The War Between the Tates Summary
by Alison Lurie

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The War Between the Tates Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The War Between the Tates, Lurie’s best-known novel, is a wickedly humorous satire on marriage, infidelity, and American society. Lurie sets her narrative during the time of the Vietnam War, and early in the novel she develops an extended comparison between that disastrous American conflict and the typically American Tate marriage.

Brian and Erica Tate, like the South Vietnamese, find that their territory (an upper-middle-class house on Jones Creek Road, near Corinth University) is being taken over. The Tates liken their teenage children, Jeffrey and Matilda, to North Vietnamese invaders. Like America’s involvement in Vietnam, the conflict between the Tates and their children began in a way analogous to a police action and has steadily escalated into all-out deadly warfare. From the children’s point of view, their parents are the American invaders—superior in experience and resources but deeply hypocritical. While the children want only independence and self-government, the parents refuse to negotiate, so the children retreat into the jungles of their upstairs rooms, coming out only briefly for guerrilla skirmishes.

Brian and Erica, on the other hand, regard themselves as democratic and freedom-loving people; never having officially declared themselves at war, they see their mission as a peace-keeping and advisory effort. Although they have won most of the brief, pitched battles, however, the parents know that in the long run they will never win the war. The separation of powers by which they have operated their marriage—Erica as the executive branch and Brian as the legislative and judicial—has utterly failed to suppress colonial revolt. The Tates’ victories are now all negative ones; the best they can hope for is to contain the enemy within the existing combat zone.

Lurie’s witty metaphor is carried throughout the novel (perhaps too much so, as some have criticized). Brian and Erica’s separation is like the division in America itself. Erica, tired of her selfish, rude, and rebellious children, has given up the fight, while Brian finds her desertion disheartening and disloyal. Just as there was student unrest in the colleges during the early 1970’s, so is there unrest at Corinth, where Brian teaches political science. Radical feminists, taking Brian’s advice, protest the sexist remarks of Brian’s department antagonist Don Dibble, and when things get out of hand, they invade Dibble’s office. Attempting to help, Brian himself is taken hostage, becoming a prisoner of war.

The novel concludes with a protest march on the Corinth campus, attended by most of the characters as well as an assortment of Maoists, gay activists, feminists, students, and local citizens. While the reader does not witness it, Lurie states that the group will eventually encounter violence at a bar called the Old Bavaria. This war has its victims, daily combats, withdrawals and retreats, and in the long run no one really wins.

The war that this novel is primarily about, however, is the war between the sexes. Brian, bored with Erica and suburban life, drifts into an affair with Wendy Gahaghan, a young graduate student in social psychology, while Erica, hurt by her husband’s affair, attempts an affair of her own with Sandy Finkelstein, an old school friend who now goes by the name of Zed and manages a local metaphysical bookstore. Brian finds himself a victim of the generation gap; he disapproves of Wendy’s use of marijuana, while she disapproves of his drinking alcohol. Her friends seem immature and shallow; Brian seems hopelessly uptight and square. When Wendy becomes pregnant with (possibly) Brian’s baby, Brian urges abortion, while Wendy wants a love child.

Erica, on the other hand, with a newly found freedom, finds herself a prisoner of sex. Finkelstein-Zed seems an intelligent, gentle, sensitive man (although an incredibly unattractive one), and she decides to give herself to him. Zed, however, proves impotent, and the affair is...

(The entire section is 1,507 words.)