Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant Analysis

Anne Tyler

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

One of Anne Tyler’s most appreciative reviewers, John Updike, writes that Tyler seems to “accept the belief, extinct save in the South, that families are absolutely, intrinsically interesting.” Updike is right about Tyler’s acceptance, if mistaken about the belief’s near extinction. Her great subject is not sexuality but maternity, not romantic love but ties between parents and children. Far from viewing the family as trivial, she has long been fascinated by the complex feelings of those who are bound to one another by the most profound and intimate physical obligations. Mothers must feed their offspring’s hunger for affection and security; siblings must compete; children must inevitably be hurt by the estrangement of their parents from each other. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Tyler illuminates all of these mundane domestic truths, bringing to bear on them her power to make the ordinary seem astonishing, the astonishing seem ordinary.

Her story begins with a mother, Pearl Tull, and takes up, one by one, the lives of Pearl’s three children, and of their children after them. At the novel’s beginning, Pearl is ill; in its last chapter, her family has gathered for a meal after her funeral. Through Pearl’s recollections during her final illness, the reader learns that at thirty she married Beck Tull, a traveling salesman with a social background inferior to her own. Pearl knew from the beginning that Beck was unreliable, a “slangy, loud-voiced salesman peering at his reflection with too much interest when he tied his tie in the mornings, combing his pompadour tall and damp and frilly and then replacing the comb in a shirt pocket full of pencils, pens, ruler, appointment book, and tire gauge, all bearing catchy printed slogans for various firms.” Sure enough, one day, Beck, like so many of Tyler’s characters, embarks on a “thirty-five-year business trip,” leaving Pearl, angry and frightened, to support their three young children.

The oldest child, Cody, is a troublemaker. Pearl does not seem to realize that Cody secretly wonders whether it was something he did that made his father leave, nor does she perceive that Cody is conscious of her favoritism toward his younger brother Ezra. These two worries motivate behavior in Cody that Pearl considers difficult and mean; still, handsome, dark-haired Cody is a hero as well as a villain. His success in business, like his obsession with winning at Monopoly, arises from a need for the absent Beck’s approval. Similarly, the tricks he plays on Ezra—culminating in the theft of Ezra’s finacée—are motivated by Cody’s knowledge that Ezra is Pearl’s favorite.

Ezra, his hair seeming “formed of layers of silk in various shades of yellow and beige,” is indeed a lovable child, “so sweet and clumsy it could break your heart.” His affectionate nature allows him to accomplish effortlessly what Cody cannot achieve by force. Innocent and dreamy, Ezra moves placidly through Tyler’s story, playing his recorder and drawing others to him. He likes people to get along with one another, and as he grows into adulthood, he soothes and supports those he cares about by preparing special food for them: hot milk with honey and cinnamon, a “consoling” pot roast, a gizzard soup that can alter the “whole perception of the day.” After a brief and unsuccessful stint in the Army, he returns to Baltimore to work in and eventually to own the Homesick Restaurant, where total strangers can “’come just like to a family dinner . . . and everything will be solid and wholesome, really homelike.’” Ezra so willingly accepts the events that occur in his life that he does not oppose even the loss of Ruth, the country cook with whom he falls in love, to the fiercely competitive Cody.

Jenny, the youngest of Pearl’s three children, is an orderly and conscientious child, a hard-working perfectionist who earns straight A’s and who, as she enters adolescence, begins a perpetual series of odd diets. Thrice married, she becomes a pediatrician and stepmother to a family of six. Jenny treats all these children generously, but she remains emotionally distant. When not surrounded by children, she experiences “an echoing, weightless feeling, as if she lacked ballast. . . .” Jenny’s preoccupation with thinness provides a thematic counterweight to Ezra’s inclination to nurture others. Her characteristic gesture of covering her mouth with her hand is related to the numb lips she associates with a nightmare about Pearl: “her mother laughed a witch’s shrieking laugh; dragged Jenny out of hiding as the Nazis trampled up the stairs; accused her of sins and crimes that had never crossed Jenny’s mind. Her mother told her, in an informative and considerate tone of voice, that she was raising Jenny to eat her.”

Jenny’s dream reveals that she and her brothers are well aware of their mother’s deep ambivalence toward them. Although Pearl is a strong-willed and efficient woman, she is terrified by the awesome responsibility of supporting her children by herself. In their neediness, they often seem to her like “parasites,” yet she cares for them dutifully, worrying over them through illnesses and enjoying their physicality as babies, their smell and shape, their weight against her shoulder. Like most parents, Pearl does the best she can. Unable to alter either her personality or her circumstances, she sometimes attributes the family’s conflicts to fate: “She feels that everything has been assigned, has been preordained; everyone must play his role.” At other times, she takes the responsibility upon herself: “Pearl believes . . . that her family has failed. . . . There is no one to accept the blame for this but Pearl herself, who raised these children single-handed and did make mistakes. . . .” Her mistakes are serious ones—a fierce protectiveness that keeps her children from having friends, inexplicable and violent rages, physical abuse. Pearl’s inept...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The strands of the Tulls’ separate stories are woven together and developed through a somewhat complex narrative structure. Although, like William Faulkner in his novel As I Lay Dying (1930), Tyler tells the story through a series of narratives, the structure is not difficult to follow. In each chapter, the reader sees the events described with limited omniscience, as Tyler reveals the consciousness of one person at a time. Consciousness changes only at the beginning of each new chapter. Each separate chapter reveals that character’s individual attitude toward events, both past and present. Each of these chapters also moves the action forward, in general chronologically. This forward movement, combined with time shifts within the chapter, is also very similar to that found in As I Lay Dying. Tyler’s novel begins in 1979, the year of Pearl Cody Tull’s death, moves backward in time to her childhood, to her marriage to Beck and the birth of her children, to Beck’s desertion in 1944, and to various events of the children’s growing up and their adult lives.

The major past event which influences the events and behavior of all remaining members of the family is Beck Tull’s desertion of his family. Everyone in the family is affected by it, and each life is a response to this act. Only a limited reconciliation is possible between Beck and his oldest son, Cody, after Pearl’s death, when Beck returns for the funeral. In running away, Beck is like the conventional roaming hero (similar to the traveling salesman stereotype of Southern fiction) seeking adventure and glamour, but also escape from the responsibilities, confinement, and expectations of family and home. Although Beck is absent, he is always in the memory of those he left behind.

For years, Pearl pretends to her children and neighbors that Beck is on an extended business trip, because she fears the...

(The entire section is 777 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Tyler does not write from a feminist perspective, but her novels, especially Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, present issues of importance to women. This novel presents tangled single mother or other parent relationships with children through both humor and the details of domestic realism. The novel deals with the relationship between single parenthood and child abuse, the cycle of that abuse, and the survival strength of Pearl.

Tyler’s characters are presented so realistically that readers recognize themselves and family members when they read her fiction. She presents Pearl with great honesty, stressing her strength to survive as a single mother but also showing how a single mother can become so angry,...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

A typical diner 1952. Published by Gale Cengage

Child Abuse in America
Although Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant traces the evolution of the fictional Tull...

(The entire section is 381 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
One of the principal strengths of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is that it is told from so...

(The entire section is 716 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Each chapter in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is, as John Updike noted, as self-contained as a short story. All the characters'...

(The entire section is 244 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Fruitful discussion of any novel by Anne Tyler can easily revolve around several general topics: her place as a Southern writer, the myth of...

(The entire section is 247 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Discuss the changes that have occurred in the American family's structure from 1930 to the present. Compare and contrast the Tull family...

(The entire section is 81 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Tyler regards herself as a Southerner and acknowledges Eudora Welty as an important influence. This novel, like other works by her, is...

(The entire section is 149 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

While family relationships are a continuing concern for Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is thematically related quite closely...

(The entire section is 69 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

A 1985 audio recording of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is available on two cassettes from Random House Audio.


(The entire section is 64 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and other Stories, Carson McCullers's 1951 novel. Considered by many critics to be the author's finest...

(The entire section is 125 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Barbara Lazear Ascher, "A Visit with Eudora Welty," in Yale...

(The entire section is 592 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bail, Paul. Anne Tyler: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Bail takes a critical look at Tyler’s work. His discussions focus primarily on individual novels, including Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Students and general readers will appreciate the sections on plot, characters, themes, literary devices, historical setting, and point of view. Biographical information is also included.

Christian Science Monitor. July 9, 1982, p. 14.

Croft, Robert W. An Anne Tyler Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. A comprehensive and detailed guide to Tyler’s...

(The entire section is 640 words.)