Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 196

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As its title suggests, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is about longing. Its characters yearn for the familiar and the comfortable, the imagined ideal, never known but constantly sought. As a metaphor of this hunger, food is occasionally mentioned throughout the book to suggest its significance in different ways. It is Cody who reflects on “its inexplicable, loaded meaning in people’s lives.” He realizes that his mother’s attitude toward food revealed her disapproval of neediness, and he recalls how family arguments usually started at the dinner table.

The meanings of the theme are revealed primarily in dialogue, each person speaking naturally in his own characteristic voice rather than in interior monologues. Self-deception, pretense, misery, humor, courage, tolerance, impatience—all are present, and most of all in Pearl, who at the end of her life is still discovering her children and trying to understand them. Finally, she has learned to drift, and surprisingly but satisfyingly, her memories are pleasant ones, perfect in their simplicity and ordinariness—a summer wind, the weight of a sleeping baby, the privacy of walking in the rain under one’s own umbrella, a country auction, a day on “sunlit sand.”

Social Concerns / Themes

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Social issues such as child abuse and single-parent households appear in this novel, but Tyler is less concerned with social issues than human relationships. A preoccupation in many of her novels is the paradoxes of family life, which are the paradoxes of all emotional relationships in microcosm. Nowhere are these more carefully explored than in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. In this novel of the Tull family, Tyler examines the way people within a family often hurt and harm those they most love, the balance they seek between longing for love and closeness and wanting to break free from constricting family bonds, and the armor they put on to protect themselves from emotional vulnerability. Pearl Tull loves her children, but her rage at having been left to rear them alone makes her screech at and strike them. She does not mind showing her temper and considers it a source of pride that she has never cried before them. Two of her children, Cody and Jenny, react to her treatment by trying to break away, but they are always drawn back. The other son, Ezra, reacts by trying to bring the family closer together, planning dinners at his Homesick Restaurant that are always interrupted by an argument.

The novel is also about the way people adjust to the hand life deals them. Tyler acknowledges that people are shaped by their past experiences but intimates that dwelling on past injustices stunts one emotionally and is fruitless. Closely allied to this theme is Tyler's recognition that the happy family, the perfect relationship, is a myth. When attaining that mythic perfection becomes life's goal, the inevitable result is dissatisfaction with reality. The discrepancy between the myth and reality is often apparent in the contrast between characters' memories and reality. Pearl, for example, remembers a beach vacation as an idyllic time; in fact, she spent the time fretting about whether the stove at home was off.

Themes

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Alienation and Loneliness
The related themes of alienation and loneliness permeate this novel about the impact of a father's desertion on his wife and family. In the pivotal character of Pearl Tull, Tyler gives us an extremely alienated individual, at least in the sense of being alienated from her community. After Beck deserts her (after more than fifteen years of marriage), she determines to raise her three children single-handedly, without the slightest assistance from anyone in the neighborhood. Since she can't even confide in her close friend Emmaline that her husband abandoned her, Pearl obviously won't let on to the neighbors. Further, she refuses to discuss the desertion with her children; hence, they are left with the temporary impression that their salesman-father is away on a trip. While Pearl takes pride in her psychology ("They never asked about him. Didn't that show how little importance a father has? ... Apparently, she had carried this off—made the transition so smoothly that not a single person guessed. It was the greatest triumph of her life."), the damage of not drawing out her children's true feelings is evident throughout the novel. While today a single-parent family is no longer unusual, it was rather atypical in suburban America in the 1940s and 1950s when the Tull children were growing up.

Pearl's standoffishness has this effect on her eldest son, Cody: "What he wouldn't give to have a mother who acted like other mothers! He longed to see her gossiping with a gang of women in the kitchen ... He wished he had some outside connection, something beyond this suffocating house." Despite being brought up in such an isolated home, Jenny and Ezra as adults are responsible, caring members of their communities. Ezra, in particular, conveys sincere affection for his neighbors and his business associates, never angling for personal gain in the manner of his older brother.

Growth and Development
To what extent do the three Tull children reconcile with their troubled childhood? To what extent do they transcend it? Tyler addresses these rather complex questions in her novel but does not arrive at firm answers. First, Jenny, through the distance of time, realizes she has acquired some of her mother's good and bad character traits (e.g., her orderliness, intelligence, intensity, yet also her tendencies toward child abuse during stressful situations). She gradually but deliberately develops a more relaxed, humorous disposition, becoming a generally happier person in the process but also sacrificing some passion for members of her immediate family.

Ezra, on the other hand, remains something of a child well into middle age: Unmarried, childless, still living with his mother, and never having known real sexual passion (he courts his fiancee, Ruth, in a nearly platonic manner before Cody steals her away), he discerns something missing in his life. "Let it be" is the theme that dominates his existence. He sees himself as being "ruled by a dreamy mood of acceptance that was partly the source of all his happiness and partly his undoing." As Mary Ellis Gibson has written in Southern Literary Journal, "Ezra is the most thorough fatalist in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant." Even so, he develops some coping skills. Mrs. Scarlatti, a woman much more traditionally maternal than Pearl, comes to see Ezra as a surrogate son; Ezra also gives and reciprocates strong affection to many non-family members, including his nephew Luke and his misfit friend Josiah Payson. Perhaps most important, he channels a great deal of his energy and love into making his restaurant a friendly, homey environment—if not necessarily a financial success.

Finally, Cody, the most aggressive of the Tull children, remains as competitive in adulthood as in childhood; stealing his brother's girlfriend, working diligently to be financially successful, maneuvering to win the maternal warmth that he has already had for many years (Pearl feels affection toward him but does not show it often or well). None of the above brings much happiness to Cody, who remains guilt-ridden, angry, and confused about his motivations until the conclusion of the novel when he confronts the father who left him more than thirty years ago. In that scene, Cody achieves a sort of epiphany, at least partly understanding his actions and reactions in a troubled past.

Even Pearl, perhaps the least likely family candidate for transformation, undergoes some change. She redeems herself somewhat by becoming a much better grandparent than she was a mother and allowing her children as adults to make their own decisions and mistakes. She may not approve of Jenny making three less-than-satisfactory marriages, but she does not interfere to the extent she once did. Toward the end of her long life, she reminisces calmly—not consumed by her former rage—about her life and three children. While she still believes that "something was wrong with all of her children," and "wondered if her children blamed her for something," Pearl does not have the real desire to pursue the matter and quietly dies.

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