The characters of the story are not unusual, but they are in no sense simple. They all see themselves and one another in highly individualized ways colored by faulty memories and reluctance to face certain realities.
Pearl Tull, as the central figure, has the most facets, partly because her long life has enabled her character to develop most fully, and the years have given her a measure of wisdom. She has a considerable amount of insight, calling herself “an old maid at heart,” but the blindness that afflicts her in the end and her proud refusal to acknowledge it are both metaphors of her personality. Competent and strong-willed, she is also hot-tempered and compulsive. She cares deeply for her children but is unable to express her love except in what she does for them. She is highly critical, “an angry sort of mother,” and fears weakness in herself more than anything else.
Cody, the firstborn, suffers most from his father’s abandonment, his mother’s cruel outbursts, and what he regards as her preference for Ezra. Obsessively jealous, he is a mischievous and contrary child, constantly playing malicious tricks on Ezra in a one-sided rivalry that culminates in his marriage to the only woman Ezra ever loved. Successful in his profession, he is nevertheless restless and unsatisfied, and he fails to build the kind of relationship with his son, Luke, that he so badly missed having with his own father.
Ezra is a dreamy, accepting person, sweet-tempered, unaggressive, patient, sensible. His temperament and his talents manifest themselves in his devotion to Pearl, Cody, and Jenny, and in his skill in providing what people need, symbolized by his restaurant, where you can get “what you long for when you’re sad and everyone’s been wearing you down.” His dogged determination to get the family together for a whole dinner never succeeds, but he persists in his efforts.
Jenny, who believes that “you make your own luck,” changes from a sad, confused, superconscientious girl to a brisk, detached, skillful professional woman. She adopts a whole family of children after bearing one of her own, Becky, who suffers from anorexia nervosa, as did, probably, Jenny. To Pearl’s dismay, Jenny sees everything as a joke, having deliberately lost the intensity that more than anything else characterizes her mother.
There is also a whole gallery of minor characters, some of whom only make one appearance, as in Luke’s chapter, while others come in and out of the story because of their importance to a particular character, such as Cody’s wife, Ruth; Mrs. Scarlatti, the original owner of the restaurant; and Josiah, the gentle giant whose only friend is Ezra.
Pearl Cody Tull
Pearl Cody Tull, who is eighty-six years old, small, fair-haired, gray-eyed, and indomitable. Her insight into herself and her relationships with her long-absent husband and her three children sharpens and becomes focused as her eyesight fades to blindness. Never able to nurture close relationships, Pearl instead allowed her grim determination and high expectations to drive her husband away; as a single mother, her occasional murderous rages almost obscured her powerful love of and concern for her children. Despite an abiding sense of grievance, Pearl always longs to have the children’s confidence and trust, but, especially as adults, they remain at arm’s length. Their feelings for her range from near hatred through tolerance to baffled love. Pearl’s only oblique acknowledgment of her approaching death is her recognition of her own shortcomings. Perception comes as she lies dying, listening for clues from her own youthful diaries read aloud by Ezra, her...
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mind drifting through the events of her life.
Beck Tull, a salesman, Pearl’s husband and the father of their three children. The young Beck, black-haired, boldly blue-eyed, and flashily handsome, rescues Pearl from spinsterhood in a whirlwind courtship and marriage. In 1944, disappointed in his career and overwhelmed by the burden of Pearl’s unspoken but fierce disappointment in him, he abandons the family, afterward maintaining a link with Pearl through the increasingly rare notes and checks he sends. Because Pearl never openly acknowledges his desertion, Beck hovers on the edge of the family’s consciousness for thirty-five years until he appears (at Ezra’s invitation) at Pearl’s funeral. Now elderly, and still dapper if slightly sleazy, Beck is ready for reconciliation and recognition as the Tull patriarch, but his commitment lasts only through the day of the funeral, to the end of the one Tull family dinner ever to lurch to completion at the Homesick Restaurant.
Cody Tull, Pearl’s eldest child, who is tall, dark-haired, and handsome. His youthful rebellious behavior and adult success as a time-study expert mask a deep-seated lack of self-confidence. The focus of his resentment is his brother Ezra, who manages to attract female admiration even though he is graceless and passive. Cody, curdled by his grievances, exacts revenge first by ensnaring and marrying Ezra’s fiancée, Ruth, and last by castigating the newly returned and conciliatory Beck. In the first flush of his successful career, Cody buys a farm, dreaming of an idyllic domestic life; his hopes soured, he eventually abandons the farm, leaving Pearl and Ezra to try and shore it up against disintegration, just as they try to maintain the crumbling family.
Ezra Tull, Pearl’s second son and middle child. With his pale eyes, shock of fair hair, and wide, shapeless body, Ezra appears soft; his mildness in childhood becomes a passivity in adulthood that is his main flaw but also his saving grace. Ezra simply allows life to happen to him, accepting with unthinking loyalty his mother’s angry love, his mentor Mrs. Scarlatti’s generosity, and even his catastrophic loss to Cody of Ruth, the only woman ever to rouse him to passion. In his revealingly named Homesick Restaurant, however, Ezra comes alive, crafting dishes to tempt his clients, pouring out his oddly maternal humanity into sturdy soups and comforting, lovingly prepared meals. Time and again, marking the milestones in the lives of his fractious family, Ezra attempts to unite and reconcile the Tulls at meals in the Homesick Restaurant’s forgiving atmosphere, but he is doomed to failure. Ezra’s constancy stands always in contrast to his family’s restless volatility.
Jenny Tull, Pearl’s third child and only daughter; she is dark-haired, dark-eyed, and intense. Jenny’s thin, angular body matures into a beauty that she expends carelessly. Her becoming a pediatrician seems the natural fulfillment of her intellectual self-discipline; however, as the child most vulnerable to Pearl’s alternating devotion and volcanic rages, she also displays a curious ambivalence. Sensitive like Cody, she mostly keeps her emotional distance. Also warmly accepting like Ezra, in her third marriage she tumbles contentedly into domestic muddle with her new husband, her daughter Becky, and six stepchildren, all of whose problems she treats with laughing offhandedness that masks her compassion and gratitude for people who really need her.
Ruth Spivey Tull
Ruth Spivey Tull, first Ezra’s fiancée but finally Cody’s wife. An unschooled, rural tomboy, Ruth is a superb country cook who meets the Tulls when she is employed as a chef at the Homesick Restaurant. Tiny, freckled, and carrot-haired, with pebbly, pale-blue eyes, young Ruth has a brisk, scrappy manner that captivates Ezra and fascinates Cody. Once overwhelmed by and married to Cody, however, Ruth subsides awkwardly into middle-class domesticity, her energy smothered by Cody’s moody silences and her little body pathetically lost in unsuitable feminine clothing. As Pearl once followed Beck, Ruth follows Cody to a succession of strange towns and houses, never again able to express her scornful, independent spirit. Her sole satisfaction comes from mothering Luke, their serious, lonely son.
The Tull family of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant has five members. Although he leaves abruptly, early in the novel, Beck Tull, the father, is a presence against which the other characters react. Pearl is cold, stiff, and unbending on the surface. But her memories of her early relationship with Beck, reveal another side of her, one that could light up at being courted and warm to her children. Cody is the restless traveling man his father was, but he takes his family everywhere because he knows what it feels like to be left behind. Ezra tries to establish the togetherness the rest of the family secretly longs for but tries to escape. Only Ezra easily accepts people at face value, sees their good qualities and endures their bad ones. Jenny becomes the loving, freewheeling, cheerful mother her mother wanted to be but never could be, especially after Beck left her. Typical of characters in all Tyler novels, these characters have quirks and oddities that make them a bit eccentric, and yet they have recognizable bits of ordinariness with which readers identify.
Harley Baines Harley is the first of Jenny Tull's three husbands. Intellectual Harley shares at least one similarity with his mother-in-law, Pearl: They are both obsessively organized. For example, Harley arranges his textbooks "by height and blocks of color." A minor, comical character.
Becky Unable to properly handle the pressures of medical school, Jenny vents her frustrations by physically and emotionally abusing her only biological child, Becky. Fortunately, Jenny realizes the damage she is inflicting and enlists the aid of Pearl to temporarily care for her young daughter. Becky grows up to develop some eating disorders (like her mother once had), but whether this is due to heredity or environment is left unexplained in the novel.
Emmaline One of Pearl Tull's few close friends, Emmaline is the only woman with whom Pearl almost shares her secret that Beck has abandoned her and the children.
Mrs. Parkins The fortune teller who convinces Jenny to marry her first husband.
Josiah Payson Ezra's slow-witted but sweet friend from childhood, Josiah becomes a cook at The Homesick Restaurant. Jenny befriends him while Ezra is away from home, but when Pearl catches them in a potentially romantic situation, she slaps Jenny and cruelly calls Josiah, "A crazy! A dummy! A retarded person."
Mrs. Scarlatti Something of a surrogate mother to Ezra Tull, Mrs. Scarlatti is the owner of Scarlatti's Restaurant. Originally, she is Ezra's boss; ultimately he becomes her business partner. She leaves the entire restaurant property to him after she dies. (He then changes its name to The Homesick Restaurant.) Unlike Pearl, Ezra's biological mother, Mrs. Scarlatti is a relaxed, flexible woman. When she is dying and Ezra changes the restaurant's atmosphere, she initially takes offense, but ultimately reconciles to his vision.
Joe St. Ambrose Jenny Tull's third husband, a man whose former wife abandoned him and their large family. Despite this tragedy, Joe remains a pleasant, friendly person. The novel implies that Jenny marries him mostly because she loves nurturing his needy children.
Slevin St. Ambrose One of Jenny Tull's step-children, an intelligent but troubled teenager. Emotionally withdrawn, Slevin has difficulty accepting Jenny as his new mother until he learns that Jenny's father abandoned her just as Slevin's mother abandoned him.
Beck Tull A salesman by profession, Beck Tull is the handsome, psychologically fragile man who rescues the thirty-year-old Pearl from probable spinsterhood. The novel implies her family is of a higher socioeconomic status than his. After more than fifteen years of marriage and three children (Cody, Jenny, and Ezra), he abandons his wife and family, prompting Pearl to insightfully refer to him as "the invisible presence. The absent presence." A family outing, in which Cody and Ezra quarrel over an archery set and Pearl is almost killed by a wayward arrow, precipitates Beck's leaving—a cause and effect relationship that Beck only acknowledges at the end of the novel. With the terse announcement that he doesn't "want to stay married" and that he "won't be visiting the children," Beck walks out. Understandably, Beck's departure had an enormous, lasting effect on Pearl and their children, although they all reacted in very different ways.
At the conclusion of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Beck explains his departure as a reaction to his incapacity to deal with "the grayness, grayness of things; half-right-and-half-wrongness of things." Although he is not really a malevolent character, his behavior is probably the cruelest unconscious event in the novel.
Cody Tull Elder son of Pearl and Beck Tull and brother to Ezra and Jenny, Cody is probably the least sympathetic character in the novel. He also dominates the novel in that Tyler dedicates more chapters to his point of view than to any other character. A troubled childhood (a father who deserted the family, a physically and verbally abusive mother) contributed to some of his worst character traits—meanness, greed, and jealousy (particularly in regard to Ezra, their mother's favorite child).
But it would be simplistic to blame all of bis character faults to victimization; after all, Ezra and Jenny turned into nice people. Part of Cody's problems result from his unspoken guilt over his father's departure. Fourteen at the time, he wonders "Was it something I said? Was it something I did? Was it something I didn't do, that made you go away?" He is not to blame here, but since he does not articulate his feelings, nobody in the family understands the extent of his guilt.
Another explanation for Cody's emotional development lies in a need to dominate others; in doing so, he is as domineering as his father was unreliable. He becomes a very successful efficiency expert, an ideal profession for a control-oriented person who doesn't enjoy the present moment. He buys his mother the Baltimore row house which she formerly rented, not out of love, but rather as one more way of competing with Ezra for her affection. The teenaged Cody engineers a variety of schemes to make his tranquil, non-competitive brother look foolish, but by far his cruelest action as an adult is marrying Ruth, his brother's fiancee. That he does not even really like Ruth is more evidence of Cody's obsessive competition to win the love of a mother whom he once called "a raving, shrieking, unpredictable witch." By the conclusion of the novel, Cody, in a face-to-face conversation with the father he hasn't seen in over three decades, learns the truth about his father's abandonment and somewhat reconciles with his bad behavior and history of hurt and anger.
Ezra Tull Many critics and readers consider Ezra Tull—the younger son of Pearl and Beck Tull and brother to Cody and Jenny—to be the novel's most sympathetic character. Clearly his mother's pet, Ezra as an adult minimizes the abusive side of Pearl's nature. After Cody, at the final family dinner, describes the recently deceased Pearl as "a raving, shrieking, unpredictable witch," Ezra defends her: "... she wasn't always angry. Really, she was angry very seldom, only a few times widely spaced." Many instances of his warmth and generosity exist: he is the only family member to care for the dying Pearl; he tends to Mrs. Scarlatti, his business partner, when she is dying, he befriends the oddball Josiah; he arranges the reunion between Beck and the Tull family; he even refuses to bear a grudge when Cody steals Ruth, the woman whom Ezra loved and intended to marry.
However, Ezra's tendency to see only the sunny side of life often renders him passive. When he as a middle-aged man discovers a possibly malignant lump on his right thigh, his first reaction is "All right. Let it happen. I'll go ahead and die." Unlike his siblings, he never attended college, never married, in fact never really left home, having always shared a house with his mother. Yet ironically, when Ezra witnesses the feeble side of Pearl, he is less affectionate than usual: "He trusted his mother to be everything for him. When she cut her finger with a paring knife, he had felt defeated by her incompetence."
Throughout the novel Ezra strives to have one uninterrupted family dinner at his restaurant—The Homesick Restaurant—but someone, often Pearl, always destroys the continuity by departing early. Unable to achieve this feat until the novel's conclusion, Ezra extends his affection to his neighbors and co-workers.
Jenny Tull Jenny Tull is the only daughter of Pearl and Beck Tull and sister to Cody and Ezra. Like her brothers, she suffered the desertion of her father as a child and occasional rages of physical and psychological abuse from her mother. Like Cody and to a lesser extent Ezra, she recalls the painful events of childhood, most of which revolve around her mother. At one point, she recalls her mother as a shrieking witch whose "pale hair could crackle electrically from its bun" and whose "eyes could get small as hatpins." She remembered her mother slamming her against a wall more than once and denigrating her as "cockroach" and "hideous little sniveling guttersnipe." Some of her memories manifest themselves in her dreams, particularly one in which Pearl says in an "informative and considerate tone of voice," that "she was raising Jenny to eat her."
Jenny, however, is far from a self-pitying victim. She goes to college and becomes a competent pediatrician. While none of her three marriages are particularly happy, Jenny is able to raise her step-children (who have been deserted by their natural mother) with warmth and efficiency. As a pediatrician, she is sort of surrogate parent to many of her clients.
Having witnessed the worst of her mother as a child, Jenny realizes they have some things in common. Like Pearl, Jenny entered into her first marriage out of recklessness, a sense of adventure. Both are intelligent, intense women with some proclivities toward child abuse under stressful situations. Unlike Pearl, Jenny realizes these tendencies early on and turns her only child over to Pearl—ironically enough—when Jenny cannot take care of her. Determined to be a happier person, Jenny decides to "make it through on a slant. She was trying to lose her intensity." Although she is a generally sympathetic character, Jenny has some flaws. She often jokes her way out of real problems, for example, when her stepson Slevin is having difficulty in school. When her third husband, Joe, suggests they have more children, she intentionally refuses to believe he is serious. Despite such shortcomings, Jenny is a good example of a character who has overcome a difficult childhood and does not reduce herself to a victim.
Luke Tull The son of Cody and Ruth Tull, Luke is smart enough to understand some of his father's ulterior motives. For example, Luke realizes that the bus ticket which teenaged Cody bought for Pearl was less a gift to her than a means to keep her away during Ezra's birthday. Understanding that Cody obsesses over bitter memories, he comments, "What are you, crazy? How come you go on hanging on to these things, year after year after year?" Physically, he is a combination of Beck, Cody, and Ezra Tull, but temperamentally, he is more rational than any of them. Some critics have written that Luke represents the hope that future generations may break cycles of ill will or bad habits.
Pearl Tull The matriarch of the Tull clan, Pearl is a rather complex character, not simply "a witch" as two of her children have occasionally described her. Born into a good family, Pearl married fairly late in life to Beck Tull, a handsome farm equipment salesman. Although the union spared her from spinsterhood, she resented having to move every time her husband was transferred at work. Wherever she and her husband settled, Pearl kept herself isolated from the community, a pattern that continued throughout her life. Early in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Beck abandons her and their children, with little more explanation than that he doesn't "want to be married" any longer and that he "won't be visiting the children."
There is actually as much to admire in Pearl as there to detest. First, she is extremely independent and resourceful, sometimes to the detriment of herself. For example, as a young woman, she spurns a college education, because that would be "an admission of defeat." When she suffers a broken arm, Pearl waits almost 48 hours to get medical assistance because she doesn't want to leave the children with the neighbors. When Beck departs, Pearl doesn't succumb to self-pity; she finds an uninteresting job as a cashier at a grocery store and determines to raise the children single-handedly. A fastidious housekeeper and a perfectionist, she is ultimately as tough on herself as on her children. Yet with her children, she is sometimes too tough, physically and psychologically abusing them in uncontrollable fits of anger. As she is dying, she categorizes Cody, Jenny, and Ezra as "duckers and drafters," and remembers herself as "an angry sort of mother" who was "continually on edge ... too burdened ... too alone." She wonders if her children will forgive her for being a less than satisfactory parent. In short, Pearl has set impossibly high standards for herself that nobody could satisfy without some assistance, and she is usually too proud to request help.
Ironically, in middle age, Pearl partly redeems herself as a parent by caring for Jenny's daughter when Jenny simply cannot. She also loses some of her anger as she makes the transition from middle age to old age. She possesses much insight into her family. For example, on one occasion, Pearl likens her children's growing up with the "gradual dimming of light at her bedroom door, as if they took some radiance with them as they moved away from her." Her description of her favorite child, Ezra, ("so sweet and clumsy it could break your heart") captures his disposition perfectly.
Ruth Tull Originally a cook in The Homesick Restaurant and fiancee to Ezra Tull, she ultimately marries his brother Cody after he pursues her relentlessly. A homely woman with a poor self-image, Ruth is initially suspicious of Cody's attention. Pearl, however, is the only one who grasps Cody's real motivation: to steal away his brother's bride-to-be simply for the sport, the competition. Despite her lack of self-confidence, Ruth is in some ways smarter than her husband, Cody. For instance, while he is attracted to the glamour of owning a farm, she knows what hard work it really requires.
Sam Wiley Sam Wiley is Jenny Tull's second husband. Jenny describes him as "the one she loved best." A handsome painter, he abandons Jenny when she is pregnant with Becky. It is implied the marriage failed because it required too much passion.