction, really” (140).

Like Tyler's wives and mothers in earlier novels, and unlike Ben Joe who leaves before he can be tested by any long-term claims on his parenting skills, Ian feels “stuck with these querulous children night after night after night” (104) even before he has full charge. At various other times Ian is reminded of the burdens of parenthood: when someone notes that the baby Daphne is “crazy” about him, he ruminates literally and, perhaps, somewhat metaphorically: “This child was far too heavy” (112). Ian drives the children to church camp, supervises their homework, and takes on all the traditional maternal duties. When his family, for a number of assorted reasons, becomes unable to act, it is invariably Ian who takes over. On one harried Christmas Eve, for example, when his mother neglects the usual holiday details, Ian “decided to take care of the whole lot,” including the laundry and gift wrapping (119). As “the scent of detergent and the smell of fresh linens filled the house,” he thinks, “It wasn't such a bad Christmas Eve after all” (120). Ian apparently feels altogether comfortable in his untraditional role and accommodates quite well.

Ian's preoccupation with Lucy's death imbues his thinking with traditionally female images. Listening in church to the minister's sermon on comfort, he thinks “like a healing balm. Ian pictured something white and semiliquid—the bottle of lotion his mother kept by the kitchen sink, say—pleasantly scented with almonds” (109). Interestingly, as Ian passes into middle age as a responsible parent figure, both father and mother, even some of his speech patterns and reactions seem more feminine than masculine. When he realizes that at forty-two, after rearing three now-grown children, he and his wife are expecting a child of their own that he must now also see to maturity, he responds: “Eighteen years; merciful heavens” (367).

While Ian has adapted, accommodated, absorbed, and comfortably evolved into a somewhat androgynous parental figure, the two other males in his family generally adhere to the traditional male role in terms of domestic duties, and act as foils to Ian throughout the novel. An early reference to his brother Danny's attitude toward wife Lucy, “No working wife for Danny” (9), sets the tone for the Bedloe men. A later description of Ian's father, a man who considers a handshake or a hug for his son and opts for a pat on the arm, confirms the attitude: he belonged, Tyler tells us, “to an era when the sight of a man holding a baby was considered humorous” (102), and he provides little help to Ian. As Ian becomes immersed in his new role, he is extremely critical of his father. “He felt irked to see his father drift behind Bee [mother] toward the stairs, although his knees were not arthritic and he might easily have stayed to help” (102). There is no mistaking Ian's attitude about the division of domestic duties. In fact, so completely has Ian taken over the ruling of the household that when his father does half-heartedly attempt to help with mopping the floor, Ian insists on doing it himself, leaving his father feeling both “miffed and relieved” (177). Later, when the father and son bury the family dog, Ian's usurpation of the total caretaker role becomes apparent as Doug admits, “He felt as if Ian were the grownup and he the child. It had been years, maybe all the years of his adulthood, since he had relied so thankfully on someone else's knowledge of what to do” (188). He admits that “it was a pity so much rested on Ian, but Ian was young. He had the energy. He hadn't reached the point yet where it just plain didn't seem worth the effort” (189-190). At other times, he openly criticizes one of his son's domestic decisions by referring to him as a “sucker” (183).

Later on in the novel when domesticity again begins to weigh too heavily, like some of Tyler's female characters, Ian dreams of better times, of his being a bachelor with “no one trailing behind to ask, ‘But how about us? Who will see to us? Who will find our socks for us and help with our history project?’” (211-212). At yet another point he becomes uncomfortable with the image he sees: “I'm wasting the only life I have! I have one single life in this universe and I'm not using it!” (235). But the children steadily reinforce his role. Even Agatha, the most cynical and suspicious of the lot, notes: “He's the one who keeps us all together” (237). The reader is again reminded of Ezra in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant who “was always so quick to catch his family's moods, and to offer food and drink and unspoken support” (73); however, Ian's role is that of a “male mother” who nourishes and supports children, not adults. Critics have been quick to point out that “Tyler's male characters don't feel so intensely about the young. This is a picture of adulthood in which women star” (Gullette 100); obviously, Ian has cast off this stereotype about Tyler's protagonists.

Yet Tyler provides an occasional reminder that not everyone is as comfortable as Ian is with his role reversal. For example, his nephew, the young Thomas, complains that while Ian is his favorite person in the whole world, “Ian had no soft nooks to him” (161), a fact which neither Tyler nor Ian can do much about. Even so, as Ian ages and the children grow up, Ian settles into a life in which the children “were all that gave his life color, and energy, and … well, life” (229). The children, however, see that the life that worked so well when they were young is limiting and even oppressing Ian. They express their fears that, as he ages, Ian would have only his parents: “He'll be taking care of them like always and shopping and driving the car and helping with the housework. What kind of life is that?” (250). It is clear that these objections reflect more concern about Ian's welfare than his parenting skills. Still, the burden is not these children, for the novel is really about the casting off of guilt and the usual Tyler theme of getting on with one's life in the best way one can. Near the end of the novel when Ian refuses to give up the care of the children to become minister of his church, even though two children have left home, the amoeba image appears again. Ian has reconciled himself with his church, his family, and himself, and as he pictures everyone as “small trusting dots among all the other dots,” (293), he continues to absorb them all.

The conclusion of Saint Maybe takes an odd turn, in some ways as if the author has been playing with us all along. Tyler assures her readers that while it may have been apparent that Ian has been head of this household, it has not been without its female influences. Agatha says the reason for the disarray when the grandmother dies can't be because of her, because “Ian's been in charge of the house for ages, hasn't he?” (301). We begin to ask ourselves that question, too. For the story in the end does then belong to the niece Daphne and Ian's new no-nonsense, take-charge wife, Rita the Clutter Counselor, who brings order once again to the household. Tyler gently but significantly tells her readers, “Now it seemed the household was completely taken over by women” (346). And there would be no mistaking that Ian has happily reverted to his male nature when he ruminates about the impending birth of his own child:

Last week he had signed the papers for Rita's hospital stay. She'd be in just overnight, if everything went as it should. On the first day he was liable for one dependent and on the second for two. Two? Then he realized: the baby. One person checks in; two check out. It seemed like sleight of hand.


This may be one of Tyler's finer epiphanies for a middle-aged character who is about to launch himself mysteriously and somewhat reluctantly yet again into parenthood, but it is hardly a sensitive understanding of the birth process. It is, however, first, one of the more familiar Tyler themes, reminiscent of an earlier husband's apparent stupefaction about such a female preoccupation in Celestial Navigation: “… Mary's pregnancies appeared to be entirely her own undertakings” (141). Second, it appears that Tyler is more interested in evoking the reader's compassion, pathos, and humor than in eliciting political or philosophical responses to the allocation of parental responsibilities in the story. A resulting effect is that by emphasizing Ian's arduous search for atonement, Tyler does relinquish the opportunity to draw her “new” male more carefully. As Brad Leithauser points out in his 1992 review, Tyler allows Ian to take the routine path of most of her heroes, men who “stand in danger of burying themselves, of settling so snugly into routine that they scarcely realize their souls are dying” (54). Yet a reasonable inference is that Tyler's characterization cannot be subjected to such limiting gender interpretations. Gullette concludes quite plausibly that “at bottom, Tyler presents the ideal pattern not so much as one chosen for us by our gender, or even determined by our stage in the life course, but as one each of us is bound to disclose in the course of our own peculiar journey” (108-109). Ian Bedloe might remain in Tyler's canon of eccentrics, but it is certainly not because he feels isolated by the gender role he has adopted. Leithauser elaborates on the author's efforts to say that “at a time when much literary criticism and theory stress the insuperable chasms that divide contemporary men and women, Tyler goes on creating male characters of immediate authenticity” (55), and most of her readers would agree that her candidate for dubious sainthood, Ian Bedloe, is no exception.

Sensitive, understanding male characters are not new to American literature, nor is Tyler alone in exploring the nurturing male. In Gail Godwin's novel, The Good Husband (1994), we are introduced to Francis Lake, the “sweetnatured,” “peaceful” and “undemanding” (43) caregiver who lives an Ezra/Ian-like existence. He explains his role: “I guess you could say we had an unconventional marriage. Or a very up-to-date marriage. Depending on your point of view” (431). Possibly it does remain there: depending on your point of view. Or possibly writers like Anne Tyler are recognizing, capturing, and even creating societal attitudes toward masculine and feminine behaviors that merit our attention to their points of view. Elizabeth Evans, in her study, Anne Tyler (1993), agrees. While acknowledging that neither Tyler's male nor female characters achieve an ideal balance, Evans also contends that “some of [Tyler's] major characters are able to tap the feelings and responses more often associated with the opposite gender” (143). Several years ago Harold Rosenberg argued against the “post-Hemingway he-man” and maintained, “With the cult of masculinity put aside, maleness might have a better chance to develop in the United States” (71-72). One important female thinker, Margaret Atwood, endorses this change: “What is there, when we're talking about men, is a state of change, new attitudes overlapping with old ones, no simple rules any more. Some exciting form of life may emerge from all this” (428). The emergence of Anne Tyler's fictional males in the last few years has helped redefine those attitudes and rules, adding a more complex dimension to her analysis of family relationships and certainly challenging readers' own concepts of sexual stereotyping.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “Writing the Male Character.” Second Words: Selected Critical Prose. Boston: Beacon P, 1984.

Betts, Doris. Introduction. Southern Women Writers: The New Generation. Ed. Tonette Bond Inge. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1992. 1-8.

———. “Tyler's Marriage of Opposites.” The Fiction of Anne Tyler. Ed. C. Ralph Stephens. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1990. 1-15.

Elkins, Mary J. “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant: Anne Tyler and the Faulkner Connection.” The Fiction of Anne Tyler. Ed. C. Ralph Stephens. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1990. 119-135.

Evans, Elizabeth. Anne Tyler. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Gilbert, Susan. “Anne Tyler.” Southern Women Writers: The New Generation. Ed. Tonette Bond Inge. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1992. 251-278.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1982.

Godwin, Gail. The Good Husband. New York: Ballantine, 1994.

Gullette, Margaret Morganroth. “Anne Tyler: The Tears (and Joys) Are in the Things.” The Fiction of Anne Tyler. Ed. C. Ralph Stephens. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1990. 97-109.

Leithauser, Brad. Rev. of Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler. The New York Review of Books 16 January 1992: 53-55.

Petry, Alice Hall. Understanding Anne Tyler. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1990.

Robertson, Mary. “Medusa Points and Contact Points.” Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies. Eds. Catherine Rainwater and William Scheick. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1985.

Rosenberg, Harold. “Masculinity: Style and Cult.” The Gender Reader. Eds. Evelyn Ashton-Jones and Gary A. Olson. Boston: Allyn, 1991. 68-75.

Tyler, Anne. Celestial Navigation. New York: Berkley, 1984.

———. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. New York: Berkley, 1983.

———. If Morning ever Comes. New York: Berkley, 1983.

———. Saint Maybe. New York: Ivy, 1991.

———. “Women Writers: Equal but Separate.” (rev. of Literary Women: The Great Writers), National Observer 15 (10 April 1976), 21.

Waugh, Patricia. Feminine Fictions: Revisiting the Postmoderns. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Cheryl Devon Coleman (essay date summer 2000)

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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 Arts and Letters, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for fiction by an American woman, O. Henry Awards, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a Pulitzer, Tyler is attracting an increasing amount of critical study. When evaluating her novels, critics often take note of her emphasis on characterization and the individual in the family. Tyler, in fact, has said, “‘As far as I'm concerned, character is everything. I never did see why I have to throw in a plot, too’” (qtd. in Willrich 511). To develop her characters, Tyler has chosen the method of placing them in familial relationships to show the influences upon them, to explain the motives for their actions, and often to show the effects of their decisions. In doing so, Tyler reveals attitudes about human nature, the consequences of flawed behavior, and the possibility of easing the resulting miseries of this life.

In his review of Saint Maybe (1991), Bruce Bawer writes that “Tyler has always, to be sure, manifested what might be called a Christian perspective. She takes a generally positive view of life; … she evinces a genuine love for her characters; and she finds meaning and beauty in the idea of brotherhood and Christ-like sacrifice” (1-2). To support his claim for Tyler's positive outlook, Bawer refers to Robert McPhillips' description of Tyler as “the most benign of our novelists” (150). If Bawer defines the word “Christian” in terms of a positive outlook, kindness, or brotherly love, then Tyler's own statements would seem to support his claim. After the publication of her first novel, If Morning ever Comes (1964), Tyler told Jorie Lueloff in an interview, “There aren't enough quiet, gentle, basically good people in a novel” (23). Sixteen years later, in her essay “Still Just Writing,” Tyler describes her “inside world” as a place “where people go on meaning well and surprising other people with little touches of grace” (15).

The characteristics of her novels cited by Bawer and Tyler's own remarks often lead critics either neutrally to note her “conviction of human goodness” (Voelker 3) or contemptuously to label her “our foremost NutraSweet novelist” (Blades 321). Even Bawer faults Tyler for what he calls her tendency to slip into sentimentality; in spite of a Christian perspective, he says, “her novels lack something central to Christianity; namely a profound awareness of what the Book of Common Prayer calls ‘evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God’” (2). However, there are readers of Tyler's fiction who note that, although she manifests what Doris Betts calls a “cheerfulness about her characters” (qtd. in Powell 29), there is a darker element at work as well.

Reynolds Price, Tyler's writing professor at Duke University, recognizes that Tyler is “‘wise and benign, but with the quality of deep melancholy in her work—a powerful combination that renders her work anything but sunny in a sentimental way’” (qtd. in Evans 9). The quality of melancholy that he notes can be attributed to the wisdom that he also detects. It is a wisdom about human nature and the human experience. It is true, as Bawer notes, that Tyler is “loath to probe too deeply into the heart of darkness” (2). However, even though she tries to emphasize the gentleness and kind intentions of human beings, at the same time she consistently portrays the existence and consequences of her characters' mistakes and the need for some means of relief from the resulting misery and unrest. Tyler's fictional world and those who people it are flawed.

When Bawer claims that Tyler has a Christian perspective, I would agree with him, but not for the reasons he states. To him the term “Christian” seems to suggest the virtues of benevolence, brotherhood, and affirmation. To me the term suggests a biblically oriented view of humankind's fallen state and its need for redemption through Christ by faith. For that reason I would not call Tyler's novels Christian or label her a Christian novelist. Tyler herself has said that the life of a born-again Christian “‘is a kind of life very different from mine’” (qtd. in Willrich 510). Further, she states that “if I were remotely religious, I'd believe that a little gathering of my characters would be waiting for me in heaven when I died” (“Still Just” 12). Thus, even though Tyler makes no claim of any religious beliefs (in spite of her Quaker upbringing), I agree with Bawer's choice of the term “Christian perspective.” In keeping with T. S. Eliot's proposition that “literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint” (142), I approach Tyler's novels from the framework of an orthodox Christian perspective.

In American Literature and Christian Doctrine, Randall Stewart proposes that “whether one's standpoint is Calvinist or Arminian, Puritan or non-Puritan, Protestant, Anglican, or Catholic,” certain basic assumptions define Christian orthodoxy:

(1) the sovereignty of God (God is infinitely wise, powerful, loving, and just, and is truly sovereign in His world); (2) the divinity of Christ (Jesus is the only begotten Son of God); (3) Original Sin (the natural man is imperfect, fallible, prone to evil); (4) the Atonement (natural man is redeemed through faith in the efficacy of Christ's atoning death); [and] (5) the inspiration of the Scriptures (the Bible is God's revealed Word)


Also pertinent here is Michael Edwards' observation that, “if the biblical reading of life is in any way true, literature will be drawn strongly towards it. Eden, Fall, Transformation, in whatever guise, will emerge in literature as everywhere else” (12). In spite of the obvious sympathy that Tyler displays for the characters in her novels, she repeatedly portrays flawed humanity in a flawed world. Further, in all of her novels, with the possible exception of Celestial Navigation (1974), she provides some type of metaphorical, if not literal, redemption or salvation for these flawed and suffering individuals. In both The Clock Winder (1972) and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), for example, Tyler creates characters who suffer not only from their own mistakes but from the sins of their parents as well and who therefore are in need of transformation, or metaphorical salvation, as a result. Through the characters of Elizabeth Abbott and Cody Tull one can perceive parallels between Tyler's depiction of the plight of humanity and the biblical pattern of cause and effect: sin, its consequences, and the need for transformation through redemption.

When The Clock Winder opens, Elizabeth Abbott is a twenty-two-year-old drifter who happily accepts the job of handyman for Mrs. Pamela Emerson, a widow living in Baltimore's Roland Park. She is a fitting example of the type of person whom Jake in Tyler's Earthly Possessions (1977) is describing when he says, “‘Any time you see someone running, it's their old, faulty self they're running from. Or other people's notion of their faulty self’” (157). Elizabeth is running from the reputation that she had acquired with her parents in Ellington, North Carolina.

Reverend and Mrs. Abbott are typical Tyler parents—well meaning but flawed. They obviously care about their daughter and want the best for her; the trouble seems to lie in their assumption that they know what would be best for her. Tyler typically does not portray ministers favorably since the influence that they have over people concerns her. When asked by Wendy Lamb in an interview about her characterization of ministers, Tyler responded, “It's not that I have anything against ministers, but that I'm particularly concerned with how much right anyone has to change someone, and ministers are people who feel they have that right” (55). Elizabeth reflects Tyler's personal views when she remembers the annual tent revivals that her father held every August. Each fall Elizabeth would be resentful over the emotional responses of the congregation and how the morning after the revival her father and the guest evangelist would sit at breakfast “calmly buttering buckwheat muffins, never giving a thought to what they had caused” (150). Unfortunately for Elizabeth, however, his function as a minister also affects his role as her father.

Reverend Abbott is described as “tall and handsome and frightening” (220). He is stiffly formal even at home, requesting that Elizabeth come to his study and sit on the other side of his desk when he wants to discuss her lack of ambition. Insisting that Elizabeth call him “Father,” he literally flinches when once she reaches out to him affectionately and forgetfully calls him “Pop” (169). By his wife's own admission, he is guilty of pride; and when he argues with Elizabeth, thus precipitating her escape to Baltimore, he not only refuses to let her know that he is hurt but also maintains that Elizabeth must apologize first. He clearly loves her and later tries to reach out to her when she returns home from Baltimore after Timothy Emerson's death, but his disappointment in Elizabeth hangs between them like a sheet, preventing any real communication.

Her mother also is disappointed in Elizabeth and is unable to understand why she cannot be more like her cute, sweet, younger sister, Polly. Mrs. Abbott is an efficient and practical minister's wife, who cheerfully performs her duties as wife and mother but without much warmth. She continuously urges Elizabeth to conform to her father's expectations and does not hesitate to express her own disappointment. In a letter to Elizabeth she writes, “Mrs. Bennett talking the other day said there is always one in every family that causes twice as much worry as all the others, not that you would love them any the less for it[;] well, I knew what she meant although of course I didn't say so” (37). Together Reverend and Mrs. Abbott are presented as parents who are as baffled by one daughter's disappointing behavior as they are proud of their younger daughter's adherence to their ideals of behavior, which consist mainly of getting married and having a baby. Because Elizabeth does not conform, her parents are, according to Joseph Voelker, “inexhaustible in their cataloging of her derelictions of duty” (63).

At home in Ellington, Elizabeth fails to measure up in any way. A “born fumbler and crasher and dropper of precious objects” (79), she regards herself as a “bumbler” (87) and a “trial” to her father (63). It hurts her to know that she is “a thorn in his side [for] not being religious” (62). As a result, she tries to spite him, a reaction that simply serves to alienate them further. In fact, the argument that initiated her flight to Baltimore was the result of Elizabeth's insistence, because she knows how much it will upset her father, that she believes in reincarnation. When she returns home after Timothy Emerson's death, she makes a batch of wine, partly out of “sheer devilment” because “she liked the idea of strong spirits bubbling in Reverend Abbott's basement” (154). An unfortunate cycle of cause and effect is at work in the Abbott family as the parents' failures result in unhappiness and unrest for Elizabeth, who wants their approval but cannot help deliberately antagonizing them in her failure to receive unconditional love from them.

Furthermore, as a result of her failure to live up to her parents' expectations, Elizabeth resists commitment to any situation or personal relationship because of the obligations that might ensue. If she remains uninvolved, then there is less likelihood of feeling as though she is failing or disappointing anyone. Also, because she resents her parents' standards, she does not want to influence anyone else's life in any way. She does not want to involve herself with children in any capacity because, as she tells Mrs. Emerson, “‘don't like people you can have so much effect on’” (14). In other words, Elizabeth's life has become stunted as a result of her relationship with her parents and their unfortunate habit of trying to change her into someone she is not.

Elizabeth's metaphorical salvation, or rebirth, is set in motion when she begins working for Mrs. Emerson in Baltimore, but it is not complete until five years later when she returns to Roland Park. Tyler's depiction of Elizabeth's experience is of particular interest because of parallels to the “process of Christian conversion, involving illumination, regeneration, and the transformation of the will.” The concept of illumination is described in the Westminster Confession as Christ's intervention in the lives of those who are in a “‘state of sin or death’” by “‘enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God’” (“Effectual”). Regeneration is the act of rebirth described in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” In order for regeneration to take place, however, atonement for sin must be made since “without shedding of blood there is no remission” of sin (Heb. 9:22) because God had told the Israelites that “it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul” (Lev. 17:11). A consequence of regeneration is the transformation of the will, through which “a sinner turns away from the former pattern of living and receives Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, to start a new life” as a member of the family of Christ (“Effectual”).

Elizabeth's conversion will not be Christian in nature, but it will result in a type of rebirth and membership in a new family. As noted above, her illumination begins when she becomes Mrs. Emerson's employee. At home in Ellington, Elizabeth views herself as unacceptable: she has not finished college; she has failed to marry; she is thought to be aimless and slothful; and, even worse in her father's eyes, she is an unbeliever. However, in Roland Park with Mrs. Emerson, Elizabeth begins to see herself as industrious, capable, and dependable. She recognizes that from the moment she had “first climbed those [Emerson] porch steps, … she had possessed miraculous repairing powers” (79). She is adroit with all the restoration the decaying Emerson house needs, and she almost imperceptibly becomes indispensable to Mrs. Emerson. Theresa Kanoza points out that since “Mrs. Emerson knows nothing of Elizabeth's past [she] thus frees the young woman from her history of failure to blossom into a competent caretaker” (30). Although Elizabeth becomes annoyed by Mrs. Emerson's increasing reliance on her, she asks herself if she really wants to “lose the one person who leaned on her and go back to being a bumbler” (87). Therefore, Elizabeth remains in Baltimore and gradually begins to gain confidence in her powers and to see herself in a new way, a change that results in her gradual connections not only with Mrs. Emerson but also with two of her sons, Timothy and Matthew.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth's illumination is abruptly postponed when she inadvertently participates in the death of Timothy Emerson. By trying to prevent his suicide, she unwittingly helps to bring it about. Instantly, with that one gunshot, all the progress she has made is undone. She blames herself for the death and assumes that Mrs. Emerson will blame her as well. To Elizabeth the accident is a confirmation that she should remain uninvolved in the lives of others. She later tells Margaret Emerson, Timothy's sister, that the whole family expected too much of her: “‘They were always asking me to do something. … Step in. Take some action, pour out some feeling. And when I didn't, they got mad. Then once, one time, I did do something. And what a mess. It was like I'd blundered onto the stage in the middle of a play. What a mess it made!’” (215). She had acted against her judgment and had allowed herself to become involved in the Emerson family's lives. Keeping her promise to herself that “at the first mistake, … she would move on” (87), she leaves Baltimore. Instead of moving on to a different situation, however, she returns home in defeat to Ellington.

Once home, to placate her parents, Elizabeth accepts a job caring for a dying elderly man. Even though she had been a model of efficiency in Baltimore, she has lost her confidence and worries constantly about her effect on the old man. “Wasn't he sinking awfully fast?” she questions herself. “Just since she had come here? … Maybe she was the worst thing in the world for him.” She is frightened by the prospect of hastening anyone else's death, so she fights to sustain his life; but “she was fighting for herself as well—for her picture of herself as someone who was being of use, and who would never cause an old man harm” (185). Elizabeth has regressed and again shuns connections and attachments with others. When Matthew Emerson arrives and tries to persuade Elizabeth to return to Baltimore with him, he notices the difference in her: “‘Everything about you has changed. I don't understand it. There's something muffled about you’” (192). What he senses is the distance that Elizabeth sets up to avoid pain, disappointment, and further causes for guilt.

Fortunately, even though Elizabeth's process of illumination temporarily stalls after Timothy's death, it eventually continues years after her return to North Carolina. After the death of Mr. Cunningham, the elderly man she was caring for, Elizabeth is working in a crafts shop when she happens to look out the window during a parade. Watching the parents with their children, she begins to consider how “for every grownup you see, you know there must have been at least one person who had the patience to lug them around, and feed them, and walk them nights and keep them out of danger for years and years, without a break.” It is a significant moment of enlightenment for Elizabeth, who then asks herself:

What am I doing up here, anyway? Up in this shop where I'm bored stiff? And never moving on into something else, for fear of some harm I might cause? You'd think I was some kind of special case, … but I'm not! I'm like all the people I'm sitting here gawking at, and I might just as well stumble on out and join them!


Immediately after cautiously merging back into the traffic of involvement, she finds work as a crafts instructor at a reform school in Virginia. Two years later, when, at the request of the Emerson children, she returns to Baltimore to nurse Mrs. Emerson who has had a stroke, her rebirth is completed.

By the time Elizabeth returns to the Emersons' Roland Park home, her attitude has already changed enough that when Mrs. Emerson laments to her, “‘We are falling to pieces around here,’” Elizabeth's response is not one of defensive withdrawal as though Mrs. Emerson is expecting something from her. Elizabeth responds with a laugh, telling Mrs. Emerson, “‘So are most people’” (239). She is beginning to take life and its consequences less seriously, but she still has reservations about becoming involved with the Emersons. She worries that she “should be back in Virginia, doing what felt right to her. Instead here she was pretending to play chess [with Mrs. Emerson], and all because she liked to picture herself coming to people's rescue” (259). She also believes that Timothy's emotionally unstable brother Andrew, who has threatened her life because of her involvement in his brother's death, “had summed her up. He was afraid to leave his family in her hands. He alone, of all the Emersons, knew that she was the kind of person who went through life causing clatter and spills and permanent damage” (264). Elizabeth still believes herself to be unfit for others ultimately to rely on. Something else is needed to complete Elizabeth's conversion into a person who can successfully commit to others without fear and uncertainty.

Elizabeth's regeneration is accomplished, as with Christian rebirth, through the shedding of blood. Carrying through with his threats, Andrew Emerson shoots Elizabeth for her role in his brother's death. She receives only a flesh wound; and true to Tyler's ironic sense of humor, Andrew's response immediately after shooting her is to ask, “‘Oh, Elizabeth. … Did I hurt you?’” (280). The wound frees Elizabeth not only from the guilt of believing that she could have stopped Timothy's suicide, but also from her fear of affecting the lives of other people. As she watches the doctor treat her injury, she thinks, “Now we are even, no Emersons will look at me ever again as if I owe them something; now I know nothing I can do will change a bullet in its course” (281). She believes that her own loss of blood atones for her role in Timothy's death, and she is finally able to forgive herself. Before this moment Elizabeth was an unwilling onlooker, an outsider, but she is now reborn. She leaves the doctor's office laughing and opens the car door “to pile in among a tangle of other Emersons” (282). Figuratively she is just another Emerson; and Mrs. Emerson who, after her stroke, is unable to say “Elizabeth,” even christens her with a new name—Gillespie.

As in Christian conversion, where a transformation of the will follows regeneration, Elizabeth's conversion leads her to abandon her former habit of resisting connections or commitment. She finally accepts Matthew Emerson's marriage proposal and becomes a wife and eventually the mother of two, thus completing the transformation of Elizabeth Abbott into Gillespie Emerson.

There are, of course, critics who consider the ending of The Clock Winder unsatisfactory or sad. Sara Blackburn says in a review that the conclusion “smacks of a group of hurt and inept people propping one another up to live a bearable, cozy life.” Margaret Morganroth Gullette feels that “Tyler doesn't convince us that the Emerson family can be a desirable place for Elizabeth to dwell” (104), while Alice Hall Petry argues that Tyler did not intend to convince us. Characterizing the Emersons' final dependence on Elizabeth as “tragic,” Petry calls critics who agree with her “astute” for realizing that Elizabeth's settling in with the Emersons is intentionally sad, and she enlists Tyler's own comments regarding the novel to support her contention (Understanding 93).1 Petry refers to Tyler's interview with Clifford Ridley three months after the publication of The Clock Winder. During that conversation Tyler told Ridley, “I think Elizabeth does herself irreparable damage in not going farther than she does, but on the other hand what she does is the best and happiest thing for her. I think of it as a sad ending, and I've been surprised that not everybody does” (27).

I find the conclusion satisfactory, not only for the Emerson family but for Elizabeth as well. Mrs. Emerson is clearly happy to be surrounded by so many members of her family, and Andrew has noticeably improved. When Elizabeth had first arrived in Baltimore, Andrew was living in New York, under the care of a psychiatrist who would not allow him to return home and “expose himself to upset.” His mother describes him as “a little bit unbalanced,” but Elizabeth assesses the situation and announces, “‘It sounds … as if he's in somebody's clutches’” (19). Once she and Matthew marry, Andrew does return home, and five years later Tyler describes him as “mellowed; he had calmed and softened” (296). His and his mother's dependence on Elizabeth is obvious, but Elizabeth had desired all along to believe that she was capable of rescuing others without causing harm. No longer a “bumbler,” she is instead “a juggler of supplies, obtaining and distributing all her family needed” (310).

Furthermore, rather than stifling her, Elizabeth's marriage to Matthew gives her the opportunity to open herself up to others and make connections that will fulfill her own longings to be capable and dependable, as well as to supply the needs of others—perhaps even placing their needs before her own in a form of service or ministration. Kanoza cites Annis Pratt's definition of a “‘rare marriage of equality’” as “‘a union which liberates rather than limits’” in describing the marriage between Elizabeth and Matthew. Kanoza goes on to add that, “though she is clearly the family caretaker and her husband Matthew the breadwinner, the two transcend gender stereotypes to achieve a reciprocity which all the while preserves their individual identities” (32). Instead of living a life of fear, isolated from meaningful connections with those around her, Elizabeth has been reborn into a life of both giving and receiving.

Surrounded by all the confusion of those “crazy” Emersons (26), Elizabeth is finally happy and fulfilled. When the youngest Emerson brother, Peter, expresses his doubt about his own choice of a wife, he tells Elizabeth, or Gillespie as she is now called, that his family thinks he has made a mistake and he wonders if they might be right. “‘You shouldn't hope for anything from someone that much different from your family,’” he says. “‘You should if your family doesn't have it,’” Elizabeth responds (311), and she is in a position to know. She has opened herself to a connection with the Emerson family because they offer her something that her own family does not. Elizabeth Abbott, reborn as Gillespie Emerson, nurses her baby at the end of the novel, “sitting peacefully with her blouse unbuttoned like a broad golden madonna” (309). Nothing about that transformation strikes me as sad. Tyler has provided a means for The Clock Winder's protagonist to overcome the cycle of disappointment and failure that her parents had established for her and to achieve a type of metaphorical redemption through a new identity altogether. Elizabeth's, or Gillespie's, altered vision of herself is similar to the change in perspective that occurs later in another of Tyler's novels, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

Cody Tull in this 1982 work is probably the most troubled soul in all of Tyler's fiction. His parents sin grievously against him, and the consequences of their mistakes are many and far-reaching. He is also the character in Tyler's novels, other than his own mother, who after being sinned against sins most. A miserable, bitter person, both as child and adult, Cody receives metaphorical salvation only in the final scene of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant—salvation through forgiveness that frees him from his guilt and allows him to salvage his past by seeing it in a different light.

In spite of her love for them, Pearl Tull's sins against Cody and her two other children, Jenny and Ezra, are many. Each child is affected in different ways, and with varying results, by her anger—Ezra by its overemotional nature and Jenny by its ferocity—and by her lack of emotional warmth. Like his siblings Cody, as a child, suffered from Pearl's anger and her severe nature but also from her preference for Ezra.

While Ezra reacted to his mother's abuse by becoming wary of any emotional displays, and Jenny became fearful and timid, Cody personalized her rages and believed that he was the cause. Petry observes that “Cody seem[ed] unable to comprehend either that Pearl love[d] him, or that her abusive outbursts resulted not from hatred of him but from the frustration of not being able to provide for him properly” (Understanding 191). It seems likely that Cody assumed the blame for Pearl's anger because, as I will explain, he felt guilty for his father's desertion. Thus, he appears to believe that Pearl, blaming him for his father's absence, lashed out at him in anger and that his siblings were merely caught in the crossfire. After all, during her tirades, when she would call them “neighborhood savages,” Cody knew that he was the only one of the three who could possibly fit that description (51). The consequence of his mother's anger and his feeling of responsibility was that Cody feels unlovable and unacceptable, not to mention unable to measure up to his younger brother Ezra, who was the epitome of goodness.

As with Ezra and Jenny, Cody also suffered from his mother's emotional detachment and severe nature. Ezra and Jenny longed for the loving maternal warmth that Josiah Payson, Ezra's best friend, enjoyed, and they wished that Pearl could be more like Mrs. Payson. Cody longed for Pearl to be more motherly—both in appearance and in personality. She worked in a neighborhood store, Sweeney Brothers Grocery, as a cashier, and Cody was aware that she was known in the neighborhood as “Sweeney Meanie”: “Tight little bun on the back of her head. Mouth like it's holding straight pins. Anybody dawdles, tries to pass the time of day, she'll say, ‘Move along, please. Please move along’” (45). She completely discouraged friendly relations with neighbors and encouraged a sense of isolation in her children by telling them, “‘We Tulls depend on ourselves, only on each other. We don't look to the rest of the world for any help whatsoever’” (94). As a result, Cody felt that he was “an outsider, unfamiliar with the neighborhood” (58). He compared his mother to the mothers of his friends and was resentful of the difference: “What he wouldn't give to have a mother who acted like other mothers! He longed to see her gossiping with a little gang of women in the kitchen, letting them roll her hair up in pincurls, trading beauty secrets, playing cards”—all activities at which Pearl would have scoffed (59). Cody resented his mother for her isolationism and independence because he sensed that he was set apart and less comfortable with himself and others than his friends were.

Perhaps Pearl's most serious sin against Cody, and the one with the most tragic consequences, is her favoritism toward Ezra. Pearl loves all three of her children, but because of Ezra's docile, loving nature, she was drawn more to him than to Cody or Jenny. He was the one who was the most open with her, so she favored him not because she loved him more but because he was the easiest to love. It is ironic that Cody resented her for favoring Ezra: in his bitterness he became harder to love himself, only exacerbating the situation that he actually wanted to remedy. Rather than trying to become more loving and kind himself, he tortured Ezra, causing Pearl to try to protect Ezra even more. It was a vicious cycle with unfortunate consequences. Cody tried to discredit Ezra in his mother's eyes in order to elevate himself in her esteem, but his reward was to have his mother tell him, “‘You've been mean since the day you were born’” (64). Ironically, the more he tortured his brother, the more he made a martyr out of Ezra, making his brother look more angelic and himself more devilish. Unfortunately for Cody, his mother's flaws and their consequences are not the only ones from which he suffered. Unlike Ezra and Jenny, who seemed only minimally and indirectly affected by their father's absence, Cody was old enough at the time of Beck's desertion for the sins of his father to wound him deeply.

The dreams that Cody had of Beck as a teenager reflect the consequences of his abandonment. He would dream that Beck was home again and that he himself was a toddler once more, “rushing around on tiny, fat legs, feverishly showing off. ‘See this? And this? See me somersault? See me pull my wagon?’ His smallness colored every act; he was conscious of a desperate need to learn to manage, to take charge of his surroundings.” When Cody awakened, he would think of “how it would be if his father returned when Cody was a man. ‘Look at what I've accomplished,’ Cody would tell him. ‘Notice where I've got to, how far I've come without you’” (47). Therefore, Cody both resented Beck's absence and desired to win his father's attention and approval. Furthermore, since he had so little control of his childhood, Cody became obsessed with a desire to control his environment.

The last and probably the most agonizing consequence of Beck's sin was Cody's guilt. When Cody imagined his father's return, he also thought of asking, “Was it something I said? Was it something I did? Was it something I didn't do, that made you go away?” (47). His father had been critical of Cody on their final family outing when he tried to teach his son to use a bow and arrow. Cody shot his first arrow before Beck told him to, and it bounced off the target. Beck's response was, “‘Like always, you just had to jump on in. Impulsive. Had to have it your way. When are you going to start keeping a better rein on yourself?’” (37). Even worse, after Beck gave Ezra a turn and he split an arrow that was at the center of the bull's-eye, Beck told Cody: “‘This just goes to show that it pays to follow instructions. See there, Cody? … A bull's-eye. I'll be damned. If you'd listened close like Ezra did, and not gone off half-cocked. …’” (38). And then, of course, there's the fact that Cody accidentally shot Pearl in the shoulder with an arrow that day, adding to his memories of failures. Just as Cody personalized Pearl's anger, so he believed that his father must have left because of his many mistakes.

Therefore, the adult Cody carries a tremendous burden of pain, bitterness, resentment, and guilt as a result of his parents' actions. He suffers from poor self-esteem concealed by a mask of impassivity. He is driven and miserable, incapable of enjoyment except for the triumph of competition, and he is still jealous of Ezra, whom he considers his “oldest enemy” (152). Little does he realize that he is his own worst enemy. Handsome and successful, Cody sees himself still as “his ragged, dirty, unloved younger self, with failing grades, with a U in deportment” (131). Even more destructive than his self-image, however, is his tendency to perceive himself as victim in all the circumstances of his past and present. “‘Listen, now. This really happened.’ That was the way he always introduced his childhood. ‘This really happened,’ he would say, as if it were unthinkable, beyond belief, but then what followed never seemed so terrible” (219).

Cody has an entire repertoire of stories from his childhood, ranging from incidents in which he believes Pearl displayed her favoritism for Ezra to times when he says all of his girlfriends fell for Ezra. When he recites each incident, however, it is obvious to an impartial listener that Cody either twists or overlooks details to maintain his beleaguered status. For example, one of his narratives describes the Christmas he gave Pearl a ticket to visit one of her childhood friends and she refused it. What he ignores is that, when he chose the date of her trip, he picked Ezra's birthday. When Pearl refused to be absent during Ezra's birthday, she gave Cody the ammunition he would need for a lifetime of accusations of favoritism. Years later he is still telling the story: “‘She wouldn't leave her precious boy on his birthday! Not even to visit her oldest, dearest, only friend, that her other boy had given her a ticket for. … She wouldn't leave Ezra, her favorite. Me or my sister, she would surely leave’” (220). As Voelker observes, “Cody's paranoid view of his childhood always rests on objective events, things that ‘really happened,’ while he remains blind to his own subjective, distorting role in the chronicling of them” (141).

It is no surprise that Cody is described as “a cuticle chewer, a floor pacer, a hair rummager. No wonder, when he slept at night, he ground his teeth so hard that his jaws ached every morning” (133). Bitter, paranoid, suspicious, and jealous, Cody still believes that he is in competition with Ezra—in a “neck and neck struggle” (151) that he attempts to win by stealing Ezra's fiancée. Ruth is not the type of woman who normally attracts Cody, but what he finds enticing about her is that she belongs to Ezra. Curiously, Cody's betrayal of his brother reveals his ironic desire to be more like Ezra. When he and Ruth are on the train to New York where they will marry, Cody remembers one of his former girlfriends who had not cared for Ezra. He remembered her “reciting Ezra's faults—a motherly man, she'd said; what had she said?—and it occurred to him that the reason he had dropped her was, she really hadn't understood Ezra; she hadn't appreciated what he was all about” (166).

Petry maintains that, “by obtaining Ruth, Cody is … expressing not envy or hatred, but love for his brother Ezra.” In fact, Petry goes so far as to claim that Cody's motives in marrying Ruth “are not malicious” (193), but her assessment is too generous. Mary F. Robertson concurs with Petry, stating that “Cody's hate is just the outer skin that hides his eternal longing to be like Ezra” (131). Cody's thoughts on the train seem to validate Petry's and Robertson's claims of his love for and longing to be like Ezra. As annoyed as he always has been by Ezra's playing songs on his pearwood recorder, when he hears the train whistle it is a “sound that [takes] him by surprise. He honestly believe[s], for an instant, that what he'd heard was music—a tune piped, a burble of notes, a little scrap of melody floating by on the wind and breaking his heart” (166). He loves Ezra, but he is so trapped by the pain stemming from his childhood that it controls him and twists his love into jealousy and suspicion. Dissatisfied with himself, he desires to be like Ezra; angered when he cannot be, he must ease his pain in any way he can—if not by becoming more like Ezra, then through trying to slip into Ezra's life by stealing the woman he loves.

The marriage, however, has disastrous consequences for both Ezra and Cody. It breaks Ezra's heart, of course, and does not bring Cody the satisfaction that he hopes it will because afterwards he is constantly suspicious of Ezra and Ruth. He suspects Ruth of wanting to return to Ezra and suspects Ezra of trying to steal his son Luke. He refuses Pearl's invitations to stay overnight when he returns home, telling her: “‘I can't stay here; this place is not safe. Don't you see what Ezra's up to? … Don't you see he's out to steal my son?’ he asked. ‘The same way he always stole everybody? Don't you see?’” (184). The irony of his paranoia is lost on Cody, who seems to project his own sins onto others.

Unfortunately, Cody wounds more than himself, Ruth, and Ezra by his ravings. The “sins of the fathers” are visited upon yet another generation when Cody begins to transfer his resentment of Ezra to Luke, who has the misfortune of resembling Ezra both physically and temperamentally. When Cody hears Luke playing a tune on a whistle, he asks if Luke is trying to torment him:

You're haunting me, isn't that it? I can't get away from him! I spend half my life with meek-and-mild Ezra and his blasted wooden whistle; I make my escape at last, and now look: here we go again. It's like a conspiracy! Like some kind of plot where someone decided, long before I was born, I would live out my days surrounded by people who were … nicer than I am, just naturally nicer without even having to try, people that other people preferred.


Cody's pain is palpable, and any objective listener could hear the self-reproach behind his words, but Luke is not objective. In fact, he is still a child who simply hears criticism from his father. Unfortunately for Luke, he is also subjected to overhearing Cody accusing Ruth of still caring for Ezra—“‘Married or not, you've always loved Ezra better than me’”—and, even worse, asking her, “‘Admit it. … Isn't Ezra the real, true father of Luke?’” after which Luke runs away to Ezra and his grandmother (226). Thus, not only does Cody hurt his son and perpetuate the sins committed against him in childhood, but he also ironically causes Luke to seemingly verify Cody's suspicions when he runs away to stay with Ezra.

A further ironic consequence of Cody's childhood is that his home environment follows him into his own adulthood, just as it did with his sister Jenny. As a child he had resented both his mother's severity and the way it manifested itself in her home: “There was something pinched and starved about the way this house was decorated. Not a single perfume bottle or china figurine sat upon his mother's bureau. No pictures hung on the walls. Even the bedside tables were bare. … Who wouldn't leave such a place,” he thought as he wondered if his father would ever return (42). Robertson points out that Cody is “the classic example of the child who unwittingly replicates the very childhood conditions he tries to flee” (131). As an efficiency expert Cody travels from city to city and rents temporary housing wherever he happens to be working—sterile houses that lack homeyness and reflect nothing of Cody and his family. When Pearl visits them in Chicago, she notices that although the house is

… expensive, with wall-to-wall carpeting and long, low, modern furniture, … there were no trees anywhere nearby, not even a bush or a shrub—just that raw brick cube rising starkly from the flatness. And outside it was so white-hot, so insufferably hot, that they were confined to the house with its artificial, refrigerated air. They were imprisoned by the house, dependent upon it like spacemen in a spaceship.


Not only do they move to a succession of houses that are filled with other people's belongings, but Luke is also forced to grow up as an outsider in each home. Because they constantly move to new neighborhoods, Luke is always unfamiliar with his neighborhood and the other children. It is uncanny that his situation so closely resembles Cody's isolation as a child.

Pearl also notices the lack of intimacy between Luke and Ruth but fails to recognize the ironic replication of her own marriage: “She felt in their house the thin, tight atmosphere of an unhappy marriage. Not a really terrible marriage—no sign of hatred, spitefulness, violence. Just a sense of something missing. A certain failure to connect, between the two of them” (178). Like Jenny, who had begun to repeat her mother's sins by abusing her own daughter, Cody relives a past that he hated. Unlike Jenny, however, he seems incapable of recognizing the similarities between his own marriage and home life and those of his parents; nor is he able to recognize his own sins. He resents his mother but is unable to see how much he is truly like her. He is in need of salvation—from his past and from himself.

Ironically, Pearl and Beck both become instruments of Cody's salvation. It is through Pearl's death that she helps her son by requesting that Beck be invited to her funeral. In a novel full of irony, it is no surprise that the closing hymn Pearl had requested in her funeral instructions was “We'll Understand It All By and By” (286) since shortly after the funeral Cody receives, like a gift, the missing pieces to his parents' separation—pieces that completely alter his vision of himself, his mother, and his childhood, finally releasing him from his guilt.

During the dinner at Ezra's restaurant following the funeral, the moment arrives that Cody has been waiting for ever since Beck abandoned his family. Ezra describes Cody's job as an efficiency expert to Beck and tells him, “‘He's one of the very best. … He's always getting written up in articles.’” Beck responds, “‘Is that so. Well, I sure am proud of you, son.’” Cody, however, is instantly deflated as the long-awaited moment fails to bring him the satisfaction that he had anticipated: “Cody had a sudden intimation that tomorrow, it would be more than he could manage to drag himself off to work. His success had finally filled its purpose. Was this all he had been striving for—this one brief moment of respect flitting across his father's face?” (291). In his pain and disappointment Cody reacts the way he always does—he attempts to make others as miserable as he is. He refuses to allow Beck to revel in any happiness at the sight of those gathered with him. When Beck says that “‘it looks like this is one of those great big, jolly, noisy, rambling … why, families!’” Cody lashes out at him and insists that Beck view them all through his own negative and cynical perspective on reality. Hours after his mother's funeral he tells Beck, “‘You think we're a family. … You think we're some jolly, situation-comedy family when we're in particles, torn apart, torn all over the place, and our mother was a witch’” (294). Furthermore, he lets Beck know that the family no longer considers him a member.

When Beck quietly leaves the restaurant unnoticed after Cody's tirade, Cody feels remorse over what he has done: “Inwardly, … he felt chastened. He thought of times in grade school when he'd teased some classmate to tears, taken things a little too far, and then looked around to find that all of his friends had stopped laughing” (297). His contrition is a saving grace that leads him to join the others who go in search of Beck. Cody, appropriately, is the one who finds Beck, and he finally appeals to his father to explain how he could have abandoned his children: “‘How could you do that?’ Cody ask[s] him. ‘How could you just dump us on our mother's mercy? … We were kids, we were only kids, we had no way of protecting ourselves. We looked to you for help. We listened for your step at the door so we'd be safe, but you just turned your back on us. You didn't lift a finger to defend us’” (300).

By honestly communicating his pain rather than punishing his father, Cody learns that he was not at all to blame for Beck's departure. Instead, Beck admits his own flaws: “‘No matter how hard I tried, seemed like everything I did got muddled. Spoiled. Turned into an accident’” (300). Beck accepts the responsibility for his own failure, and he praises Pearl for doing what he was incapable of doing: “‘What it was, I guess: it was the grayness; grayness of things; half-right-and-half-wrongness of things. Everything tangled, mingled, not perfect any more. I couldn't take that. Your mother could, but not me. Yes sir, I have to hand it to your mother’” (301). Hearing his father's explanation, Cody has an experience similar to the one Jenny has when she becomes a mother herself and is able for the first time to understand what her mother went through as a single parent and how she had gone so wrong.

When Beck says that, no matter how good his intentions, he had always managed to make mistakes with his family, his experience sounds strangely similar to Cody's. Also, when he confesses that any time he had achieved any success he had “‘held it up in [his] imagination for [Pearl] to admire’” (302), Cody realizes that Beck, like him, had wanted others to admire and respect him. In other words, Cody identifies with Beck, giving him the distance he has needed all of his life to view himself and his childhood objectively. When Beck recounts the fateful day when Cody had accidentally shot Pearl with an arrow, he not only fails to blame Cody but also assumes that it was another of his own blunders—that he had meant it to be a happy family outing but that everything had gone wrong, as it always did when he was involved.

Cody's reaction to Beck's revelation is an immediate transformation—a rebirth. He is released from the guilt of his past, both for Pearl's accident and for Beck's abandonment, and his entire perspective on his childhood changes in an instant. As Cody looks up to see the adults and children of his family coming toward him and Beck, he “felt surprised and touched. He felt that they were pulling him toward them—that it wasn't they who were traveling, but Cody himself” (302). He is moving from a life of self-condemnation and grinding bitterness to one of forgiveness. Without even realizing it, he has appealed to his father for mercy, and in doing so he receives freedom from his bondage. Cody, like Christian in The Pilgrim's Progress, has come to “the place of deliverance” (Bunyan 59), and he feels his heavy burden roll away from his shoulders.

Without his guilt and anger, Cody's perspective instantly changes. As he leads Beck back to the restaurant, “seagulls drifted through a sky so clear and blue that it brought back all the outings of his boyhood—the drives, the picnics, the autumn hikes, the wildflower walks in the spring” (303). Previously when he had recollected family outings, it was with resentment and cynicism. When Pearl had fondly mentioned their family trips to Wrightsville Beach, she asked Cody if he thought heaven might be a place like that. Cody had responded, “Was that all she thought of heaven? Wrightsville Beach, where as he recalled she had fretted for two solid weeks that she might have left the oven on at home” (22). His bitterness had colored every incident of his past, but now he is able to enjoy his remembrances of childhood. Even his perspective on the fateful archery trip has changed:

It seemed to him now that he even remembered that arrow sailing in its graceful, fluttering path. He remembered his mother's upright form along the grasses, her hair lit gold, her small hands smoothing her bouquet while the arrow journeyed on. And high above, he seemed to recall, there had been a little brown airplane, almost motionless, droning through the sunshine like a bumblebee.


It is a certain indication of Cody's transformation that he is able to remember his mother with affection rather than resentment.

In this final paragraph of the novel, says Joseph B. Wagner, “Cody is uncharacteristically gentle and at peace with himself, his memories have shifted from deprivation to fulfillment, his mother's sharpness is finally softened, and even the arrow is transformed from brutality to grace” (80). Interestingly Wagner, in mentioning Cody and Beck's need for “the blessing and the forgiveness symbolized by the book's final image,” refers to the droning airplane as “cruciform,” thus emphasizing the Christian imagery of the book's ending. He also says that the airplane has “significance as a sign of absolution” (82). So Cody symbolically appears, again like John Bunyan's Christian, to receive forgiveness at the foot of a cross. After Christian's burden has rolled into the sepulcher, he sings:

Thus far did I come loaden with my sin,
Nor could aught ease the grief that I was in,
Till I came hither. What a place is this!
Must here be the beginning of my bliss?
Must here the burden fall from off my back?
Must here the strings that bound it to me, crack?
Blessed Cross!


His song dramatically parallels Cody's experience. Cody Tull receives salvation and is freed from his burden. Like Elizabeth Abbott, he has been transformed and set free from his former self.

Lorna Sage's comments on Saint Maybe can be applied to all of Tyler's novels:

Spoken words predominate, and the narrative is always mediated through someone's point of view, so that there is no separate or superior voice doing the telling. … The most distinctive thing about [Tyler] is just this lack of any special tone. It's also what makes her seem, for want of a better word, such a benevolent figure on the fictional scene. She plays the sort of God who's not, in the end, very interested in sitting in judgment.

Because Tyler uses omniscient narrators who are impartial and make no judgment about her characters' actions, she appears reluctant to hold those characters accountable for their mistakes. Her fiction merely presents example after example of humankind's sinful nature and its consequences. Tyler does not personally condemn her characters for their sins. In fact, she is so even-handed and sympathetic in her presentation of varying points of view that readers are hesitant to blame even the worst characters because Tyler has so completely portrayed their own personal miseries. Her approach seems similar to that of E. M. Forster as described by Shernavaz Buhariwala: “In Forster's [humanistic] ‘belief’ is compressed a creed that sheds religious dogma for human understanding—an understanding made up of sympathy and intelligence. Sympathy affords insight, and intelligence provides foresight. Insight burrows into the recesses of the tormented soul with a caress of comfort, a whisper of hope, and occasionally a sigh of regret but never of reproach” (2).

As a result of Tyler's own “human understanding,” Brad Leithauser points out, “one feels … an engaged affection for almost all her characters: she does not so much bare as share in their reversals and mortifications” (54). Even though Tyler uncovers their sins and follows the trail of consequences, she does not judge. In the interest of realism, Tyler depicts mankind as imperfect, but with an attitude that suggests the New Testament story of the woman who had been caught in adultery and was brought to Christ for judgment. His response—“He who is without sin among you, let him throw the first stone” (John 8:7)—does not deny the sin but suggests that there can be only one judge. Further, by frequently providing various means of metaphorical redemption, Tyler's version of a “whisper of hope,” she reveals her compassion and love for these characters in spite of their flawed humanity, an attitude that parallels Christian beliefs about God's loving provision of salvation for sinful man.

Tyler is neither an optimist nor a pessimist; she is a realist. She recognizes that human beings are flawed, but she balances that knowledge with a belief that most are well meaning and capable of moments of grace. No fatalist either, she balances the cause and effect of human nature with moral responsibility. Although she reveals cause, she is much more interested in effect and an individual's reaction to it. Tyler's characters must choose their response to sins committed against them as well as to their own past sins. Redemption is often possible, but it provides merely the grace to endure, not the end to sorrow. When characters are not redeemed, hope itself is lost, and they are left alienated, sometimes suffering the most tragic misery of humanity—the desire to end one's existence. In Tyler's imaginary world exist both suffering and salvation, misery and hope. It is clearly not intended to be a “Christian” world as such, but it is one that reflects the tension between human beings' mistakes, as Tyler would perceive them, or sins, as a Christian would perceive them, and the potential for grace. It is a tension that affirms what an orthodox Christian believes the Bible teaches about both the inevitability of man's sinful state and the possibility for redemption.


  1. One of the critics that Petry cites as agreeing with her contention that the ending of The Clock Winder is tragic is Lamb. Petry's statement is as follows: “It was intended to be a sad ending. Several astute critics have realized this, including Wendy Lamb, who finds the Emersons' final ‘dependence on [Elizabeth] not only overwhelming but tragic’” (Understanding 93). However, Petry misrepresents Lamb's point in her use of the word “final.” Lamb's original statement reads, “In The Clock Winder, Elizabeth Abbott takes some time off from school, accepts a job as a handyman with an eccentric family, and finds their dependence on her not only overwhelming but tragic. Though she leaves, she finds she cannot escape the relentless affections and energies of the Emerson family” (Tyler, “Interview” 53). In calling the Emersons' dependence on Elizabeth “tragic,” Lamb is not referring to their dependence in the novel's conclusion but during the time prior to her return home, so it is not their “final” dependence as Petry claims. Furthermore, my reading of Lamb's sentence is that in using the word “tragic” she is referring to Timothy Emerson's suicide, which is a consequence of the family's “overwhelming” dependence on Elizabeth.

Works Cited

Bawer, Bruce. “Anne Tyler: Gravity and Grace.” Rev. of Saint Maybe, by Anne Tyler. Washington Post Book World 18 Aug. 1991: 1-2.

Blackburn, Sara. Rev. of The Clock Winder, by Anne Tyler. Washington Post Book World 14 May 1972: 13. Rpt. in Petry, Critical Essays 68.

Blades, John. “For NutraSweet Fiction Tyler Takes the Cake.” Rev. of The Accidental Tourist, by Anne Tyler. Chicago Tribune 20 July 1986: 37. Rpt. in Vol. 44 of Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Sharon K. Hall. Detroit: Gale, 1987. 321-22.

Buhariwala, Shernavaz. Arcades to a Dome: Humanism in the Novels of E. M. Forster. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities, 1983.

Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim's Progress. 1678. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Edwards, Michael. Towards a Christian Poetics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984.

“Effectual Calling and Conversion.” New Geneva Study Bible. Atlanta: Thomas Nelson, 1995. 1904.

Eliot, T. S. “Religion and Literature.” The Christian Imagination: Essays in Literature and the Arts. Ed. Leland Ryken. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981. 141-54.

Evans, Elizabeth. “Early Years and Influences.” Anne Tyler as Novelist. Ed. Dale Salwak. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994. 1-14.

Gullette, Margaret Morganroth. “Anne Tyler: The Tears (and Joys) Are in the Things.” Stephens 97-109.

Kanoza, Theresa. “Mentors and Maternal Role Models: The Healthy Mean between Extremes in Anne Tyler's Fiction.” Stephens 28-39.

Leithauser, Brad. “Just Folks.” Rev. of Saint Maybe, by Anne Tyler. New York Review of Books 16 Jan. 1992: 53-55.

McPhillips, Robert. “The Baltimore Chop.” Rev. of Breathing Lessons, by Anne Tyler. The Nation 7 Nov. 1988: 464-66. Rpt. in Petry, Critical Essays 150-54.

Petry, Alice Hall, ed. Critical Essays on Anne Tyler. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992.

———. Understanding Anne Tyler. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1990.

Powell, Dannye Romine. “Doris Betts.” Parting the Curtains: Interviews with Southern Writers. Winston-Salem: Blair, 1994. 15-31.

Robertson, Mary F. “Medusa Points & Contact Points.” Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies. Ed. Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1985. 119-42.

Sage, Lorna. “Compassion in Clans.” Rev. of Saint Maybe, by Anne Tyler. Times Literary Supplement 27 Sept. 1991: 24.

Stephens, C. Ralph, ed. The Fiction of Anne Tyler. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1990.

Stewart, Randall. American Literature and Christian Doctrine. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1958.

Tyler, Anne. “Anne Tyler: A Sense of Reticence Balanced by ‘Oh, Well, Why Not?’” Interview with Clifford Ridley. National Observer 22 July 1972: 23. Rpt. in Petry, Critical Essays 24-27.

———. “Authoress Explains Why Women Dominate in South.” Interview with Jorie Lueloff. (Baton Rouge) Morning Advocate 8 Feb. 1965: A11. Rpt. in Petry, Critical Essays 21-23.

———. The Clock Winder. New York: Knopf, 1972.

———. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. New York: Knopf, 1982.

———. Earthly Possessions. New York: Knopf, 1977.

———. “An Interview with Anne Tyler.” With Wendy Lamb. Iowa Journal of Literary Studies 3 (1981): 59-64. Rpt. in Petry, Critical Essays 53-58.

———. “Still Just Writing.” The Writer on Her Work. Ed. Janet Sternburg. New York: Norton, 1980. 3-16.

Voelker, Joseph. Art and the Accidental in Anne Tyler. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1989.

Wagner, Joseph B. “Beck Tull: ‘The absent presence’ in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.” Stephens 73-83.

Willrich, Patricia Rowe. “Watching through Windows: A Perspective on Anne Tyler.” Virginia Quarterly Review 68 (1992): 497-516.

Nora Foster Stovel (review date January 2001)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 677

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 portraits of eccentric characters and dysfunctional families, Tyler turns her sense of the extraordinary nature of ordinary people on certain denizens of her own town of Baltimore in A Patchwork Planet.

Every family has its black sheep. But when that family is the Gaitlin Foundation of Baltimore, the family failure is a black sheep in spades. Bad enough that Barnaby is the ne'er-do-well scion of one of Baltimore's premier families, but family myth has it that members of that family have their own personal angels. Barnaby's grandfather had a brief encounter with his angel, a young blonde woman who, by urging him to sell his Twinform patent, made his fortune. Since then, it has become a family tradition to discover one's angel and write up the encounter in the family ledgers. So what do you do if your family members all have their own angels and you do not? Naturally, you become a devil.

But Barnaby is a devil with a difference. Granted, as a teenager he broke into houses and stole things, but he did not bother with the silverware or television sets that his cohorts bagged. No, Barnaby rifled through their mail and snooped into their family photograph albums until he got caught and sent to the Renascence reform school. Could this be because his family—in their Tudor-style home, decorated with paintings filled with barbed wire and Brillo pads—is less than perfect? This dysfunctional family's potluck Thanksgiving dinner is symptomatic, resulting in two pumpkin pies and no turkey. Indeed, the only turkey is the sequinned one on Gram's T-shirt.

Barnaby is still having Thanksgiving dinner with his parents because he has managed to lose his wife and daughter. Though he married Natalie for her goodness, it soon became monotonous: “Once upon a time I'd had all I could ask for: a home, a loving wife, a little family of my own. A place in the world. How could I have thrown that away?” (218). Now, as he is about to turn thirty, he is still trying to discover his place on this planet.

As if Barnaby's burglary were not sufficient disgrace for the Gaitlins, he adds insult to injury by working at a blue-collar job. Rent-A-Back, Inc. provides services for stay-at-homes, primarily the terminally old, doing everything from clearing out the basement to decorating the Christmas tree. To these people, Barnaby is an angel, or at least a Good Samaritan, who puts their houses in order.

Cleaning out a client's house, Barnaby realizes, echoing Tyler's Earthly Possessions (1977), “that you really, truly can't take it with you”: “No luggage is permitted” (284). Then Barnaby views the patchwork planet quilt created by one of his recently deceased clients, and it inspires an epiphany: Barnaby had always pictured “Planet Earth” as “a kind of fabric map—a plaid Canada, a gingham U.S. Instead the circle was made up of mismatched squares of cloth no bigger than postage stamps, joined by the uneven black stitches of a woman whose eyesight was failing. Planet Earth, in Mrs. Alford's version, was makeshift and haphazard, clumsily cobbled together, overlapping and crowded, and likely to fall into pieces at any moment” (261). The patchwork quilt, long an emblem of women's work, is an appropriate symbol for Tyler's novels: chronicling sequences of realistic and apparently random events, they move imperceptibly towards a remarkable revelation.

Readers who admired Saint Maybe will enjoy A Patchwork Planet. Following Barnaby Gaitlin on his quest for his angel and his place on this planet will be an amusing and enlightening odyssey.

Heidi Slettedahl Macpherson (essay date spring 2001)

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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, whimsical). Yet examination of Tyler's canon, and most specifically, of her 1995 novel Ladder of Years, reveals that such critical disregard is, in part, based on limited readings of her complexly comic novels. Tyler's twelve novels before Ladder of Years follow roughly the same trajectory, and her central concern—the war between flight and stasis—is evident in each of them. Thus when Tyler published Ladder of Years, in which protagonist Delia Grinstead “accidentally” abandons her nearly grown children and her health-worried husband, critics latched onto familiar Tylerian signals—wry comedy, a hopelessly inefficient yet lovable central female character, and an urge to give way to fantasy (while avoiding explicit sexual desire). In doing so, critics took up familiar opposing stances in relation to her work. Tyler is either considered heir to the American tradition of domestic realism, with the result that her work may well become part of the canon (as opposed to, say, the contemporary experimental writers whose postmodern extravagances will soon render their work dated and obsolete), or she is an enclosed, politically conservative novelist engaging in feminist backlash writing and promoting, through her realistic narrative, a dying style with no relevance to contemporary debates about narration or even reality.

Neither of these (exaggerated) critical stances actually reflects Tyler's position. Contemporary fiction, like Tyler's, which fails to embrace postmodernism wholeheartedly, is thus almost automatically seen as realist, despite obvious problems with that designation. Tyler's style is best described as a veneer of reality pasted onto fantastic situations gone awry, and her use of metafiction as well as fantasy effectively invalidates the realist tag. Moreover, her quirky, comic plots, far from relying on stock gender roles, actually unsettle gender politics precisely at the points where they seem to be upholding the patriarchal status quo. Few writers so faithfully delineate the position of the mother in contemporary fiction, nor explore the desire for escape from this role so openly. Tyler's stance on the family is a knowing stance, and what critics sometimes take for misplaced nostalgia is, in fact, an indication of Tyler's willingness to explore the fictions of the American family. In choosing such a “narrow” focus, Tyler is not, as some would have it, setting aside the politics of such a focus, but explicitly exploring them, and her style is a far cry from simple realism (if such a designation truly exists).

Tyler's main narrative focus is the family—and yet, as Mary F. Robertson so cogently expresses in her positive, influential essay on Tyler, “Medusa Points and Contact Points,” this is not the family of patriarchal harmony; it is a family constructed of misfits, outcasts, those that don't belong (or even those that shouldn't belong). Thus, while the family does occupy the most important part of Tyler's plots, such subject matter is not necessarily linked into the cosy depictions of settled patriarchy that critics sometimes assume. In fact, a Tyler family is a family that fragments. The attempt to reconstruct a family unit, an enduring Tyler motif, is a hopelessly doomed endeavor. Any construction of Mom, Dad, Dick and Jane is repeatedly and pointedly defined as a construction, and then promptly deflated. Made up of papier-mâché, it collapses and is rebuilt, collapses and is rebuilt again.

In Ladder of Years, Tyler's approach is the most overtly experimental of all of her novels. She incorporates fantasy explicitly, and uses metafiction to explore the ways in which fiction and “reality” combine to determine female identity. Tyler's use of the fantastical Bay Borough as a site for exploring Delia's fluid identity is perhaps the best example of her reworking of “realism.” Though Bay Borough does not exist in the same way that Baltimore exists in the novel, it retains enough of its position as “real” to seduce the reader into forgetting its status as fantasy, and the novel itself never calls out to remind the reader that she or he is reading (despite the intertextual references which litter the novel). People appear and disappear in the narrative; it is home to a host of unlikely runaways; time itself is warped in the text, with the past and present mixing almost randomly; it is both “vacation” and “real life,” yet the distinction is difficult even for the protagonist to keep straight. Delia herself asks, “When would the things she had [in Bay Borough] become her real things?” (215), and significantly is unable to determine when “her vacation ended and her real life [had] begun” (252). These factors belie the stance that what Tyler writes is simple, straightforward fiction. Dealing with contemporary family issues though she does, Tyler cannot, in Ladder of Years, be truthfully represented as a realist; too much of the fantastic is bound up in Delia's reinvention of herself. It is to her credit that Tyler is able to incorporate the fantastic so subtly.

Bay Borough is intriguingly framed by images of time travel and dreams, and a clear sense of construction is implicit in the narrative, as Delia constructs herself, and is reconstructed by Bay Borough denizens. Delia shrugs off her married title, reinvents herself as spinster woman, and finds herself a job outside the home for the first time in her adult life not long after she enters the town.1 Absurdly, she is barely out of her bathing suit—evidence of her spontaneous shrugging off of family life—when she makes the momentous decision to live in a boarding house and become “Miss” Grinstead.

Delia's escape from her family (and thus its assumptions about her) is nominally set in motion by an argument with her husband, but the real impetus seems to be Delia's desire to enact a role outside the one placed on her by her family. A chance supermarket encounter with Adrian Bly-Brice leads her to assume the role of his girlfriend in order to antagonize his estranged wife, and this temporary play-acting in some ways acts as a rehearsal for Delia's subsequent reinvention of herself. As the editor of a quarterly magazine devoted to the bizarre subject of time travel, Bly-Brice acts as the agent who introduces Delia to the two necessary components of her escape—character realignment and time travel. Delia is unsure of how to react to his magazine, wondering, “was this whole publication a joke, or was it for real?” (49). The question is set aside, and explicit references to time travel only resurface at the end of the novel, when Delia looks back on her sojourn in Bay Borough and remarks, “It had all been a time trip … a time trip that worked” (326). Yet, threaded throughout the narrative are references to earlier decades, most frequently the 1940s and 1950s, and Delia's journey to Bay Borough does indeed seem to be a trip to a nostalgic past.

Peter Kemp calls Bay Borough “a cosy time-warp encapsulation of an earlier, homelier America” (9). However, references to contemporary issues riddle the novel, including a battered women's shelter, lone parenthood, and computerspeak, rendering it impossible to view Delia's time in Bay Borough as a wholesale removal to an earlier era. Indeed, the idea of warped time is particularly significant, in that elements of the past and present converge uncomfortably in Bay Borough. A good example of this convergence is apparent to Delia as she enters the town:

Clearly, modern times had overtaken the town. Buildings that must have been standing for a century—the bricks worn down like old pencil erasers, the clapboards gently rubbed to gray wood—now held the Wild Applause Video Shop, Tricia's House of Hair, and a Potpourri Palace.


Later, after Delia has officially renamed herself “Miss” Grinstead, the town's appearance shifts again: “It looked out of date, somehow. The buildings were so faded they seemed not colored but hand tinted, like an antique photograph” (120). Even Delia's new home reflects confusion over time. At first, she rents a room in an old-fashioned boarding house which sports a 1950s kitchen. Yet the old-fashioned kitchen features in only one scene—a contemporary Thanksgiving which satirically involves a gathering of strangers and a catered meal (152).

The various examples of such convergence are overwhelming in number as well as description. Suffice it to say that this pattern of instability is consistently apparent, and Bay Borough is a town figured somewhere between dream and reality. Brooke Allen suggests that the town is “a dreamscape just as Miss Grinstead herself is not a person but a fantasy of Delia's” (33). Indeed, the repeated references to both dreams and temporal disruption suggest that Delia's construction of Bay Borough is a fluid one. This is strikingly apparent in a passage where the town celebrates its own begetting. The celebration of “Bay Day” occurs wrapped in an all-encompassing fog which suggests its unreality. Indeed, the fog acts as a pointer to the town's position as incompletely definable. The passage is characterized by images of flux and replacement, and is moreover framed by dream imagery which suggests its unreality. The passage preceding it ends with Delia in bed, crying softly and listening as the children in the next house drop off to sleep (129), while the passage placed directly after the Bay Day fog scene is an account of the dreams of loss that Delia has herself (133-34).

The inability to position Bay Borough firmly and Delia's undefined relationship to it are points which are reinforced throughout the text. Even Delia is perplexed by her relationship to the town: “Or maybe she wasn't gone; this whole experience had been so dreamlike. Maybe she was still moving through her previous life the same as always, and the Delia here in Bay Borough had somehow just split off from the original” (100). This sense of moving through her life “the same as always” acts as a foreshadowing of her eventual reinscription into the role of mother, however that is defined.

Tyler's exploration of gendered identity points to the fact that what seems to be one thing, may actually be something else. Delia Grinstead, homemaker, mother of three, youngest daughter of a beloved patriarch, subconsciously understands that these “roles” do not contain her true identity—so she sets out to create another one. Yet in the process, she comes to understand that her attempt to step outside of the roles placed on her by her family entails more than simply re-naming herself, or inventing herself anew. It is a process which has implications beyond her, and reaches out into the community that she has, temporarily, adopted. This emphasis on female identity as constructed—and therefore as possibly reconstructed—cannot help but invoke a feminist reading.

Gayle Greene rightfully notes that “to write about ‘women's issues’ is not necessarily to address them from a feminist perspective” (2), thus it is not inevitable that Tyler's examination of gender roles is feminist. Indeed, it would be disingenuous to suggest that Tyler's relationship to feminism is unambiguous, or that feminist critics generally praise Tyler's depictions of gender roles; many, if not most, do not. Alice Hall Petry, for example, declares that Tyler's position is not only anti-feminist, but almost apocalyptically infectious,2 while Greene regrets Tyler's “resignation to things as they are” (200). A literal-minded reading of Ladder of Years, which ends with what might be seen as a dispiriting return to the family home, initially seems evidence of such resignation. Yet Tyler is deflating this romantic “happy ending,” and a certain sense of irony is apparent here, if one cares to look beyond the seemingly negative closure of the text. Moreover, Tyler's exploration of gender roles—and her examination of the difficulties of stepping outside them—deserve critical attention even if—or precisely because—the resolutions to her texts suggest capitulation. Through her examination of mothering, Tyler explores shifting representations of women, and the shifting reality that surrounds them. If she appears to provide a less-than-feminist answer, then surely this is precisely the challenge that critics must explore.

Appearances can, however, be deceptive. For example, it can appear that a popular novelist has nothing to say to a literary critic. Tyler's lack of ostentatious experimentation masks her less obvious manipulations, and her gentle narrative voice relieves her comedy of any satirical sting. It is this gentleness which may, in part, have deflated her critical appeal. As Charlotte Templin reveals, it is possible that Tyler would be “rated even higher by academics if her comic art resembled more closely the ironic and verbally complex comedy of Thomas Pynchon, for example” (193). Not only does she use the wrong kind of comedy, but she writes humorously about the wrong things, or so it would appear. If one considers Tyler's comic method of dealing with questions of social roles, for example, it is easy to see how her work might have been overlooked by critics intent on discovering women writers with something more overtly political to say.

Indeed, just when feminist consciousness-raising fiction of the 1970s explored the role of the mother in polemical texts which focused on abused, misunderstood, or angry women, Tyler created Charlotte Emory of Earthly Possessions, who begins her first-person narrative with the words, “The marriage wasn't going well and I decided to leave my husband. I went to the bank to get cash for the trip” (5). Already the tone is lighter here than might be expected, given the subject matter (indeed, one critic dismissed Earthly Possessions as just “another runaway housewife novel” [Shelton 857] which, if nothing else, suggests the critical milieu at the time). Anatole Broyard argues that Charlotte can be reduced to “a woman on the run from boredom toward an empty ambiguity” (12), and critics in general find the return to the home evidence that Charlotte's trip need not have begun. Here Tyler's comic narrative voice obscures, it seems, the deeply ambivalent portrait of American domestic life which the novel traces.

In another of her 1970s novels, Tyler creates Elizabeth Abbott of The Clock Winder. Elizabeth is first introduced as “a tall girl in dungarees” (7) who seems to have no “fixed destinations” in her life (8). By the end of the novel, Elizabeth is transformed into Gillespie Emerson, mother of two, the family handyman. Tyler's deliberate use of the seemingly sex-exclusive “man” here is intriguing and suggests that Tyler's working through of gender roles is more complex than is generally assumed. Indeed, the final images of Elizabeth/Gillespie are disruptive, as handyman and mother clash. She is still in dungarees, but her youngest child is shown as “clinging like a barnacle” (281), effectively cutting off her handiness. Though critics have suggested that this resolution is a happy one, in interviews, Tyler herself suggests the opposite.

This emphasis on Tyler's so-called “happy endings” may, in part, perhaps, be traced back to the marketing strategy used to sell Tyler's books before she received her Pulitzer Prize. In the back of the 1983 Berkley paperback edition of The Clock Winder, for example, there is a quotation from People Magazine. “To read a novel by Anne Tyler is to fall in love!” Over the page, her novels are listed along with other “bestselling” Berkley paperbacks, the majority of which appear to be romance novels. Representative titles include Savannah, Dreams Are Not Enough, To See Your Face Again, and Seasons of the Heart.3 There is even an advertisement for Priscilla Presley's Elvis and Me. While the People quote remains in the Berkley editions of her work after 1988, the overt association with romance novels fades. More emphasis is placed on her “whimsical unpredictability” and her appeal to a wide audience.

Tyler seems to cultivate such an audience by regularly writing short stories for women's magazines, one of the most underrated of all venues for literary expression. She is certainly aware of critical disapproval for such texts, and incorporates an (ironic?) indictment of them in Ladder of Years. Delia Grinstead is initially presented as a consumer of romance books (though she intriguingly moves to more “serious” novels upon her escape from the family). Her choice of reading material is not only ridiculed by members of her family, but also seems implicated in her outlook on married life, though it is difficult to tell just how much irony is being employed in this characterization. The boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back plot outline is an implicit one in Ladder of Years, and while the novel somewhat follows this trajectory, its unsatisfying resolution, and the failure of the men in the novel to conform to their expected roles, renders the romance frame impotent by the end. Tyler's parody of romance narratives is more subtle than, say, Margaret Atwood's in Lady Oracle, but it is nonetheless present, alongside another parody—that of the novel of self-discovery in which a woman leaves home in order to find herself. Tyler creates a protagonist weaned on the plots of romance novels and surrounded by the cultural baggage of fantasy. Tyler delineates a plot of replication which looks back to the plots of 1970s feminist texts, nods to Shakespeare, and invokes a fairytale structure which it then dismantles.

The novel begins with a newspaper clipping, recording Delia's disappearance. The account is deliberately vague in its description of Delia and its bemused tone sets the reader up for another comic novel. Delia herself does not read the newspaper clipping until much later, so the reader knows, even more clearly than Delia does, that her family's perceptions of her are vague at best, and completely false at worst. What's more, by the time Delia has access to this information, she has already transformed herself anyway, dropping her married title in favor of “Miss” and presenting herself as a lone spinster, traveling light. While Delia believes that, having shaken off her family, she has a free hand in selecting the mask she will wear and the role she will play, she soon learns, disconcertingly, that the community which she has adopted, Bay Borough, has also adopted her, and in the process, transformed her image to suit their needs. Thus, her new identity is circumscribed, if not invented, by the community to which she is drawn. Through Delia's changing characterization, Tyler addresses issues of autonomy and femaleness in relation to the community, a body which itself participates in the invention of character as Delia steps (at least temporarily) outside of the role of mother. The process of her character formation moves her from the role of “kittenish” woman (her family's version) to that of independent spinster (her own version), mystery woman (Bay Borough's version), and returning mother.

In part, this process is infected by the novels that she reads, lending a metafictional element to the novel. The reader cannot help but be aware of other texts when reading Ladder of Years. Apart from the explicitly named novels that Delia reads, the novel points to Shakespeare's King Lear (Delia, short for Cordelia, is the youngest of three daughters, and the favorite), as well as numerous fairy tales in which women act as prizes for the handsome hero to claim. These plots have to be abandoned if Delia is to discover anything “real” in her sojourn to the fantastical Bay Borough, where she divests herself of the mantle of motherhood only to find it thrust back on her once again, albeit in a slightly different form.

“If the feminine mystique was the ‘problem that had no name’ for unliberated women,” Ann Dally suggests, “one might say that motherhood is the problem that cannot be faced by modern feminists” (179). Indeed, it has become a commonplace that in the battle for women's rights, mothers themselves were sidelined if not explicitly lined up with “the enemy.” While this portrait of early feminism is skewed at best, and represents a version of feminism that was decidedly in the minority and short-lived at that, this portrait has been sustained through media inventions of feminists as women who wish to smash the family (rather than, more appropriately, as women and men who wish, inter alia, to reconfigure the nuclear family in ways that shift the balance of power to a more egalitarian mode). Tyler's choice to use an abandoning mother as a (comic) protagonist thus speaks volumes. Delia is no political feminist, overtly demanding change in the family and relying on sustained intellectual arguments to get her message across. Indeed, this can be seen as one of the strengths of the novel, for, as Rosie Jackson notes, “If the myth of a mother leaving has always tended to invite a negative response, a new mixing of her motives with a crude version of feminism now fixes prejudice even more firmly against her” (15-16).4 Tyler's delineation of Ellie Miller, another abandoning mother who leaves her son to pursue a career as a television weather presenter, rests on this assertion of crude feminism (at least in the eyes of Bay Borough's inhabitants). Ellie's own explanation of her departure from the family is given short shrift by her former neighbors, none of whom are “impressed in the slightest” (167) by Ellie's justification of her actions. Nor, it appears, is Delia herself, who asks, without irony, “What kind of woman entrusted her son to a stranger?” (199). Ellie's brush with death and her unhappiness in marriage are not seen as motive enough to leave the family home; she thus becomes an “abandoning mother,” despite the fact that she merely occupies the position of noncustodial parent. This “abandonment” is hardly on the scale with Delia's own. If Ellie's behavior is “scandalous,” as Delia suggests it is, then what do we make of her own? She left without warning, has not maintained contact with her children, and for the most part does not even acknowledge that she has children; they are not part of her new script.

One must step back from the construction of Ellie as a “bad mother” because Delia, who is surely a “good mother” since she is our heroine, is actively constructing Ellie in opposition to herself, even though they inhabit the same space. Jackson suggests that because a mother is always “linked into, defined by, her relationality to her child,” then “a mother who leaves becomes a kind of grammatical nonsense” (45). Indeed, Tyler's text also seems to make this point, as mothers are judged to be no longer motherly if they are not in constant contact with their offspring—even by Delia, abandoning mother herself. Rather than an affirmation of anti-feminism, this knee-jerk reaction points to the social construction of motherhood and the difficulties of redefining that role. Indeed, one of the things that is particularly intriguing about Bay Borough's temporal instability is the way in which, despite cosmetic differences, the mothering position seems fixed. In this blended society, women from a variety of backgrounds can be accepted as mothers: some are unwed, one raises a child in a retirement home, and one of Delia's companions is considered both as a girl-next-door figure and as a mother who isn't quite sure who her baby's father is. Clearly, who occupies the position of mother is not important. This fact suggests a welcome openness towards nontraditional families. However, the idea of a “good” mother is not so easily transformed. The key to this “goodness” lies primarily in attentive, loving presence, and the key to “badness” lies in neglecting family ties.

Delia's intriguing immunity from the town's censure for being an abandoning mother is never fully explained; this gap suggests, as powerfully as the images of flux and warped time do, that Delia is in the realm of the fantastic. While others are “punished” for abandoning motherhood, she is allowed to inhabit this position again—significantly, by replacing Ellie Miller. Although Delia initially resists personal ties, maintaining an almost sterile life as the uncomplicated Miss Grinstead, boarding house tenant, and prim secretary for the town lawyer, she is unable to retain her distance. By allowing the community to contribute to the construction of her identity, Delia evolves into the mothering figure she had sought to deny. Despite recognizing the dangers, she answers an advertisement to be a “live in woman” (the job title itself is revealing) and thus effectively replaces the “deficient” or “bad” mother Ellie. Delia's first reaction to the job advertisement is one of disbelief: “You can't expect a mere hireling to serve as a genuine mother” (160), she huffs. The reader is implicitly reminded that mothers are not paid for their attentions, and Delia's immediate rejection of the idea of a live-in woman as a perfectly acceptable substitute for a mother reveals her own complicity in the social construction of mothering. She deliberately throws away the newspaper that contains the advertisement, as if a simple mental rejection of the idea is not enough.

However, she almost immediately changes her mind: “Actually … a hireling would in some ways be better than a mother—less emotionally ensnarled, less likely to cause damage. Certainly less like to suffer damage herself” (160). In Ladder of Years, Tyler confronts directly and obliquely the “problem” of motherhood in a patriarchal culture by providing a portrait of a woman who forsakes this role, only to find herself wrapped up in family life in other guises. As Karen Gainey maintains, Tyler's fictions reveal that “total escape from patriarchal culture is impossible—and that gendered positions make it particularly hard for women to find a way out” (210). Indeed, rather than reifying these positions, or accepting them uncritically, Tyler actually presents desire for release coupled with the recognition that release is not always possible.

Tyler's fictions have always engaged with notions of what constitutes a mother, or a mothering position, and these portraits are fluid, rather than fixed. For example, she constructs maternal and nurturing characters who thrive in their roles as mothers. (Mary Tell of Celestial Navigations is probably the best example of a character who positively revels in the position of mother.) However, Tyler also constructs female characters who long to step outside of their female roles, or who consciously “play” the role society has set for them. Stanley Cohen and Laurie Taylor, sociologists who study the role of escape in everyday life, suggest that the playing of roles can, in fact, be a means of attempting to escape their significance (53); by self-consciously distancing oneself from the roles one plays (that is, by seeing them only as roles, and not as real), it is possible to imagine that one has escaped the necessity of taking the roles seriously. However, there are problems with this supposition, as Cohen and Taylor point out:

Role distancing even at—and perhaps especially at—the meta-level maintains an essentially conservative relationship between the individual and the social fabric. By asserting that our part in it is something more than is apparent, our state of consciousness is frozen or at least can only move backwards in increasingly complicated spirals of awareness, awareness about awareness, distance and distance from distance.


Tyler incorporates this problematic meta-awareness in Ladder of Years. When Delia stands outside of herself to view Bay Borough, she sees the town's inhabitants as performing roles—and clearly outdated ones at that: “The women walking home with their grocery bags seemed unknowingly ironic, like those plastic-faced, smiling housewives in kitchen-appliance ads from the fifties” (234). Instead of pursuing the analogy, Delia merely shrugs it off, uncomfortable that she could view “happy” Bay Borough in this way, and unwilling to alter her construction of Bay Borough to incorporate this new information.

The reality which Delia constructs initially seems little different from the type constructed by early feminist fiction which depicted escape from the domestic sphere. This fiction (which may have contributed to feminism's seeming anti-motherhood stance) often rested on a notion of rejecting motherhood. Novels such as Joan Barfoot's Gaining Ground explicitly proclaimed that it was only through forsaking motherhood that a woman could gain a sense of self. Barfoot's protagonist escapes from Canadian suburbia into the pseudo-wilderness of the countryside. She abandons husband, children, and all social ties, discovering her true feminine nature only while involved in the cyclical seasons of tending her garden. Although her family and her neighbors deem her action mad, the narrative makes clear that this choice of escape is a positive one, if not a necessary one. Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, which explicitly foregrounds not only physical escapes, but also imaginative escapes into romance fiction, primarily examines the escape from the mother, figured as a three-headed monster. Atwood's protagonist, Joan Foster, is significantly childless, and thus able to escape more easily (and more comically) than Barfoot's Abra.

Novels such as these have come under the rubric “feminist novels of self-discovery.” Rita Felski argues that in these novels “the primary obligation for women is a recovery of a repressed identity and a consequent refusal of social and communal responsibilities which do not accord with internal desires” (135). Delia attempts to refuse these community and social roles, but ends up replicating them all over again. Her journey is not so much circular as shaped like a Möbius strip, that infamous one-sided object. She moves out of those roles, only to find those roles in a different landscape, surrounded by different people; the path away merges into the original path, though both sides seem to have been traversed. One can view this recognition conservatively, as a reinforcement of the status quo and thus patriarchal positionings of gender roles, or as a mature recognition that stepping outside of gender roles is not as easy as leaving one's family, if one still intends to live within society itself.

This stance is challenging for a feminist reader more familiar with texts which assert that identity is constructed through escaping family and patriarchy and negotiating a space outside these institutions. Ladder of Years suggests that the effects of socialization are more pervasive than that, and mirrors Marianne Hirsh's claim that “[t]o posit, even tentatively, a space outside of ideology and patriarchy is to support and participate in that very ideology, rather than to attempt to undermine it” (145). Just as Tyler, by having Delia abandon romance novels in favor of “serious” literature in order to signal her identity split, still manages to keep the romance narrative in the background, so she reminds the reader about novels of self-discovery. Readers familiar with such texts will recognize a pattern as strongly as a habitual romance reader will recognize that when boy-loses-girl, he'll eventually get her back. What is striking about what Tyler does in Ladder of Years is that she breaks both patterns. If the romance ends with the heroine in the romantic hero's arms, the novel of self-discovery generally ends with the heroine becoming heroic by learning to live alone, or by successfully breaking out of the patterns society dictates for her. Ladder of Year's problematic ending, which has Delia return home to Baltimore and abandon her pseudo-family and potential lover in Bay Borough, contains neither promised conclusion.

Delia's attempt to reconstruct a family unit—significantly, not a desire formally acknowledged and one she even denies—starts to break down as the line between the family that she works for and her own family begins to blur. Obviously, this acquisition of a “new” family suggests parodic parallels with contemporary experience. Delia's initial reaction, “It was so easy to fall back into being someone's mother!” (172), suggests that she initially accepts this new family—at least until her young charge Noah turns into an adolescent. Delia's subsequent unease is heightened by her desire for and (nominal) physical expression with her employer, Joel Miller, after which Delia retreats.

While Delia has no intention of fleeing, flee she does—back to the reality of Baltimore and to her position as “real” rather than “surrogate” mother. In keeping with the tone of the narrative, two conflicting impulses reign over Tyler's ending. While there is a certain amount of regret that Delia does not stride away from the whole confused affair, there is also a recognition that there is nowhere else for her to go. She has attempted a character realignment and found that, for one thing, society would not allow it. Furthermore, she realizes that she cannot be entirely free from her past—hence the images of time convergence, time travel, and incessant replication. It is no coincidence that, on the first evening that Delia comes back home, her son Ramsay tells her the plot of the contemporary film Groundhog Day, in which the main character is trapped in a single day until he plays it right (289). In Ladder of Years, Delia learns that replication is possible, perhaps even desirable to point out the flaws in particular ways of thinking; however, it is not and cannot be a way forward.

If Delia's return home is ultimately unsatisfying, the alternative—returning to Bay Borough—is no more satisfying. A return would not signal a rejection of the patriarchal family, since Delia's position as live-in woman has increasingly become the emotionally involved one of stand-in wife and mother. Yet the ending of the novel remains problematic, especially for a feminist reader. Allen mistakenly suggests that Tyler creates a happy ending (34), but this seems to me to be reading against the novel's trajectory; the romantic conclusion is abandoned as unworkable at least three times in the novel: when Delia gives up reading romances, when she leaves Joel Miller, and when she accepts her husband's inability to fulfil the role of romantic hero.

If the romance frame is broken, so too is the frame of self-discovery, the implications of which are tremendous for critics who deny Tyler's engagement with gender politics. By revealing that Delia's difficulty with securing a sense of self is not confined to the moment she leaves her family, Tyler provides an in-depth analysis of woman's place in society and subtly criticizes facile accounts of shrugging off one's past. Joseph Voelker writes in relation to Earthly Possessions but equally applicable here, “to empty oneself … is merely to provide a cleaner slate on which the world will insist it be recorded” (8). Partly as a result of this, Delia evolves into a mothering figure despite her insistence on the title of Miss and her declaration of independence and distance.

Delia becomes dislocated in time and space, yet remains firmly fixed in the very position she seeks to deny—that of middle-aged mother. The novel enacts repetitions and time jumps in a way that cannot be firmly located in the cozy cul-de-sac so often assigned to Tyler's fictions. My feminist reading rescues this fantastic narrative from the constricting label of realism, allows the novel's experimentations to receive the attention they deserve, and engages with rather than denies Tyler's complex gender politics. Tyler presents an ending which may disappoint a feminist reader, and yet, this very upsetting of the conclusion a feminist reader might expect challenges her to re-examine the utopian feminism of the 1970s which suggested that social change would be unproblematic. In this way, Tyler “writes beyond the ending” of a feminist text, and challenges her readers to engage with the issues that she problematizes.


  1. Although Delia worked both for her father and for her husband as a receptionist for the family medical practice, this position is not recognized as a profession. Furthermore, it is significantly sited within the family home, thus compromising any attempt to see it as work outside the home.

  2. In “Tyler and Feminism,” Petry writes, “What will happen when a new generation of American novelists, raised in that era when feminism was taken for granted, attempts to represent fictionally the status of the American woman? Lacking an experiential point of comparison, will they simply revert to earlier, more sentimental or farcical renderings of women as second-class citizens—the kind of reversion that happens so often when a once-controversial movement is absorbed into the normal rhythms of life, or—worse—when backlash becomes so politically correct that to take a giant step in reverse is suddenly deemed worthy of applause?” (41-42). Petry sees Tyler's work as “increasingly” antifeminist (41) and notes that in 1972, Tyler indicated an aversion to novels of women's liberation (Petry 33). Given the passage of time, it is problematic to assume that this early statement represents Tyler's feelings today. Furthermore, an aversion to “women's lib” novels does not necessarily signal an aversion to feminism.

  3. The authors of the books mentioned are, respectively, Eugenia Price, Jacqueline Briskin, Eugenia Price, and Cynthia Freeman.

  4. This may seem a strange comment to make, as I myself proclaim a feminist stance. My point here is not that Delia shouldn't be a feminist, but that Ellie is seen as evil in part because, it seems, she is (at least in the eyes of Bay Borough, if not necessarily in the eyes of the reader). Delia is spared this censure, and this is vital. Tyler here is making an important point, one that some feminists, who view Tyler as submitting to conservative family values, have failed to recognize. While a recognition of feminism might help Delia articulate her desires (significantly, she is surprised to be questioned about her motives and cannot, initially, light on a reason for abandoning her family), a strict allegiance to a feminist narrative might end up alienating her in this new, decidedly ahistorical and unpoliticized town. The discontent of the ignored and almost superfluous mother cannot be neatly placed in a box called “feminism.”

Works Cited

Allen, Brooke. “Anne Tyler in Mid-Course.” New Criterion 13.9 (1995): 27-34.

Atwood, Margaret. Lady Oracle. 1976. London: Virago, 1992.

Barfoot, Joan. Gaining Ground. 1978. [First published as Abra.] London: Women's P, 1992.

Broyard, Anatole. “One Critic's Fiction: Tyler, Tracy and Wakefield.” Rev. of Earthly Possessions, by Anne Tyler. New York Times Book Review 8 May 1977: 12.

Cohen, Stanley, and Laurie Taylor. Escape Attempts: The Theory and Practice of Resistance to Everyday Life. 1976. London: Routledge, 1992.

Dally, Ann. Inventing Motherhood: The Consequences of an Ideal. London: Burnett Books, 1982.

Felski, Rita. “The Novel of Self-Discovery: A Necessary Fiction?” Southern Review 19.2 (1986): 131-48.

Gainey, Karen Fern Wilkes. “Subverting the Symbolic: The Semiotic Fictions of Anne Tyler, Jayne Anne Phillips, Bobbie Ann Mason and Grace Paley.” Diss. U of Tulsa, 1990.

Greene, Gayle. Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Hirsh, Marianne. The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Jackson, Rosie. Mothers Who Leave: Behind the Myth of Women Without Their Children. London: Pandora, 1994.

Kemp, Peter. “A Change of Life.” Rev. of Ladder of Years, by Anne Tyler. Sunday Times 7 May 1995: sec. 7: 9.

Petry, Alice Hall. “Tyler and Feminism.” In Salwak 33-42.

Robertson, Mary F. “Anne Tyler: Medusa Points and Contact Points.” Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies. Eds. Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1985. 119-42.

Salwak, Dale, ed. Anne Tyler as Novelist. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994.

Shelton, Frank W. “The Necessary Balance: Distance and Sympathy in the Novels of Anne Tyler.” Southern Review 20.4 (1984): 851-60.

Templin, Charlotte. “Tyler's Literary Reputation.” In Salwak 175-96.

Tyler, Anne. The Accidental Tourist. 1985. New York: Berkley, 1986.

———. Celestial Navigation. 1974. London: Pan, 1990.

———. The Clock Winder. 1972. New York: Berkley, 1983.

———. Earthly Possessions. 1977. New York: Berkley, 1984.

———. Ladder of Years. London: Chatto and Windus, 1995.

Voelker, Joseph C. Art and the Accidental in Anne Tyler. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1989.

Anita Brookner (review date 2 June 2001)

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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 like Patch, Min Foo, NoNo, Jeep, Zeb, Troy, Hakim and Dixon. These irritating people, as irritating as their names, are the extended family of a typically hapless matriarch, a professional party organiser who is more successful than the reader at distinguishing between her daughter, her stepdaughters, their children, and their ever-changing partners.

So abrupt is the opening chapter that I suspected this of being an early novel, a blueprint for the mature Tyler; even the title seems anachronistic. Yet as I read on the familiar ease and charm of the style, the seamless and apparently artless storytelling, and the equally familiar setting of suburban Baltimore, overcame any initial resistance I might have felt. I knew that the heroine, Rebecca, in her clumsy skirts and blouses, would at some point seek a way out of her normal life, and leave the party-organising to Patch or Min Foo or even Poppy, the 100-year-old brother of her former father-in-law. She would do this by behaving out of character, by means of various improvisations, by making the odd telephone call, and by arranging a reunion with a man who was promising but insufficiently decisive.

Away from her normal duties our heroine is completely inexperienced. She is 53 years old and overweight, impulsive and badly dressed: she is Everywoman. So far, so good. Particularly impressive is her innocence, which is the fantasy that Anne Tyler's readers have come to expect. An atmosphere compounded of high school, of college campus, of a big old family house, and the kindness of strangers is also provided. Thus the narrative is a sort of wish fulfilment even before the action gets under way.

What Rebecca does is contact a former boyfriend, one she knew ‘back when we were grownups’, i.e. adolescents. This may be unwise, but in this sunny world there are no ill-considered motives or base curiosity or even sexual nostalgia. A meeting takes place and Rebecca sees that the charming young man, the one she thinks she should have married, has become even more adolescent than he was when she first knew him, although he now has white hair and yellowing teeth. Worse, he has turned into the nerd he threatened to become. He cooks the week's supply of chilli on Sunday afternoons and stores it in cartons. He lives in a mess of old newspapers. He has a hostile daughter with a stud in one nostril and a ring in one eyebrow. Choosing to overlook these features, Rebecca invites him to a family reunion, summoning her offspring and their partners to a formal dinner, at which they all behave as carelessly as they usually do. The putative fiance is charmed by this panorama of togetherness, in the course of which Rebecca changes her mind. It is Saturday evening: she dismisses poor Will and sends him off to carry out his chilli-making routine which can be fitted in quite comfortably on the following day. She has no conscience about this, and does not consider that she has raised expectations she will not fulfil. There is no blame in Anne Tyler's novels; she has elevated insouciance to a fine art. And this is delightful to the reader who is encouraged to cultivate the same sense of weightlessness.

The sad fact is that even the most experienced author can go a book too far. The impulse to write is so strong that considerations of what is still suitable can be overlooked. And Anne Tyler is such an enchanting novelist that one reads her with all one's critical faculties in abeyance. For although this novel is as accomplished as ever there are signs that the formula may be showing its age. The unease aroused by the title is compounded by the feeling throughout the book that it is still 1960, that there is no context, and, more important, no consequences. This notion is so entirely acceptable that the novel is sure to be a success.

And it ends more or less happily. It took the nerd to see what was coming; certainly Rebecca remains in the dark throughout. At yet another party her least ineligible relative invites some sort of rapprochement. The story is thus brought to a satisfying and successful conclusion. One would not have it otherwise. But if this is to be a romance one might wish that the formula had been honoured with a few difficulties encountered along the way, for what is a romance without difficulties? Anne Tyler has done what she does best, offering a fiction that flatters our expectations. She has allowed her heroine to be both impulsive and improvident, and has let her get away with it. One might have longed for fewer parties and more straight talking. But if the almost happy ending is a little undeserved few will complain, for few would deny the lasting appeal of such an outcome. In the novel it works, just. Real life, or even a closer account of it, is not so accommodating.

Ellen Cronan Rose (review date July 2001)

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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 rented out for parties. As she was laughing at the DJ's choice of a record, the eldest son of the family who owned The Open Arms came up to her and said “I see you're having a wonderful time.” A few months later she dropped out of college to marry him (thus acquiring a ready-made family of three stepdaughters) and when he died six years later, she took over the family business.

But at 53, Rebecca Davitch finds herself asking “How on earth did I get like this? How? How did I ever become this person who's not really me?” A professional party-giver whose rhyming toasts are a family tradition (and joke), a jolly woman everyone calls “Beck,” she recollects that she had once been a “serene and dignified young woman” for whom “parties of any kind whatsoever” were a form of torture. When Joe Davitch said the fateful words that set the course of her future life—“I see you're having a wonderful time”—she had been an earnest history major with a novel theory of why Robert E. Lee chose to fight for the South, “engaged to be engaged” to a college classmate she had known since childhood. Why did she choose “a whole different fork in the road,” Rebecca wonders, and what would her life be like if she'd stayed on course?

“What If?” Who among us over the age of forty has not asked that question? Anne Tyler gives Rebecca Davitch a chance to answer it turning “might-have-been” into “could-still-be.” Her old sweetheart turns out to be still available—and still in love with Rebecca. But the real Will Allenby—a professor of physics at the college where he and Rebecca were once students—is not quite the lissome lad with golden corkscrew curls she remembers, but a stodgy, skinny old man who cooks a double batch of chili every Sunday, which he divides into seven containers and eats every night for the next week. Still, Rebecca plays out her fantasy of might-have-been, introducing Will to her by now capacious family of stepdaughters, daughter, sons-in-law, grandchildren, presenting her 99-year-old uncle-in-law as “the man in my life.”

Throughout the novel, Rebecca tries to figure out who her “true self” is—the “girlhood self” Will remembers (or is it misremembers? “He remembered that she used to recite poetry on their dates, although she couldn't believe she would ever have been so mawkish”) or the wife, widow and mother she became when she took one fork in the road rather than the other. At his hundredth birthday party, which ends the novel, Poppy observes that “Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be.” It takes Rebecca a novel's worth of imaginative trial and error to understand his wisdom.

The first sentence of Back When We Were Grownups recalls a fairy tale: “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim argues convincingly that fairy tales “represent in imaginative form” the “process” of human development. Few of us are able to plot plausible alternative life stories when we are young enough to make a choice. Like Rebecca, we find ourselves at mid-life where we are, not quite sure how we got there. What this kind-of-fairy-tale teaches Rebecca is that her inadvertent choice was the right one, that marrying Joe Davitch “had been the most profound change in her life; it had made her understand that this was her life, for real, and not some story floating past.”

When he observed that she was “having a wonderful time,” Joe had, as the French Marxist Louis Althusser would put it, “interpellated” Rebecca, called her into what she would call her “true self.” At Poppy's birthday party, one of Rebecca's sons-in-law gives him a videotape made out of the family's old home movies, and when Rebecca's face appears on the screen, it is “merry and open and sunlit” and she sees “that she really had been having a wonderful time.”

Rita D. Jacobs (review date spring 2002)

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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 future against the backdrop of fashioning celebrations of life's events for strangers.

Rebecca is left alone after her husband's death to deal with three grown stepdaughters and one grown daughter of her own. The plot is fairly simple—the novel chronicles her attempts to recapture her earlier self through rekindling her first love with her college boyfriend, Will Allenby—but the real strength of the novel is in the episodic portrayal of the characters and the struggle to come to terms with how a life turns out. Rebecca revisits her past—“Might-have-been slid imperceptibly into could-still-be—a much more satisfying fantasy”—to conjure what might happen if she rekindles her past with Will. She eventually tracks him down—not a difficult endeavor since he is teaching at the college they both attended—and an anemic, less than romantic man is turned into a talisman for a short time.

Tyler's style is graceful and even felicitous, but the daughters, whose names are too cutesy (NoNo, Patch, Min Foo, and Biddy), don't always ring true, nor does her late husband's moonabout pediatrician brother who has a crush on Rebecca. But her father-in-law, Poppy, who is approaching his one-hundredth birthday, is a well-drawn character who provides Rebecca with a sense of connection: “If this turned out to be Poppy's deathbed, heaven forbid, how strange that she should be standing beside it! Ninety-nine years ago, when he had come into the world, nobody could have foreseen that an overweight college dropout from Church Valley, Virginia—not even a Davitch, strictly speaking—would be the one to hold his hand as he left it.”

The real thrust of the novel is Rebecca's often misguided search for self-definition: “It occurred to her that so far, the only step she'd taken toward retrieving that old Rebecca was to try and reconnect with the old Rebecca's boyfriend. Like some fluff-headed girl from the fifties, she had assumed she would reach her goal by riding a man's coattails.” This isn't a feminist novel in any militant sense, but it is a novel of rediscovery where a grown woman is caught unawares by the meaning in her own life.

Tyler has written more complex and satisfying novels—Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant comes to mind—and Back When We Were Grownups doesn't rank among her best. But Rebecca Davitch is a finely drawn character with foibles, humor, and strength, and the novel she inhabits makes for a good, if slight, read.

Barbara Harrell Carson (essay date fall-winter 2002)

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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 question of all in Tyler's novels is the question of whether human behavior is fated or free. Her works dramatize the consequences of living with this mystery, showing how it feels to think you're “something dragged on a string behind a forgetful child” (as Charlotte Emory does in Earthly Possessions [114]) or to believe, as Morgan Gower seems to in Morgan's Passing, that free will is so total that you can even choose who you want to be, whenever you want to. Tyler knows, of course, that merely asking a question—even if it is one as old as human history—doesn't mean that the universe will provide an answer. What her novels seem confident of, though, is that the answers that have been supplied by traditional Western philosophy to questions about the existence of free will just don't work. Tyler's fiction suggests that those answers are untrue not only to human experience, but also to the vision of reality that her works offer as an alternative to conventional atomistic Western ontology.

In Western philosophy, three answers are usually given to the question, “Are humans free?” “Yes,” say the libertarians; “No,” say the hard determinists; and, “Sort of,” chime in the soft determinists or compatibilists. As Mark Thornton has explained in Do We Have Free Will?, philosophers consider a person to be possessed of free will if he or she is

autonomous in that he or she has a “will” of his or her own: she wants certain things and makes her own decisions, without being pushed into them by outside pressures and forces [and if he or she] has genuine alternatives. … If we have free will then we do not have to decide one way rather than another.


However, given the apparently incontrovertible controls our environment exercises over us—genetic determinism, programming by the past and by our unconscious, the power of compulsion, manipulation, and apparently irresistible desires, not to mention the role of pure chance—given all this, determinists assert, the idea of human freedom becomes tough to defend.2 As the most famous proponent of this school, B. F. Skinner, declares through a character in the determinist manifesto Walden Two, “Linguistically or logically there seem to be two possibilities, but I submit that there's only one in fact” (qtd. in Thornton 2).

Soft determinism or compatibilism attempts to navigate between the logical difficulties of libertarianism and the troubling implications of determinism. Here we find Spinoza's and Kant's freedom through understanding what controls us (Thornton 13; Easterbrook xi); Hobbes's, Locke's, and Hume's belief that, in Hobbes's terms, we're “free to do if [we] will,” but not “free to will” (Thornton 15); Nietzsche's version of freedom as “loving fate” (May 270); William James's, in the individual's giving “consents” or “non-consents” to the way things are (May 271-72). In effect, compatibilism is determinism once removed, compulsion softened, typically, by offering the possibility of understanding our absence of choices in the place of genuine alternatives.

All in all, the philosophical alternatives are neatly delineated. However, critics who have struggled to pinpoint Anne Tyler's position on the subject that is so central to her thematic concerns have, almost universally, found that her views just won't fit comfortably into the philosophers' categories. Even Mary J. Elkins, who labels Tyler's world “deterministic,” concedes that none of her characters “passively accepts his or her fate” (124). Most readers avoid definitive labels for Tyler, emphasizing instead, as Gordon O. Taylor does, Tyler's ambiguous “interplay” of “powerful determinations—and liberations—of ‘character’” (66).3

As a consequence of this ambiguity, we are left with an uneasy feeling by virtually all Tyler's works. Readers often close a Tyler novel troubled by the resolution, unsure of how to judge the protagonist's final situation, and, most especially, confused about whether the concluding situation should be viewed as a triumph or a defeat: Does Elizabeth (in The Clock Winder) really act autonomously when she marries Matthew, or is she doomed by family dynamics and her own psyche to join the Emersons? Are the career paths taken by Cody and Jenny and Ezra (in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant) choices or patterns of behavior programmed by the emotional damage wreaked by their parents? When Justine and Duncan (in Searching for Caleb) sell the remnants of Peck family furniture and take to the carnival circuit, are they defying or succumbing to family fate?

Every Tyler novel raises similar puzzles, presenting convincing cases for either side of the argument. For some readers, the ambiguity is troubling enough to warrant the charge that, lacking thematic unity, Tyler's works are gravely flawed. I'd like to suggest instead that our very tendency to assign Tyler to the camp of either the philosophical libertarians or the determinists (and their fellow-travelers, the compatibilists) is the flaw. Considered together, Tyler's novels can be seen as an inter-textual exploration of the age-old metaphysical question. However, the answers dramatized in her fiction suggest that the familiar philosophical alternatives are inadequate to describe how humans come to be what they are and to act as they do.

In Tyler's novels, questions concerning free will usually examine the ability of her characters to change their life paths as a consequence of individual choice, independent of external compulsion. During an interview in 1972, Tyler revealed her awareness of the centrality of this theme in her writing. Some tricky footwork in her comments hints of the complexity that, in works yet to come, would increasingly characterize her fictional responses to the question of human freedom. “I think something that tends to come out in all my books is an utter lack of faith in change,” she declared. “I really don't think most people are capable of it, although they think they are. One reason I like A Slipping-Down Life [1970] is because it's the one book of mine in which the characters do change” (Ridley 27). Tyler's statement is intriguingly contradictory. Initially locating herself, by implication, with the defenders of determinism (in denying faith in change, Tyler denies faith in the efficacy of will), she then declares her special attachment to a novel affirming the possibility of change (that is, the power of human will to effect that change), even as she professes an “utter lack of faith in change.” The paradox here parallels the tension of novel after novel in which Tyler seems both to affirm and deny the power of the individual will in changing a life.

The Clock Winder (1972), for instance, is another early exploration of the possibility that change can be the consequence of the exercise of will. Elizabeth Abbott's father poses the question when, troubled by his daughter's disengagement from life, he requests that she dress up for a job interview by asking, “[C]ould you change?” Elizabeth's startled response—“Change?”—signals that she hears a much more serious question than her father intended to ask (149).4 Twenty-six years later in A Patchwork Planet (1998), it's a question Tyler's characters are still asking. The desire to find out if people can actually change as a consequence of will is what prompted the teenaged Barnaby to steal from his neighbors, not the usual fenceable goods, but personal letters and photo albums. He says that he thought such records might furnish the answer to the question that haunted him: “Did they have to settle for just being who they were forever, from cradle to grave?” (178).

Elizabeth and Barnaby also embody two modern responses to the possibility of free will. In Elizabeth (who has learned, through her involvement in Timothy Emerson's death, what can happen when a person exercises will), we see an anguish like that described by Sartre—the pain of suspecting that we are “condemned to be free” (qtd. in Thornton 20), that we suffer because we are responsible for our decisions. Indeed, Sartre holds that the anguish that accompanies our decisions is what makes us conscious that we are free (Thornton 4). Elizabeth works stolidly for freedom from such freedom. And, paradoxically, her very resistance to exercising will—willing not to will—suggests the possibility of willed choice. Barnaby, on the other hand, reflects the opposite kind of pain, one identified by Rollo May in Love and Will as “the central core of modern man's neurosis”: the fear that “even if he did exert his ‘will’ … his actions wouldn't do any good anyway” (qtd. in Easterbrook 4).

Destined for pain either way, Tyler's characters line up between the poles of these contradictory possibilities, sometimes switching positions in the course of their stories. Such variations cause Tyler's fiction to sound at times like an apologia for philosophical determinism, at other times, like a defense of libertarianism. In Breathing Lessons (1988), for example, Serena Gill speaks from the perspective of determinism, telling Maggie Moran: “You don't have any choice. … That's what it comes down to in the end, willy-nilly …” (83). That old-fashioned expression “Will I, nil I,” meaning “whether I will it or not, [something] will happen anyway,” underscores Serena's position, as does the song she chooses to end her husband's funeral service: “Que Sera, Sera.”

And even Maggie, whose whole adult life seems to reflect an irrepressible Lucy Ricardo-like belief in the efficacy of human will (at least hers),5 momentarily entertains a similar idea: “[S]ometimes feeling the glassy sheet of Ira's disapproval, she grew numbly, wearily certain that there was no such thing on this earth as real change. You could change husbands, but not the situation. You could change who, but not what” (48). At this point, Maggie would be perfectly comfortable saying with the soft determinists that we can get what we want; we just can't want what we want. That is, we are free to select among first-order desires, but second-order desires—the desires for those desires—are programmed by forces beyond the reach of will. Then, Maggie ends her musing on the possibility of change sounding like a strict determinist, coming up with her own metaphor from physical science to convey the idea that the human condition is controlled by external forces: “We're all just spinning here, she thought, and she pictured the world as a little blue teacup, revolving like those rides at Kiddie Land where everyone is pinned to his place by centrifugal force” (48).

Like Maggie, Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist (1985) temporarily relapses into determinism, when, flat on his back in Paris near the end of the novel, he reviews his life:

He reflected that he had not taken steps very often in his life, come to think of it. Really never. His marriage, his two jobs, his time with Muriel, his return to Sarah—all seemed to have simply befallen him. He couldn't think of a single major act he had managed of his own accord.


The usually can-do, take-charge Muriel also speaks at times from the perspective of psychological and social determinism. She declares that “people just get fixed in these certain frames of other people's opinions” (102): Her own life demonstrates that she became the bad daughter in her family in response to her mother's casting her in that role. In Morgan's Passing, Morgan uses a different metaphor to express the idea that, while humans do change, the changes come about because of external forces, not individual will. Speaking to Emily of her husband Leon, Morgan says: “[O]f course he's changed. Everybody does; everyone goes bobbing along, in and out of inlets, snagging on pilings, skating down rapids” (147). Emily and Leon's puppets, always in the background as we read this novel, convey even more chillingly the notion of human passivity in the face of external control.

But if Maggie, Macon, Muriel, and Morgan at times speak as determinists (of one stripe or another), they live as libertarians—Maggie in her constant demonstrations of her belief that merely by the exercise of her will she can improve people's lives; Macon by his conscious choices at the end of The Accidental Tourist to forego the escape from suffering offered by Sarah's pain pill and to leave Sarah for Muriel. Muriel herself proclaims the motto of the libertarian: “I can do anything,” she tells Macon (92), and her life speaks of her ability to triumph over circumstances by the exercise of will. Even more emphatically, Morgan epitomizes radical free will: each morning he chooses the costume appropriate for the character he will not so much play as be that day, constructing his identity now as a cobbler, at another time as a riverboat gambler, yet at another as a doctor (in which role he actually delivers Leon and Emily's baby), until finally he becomes Emily's husband, even assuming the name of “Leon Meredith.”

Of course, such shifts between belief in free will and belief in determinism could merely reflect the characters' different attitudes at different periods in their lives. I'd like to suggest, however, that something else is also going on here. Even though the position is untenable in conventional philosophy, in repeating these alternatives without resolving the tension between them, Tyler is hinting at the simultaneous truth of both fatedness and freedom. This paradoxical stand is underscored in her repeated use of fortune-tellers, who, because of Tyler's idiosyncratic emphasis, embody the apparently contradictory message of the co-existence of free will and determinism. Thus, in Searching for Caleb, Justine's ability to foretell the future reminds us throughout the novel of fate's role in human life, a suggestion that what will be, will be. (If fate is not already established, how could you predict what will happen?) Yet Madame Olita, who teaches Justine to read the cards, declares: “You can change your future a great deal.” Then she adds, even more radically, “Also your past” (135). Later in the same novel, Alonzo, the carnival owner who visits Justine periodically to have his fortune told, demonstrates the coexistence of determinism and free will in his response to the messages from Justine's cards. He almost never follows Justine's advice and, consequently, never claims the future—usually happiness, not money—she predicts if he follows her counsel. However, by choosing the opposite path, Alonzo both eludes his fate and affirms it. Since Justine predicts that not following her advice will deny him potential joy, when Alonzo chooses a different path, and misses out on the pleasure Justine foresees, he demonstrates the accuracy of her prediction—and the efficacy of his will: He has the ability to choose between alternatives.

From a philosophical perspective, Tyler seems to have broken all the rules of Aristotelian non-contradiction by declaring the truth of both X and non-X, of free-will and determinism. Problematic as that is from the perspective of classical logic, it's a contradiction that most of us live with quite comfortably. We readily concede the apparently incontrovertible reality of the control that our environment and our genes exercise over our lives. But, hard as it is to refute the power of these forces, most of us simply refuse to surrender the notion of free will: Determinism strikes us as foreign to the way we actually experience life, untrue to our sense that we do have real options, that we can make decisions, that we are morally responsible for our actions (a position defensible only in the presence of free will). Like us, Tyler's characters manage to hobble along with one foot in the camp of the determinists, and one gingerly placed with the libertarians.

That her works reflect a popular, cavalier disregard for stringent logic is, however, not the only defense of Tyler's evasion of the philosophers' either-or approach to the question of whether our lives move to the rhythm of free will or of fate. Her unwillingness to come down on one side or the other of the question is also, and more importantly, linked to her perception of the essential flaw in that very question. The question itself is illogical, her works imply, because life is not a matter of clearly divided Self and Other, but a system in which these parts unite (our dualistic language forces us to approach the idea only glancingly). How can we ask if A (self) causes A′ (a change in self) or if B (an external force) causes A′, when there is no A or B in isolation? Indeed, Tyler's world posits not just AB, but ABCD … ZA′B′C′D′ … Z′ ad infinitum.

While virtually every Tyler novel dramatizes this complicated world, Searching for Caleb captures this dynamic, non-dualistic relatedness with particular clarity at two telling moments: after Justine's mother's death and, later, just before her daughter's birth. Wandering through the family home after her mother dies, Justine is struck by the absolute falsity of A and B as separate, distinct realities:

Now as she cruised through the darkening house she was aware of how everything here was attached to everything else. There was no such thing as a simple, meaningless teacup, even. It was always given by someone dear, commemorating some happy occasion, chipped during some moment of shock, the roses worn transparent by Sulie's scrubbing, a blond stain inside from tea that Sam Mayhew had once drunk, a crack where Caroline, trembling with a headache, had set it down too hard upon the saucer.


Later, trying to prepare for all eventualities before Meg is born, Justine returns to the vision of life as a messy, non-linear system, sensing that “merely the fact of having a new person in the world implied a stream of unforeseen events endlessly branching and dividing” (181). The imagery of endless branches implies the complicated, multiple causal links uniting the individual with life. Indeed, Tyler's words evoke the infinite branching of fractiles in chaos theory, itself a reminder of the mysterious dynamic connecting each to all, most famously linking that butterfly in Madagascar to the hurricane in the Atlantic. Justine's meditations on both death and birth present human life as a similarly dynamic system, a system in which no part exists in isolation and no event moves in only one direction.6

Toward the end of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), Ezra Tull finds comfort in the thought of such systemic connectedness. He is described in a passage which also complicates our normal view of causation. Helping his nearly blind mother from her chair, Ezra realizes that

they were traversing the curve of the earth, small and steadfast, surrounded by companions: Jenny flying past with her children, the drunks at the stadium sobering the instant their help was needed [when his mother fainted], the baseball players obediently springing upward in the sunlight, and Josiah connected to his unknown gift giver as deeply, and as mysteriously, as Ezra himself was connected to this woman beside him.


The “obedience” of the baseball players has particular resonance here: In a linear, cause-and-effect system, their leap for the ball would seem anything but externally caused. Yet viewed as part of a system, the flying ball causes the players' action as surely as the force of the bat causes the ball to come hurtling toward them. In this image, life is like an intricate dance or like the flight of birds in a flock or the connection of butterfly and hurricane in chaos theory. In all these, the movement of one part affects the whole, and the consequent movement of all affects the one, and so on, until cause and effect become inextricable.

Another, more familiar passage in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant combines just as nimbly Tyler's sense of the indivisibility of parts in the human system and the idea of the multiple causal layers behind human action. The scene in which Cody wounds his mother while fooling around with the archery set his father bought plays throughout that novel. The more we learn about the various characters' perceptions of the event, the more we are struck by the blurred boundaries between cause and effect. Since few things move more straightforwardly from A to B than the path of an arrow, it might initially seem that here at least the distinction between cause and consequence will be clear. Yet Tyler undercuts this familiar linearity when she explores the actual, experienced path of the arrow shot by fourteen-year-old Cody into his mother's shoulder (or heart, as we're originally told). Pearl first complicates our understanding of causality when she gives her view of the incident: “It was Cody who drew the bowstring, but that was incidental; Cody was not the one she had blamed. … She blamed Beck [her husband] …” (27).

In the system Pearl is talking about, causality is clearly something very un-Newtonian. Science might explain the physical cause and effect here, but causality in the psyche and in the interpersonal world (the world, it might be argued, that we really inhabit) is a different matter altogether. In that system, even though it was clearly Cody who plucked the strings, it makes sense not only for Pearl to identify Beck as the cause, but also for Cody to exclaim to his brother Ezra, “See what you've gone and done?” and for Ezra to reply, “Did I do that?” (38). In spite of physical evidence to the contrary, Ezra has no doubt that it was “entirely [his] fault” and goes through life feeling “unforgiven” (122). Just as Cody, Beck, and Ezra all become causes of the released arrow, so too the object of its flight shifts away from the wounded Pearl when Cody declares to Ezra: “Gone and done it to me again” (38; emphasis added). As readers, we know that just as reasonably, Pearl—so indisputably the victim of the archery accident when it is viewed from the usual vantage point—could also be seen as pulling the string, with Cody, or Ezra or Beck, as targets created by the good child/bad child competition she fostered or by her emotional distance from her husband. The cause of the wounding could also be traced to a society that championed marriage as the only path for women or to her Uncle Seward's inability to suggest how she could be like other girls, or to her social isolation in Baltimore and on and on.

Causes regress infinitely into the past, and consequences proliferate endlessly into present and future (the latter point underscored by Tyler's looping return throughout the novel to the arrow incident). In peeling back the layers behind the apparently simple question of who shot the arrow, in suggesting that cause and effect may, indeed, be interchangeable (Pearl, Beck, Cody, Ezra—all, both victims and perpetrators), Tyler dramatizes a vision of complex, dynamic causation that defies easy discursive expression and simple philosophical categories.7

Tyler also plays with the inseparability of free will and determinism in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant when she describes Ezra's attempt to explain to Mrs. Scarletti the sleepwalking that earned him a discharge from the army:

“Remember when I left the army? Discharged for sleepwalking? Sent home? Mrs. Scarlatti, I wasn't really all the way asleep. I mean, I knew what I was doing. I didn't plan to sleepwalk, but part of me was conscious, and observed what was going on, and could have wakened the rest of me if I'd tried. I had this feeling like watching a dream, where you know you can break it off at any moment. But I didn't; I wanted to go home. I just wanted to leave that army, Mrs. Scarlatti. So I didn't stop myself.”


Trying to unravel free will from determinism is hopeless before such a tangle. The self here is the residence of both compulsion and will—and the compulsion to sleepwalk could just as easily be an expression of the will to go home, while the will that could stop the “self” from sleepwalking, but elects not to, could, with as much reason, be seen as compelled by the unconscious. Given passages like these throughout Tyler's works, it makes little sense to try to isolate the locus of causality in her system. To ask if it is internal, thus free, or external and thus determined is inevitably to be reminded that “internal” and “external” themselves are convenient labels. These terms are useful in a world of colliding atoms, but inadequate as descriptors of the much more complex reality that is Tyler's subject.

But if these categories are illusions created by the human need for clarity in the face of complexity, they are illusions capable of causing great pain. Tyler's characters again and again feel they have to be in charge and reject or ignore life's causal interplay. Even as she is dying, the almost blind Pearl in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant dreams of willed control and, then, only half awake, declares: “Dance! Oh, I don't think so, … I'm in charge of this whole affair, you see, and all I'd have to do is turn my back one instant for the party to go to pieces, just fall into little pieces” (16). On one hand, this is true: Pearl's determined efforts keep her family together after her husband deserts them. However, we also recognize that her choices during those times are contingent on realities outside her control, forces impervious to her intention. Her death itself causes scarcely a ripple even in her family, further belying her notion that she's “in charge of this whole affair.” Easily overlooked in Pearl's dream, however, is a symbolic alternative to seeing life as either the arena of free will or of determinism. Her refusal to dance implies an unwillingness to see life itself as dance, as a shared activity combining predetermined pattern and individual choice, as well as the influence of one's partner on one's choices, to create a new pattern of life. Other non-dancers populate Tyler's Baltimore, all sharing at some point in their lives the notion of the absolute power of their own will in effecting life changes: Cody Tull in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Morgan Gower in Morgan's Passing, Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist.

Because Tyler recognizes the fallacy of this concept of human efficacy, she emphasizes again and again in her novels that personal change occurs not as a result of isolated introspection but in the arena of relationships. While many of her socially enmeshed characters fail to change, her isolated sorts never do. Even Barnaby Gaitlin of A Patchwork Planet (1998), arguably the Tyler character who works most consciously to take control of his life and to will its change of direction, manages this only in concert with another. The Gaitlin Twinform, the invention with which Barnaby's grandfather had made the family fortune, becomes the symbol of this need for the Other in the exercise of individual will. Shaped something like a two-dimensional dressmaker's manikin, the Twinform was intended to allow women to put together an outfit before actually wearing it. According to family legend, the Twinform was inspired by an angel who told Grandfather Gaitlin: “How often have I put on a frock for some special occasion … only to find that it doesn't suit and must be exchanged for another at the very last moment …” (34). Barnaby's business partner Martine's response to this explanation locates the Twinform in the debate about human agency: “Those old inventions slay me. … People used to try so hard, seems like” (29).

Shortly after this exchange, Barnaby begins the construction of his own metaphorical Twinform by lying and claiming Sophia Maynard's experience on the train as his own: He's the one, he asserts, who delivered the stranger's passport without even being tempted to look inside, although these acts are so admirable and so different, Barnaby feels sure, from what he actually would have done. He sees himself just as his family does: the black sheep, a thief as a teenager and a failure at everything as an adult. His appropriation of Sophia's encounter with the stranger on the train is Barnaby's first use of Sophia as his Twinform, his first attempt to see if such a moral life “suits” him. Later, Barnaby's romance with Sophia provides further opportunities to try on what he sees as Sophia's virtues, characteristics he judges lacking in his own life. In Barnaby's case, trying on the Other allows him to identify the virtues he would like to live by and leads him to choose which of Sophia's qualities he will claim as his own. As it turns out, Barnaby finds that Sophia “doesn't suit”; he recognizes that the honesty he identified with her is really only superficial and that he has actually become the one who can be trusted. He has incorporated these values into his life, even though the person originally associated with the virtues is judged wanting. Nevertheless, Sophia's role in this change is as real as the role of Barnaby's will.

The complicated causality at work here is made even more tangled by the fact that the catalyst for Barnaby's changed life turns out, in the end, to be in large part the externalization of his own values projected onto Sophia. The agent of the change emerging here is a third party, Barnaby-cum-Sophia. Of course, even that is too simple to explain human causality, ignoring as it does the multiple versions of himself (other Twinforms) reflected in his parents, his ex-wife, his daughter, his co-workers, and on and on. And added to all these crisscrossing ties are all the others that would appear if we shifted our examination to Barnaby's reciprocal effect on Sophia who, he realizes, was “as proud of my sins as I was of her virtues” (181). In A Patchwork Planet, as clearly as anywhere in her fiction, we see Tyler's relational self: We do not exist in isolation, but are created by, and create our identity out of, our tangled interconnectedness with others.

In earlier novels, Tyler expressed the Twinform idea and explored the nature of causality in human relations in her frequent treatment of the attraction of opposites, an attraction especially evident when individuals choose a romantic partner. However, instead of stopping at the cliché-level of the truism, Tyler pushes on to explore the consequences of such choices, uncovering a tangle of causes and effects that defy linear description. For example, in A Slipping-Down Life, Tyler's third novel (the one Tyler claimed to be particularly fond of because its characters actually changed), Evie Decker—silent, dull, fat, heavy-footed, unmusical—falls in love with rock musician Drumstick Casey, who creates the mysterious lyrics Evie finds so compelling, by “just hauling in words by their tails” (9). Almost without identity, Evie first expresses a self when she carves Drum's name on her forehead. Tellingly, her first self-defining “word” is the name of another person. In their developing relationship and, finally, marriage, Evie begins to change, taking on her partner's characteristics and claiming a voice as puzzling in its own way as Drum's. She becomes a rebel, too: She speaks back to the revivalist who uses her experiences as a parable of modern evil; she refuses the conventionally solicitous comfort of neighbors when her father dies, phoning instead for Clotelia, the family's unsentimental, no-nonsense housekeeper. Finally, having to take care not only of herself but of her coming child, she uses the voice discovered in her relationship with Drum to change the nature of that relationship, issuing her ultimatum: “[W]e are going to have to make some arrangements. … Start a new life. Give some shape to things” (217).

When Drum refuses to move with her into her late father's house, she even redefines her initial act of assertion, exercising the option of changing her past, the possibility Madame Olita speaks of in Searching for Caleb. Evie slips away from Drum's control by telling him first that the “Casey” written on her forehead is her name, not his, and then asserting that it wasn't she who carved the name, but “someone else” (220). Ironically, through this declaration, presenting herself as the object of another's will, she asserts her will and claims her freedom, taking from Drum his ability to see her as victim of her love for him. Yet, of course, it is a complicated freedom, since the truth, or at least one truth, is that Evie's new assertion of control does lie on the foundation of Drum's influence on her life. The complications in exploring the pattern of causality in this novel multiply when we consider that Drum is not only an agent of change, but is himself changed by the relationship. He, too, begins to assert himself, refusing with increasing vigor to go along with the publicity stunts dreamed up by Evie and his manager. He confronts his own lack of musical talent; he begins to prefer blues to rock, and he refuses, finally, to move with Evie out of their tarpaper shack.

One of Tyler's earliest hints of why linear causation doesn't apply in human lives appears in Drum's declaration after first meeting Evie in the hospital: “Feels like meeting up with your own face somewhere,” he says (55). Where Emily Dickinson described the inner recesses of the mind as the spot where the self can meet the self, unarmed,8 Anne Tyler locates that spooky place in the Twinform other. When people are connected in this way, like identical twins, simultaneously independent and united, it becomes impossible to label a change in that unified system as the result of either internal or external forces. Evie is right to say both that she carved Drum's name on her forehead—an act that she claims was “the best thing I've ever done. … Something out of character. Definite. … Taking something into my own hands for once” [43]—and that it was done to her by someone else. Given Tyler's ontological frame, free will and determinism become meaningless distinctions in understanding Evie's actions.

Morgan's Passing offers a vivid description of such personality exchanges and of the permeable membranes which both separate and unite people. Thinking of her marriage to Leon, Emily Meredith muses:

She seemed to have caught some of Leon's qualities. He seemed to have caught some of hers. … [S]he was reminded of those parking-lot accidents where one car's fender grazes another's. It had always puzzled her that on each fender, some of the other car's paint appeared. You'd think the paint would only be on one car, not both. It was as if they had traded colors.


Marriage here is not so much union of X and Y, but a transformation of X into Xy and Y into Yx.

Underscoring the idea that questions of cause and effect are better viewed in terms of mutual, reciprocal relatedness, Tyler also creates characters who try to step outside the tangle of causality. Of course, no one can actually make that escape, but Tyler knows the human fantasy about such freedom. Its pursuit is, in many ways, her Ur-motif. Her vision of the disastrous consequences such freedom would bring if it were achieved is dramatized in the lives of Caleb Peck in Searching for Caleb, in Morgan Gower in Morgan's Passing, and in the foreign graduate students living next to the Bedloes in Saint Maybe (1991).9 The foreigners in Saint Maybe provide a comic view of this radical freedom. Cut off from their familiar contexts, their homeland, their language, and their families, the foreigners seem to live happily. However, it is an eerie, immature, inhuman happiness. Their transience and separation from real life are indicated by the “two webbed aluminum beach lounges” furnishing their living room. On vacation from consequential relationships, they seem to be traveling through “a flat green countryside like the landscape in a child's primer” (186); for them, America “was a story they were reading, or a movie they were watching. It was happening to someone else; it wasn't theirs. … Here they spoke lines” and “wore blue denim costumes,” on “a brief holiday from their real lives” (201). It doesn't really matter if they break a window to install a radio aerial or crush the roof of their car with the garage door. Disconnected from their authentic identities, the foreigners become the quintessential, though comic, aliens. They give up their difficult names, coming in “batch[es]” and “rotation[s]” into the Bedloes' neighborhood, infinitely replaceable and interchangeable “Jims” and “Freds” and “Franks” (179). Only when they return home and “fall in love and marry and have children, and … agonize over their children's problems, and struggle to get ahead, and practice their professions soberly and efficiently” (201), will they begin their “real lives.” But for now, they are impervious to the influence of others and unable to influence others' themselves. And because they are free (or as close to it as imaginable for comically realistic characters), they, in effect, cease to exist.

In Morgan's Passing, Morgan Gower provides another caveat for those idealizing absolute free will. He achieves within his own family an isolation from efficacy similar in effect to that of Saint Maybe's foreign grad students. Working from the assumption that “events don't necessarily have a reason behind them” (232), Morgan sets out to create a life embodying this randomness. He comes as close as any of Tyler's main characters to a life free of shaping forces—even the forces of internal predisposition. Every day he faces infinite choices, beginning with “deciding who to be today” (29). If Morgan cannot become in reality a man constructed solely by his own will, he becomes such a person in his elaborate role-playing, assuming and discarding personae at will. He is Tyler's symbol of the radically free individual. His is an improvised life, unimpeded by the constraints limiting the lives of others. Such freedom may be momentarily appealing, but in the long run, as Tyler makes clear in Morgan's repudiation of this improvisation, it ends in nihilism.

Morgan is, Tyler tells us, a man “in pieces,” “unassembled,” “fragmented”: “Parts of his life … lay separate from other parts. His wife knew almost none of his friends. His children had never seen where he worked” (29). He regards clothes as costumes (29), underscoring the inauthenticity of the radically free self. Because he is making up his self as he goes along, he cannot depend, as the rest of us do, on being guided by instinct or habit or character or conscience. He is unable to relax in a consistent selfhood. Thus, he avoids alcohol; because he has to build his identity moment by moment, he always has to be in control (29).

A definite, predictable self is valuable, even if it means a predisposition that shapes our behavior and thus limits our freedom to be anything at any moment. This is reflected in Breathing Lessons in Maggie Moran's response to Ira's description of her tearful nostalgia. “It's just like you,” he tells her. Hearing this, rather than feeling insulted, Maggie feels “strong and free and definite” (123). Having an identity means that one will respond reliably in certain ways to certain stimuli; it means being predictable (to those who know you best), at least some of the time. Turning our usual definitions on their heads, Maggie associates such predictability with freedom. Living without that predictable identity, Morgan discovers, is exhausting. Beyond that, like the foreigners in Saint Maybe, Morgan the individual seems scarcely to exist. It's no surprise that by the end of the novel he easily passes for Leon Meredith. Another kind of “passing” is comically adumbrated in the spiteful fake obituary his wife places in the Baltimore Sun. But the announcement of his death as Morgan Gower, son of Louisa, brother of Brindle, husband of Bonny, father of seven daughters, seems to affect no one.

For all the popular American lip-service given to free will, life, freed from any causation except one's own choices, would be empty of meaning. Tyler conveys this when she describes Morgan's running from his mother's dog, an intriguing image of the desire to escape “family as fate,” to use Mary Ellis Gibson's terminology. In his flight, Morgan sinks “into the lives of the scattered people sitting on their stoops. … A soothing kind of emptiness began to spread through him. He felt stripped and free, like the vacant windows, frameless, glassless …” (41). The negatives attached to this state—“stripped,” “vacant,” “frameless,” “glassless”—suggest what this kind of freedom would be like. To the extent that he is disconnected from background and context, Morgan's life is empty. He sinks into the lives he witnesses, but there's no reciprocity, no Twinform perspective: he sees only otherness, not self-in-other.10 Blind to the reflective surface of others, he loses the ability to see himself. Because he is able to be anything, Morgan risks becoming nothing. If this is what comes of freedom, Tyler seems to be asking, “who wants it?”11

In Searching for Caleb, Caleb Peck's attempt to escape the influences of his family turns out to be as problematic as Morgan's flight from his. Although in making music after he flees Baltimore, Caleb has the solace of doing what he most wants, his life seems otherwise as vacant as Morgan's threatens to be. Caleb runs from his coercive father, who insists on Caleb's resigning his own will, including his love of music, in favor of his father's agenda. Ironically, in exercising his will by leaving his family, Caleb comes close to destroying his selfhood. Because he sees relationships as limitation and control by others, Caleb allows himself only the most tenuous of human connections, symbolized in the string that for twenty years hitches him to the blind guitar player White-Eye in New Orleans. The two seldom speak; they know nothing of each other's lives. After White-Eye dies, Caleb, without making a real choice (280), drifts into a family that eventually turns him out because he's not “any real relation or anything” (286). In the old folks' home where they leave him, he lives in dreams of music and the New Orleans of his youth. Like Morgan Gower, because he has escaped the tangle of relationships and the systemic dynamics of cause and effect, Caleb scarcely seems alive.

Caleb's rejection of the control of others also reveals the futility of attempting such an escape in any absolute sense. Not only does he move into other constraining relationships after losing his companion in music, he also demonstrates that he can never really free himself of the shaping power of his original family. True to his upbringing, he treats others with studied politeness, bowing formally to the duster-clad women in the old folks home (274). He is “startled to find his father's face gazing at him from mirrors” (281), and even on the run, he writes a formal, Peckish bread-and-butter note thanking his niece Justine for the hot dog dinner she served during his brief return home. He ends that stay by climbing out of the window, once again escaping—and not escaping—the constraints of relationships.

What Caleb makes clear, of course, is that the system operates whether we consent or not. Self and other, will and compulsion together create what Tyler calls in Breathing Lesson “a real life”—“the whole messy kit and caboodle” (288). Nowhere is that idea more vividly conveyed than in the statue created by Jeremy Pauling in Celestial Navigation: “A man pushing a wheelbarrow, webbed around with strings and pulleys and chains and weights. He was mostly plaster, but you could find nearly every material in the world if you looked long enough …” (209). Both pushing and pulled, at once individual and composite—here, for Tyler, is human reality. Just try to separate the self from all the rest of the universe, she says with Jeremy's statue, just try to locate causality here. It can't be done, of course. What Tyler offers instead in her works is an exploration of the impulse to untangle that mystery and a celebration of the impossibility of simplifying life's “endlessly branching and dividing” reality.


  1. Charlotte Templin discusses Tyler's association with the comedy of manners in the British tradition and with “amiable social comedy,” a comparison usually made by reviewers who dismiss her works as lacking in “attention to the dark side of reality” (179-90). Templin identifies “something that can be called philosophical verity or ‘wisdom’ as one of the three criteria used by reviewers to judge a novel” (180). She notes Mary Ellen Gibson's declaration that Tyler's “almost metaphysical intelligence” has often been overlooked and Margaret Morganroth Gullette's comments on “Tyler's ability to answer ‘philosophical questions’ in ‘plain concrete language’” (195).

  2. Thornton details the arguments against free will in the fifth chapter of his useful study.

  3. In her perceptive and seminal analysis of human fatedness in Tyler, Mary Ellis Gibson chooses another tactic, discussing Tyler, not in terms of conventional philosophy, but instead locating her in relation to concepts of fate found in Greek tragedy and in early Christianity. In these systems too, Gibson decides, Tyler's determinism is complicated: “somewhere between the classical Greek fates, or moira, who work out destinies in accordance with some cosmic order—those fates who preside over Sophoclean irony—and the more oppressive fate or heimarmene of the gnostic dualists …” (165-66). See also Joseph C. Voelker (89 et passim); Linda Wagner-Martin (170-71); and Alice Hall Petry (149-51, 154-81, 186-206). For Petry, Tyler suggests that fatedness may be attenuated by “shifting one's point of view” and choosing “positive elements” in one's fated condition, deciding to “accept and nurture” those aspects “in the hope of eventually attaining a kind of psychological compromise or spiritual balance” (174).

  4. In Morgan's Passing, Leon asks the same question (“Change?”) when Morgan says, “I'd better go home and change.” Morgan means only that he needs another hat, but Leon's question draws the reader's attention to the deeper implication that Leon had responded to (127). Tyler uses the same pun when the train conductor in If Morning ever Comes twice informs Ben Joe (close to the beginning of the novel and then again at the end), “Won't have to change” (27, 266)—reassuring words to a person fighting life's changes, first in a precipitous trip home to Sandhill, North Carolina, and then in a return to New York, old girlfriend by his side and plans to transplant Sandhill to the North underway.

  5. When Maggie compares herself to Lucy, she focuses on Lucy as the epitome of the “madcap, fun-loving” type, “full of irrepressible high spirits,” as well as a “dizzy woman” whose “failures [were] just built-in, just guaranteed” (47). However, another side of Lucy also applies to Maggie: She is the undefeated libertarian, always confident that she can take control of a situation; she can get into the show, meet the famous actor, make the extra money she needs selling mega-vitamins.

  6. Among Tyler's favorite metaphors to convey this idea of life's complex relatedness are images associated with weaving or sewing, or other textile metaphors suggesting enmeshment. For a fuller discussion of the metaphor, see my essay, “Complicate, Complicate: Anne Tyler's Moral Imperative” (24-34). In Morgan's Passing, Tyler turns to another symbol to present this idea of life's causal interconnectedness in Morgan's story to Emily about his having been married—and never divorced—before his marriage to Bonny. When Emily objects that this makes him a bigamist, Morgan responds: “But it's really very natural. … It's quite fitting, when you stop to consider. Aren't we all sitting on stacks of past events? And not every level is neatly finished off, right? Sometimes a lower level bleeds into an upper level. Isn't that so?” (147) It's an idea that Tyler introduced in her first novel, If Morning ever Comes, when Ben Joe tries to figure out why he has asked Shelley to marry him: “Who knew how many other people, myriads of people that he had met and loved before, might lie beneath the surface of the single smooth-faced person he loved now?” (265-66).

  7. In an intriguing shift from the conventional conceit of humanity as arrows shot from God—a shift which itself implies Tyler's sense of the multiple directions of causality—the narrator of Saint Maybe says of Ian Bedloe, “He was acutely conscious all at once of motion, of flux and possibility. He felt he was an arrow—not an arrow shot by God but an arrow heading toward God, and if it took every bit of this only life he had, he believed that he would get there in the end” (247-48).

  8. In poem 670 (“One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—”), Dickinson writes:

    Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
    The Stones a'chase—
    Than Unarmed, one's a'self encounter—
    In lonesome Place—
  9. Indeed, all Tyler's agorophobic or sociophobic characters reflect such consequences, from Ansel in The Tin Can Tree (1965) to Delia in Ladder of Years (1996).

  10. In Celestial Navigation, Jeremy Pauling also demonstrates the self-destruction attending the totally autonomous, non-reciprocal self. When one of his lodgers declares that Jeremy is “not himself at all today,” his sister Amanda thinks scornfully, “He is always himself. That's what's wrong with him” (10). She means merely to judge her brother's abnormal personality, but in the context of Tyler's works, we can see the larger implications. Existing in psychological isolation from others, impervious to exchanges of affect and effect, Jeremy is always and only himself, and that is the source of his psychic pain.

  11. This is a theme still playing in Tyler's latest works. In Ladder of Years (1995), Delia arrives at a similar conclusion after she walks away from her conventional life. When Rebecca Davitch fears that she has been living someone else's life in Back When We Were Grownups (2001), part of the cause is her inability to see the systemic causality of her life.

Works Cited

Carson, Barbara Harrell. “Complicate, Complicate: Anne Tyler's Moral Imperative.” Southern Quarterly 31 (Fall 1992): 24-34.

Easterbrook, James A. The Determinants of Free Will: A Psychological Analysis of Responsible, Adjustive Behavior. New York: Academic, 1978.

Elkins, Mary J. “Anne Tyler and the Faulkner Connection.” The Fiction of Anne Tyler. Ed. C. Ralph Stephens. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1990. 119-35.

Gibson, Mary Ellis. “Family as Fate: The Novels of Anne Tyler.” Southern Literary Journal 16 (Fall 1983): 47-58.

May, Rollo. Love and Will. London: Souvenir, 1969.

Petry, Alice Hall. Understanding Anne Tyler. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1990.

Ridley, Clifford A. “Anne Tyler: A Sense of Reticence Balanced by ‘Oh, Well, Why Not?’” Critical Essays on Anne Tyler. Ed. Alice Hall Petry. New York: G. K. Hall/Macmillan, 1992. 24-27.

Taylor, Gordon O. “Morgan's Passing.” The Fiction of Anne Tyler. Ed. C. Ralph Stephens. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1990. 64-72.

Templin, Charlotte. “Tyler's Literary Reputation.” Anne Tyler as Novelist. Ed. Dale Salwak. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994. 175-96.

Thornton, Mark. Do We Have Free Will? Bristol, England: Bristol Classical, 1989.

Tyler, Anne. The Accidental Tourist. New York: Berkley, 1986.

———. Back When We Were Grownups. New York: Knopf, 2001.

———. Breathing Lessons. New York: Berkley, 1989.

———. The Clock Winder. New York: Ballantine, 1992.

———. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. New York: Berkley, 1983.

———. Earthly Possessions. New York: Berkley, 1985.

———. If Morning ever Comes. New York: Berkley, 1983.

———. Ladder of Years. New York: Ballantine, 1997.

———. Morgan's Passing. New York: Ballantine, 1992.

———. A Patchwork Planet. New York: Ballantine, 2001.

———. Saint Maybe. New York; Ballantine, 1992.

———. Searching for Caleb. New York: Berkley, 1986.

———. A Slipping-Down Life. New York: Berkley, 1983.

———. The Tin Can Tree. New York: Berkley, 1983.

Voelker, Joseph C. Art and the Accidental in Anne Tyler. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1989.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Breathing Lessons: A Domestic Success Story.” Anne Tyler as Novelist. Ed. Dale Salwak. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994. 162-74.

Paul Christian Jones (essay date spring 2003)

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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” (141). Brooke Allen, in the New Criterion, lamented that Tyler's characters “seem eerily untouched by any of the revolutions, be they sexual or feminist, of the last forty years.” Additionally, Allen complained, “Not only do none of Tyler's wives see themselves as feminists, they apparently do not even acknowledge that such a creature exists” (33). Similar observations have greeted the debuts of many of Tyler's novels since the 1970s, when her negative reviews of a number of feminist works and her published remarks about novels by “liberated” women—“I hate 'em all”—unsurprisingly earned her the reputation of being unsupportive of feminist concerns (Ridley 23).1

Because Tyler has not publicly addressed those criticisms of her work and continues to focus her fictions on female characters who seem unaware that “there might be any alternative to conventional marriage” (Allen 33), it has been easy for critics, as Heidi Macpherson has noted, to construct Tyler as “an enclosed, politically conservative novelist engaging in feminist backlash writing” (130). However, in the last decade or so, a number of scholars have re-examined Tyler's body of work to explore the author's complicated position in the landscape of contemporary feminism. One of the most insightful of these studies, by novelist Doris Betts, concurs, even if ironically, with Tyler's strongest critics, admitting that “Tyler's women often collaborate with the chauvinist enemy […] by staying married” and noting that “her heroines are seldom angry enough to star in the average Women's Studies syllabus” (3). Yet Betts is unwilling to label Tyler as antifeminist and instead characterizes the author's feminism as a “less dramatic sort” in which women “have an abyss running right through their own backyards and still hang out the laundry” (13). By this, Betts means that Tyler's women seldom “light out for the territory with Huck Finn,” rather, they function and sometimes even blossom amid stifling environs (12).

Because of the tendency of Tyler's characters to endure rather than to revolt, Betts can write, “No rebellious Nora goes slamming out of her doll's house in [Tyler's] conclusions; no woman is swimming out to where horizon meets sea or going mad from seeing creatures swarm inside her yellow wallpaper” (11). That comparison to work by Henrik Ibsen, Kate Chopin, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a useful one, one that I pursue further in this article, because consideration of why readers do not perceive Tyler's female characters in the vein of Ibsen's Nora Helmer, Gilman's narrator, or, most important, Chopin's Edna Pontellier is necessary for a clearer understanding of Tyler's feminism or alleged lack thereof. Specifically, I argue in this essay that reading Tyler's novel Ladder of Years alongside Chopin's The Awakening, one of the early, landmark feminist texts, reveals Tyler's book to be engaged in a “postfeminist” revision of Chopin's text, one that posits a feminist trajectory for women that does not necessitate a complete flight from the domestic sphere.

Initially, one must acknowledge that Tyler has never placed herself in the tradition of writers such as Kate Chopin or any of her “liberated” devotees, the female authors of 1960s and 1970s fiction, whom Tyler calls “really strident, bitter, look-what-men-have-done-to-us women writers.” In an interview with Alice Hall Petry, she states, “Certainly I don't hate liberated women as such; I assume I'm one myself, if you can call someone liberated who was never imprisoned” (Understanding 18-19). The position Tyler takes in that statement and throughout her fiction might be characteristic of what some critics have dubbed “postfeminism,” a movement, as portrayed by Gayle Greene, that “hardly acknowledges the world, let alone challenges it,” a movement toward the “privatization and depoliticization of [women's] concerns, the sentimentalization of the family, the resignation to things as they are” (200). In a lengthy catalogue of “postfeminist” American, British, and Canadian writers, Greene places Tyler first in her list, which also includes Mary Gordon, Ann Beattie, Anita Brookner, Sue Miller, Ellen Gilchrist, Rosellen Brown, Jill McCorkle, Marianne Wigginson, and Alice Hoffman.

Before assigning Tyler the role of representative postfeminist, we should pay more attention to the term itself and to the appropriateness of its application to her work. The actual meaning of the term has been debated in recent decades. Some scholars use it merely as a term of periodization that denotes women's writing since the early 1980s. A second group of critics see it as a much more politicized movement, one actively engaged in a conservative response against feminism and the gains women have made in recent decades. As Linda Frost explains, for these critics, “postfeminism primarily represents a period of political and ideological backlash” (148). For example, Geneva Overholser calls postfeminism “sexism [under] a subtler name” as it encourages men and women to “go back to the old ways” and take “a breather” from feminism (34). Similarly, Elspeth Probyn, stating that it has also appeared under the guise of “new traditionalism,” argues that the ultimate goal of postfeminism is “the recentering of women in the family and the home” (150). These critics use “postfeminism” almost synonymously with “antifeminism,” viewing it as a dangerous attempt to undo the work of feminism.

However, the approach to this term that seems most fitting to a discussion of Tyler's work is a third one that examines postfeminism as a form of feminism adapted to the postmodern age. This approach sees postfeminism as “not simply the point of intersection between postmodernism and feminism but the postmodernization of feminism” (Frost 152), meaning that postfeminism perceives the concerns of feminism through a lens of postmodern uncertainty, ambiguity, and pluralism. In her essay “Feminism, ‘Postfeminism,’ and Contemporary Women's Fiction,” Deborah Silverton Rosenfelt explains how postfeminism can share the fundamental tenets of feminism while also embracing a postmodern awareness. In her study of postfeminist writers, including Louise Erdrich, Margaret Atwood, Anne Roiphe, and Sue Miller, Rosenfelt argues that postfeminist novels, like feminist ones, “retain an awareness of male domination in gendered relations, […] a vision of injustice and a longing to redress it.” However, she also finds the postfeminist novels to be “less clear about what can be done, and more likely to grieve and worry than to rage and hope.” They are “more skeptical than optimistic, more aware of limits than transgressive of traditional boundaries” and thus are “a retreat from the visionary politics of their predecessors” (270).

I believe that an intertextual reading of Tyler's Ladder of Years in terms of the feminist novels that preceded it can illustrate how her novel can be called postfeminist in Rosenfelt's sense and can clarify more generally the relationship between postfeminist and feminist work. Just as postfeminism could not exist without the model of feminism, postfeminist works likely also require feminist models to follow, to respond to, and perhaps to revise. I propose in this essay that Chopin's The Awakening acts as that model—or intertext—for Ladder of Years.2 My usage of the term “intertext” follows Michael Riffaterre's definition: “the intertext is another text […] that shares its lexicon and its structures with the one we are reading. This intertext represents a model on which the text builds its own variations” (2). Chopin's chronicle of the awakening of late nineteenth-century Creole wife and mother Edna Pontellier from routine and meaningless doldrums to a life of fulfillment and sensual pleasure before she tragically ends her own life appears to provide such a model on which Tyler's text bases its crucial revisions.

Intertextual readings have often been used to understand Tyler's work, and criticism of Ladder of Years has been no exception.3 Macpherson has noted that “the reader cannot help but be aware of other texts when reading Ladder of Years” (135). Because the novel's central character is Cordelia (shortened to Delia) Grinstead, the youngest and most loyal of three daughters to an aging father, many reviewers have focused on intertextual connections to Shakespeare's King Lear; other readers have attempted to draw connections between the plots of contemporary popular romance novels, the sort that make up the bulk of Delia's reading, and fairy tales. At least one critic, Virginia Carroll, has suggested, if only briefly, a connection to Chopin's novel.4

Indeed, The Awakening appears to be specifically evoked, mirrored, and revised throughout Ladder of Years, the story of a housewife and mother who decides during a beachside vacation to walk away from her family and establish a separate life elsewhere. Tyler's heroine's situation is a late-twentieth-century parallel to that of Edna Pontellier, and the two characters' stifling, unfulfilling marriages to men who are significantly older than their wives are very similar as the books begin. Edna feels like “a valuable piece of personal property” (4) in a marriage described as “purely an accident […] resembling many other marriages” (19). At one point, out of frustration, Edna throws down her wedding ring and unsuccessfully “stamped her heel upon it, striving to crush it” (53). Tyler's Delia also suffers in her marriage, characterizing herself as “a sad, tired, anxious, forty-year-old woman who hadn't had a champagne brunch in decades” (18). She wonders if her husband, her father's medical associate, married her merely to guarantee his professional future. A grown woman who still wears “baby doll” dresses, she realizes that she “had lived out her married life like a little girl playing house, and always there'd been a grown-up standing ready to take over—her sister or her husband or her father” (127).

Both Chopin and Tyler use the figures of the overpowering father and the absent mother to represent the male oppression that dominates these women's lives. The fathers exert extraordinary influence, whereas the mothers remain only faint memories. Because Edna's mother died when she was quite young, their father raised her and her sisters and continued to maintain control even as the adult daughters married. In one instance, he tells Edna's husband Léonce that he is “too lenient” with the disobedient Edna and that “authority, coercion are what is needed […] to manage a wife” (71). Though Tyler's Delia also lost her mother as a child and adamantly claims to retain no memory of her, she differs from Edna in that she has never even left her father's house; instead, as a teenage bride, she and her husband, Sam, settled into the family home and “her sweet-sixteen bedroom,” eventually taking over the practice following the father's death. Delia's father seemed to expect her, as “Daddy's pet,” to remain with him, discouraging her from going to college and using her as his receptionist and as company on his house calls. The relationship Delia shares with Sam, fifteen years her senior, is much like the one that she shared with her father: she continues her work at the reception desk and accompanies him on house calls. Because of the age disparity, this marriage approximates a parent-child relationship. The scene at the beach in which Sam lathers an “obedient” Delia with sunblock lotion recalls a similar beach scene early in The Awakening when Léonce scolds his young wife Edna for being “burnt beyond recognition” (4). In both marriages, the husband seems more surrogate father than loving partner.

Both Edna and Delia struggle against the role that Chopin calls the “mother-woman.” Edna admits that she does not think of herself as one of those “women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels” (10). Delia, on the other hand, begins Tyler's novel as a “mother-woman,” though one who is wondering what she will do as her children grow into adulthood. She comes to realize that a woman must have some role other than mother, especially when her children no longer appear to need her. The opening scene of the novel begins Delia's evolution from this role: She is approached in the grocery store by a younger man, Adrian Bly-Brice, who asks her to pretend that she is his lover while his wife, from whom he is separated, also shops in the store with another man. Delia plays along, but soon realizes that her shopping trip is going astray as she ends up with a cart load of pasta, consommé, and the ingredients for blancmange, forgetting or choosing not to buy corn flakes, catfood, and the strained spinach from the baby food section, because they were such “family item[s]” (8). As she plays the role of mistress to this younger man, she begins to imagine roles for herself other than the “mother-woman” who entered the store and considers following the example of Adrian's wife, Rosemary, the kind of woman who “never purchased [her] groceries by the cartload” (9).

Despite that single appearance, Rosemary Bly-Brice becomes an significant figure in Ladder of Years, serving as its first Edna Pontellier, a successful businesswoman and liberated wife who has persuaded her husband to take a hyphenated married name and who has left him for a lover, abandoning “every single one of her possessions when she left” (51). After Delia begins her nonsexual affair with Adrian, she becomes completely fascinated with his wife's bold act; she is uncertain why she finds Rosemary's departure “so alluring,” but she often “stood mesmerized in front of Rosemary's closet” (51). For Delia, Rosemary becomes an early model, the self-sufficient woman, who puts her independence above maintaining her routine life out of mere inertia. Rosemary is a latter-day Edna, in some ways more extreme than the original, who at least took “whatever was her own in the house” (84), before leaving a place that “never seemed like [hers], anyway” (79).

In the course of the two novels, both Edna and Delia begin to perceive themselves as capable of leading different, more satisfying lives. Edna's fresh perspective of herself arises out of various factors, including the attention of her young suitor, Robert Lebrun, and the empowerment that comes to her after her first night swim. During this vital event, Edna “grew daring and reckless” and “wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before” (28). “Intoxicated with her newly conquered power” (29), she returns to the shore and “waved a dissenting hand” to her companions, “paying no further heed to their renewed cries which sought to detain her” (29). The swim provides the new vision of herself that enables her to take control of her life: “She could only realize that she herself—her present self—was in some way different from the other self. That she was seeing with different eyes and making the acquaintance of new conditions in herself that colored and changed her environment” (41).

Delia also begins to view herself with “different eyes.” After the grocery store adventure with Adrian, she begins to perceive herself as sexually attractive, independent, unpredictable, and perhaps even unfaithful to her husband. “She couldn't remember when she had last been so aware of herself from outside, from a distance” (27), and she begins to crave an escape from “the grinding gears of daily life—the leaky basement, the faulty oven, the missing car keys” (29). Because she “like[s] the thought of beginning again from scratch” (139), she follows the precedent of Rosemary and the pattern of Edna; during her family's annual vacation, she spontaneously walks away from the beach front and her family with only the clothes that she is wearing. However, Delia goes further than Edna's move down the street or Rosemary's move across town. Instead, as she leaves the beach, she hitches a ride to another town, Bay Borough, without a word to her family about where she will be. She begins her life anew and intends this time to decide for herself what her life will be, without a father or husband making decisions for her.

Unlike Edna, whose quest was primarily for sensual experience, perhaps in an attempt to replicate the intoxication of her night swim, and whose chosen avenues included sex, food, music, and art, Delia's goal appears to be self-fulfillment. In other words, she desires a new image of herself, as self-sufficient, yet necessary to those around her. She begins her quest in the persona of “Miss Grinstead,” buying a grey suit and a black leather handbag and obtaining a job as a legal secretary. She quickly gets her employer's office in order and imagines people saying of her, “That woman looks completely self-reliant” (123). In her new existence, Delia eventually discovers elements of life that she felt she had lacked in Baltimore; she tells one of her sisters who finds her and attempts to retrieve her, “I have a place now, […] a job, a position, and a place to stay” (113). To a woman who had previously “felt like a tiny gnat, whirring around her family's edges” (23) because she viewed herself as “expendable” or “purely decorative” (127), this change is a welcome one. She soon finds herself needed by the circle of friends that she establishes, by the new kitten that she adopts, and by the Miller family (an abandoned father and son) whom she comes to work for as a housekeeper. Delia realizes that “she seemed to have changed into someone else—a woman people looked to automatically for sustenance” (183).

Following that transformation. Delia encounters another of the novel's Edna figures, Ellie, the former wife of her employer Joel Miller who, after mistakenly believing that she had cancer, left her husband and son “to make the very best of [her] life” and “do exactly what [she'd] dreamed of,” pursuing a career as “a TV weather lady” (167). As an independent woman, Ellie is presented by Tyler as ridiculous, reckless, and almost pathetic. She is mocked in the local media for her emphasis on her appearance; she has numerous car accidents. In a crucial scene, she cuts Delia's forehead in a moment of hysteria and will not take Delia to any of the local doctors for fear of damaging her public image.

If Rosemary functions as Delia's initial role model, raising the possibility of a flight from home. Ellie's depiction appears to question this flight as the only option open to women. Although Ellie felt “Stuck for life! Imprisoned! [and] Trapped forever” in her marriage to Joel (228), she confesses to Delia that she still questions the rationale of her actions. She wonders if other wives, who have stayed in their marriages, feel the same as she did and asks “Wouldn't I have been perfectly fine too? Shouldn't I have stuck it out?” (254). Ellie admits to Delia that she believes that she “did make a mistake,” but Delia tells her it is one that she can “unmake” (254-55). Ellie is an Edna figure who ultimately reconsiders her choices. Trying to calm Ellie's worries about her decisions, Delia seems to convince herself that although leaving home may be necessary for some, it is not the only valid response to an oppressive setting.

We must also discuss the character of Delia in terms of how she fits into the spectrum of Edna figures. Tyler follows much of Chopin's model in her construction of Delia. Like Edna, Delia is an unsatisfied housewife and mother, whose awakening to a new view of herself leads her away from her home and family. In Chopin's novel, Edna, perhaps convinced that she lives in a world that will never let her become truly independent, is swimming to her death as the novel ends, an action that many readers see as a final escape from the oppression of her society. Tyler makes it clear from the beginning of Ladder of Years that her own awakening heroine will not make the same choices as Edna and that Delia will never follow the final footsteps of her predecessor—nor does she need to. Although much of Edna's awakening is reflected through her initial swim and subsequent suicide, we are told on the first page of Tyler's novel, in a newspaper clipping that reports Delia's disappearance, that “authorities do not suspect drowning, since Mrs. Grinstead avoided swimming whenever possible and professed a distinct aversion to water” (3). Delia's family is well aware that she “hate[s] to swim” (45) and that “the temperature had to be blistering, the ocean flat as glass, and not a sea nettle sighted all day before she would venture in” (72). The novel often equates Delia with a cat to emphasize further her avoidance of water. As her sister reports to police, Delia “may have been a cat in her most recent incarnation” (3). This feline imagery reflects the notion of Delia having a cat's nine lives, but it also indicates that it is not in her nature to walk into the sea and drown herself. Only once in the novel does she even seem to consider suicide, when she realizes that the only way to be completely untraceable by her family “would be dying,” but she quickly clarifies that “of course she hadn't meant that the way it sounded” (107). The novel does, however, imply that, with time, Delia perhaps could become more like Edna. As she takes a vacation by herself, she makes some efforts at swimming, though she is careful not to get her hair wet and advances cautiously. She is not swimming in Edna's triumphant manner but is merely floating and “wait[ing] for the most docile wave to carry her back to land” (250). However, Delia's attempts cause Ellie Miller to present a cautionary question about whether “it feel[s] funny going swimming on [her] own?” (252). In the end, all of this imagery continually reminds readers that Delia is a very different Edna and that she will not end her own life in a desperate attempt to escape the domestic sphere.

The most significant difference between the two women's paths involves the legacies that they leave behind. Edna's suicide does not change her world. She leaves no daughters, only two sons, Raoul and Etienne, who can be seen as the continuance of the patriarchy. One can easily imagine that Léonce, on hearing of Edna's death, will quickly find another young wife to replace her and to raise the two boys, who themselves will probably retain only a faded memory of their mother. Tyler's ending reads much differently. Delia's actions result in a radical change in both her daughter, Susie, and her husband, Sam. After more than a year of Delia's absence, a phone call home reveals many changes, most notably her daughter's impending marriage; Sam surprisingly is against the marriage, insisting that Susie should live on her own for a year first because he “hate[s] to see her jumping straight from school to marriage. From her father's house to her husband's house” (242). He urges Susie to get her own apartment and job and flatly rejects Delia's suggestion that their daughter take Delia's old position as his receptionist. He, who earlier seemed to be the representative of Delia's oppression, has adapted and learned from the mistakes of Delia's life. As a result of his encouragement, Susie becomes a young entrepreneur who takes control of her marriage, halting the wedding ceremony minutes before it begins and postponing it several days until she is certain that her groom is someone to whom she wants to be married.

A changed daughter and husband signify the success of Delia's journey. In the process of transforming herself, she has reformed her domestic sphere. Sam, a father and husband, now considers the consequences of his actions on the women in his life. Susie, a daughter and now a wife, understands the importance of women's self-fulfillment and equality in a marriage. Although the closing paragraphs return to the sea side, mirroring Edna's final return to the sea, Delia does not physically go to the shore. Instead, she only recalls that first trip, when she walked away from her life, and revises her initial view of that important moment. She realizes that not only herself but her family had grown; “the people she had left behind […] had actually traveled further, in some ways” (326). Her actions, her striving for self-sufficiency and for a new vision of her own capabilities have resulted in positive change in her family and home. Now she can return and reinsert herself without feeling that she has compromised or sacrificed.

In many ways, the differences between Delia and Edna starkly illustrate the characteristics that Rosenfelt attributes to postfeminism. Tyler's text conveys postfeminism's “pervasive nostalgia for family life, whatever its boredoms and betrayals” (285). Even before Delia ultimately returns home, she has created a substitute in her new job as housekeeper to the Millers. In this role, she finds herself shopping for clothes for the son, Noah, buying him Christmas presents, and carpooling him and his friends. Rather than begrudge these duties, Delia only notes that “it was so easy to fall back into being someone's mother” (172). This is a far cry from Edna's final view of her children as “antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul's slavery for the rest of her days” (113). Delia had never wanted to leave her children but had felt abandoned and neglected by them. By starting over with the twelve-year-old Noah, she returns to the mother role with which she is most comfortable. And, notably, Tyler has Delia being paid for these duties, certainly a feminist assertion that child-rearing and housekeeping are indeed labor worthy of pay. In her care for Noah and her final return to her own grown children, Delia reflects postfeminism's tendency “to reinstate […] familial relations, perhaps especially motherhood” (Rosenfelt 270).

A more postmodern element of postfeminist writings is also reflected in Delia's journey. As Rosenfelt explains, these texts

do retain a pained sense of gender inequity. But they are less clear than feminist texts about how to fight it, or even about who the enemy is. They are less likely to locate the sources of inequity primarily in a masculine lust for power and control or a male ruling class's determination to maintain its privileged status; they are more likely to acknowledge a diversity of human conduct that includes mistakes and totalitarian inclinations among women, decencies and vulnerabilities even among men.


Rosenfelt concludes her description with an assertion of postfeminism's “complexity of vision” (280). Ladder of Years shares this complexity. The men in the novel are criticized for their treatment of Delia. From her father's preventing her from going to college and using her as free labor in his medical practice to Sam's taking her for granted and assuming patriarchal privilege on the father's death, the men in the novel do not view Delia as an individual but see her as a commodity to be passed among themselves. However, the book also places some responsibility for her situation on Delia herself. Tyler argues that Delia has let herself be put in the position of a child, cultivating and becoming accustomed to an image of dependence, immaturity, and childishness. Her time away from home reveals her potential to shape people's opinions of herself and demand respect and appreciation. When she returns home in her new persona, she looks at her old wardrobe with astonishment—“all that froufrou and those nursery pastels”—and it is unlikely she will ever let herself be seen as a baby doll or little girl again (304). Typical of postfeminist work, Tyler does not place all the blame for gender inequity on men and instead suggests that, at least in the case of Delia, many women have accepted these unfair situations for too long and could change their circumstances with some effort.

Because Tyler's circular plot places Delia in the same location as when the book began, many critics see a lack of development in her characters or progression in her plots. John Updike, for example, has argued that Tyler's “one possible weakness” is her “tendency to leave the reader just where she found him” (278). Though he wrote this in a 1977 review of Tyler's Earthly Possessions, he would probably find the same fault with Ladder of Years because the two novels end very similarly. Earthly Possessions told the story of Charlotte, another runaway housewife, fleeing from her stifling marriage to a minister. In the process of withdrawing money from her bank account to fund her flight, she is taken hostage by a bumbling bank robber and is forced to accompany him from Baltimore to Florida. After finally escaping captivity, she, seemingly without question, returns home to her husband. Many readers found this resolution disappointing, believing Charlotte had resigned herself to the familiar male oppression that she felt she could never escape. However, the assertion that no change has taken place is contradicted in the last lines of the novel. As the couple settles into bed at the novel's conclusion, Charlotte's husband offers to take her on a vacation as an appeasement; she refuses the offer and tells him just to go to sleep. The last line of the novel simply states, “And he does” (200). While not an overt feminist assertion, the final line does indicate a new power for Charlotte; her wishes and desires can now be stated and her husband's response can be compliance. Her journey in the novel, including her ultimate resistance of oppression as she walked away from her captor, produces a transformed home where she now has power to effect change.

Delia also seems to be similarly empowered at the conclusion of Ladder of Years. We can see that even before Delia returns home, as she discusses Sam's handling of Susie's wedding plans with him over the telephone. As Delia presents him with two options, she tells him, “either way, you will go along with it.” “I will?” her husband inquires, and Delia responds, “You will” (244). This exchange is evidence that Delia's transformation has occurred not just in her own self-perception; she has actually changed and her family can observe and respect this change. Another illustration comes when she arrives back home and is immediately asked by her daughter to handle negotiations with the landlord of Susie's new apartment. Before she left her family at the beach, Delia had never had any experience with leases or rent. When she makes her first living arrangements at a boarding house in Bay Borough, she is sure it is obvious that “she had never arranged for her own housing before” (91). However, once back home, she is looked on as an expert problem solver in this area, as she tries to get Susie out of the lease she has just signed. This newly self-sufficient Delia is depicted as a benefit rather than a threat to her family.

This assertion in postfeminist fiction that a woman can be fulfilled and empowered within the domestic sphere concerns its critics. Tania Modleski, for example, worries that postfeminism is “delivering us into a prefeminist world” (3). Elspeth Probyn finds the return to the home particularly problematic because postfeminism “hawks the home as the ‘natural choice’—which means, of course, no choice” (152). In Tyler's novel, Delia's home and family finally appear to be the “natural choice” for her. Also there are implications that the other Edna figures, Rosemary Bly-Brice and Ellie Miller, might return to their respective homes. However, the novel does not depict home, marriage, and motherhood as the only choice for the women in Delia's world. Eliza, Delia's sister, has never married and supports herself by working at the Pratt Library in Baltimore. Her other sister, Linda, is divorced from a professor and raising twin daughters on her own. Delia's mother-in-law, Eleanor Grinstead, was widowed at an early age and had to take a secretarial job to support her young son. Contrary to the critics' concerns, Tyler's novel as a work of postfeminist fiction presents its characters with a number of choices but includes home and marriage among them.

Rather than rejecting feminist values, postfeminism, at least as conveyed in Anne Tyler's work, should be seen as a complication or even an evolution of feminism. Tyler's fiction, including Ladder of Years, fits the traditional schema of feminist fiction that Deborah Rosenfelt formulates: Women “progress from oppression, suffering, victimization, through various stages of awakening consciousness to active resistance and, finally, to some form of victory, transformation, or transcendence of despair” (269-70). Tyler's heroines, Delia included, are involved in this progress, even if on a smaller or less dramatic scale than characters like Nora Helmer and Edna Pontellier. Tyler's women participate in “the remaking of one's world” that feminist fiction demands (Rosenfelt 281). The problem for many readers is that the world these characters “remake” is the home and family, the domestic sphere. That aspect of Tyler's fiction calls into question for many critics any feminist values her narratives may hold. Carolyn Heilbrun, for example, writes in Writing a Woman's Life that Tyler only gives readers “portraits of women clinging to a life and conditions they have in fact outgrown, instead of launching off into another world” (128). Such criticism seems to ignore the possibility of a woman's exerting any power within the domestic sphere and to envision flight from this sphere, the path of Edna Pontellier, as the only viable option for women. Tyler imagines another possible trajectory. Rather than condemn the home as an impossibly hostile setting, she sees it as a place where women can exist and even thrive if suitable reform is enacted.

Tyler's rewriting of Chopin's The Awakening, complete with a postfeminist version of Edna, takes Delia through many of the stages that Edna experiences. However, rather than have Delia permanently leave her family as Edna chooses to do, Tyler brings a newly empowered Delia back to a transformed home, husband, and children. Unlike so much fiction about women that cordons off the domestic space as a location where an enlightened woman could never be fulfilled, Tyler's novel restores the home and family to the list of places that will benefit from the independence, self-awareness, strength, and confidence of women. Within this postfeminist novel then is strong feminist assertion about the women's capability of transforming their spheres of influence, wherever those might be.


  1. The feminist works to which Tyler gave unfavorable reviews include Pat Rotter's anthology of feminist fiction. Bitches and Sad Ladies: An Anthology of Fiction by and about Women (1975); Ellen Moers's Literary Women: The Great Writers (1976); Lois Gould's A Sea-Change (1976); Marilyn French's The Women's Room (1977); and Andrea Dworkin's Right-Wing Women (1983). Tyler's complaint against much of this work is the tendency to generalize about relationships between men and women in service to a polemical argument. For example, she condemns Gould's novel for being “less a story than a statement—a generalization on the very nature of men and women” (5).

  2. Ibsen's A Doll's House and Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the other works to which Doris Betts refers, could also serve this purpose. Like Ibsen's play, Tyler's novel features a frustrated house-wife who feels that she has always been merely a doll for her husband and father. Like Gilman's story, the central character of Tyler's work is a doctor's wife who feels that her own concerns are neglected.

  3. Intertextual readings of Tyler's work have explored connections to authors such as William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty. That approach has appeared particularly fruitful in exploring the intertextuality between Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. For examples, see the essays by Mary J. Elkins, Adrienne Bond, and Paula Gallant Eckard.

  4. Virginia Schaefer Carroll's brief reference to Chopin's novel suggests that readers of Ladder of Years “may even flittingly think of Edna Pontellier at the end of The Awakening, drowning herself when she realizes the constriction and force of her social bonds” (98).

Works Cited

Allen, Brooke. “Anne Tyler in Mid-Course.” The New Criterion 13.9 (1995): 27-34.

Betts, Doris. “Tyler's Marriage of Opposites.” The Fiction of Anne Tyler. Ed. C. Ralph Stephens. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1990. 1-15.

Bond, Adrienne. “From Addie Bundren to Pearl Tull: The Secularization of the South.” Southern Quarterly 24.3 (Spring 1986): 64-73.

Carroll, Virginia Schaefer. “Wrestling with Change: Discourse Strategies in Anne Tyler.” Frontiers 19.1 (1998): 86-109.

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. 1899. Ed. Margaret Culley. New York: Norton, 1976.

Eckard, Paula Gallant. “Family and Community in Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.Southern Literary Journal 22 (1990): 33-44.

Elkins, Mary J. “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant: Anne Tyler and the Faulkner Connection.” Atlantis 10 (Spring 1985): 93-105.

Frost, Linda. “The Decentered Subject of Feminism: Postfeminism and Thelma and Louise.Rhetoric in an Antifoundational World: Language, Culture, and Pedagogy. Eds. Michael Bernard-Donals and Richard R. Glejzer. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998. 147-69.

Gould, Lois, Rev. of A Sea-Change, by Anne Tyler. New York Times Book Review 19 Sept. 1976: 4-5.

Greene, Gayle. Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition. Bloomington: U of Indiana P, 1991.

Heilbrun, Carolyn. Writing a Woman's Life. New York: Norton, 1988.

Macpherson, Heidi Slettedahl. “Comic Constructions: Fictions of Mothering in Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years.Southern Quarterly 39.3 (Spring 2001): 130-40.

Modleski, Tania. Feminism without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist” Age. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Moore, Lorrie. Rev. of Ladder of Years, by Anne Tyler. The Yale Review 83 (1995): 35-43.

Overholser, Geneva. “What ‘Post-Feminism’ Really Means.” New York Times 19 Sept. 1986: A34.

Petry, Alice Hall. “Tyler and Feminism.” Anne Tyler as Novelist. Ed. Dale Salwak. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994. 33-42.

———. Understanding Anne Tyler. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1990.

Probyn, Elspeth. “New Traditionalism and Post-feminism: TV Does the Home.” Screen 31 (Summer 1990): 147-59.

Ridley, Clifford A. “Anne Tyler: A Sense of Reticence Balanced by ‘Oh, Well, Why Not?’” National Observer 11 (22 July 1972): 23.

Riffaterre, Michael. “Textuality: W. H. Auden's ‘Musée des Beaux Arts.’” Textual Analysis: Some Readers Reading. Ed. Mary Ann Caws. New York: Modern Language Association, 1986. 1-13.

Rosenfelt, Deborah Silverton. “Feminism, ‘Postfeminism,’ and Contemporary Women's Fiction.” Tradition and the Talents of Women. Ed. Florence Howe. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991. 268-91.

Tyler, Anne. Earthly Possessions. New York: Knopf, 1977.

———. Ladder of Years. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Updike, John. “Loosened Roots.” Hugging the Shore. New York: Vintage, 1983. 278-83.

Publishers Weekly (review date 22 December 2003)

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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 [The Amateur Marriage] delineates, in careful strokes, the 30-year marriage of Michael Anton and Pauline Barclay, and its dissolution. In December 1941 in St. Cassians, a mainly Eastern European conclave in Baltimore, 20-year-old Michael meets Pauline and is immediately smitten. They marry after Michael is discharged from the army, but their temperaments don't mix. For Michael, self-control is the greatest of virtues; for Pauline, expression is what makes us human. She is compulsively friendly, a bad hider of emotions, selfish in her generosity (“my homeless man”) and generous in her selfishness. At Pauline's urging, the two move to the suburbs, where they raise three children, George, Karen and Lindy. Lindy runs away in 1960 and never comes back—although in 1968, Pauline and Michael retrieve Pagan, Lindy's three-year-old, from her San Francisco landlady while Lindy detoxes in a rehab community that her parents aren't allowed to enter. Michael and Pauline got married at a time when the common wisdom, expressed by Pauline's mother, was that “marriages were like fruit trees. … Those trees with different kinds of branches grafted onto the trunks. After a time, they meld, they grow together, and … if you tried to separate them you would cause a fatal wound.” They live into an era in which the accumulated incompatibilities of marriage end, logically, in divorce. For Michael, who leaves Pauline on their 30th anniversary, divorce is redemption. For Pauline, the divorce is, at first, a tragedy; gradually, separation becomes a habit. A lesser novelist would take moral sides, using this story to make a didactic point. Tyler is much more concerned with the fine art of human survival in changing circumstances. 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.

Anita Brookner (review date 3 January 2004)

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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, zesty heroine wore down the defences of the man on whom she had set her sights. In the best of these novels, The Accidental Tourist, the scatty zesty etc. heroine, a dog-trainer by occupation, wins the heart of the temporarily bereft man by appearing on the same flight that he is obliged to take in a white outfit which he has time to note is entirely unsuitable for a long journey before abandoning all prejudice and all sense, just as she intended. In these affecting novels it is the man who is needy, on his own, careworn and innocent, and the woman who briskly brings him back to life. This is far worthier than would be possible in current thinking, and has the added virtue of adumbrating a notion of fitness, in the sense that we are rooting for both of them, and that neither has lost caste or is acting out of character in the course of their unlikely love affair.

The evidence of the present novel suggests that Anne Tyler is having to try a little harder to win over her readers, although the same untroubled confidence prevails. Michael and Pauline meet and fall in love as teenagers, when she erupts into his mother's downtown grocery store demanding a bandage for her cut forehead. The fact that there is a drugstore close by is an indication of her purpose, as his mother sourly observes, but the deed is done. He is captivated by her red coat, an equally persuasive clue, and does not object when she encourages him to enlist in the army, from which, in due course, he is invalided out with a limp.

One might wish for a touch of asperity here, and indeed the opening chapter is excruciatingly sweet, almost parodic, and the Panglossian outlook less than convincing. Fortunately things get worse. Character tells. The amusingly dippy girl turns into a fractious and unreliable wife, the husband into a cautious, narrow-chested bore. In a single remarkable paragraph Pauline lists everything she hates about her husband, all without a single note of tragedy being struck. The marriage lasts for 30 years of unresolved conflicts and moves jumpily through the births of three children, so that we are propelled from one decade to another without, it has to be said, much sense of history. There are two surprises: the disappearance of a daughter, later traced to a hippy commune in San Francisco, and the divorce of the parents, who should have been sobered by this experience. Even-handedly they pick up the pieces, remove their daughter's baby, bring him home to Baltimore, and go on much as before, the father to running his now expanded grocery store, the mother to her still haphazard household management. There is no hint that lives have been undone and will need to be remade.

Although the details are as beguiling as we have come to expect, the lack of substance is a little worrying. These people seem to live very comfortably, yet it is not clear how they manage to pay for it all, particularly when Michael, hitherto restrained husband and father, moves into his own apartment, complete with outdoor swimming pool and a choice selection of artistic reproductions on every wall. Nor is it entirely clear how such equanimity is sustained by either party. We read that Pauline is frequently in tears, but it was she who told her husband to leave in nothing more than a momentary fit of temper. Life continues in the most enviable way possible; plans are made, anniversaries celebrated. The unknown and unforeseen infant grandson settles down without so much as a backward glance to his absconding mother.

A moment of reflection might seem to be in order at this point, something more in tune with the spirit of the age, but it is precisely the spirit of another age that is the matrix of this novel, just as it was of its 15 predecessors, where it seemed more natural. When Michael meets and falls in love with another woman (a woman who wears ‘slacks’) we know that nothing unduly explicit will be recorded, for this novel, like all the others, is asexual, hovering between extreme youth and later middle age without anything dramatic happening in between. As always it makes compulsive and effortless reading, as if that new house were where we all wanted to live, that roast chicken and baked potatoes our favourite meal, the rudimentary music school the designated place of instruction for our offspring. The momentum of the early love affair still has the power to move the story along, but this time without completely convincing the reader that the behaviour described is normal. The fact that no harm is ever registered becomes incongruous, so much so that one is forced to search for reasons to account for a slight feeling of disappointment.

Mine came when I realised that what I was reading was very like the novels of Carol Shields, an amalgam of Larry's Party. and Unless. There is the same domestic intimacy, the same gentility, the same decent man, the same sparky wife, the same aberrant daughter, the same lack of disturbance, the same assurance of safety. It is this last quality that has kept readers faithful, even addicted, and it is not entirely misleading or inauthentic. If it has little to do with the harsher truths that most people are called upon to confront it bestows a pleasant assumption of viability on the characters, as if all crises could be surmounted and no fissures revealed in one's own good faith.

Tyler's hooks come garlanded with praise from hard men like Nick Hornby and Roddy Doyle, who seem, to judge by their reviews and quoted opinions, exceptionally fond, as if this version of the world were in every way superior to the real thing, and the characters there merely to persuade one of its desirability. Both Shields and Tyler are alike in the easy accomplishment of their respective styles, which seem to be entirely natural, even guileless, in their absence of rhetoric, their homeliness, the conscientious and convincing detail. Of the two it is perhaps Shields who is the better writer, the one whom an untimely death prevented from reaching an arguably more mature formulation. But it was Tyler who set the pace and who may continue to do so. It will be interesting to see what other writers, not necessarily of the same disposition, will make of this inheritance.

The Amateur Marriage is a companionable novel, whose slight air of doggedness will be willingly discounted by Anne Tyler's many readers. Perhaps it was a mistake to let these perennial youngsters grow old: the final chapters are frankly disappointing. She is an unassuming writer, unassuming but not naive. Her style—straightforward, kindly—is still valid. No author with such qualities could fail to bring about, yet again, a novel of such warm familiarity.


Tyler, Anne (Vol. 18)


Tyler, Anne (Vol. 28)