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Although she had a “fairly isolated childhood” (Salwak, 3), Anne Tyler’s insights about family are remarkably accurate. In two of Tyler’s books, The Accidental Tourist and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, she tells the tales of two very different families. However, the believable emotional state and interactions of the characters make it seem as if Tyler had lived each life herself. For instance, The Accidental Tourist (TAT) focuses on Macon Leary’s relationship with two women: his wife, Sarah, and his lover, Muriel. In contrast, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (DatHR) looks at the Tull family as a whole. Both books share the theme of yearning for an ideal family. The characters strive for perfection in their relationships until the end of the books where they accept the imperfection in their family. To depict this transformation, Tyler utilizes aspects of modernism such as loss, change, and chaos. Thus, to Tyler, human existence is the acceptance of each other. This is demonstrated in the books Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist through the modern aspects of characters yearning for a perfect family.
Modernism began in the late 19th and early 20th century. World War One is looked at as the dividing line between the pre-modern and the modern world. However, events like the movement to cities, new totalitarianism, and the women’s movement inspired a change in attitude. This age is commonly defined as a reaction to the Victorian Era. Artists were the foremost to embrace this change; they began to create pictures that were more abstract, surreal, and depicted the idea of one’s subconscious. Soon musicians and writers followed by creating more reflective works. They wanted to demonstrate the reality of what was happening in their time, and they wanted their audiences to question the beauty that surrounded them. In contrast to the pre modern world’s focus on stability, faith, and identity, the modern writers emphasized chaos, instability and pessimism. Tyler spent most of her developing years being homeschooled by her mother until, at age eleven, she was sent to public school. Growing up in an isolated Quaker community caused Tyler to question her spirituality. She says, “I decided I could not manage to believe in God. I sometimes think I was smarter at seven than I ever have been since. I remember thinking, ‘Who would watch over you?’ I’m not a spiritual person. I’ve no interest in finding out the meaning of life” (Teeman). Even at age eleven, Tyler was embracing the modern idea of questioning what surrounds her. Tyler met Taghi Modarressi at the age of twenty-one and they got married soon afterwards. They had two children before Modarressi died in 1997. Initially grief overwhelmed her, but she has since come to accept his death and appreciate those around her.
Tyler’s struggles to find herself in faith and companionship, mirror her character’s struggle to find meaning in a world of chaos. One way this is expressed is through the theme of instability due to change. This theme is prevalent in Tyler’s works. Written in 1985, TAT is a canvas for Tyler to explore how death and separation affect the idea of a quintessential family. Specifically, she focuses on Macon’s search for perfection in his home and personal life. Macon’s wife, Sarah, leaves him, coupled with the death of his son; it is obvious that the loss of his family makes Macon instable. Sarah and Macon’s personality differences are the primary cause of their separation. For instance, Macon is blunt and honest while Sarah cordial and gentle. Once Sarah leaves, Macon has the realization that, “now was his change to reorganize” (“The Accidental Tourist”, 7). Macon begins to arrange his house to be one big ‘system’, something he could never do because Sarah would not tolerate it. Along with new organizational skills, Macon developing feelings for a woman named Muriel. He also becomes fond of her son, Alexander, and often fantasizes about getting him a better education and creating a more stable family.
Macon’s obsession with organization and introversion could be symbolic of a young Anne Tyler. Due to her Quaker upbringing she had not done many basic things like use a telephone. Thus, when she transitioned from home school to public school there was a lot of attention on her, by her classmates and teachers. Tyler says, “Neither I nor any of my brothers can stand being among a crowd of people for any length of time” (Salwak, 4). Like Tyler, Macon is an introvert who tends to shy away from others. This shared isolation effects Macon’s actions, especially how he deals with his isolation. He goes back to his roots- his sister and brothers. Just as Tyler looked back at her Quaker roots for inspiration. The return to his roots marks the beginning of Macon’s transformation into one who can accept others differences.
DatHR also revolves around the idea of instability due to change. Similar to TAT, the biggest change in the book is when Pearl Tull’s husband, Beck Tull, leaves his family. The resulting Tull family is left with four members: Pearl, Cody, Ezra, and Jenny. Each member reacts differently to this loss. For example, Pearl reacts violently by lashing out at all of the children, even Ezra her favorite. During one of her rages “She threw a spoon in his face… slapped him across the cheek… grabbed on of Jenny’s braids… yanked it” (“Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant”, 53). In contrast, Cody holds everything inside and grows up hating Pearl and Beck; He keeps this malice through most of his adult life. Because of this Cody’s entire life becomes unstable, emotionally and physically. He is constantly moving because of his occupation, and sometimes he throws fits of anger, especially while thinking about Pearl or Ezra. Because of this he is very detached from his wife, son, siblings, and mother. For instance, when Cody visits Jenny, she realizes she reminds him of his mother, and because of this he is completely cut off from her. It is not until the conclusion of the novel, after Pearl’s death, that he finally shows kindness and compassion towards his family. The last paragraph begins with, “Cody held onto his (Beck’s) elbow and led him (Beck) towards the others” (“Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant”, 303).
In each book, the families suffer a loss and reacts negatively. Nevertheless, the members of the family stick together despite their different ideas. In DatHR the children all bond over their mother’s anger; they always clean any messes that she makes and they comfort her. Similarly, in TAT Macon goes to live with his sister, Rose. Tyler wants to convey the message that family will always be there regardless of their personal opinion. The Tulls and the Learys may not be the perfect family, however they still are connected through their childhood experiences. In Tyler’s eyes, that makes them connected for life because of her strong connection with her siblings.
Through the novels, Macon and Cody mature and accept those around them. Macon interacts with Muriel and Sarah. He and Sarah conclude their relationship on friendly terms and he picks up Muriel as she is walking towards the airport. The reader can safely assume that they go on to live happily together. Thus, Macon’s acceptance of Muriel and Sarah leads him to “the perfect family”. Likewise, Cody embarks on a peaceful relationship with all the members of his family, most importantly, his father. The contrast between the pessimistic beginnings, as shown through Macon’s organization and Cody’s hatred, and the optimistic endings of these novels stress Tyler’s belief in acceptance. To clarify, once her characters accept others, their quality of life improves. This truly shows that Tyler opinion on human existence is one of acceptance. Although her opinion on religion is moot, Tyler’s Quaker morals have stuck with her in that she holds a strong belief in acceptance and love towards family.
Thus, Tyler’s use of modern aspects in the relationships of family members shows her belief that human existence is acceptance of one another. The modern idea of instability due to change is evident throughout each novel, in Macon’s organizational habits as well as Cody’s distance from his family. Macon’s reaction to the loss of his wife and son, along with the Tull family’s reaction to the loss of Beck are examples of instability due to change. Using her own life as inspiration for these characters’ developments, Tyler’s characters are introverted and distant. Yet, despite this distance Macon and Cody learn to accept others, rather than push them away. Through this, they each create a family that is perfect in their own eyes. This shows the importance of family in that family is there for support and love, despite difference. Her novels prove that being accepting of others is a powerful tool that can lead to perfection.
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