The Quaker Influence in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist
Note: This paper provides literature students with an example of the biographical and mimetic approaches to literature.
Elizabeth Evans, in her article “Early Years and Influences,” argues that life experience can influence a writer as powerfully as can other literature. She also mentions that Tyler spent her formative years living in Quaker communities (Evans 2). Not much has been written about Tyler’s Quaker background, although she has portrayed Quaker meetings in Morgan’s Passing (Evans 4). In The Accidental Tourist, although the Quaker religion is never mentioned, its influence is apparent. As the novel progresses and Macon Leary’s character develops, he begins to assume a more Quaker-like outlook on life, eventually choosing to follow his own “Inner Light” and achieving “clearness.”
Anne Tyler grew up the daughter of Quaker parents, and her “formative years” were spent living in “blessed communities” (Evans 2). In these communities, the Tyler family “sought refuge from the traditional American life of competition” (Evans 3). Anne Tyler has noted, “I think the fact that I had a fairly isolated childhood influenced me considerably. I was raised in a sort of commune arrangement, without many other children; I learned to be alone and to entertain myself by imagining” (Evans 3). So her Quaker upbringing may have influenced Anne Tyler to become a writer. But can it be said to have influenced her writing itself?
There are only a few direct references to anything religious in The Accidental Tourist. We are told that Peg Everet has put Sarah and Macon Leary “in her prayers” (72). Muriel is said to be religious in a “blurry, nondenominational way” and Macon’s sister sings hymns (226). “Oh, I’ve erred and I have stumbled,” she sings, “I’ve been sinful and unwise” (59). Later she sings, “We gather together [. . .] to ask the Lord’s blessing” (162). Despite this scarcity of direct religious references, the influence of the Quaker philosophy can be discerned in the pages of The Accidental Tourist.
Anne Tyler has repeatedly been described as a tolerant writer: “Her second greatest gift,” reads a blurb on the inside back cover of the novel, “is tolerance.” And “Updike has repeatedly extolled Tyler’s [. . .] ability to observe life with a tolerance [. . . ] unexcelled among contemporary writers” (Stephens ix). In The Accidental Tourist, Tyler presents a wide array of characters--from the systematic Learys to the carefree Muriel, with Julian Edge (appropriately) lying some where in-between. But all of these characters are presented in a sympathetic light. This tolerance may be a result of Tyler’s Quaker upbringing. Quakers emphasize tolerance and teach that “[a]s equally beloved children of God, all human beings are brothers and sisters [ . . .] no matter how great our differences of experience, of culture, of age, of understanding” (Hoare 9).
When we first meet Macon toward the beginning of the novel, he is far from living his life by Quaker principles. Macon has “believed all along” that people are evil (134). This, however, is not a Quaker view of mankind; Friends believe that “the potential for good, as well as evil, [is] latent in everyone” (“Meeting” 3). Man’s potential for good is something that Macon will gradually realize as he begins to interact with others. “Though really it’s kind of . . . heartening, isn’t it?” he later asks Sarah. “How most human beings do try. How they try to be as responsible and kind as they can manage” (338).
Aside from believing in the potential good of every man, Quakers also “maintain that the teaching of Jesus is a practical method for the guidance of the world today, that religion is concerned with the whole of life, and that, beyond a certain point, definition becomes a limitation” (Horace 4). One of the teachings of Christ, and a theme of The Accidental Tourist, is that one cannot, through worrying and planning, completely determine one’s life and ensure against the unexpected. Of the rich man who built barns to store up food for the future, Christ said, “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall these things be, which thou hast provided” (Luke 12.20)? He also advised men to “[t]ake no thought for the morrow” because “[w]hich of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?” (Matt. 7.27-34).
Macon, to the contrary, attempts meticulously to plan out his life, even down to developing an action plan for obtaining the most appropriate seat in a movie theater, which is itself an attempt “to systematize every aspect of his son’s life” (Nollen 225). And when his planning does not protect him from the unexpected death of his son, he regresses even further into his obsessive compulsion, “travel[ing] through the rooms and setting up new systems, developing ridiculously complicated methods to presumably simplify the washing of dishes and the changing of sheets” (45). He does not realize that “beyond a certain point, definition becomes a limitation,” that he has trapped himself within his own strictly defined systems. Ironically, his “own attempts to organize his life [. . . ] result in a dreaded accident” (Humphrey 150). He slips on the skateboard he rigged to role the laundry and breaks his leg. His many plans and systems, like those of the rich man with his barns, are thwarted.
Consequently, Macon retreats to his sister’s house, cutting off contact with the outside world, limiting himself by eating “conservative baked potatoes and refusing to answer the phone” (66). Quakers “consider that true religion cannot be learned from [. . .] rituals, which George Fox called empty forms” (“Meeting”). Thus Macon inevitably stagnates when he returns to his family’s rituals, including the card game Vaccination, that is, until Muriel steps into his life (77). Quakers “are encouraged to [ . . .] seek new light from whatever source it may arise.” Macon eventually seeks it in his opposite, the loquacious, aggressive, and grammatically erroneous Muriel Pritchett (“Meeting” 4).
Although Muriel’s entrance into Macon’s life is the start of a journey that will change him, Macon’s conversion is not instantaneous. “Friends,” writes Ted Hoare, “emphasize the importance of combining the inward and outward journeys” (1). He then offers an explanation which has surprising parallels to Macon Leary’s own experience:
To take the inward [journey] without the outward will lead to selfishness. You go inward to wait upon and receive the word and support of God and then take this out to action in the world. To take the outward journey without the inward leads to “burn out” because the essential support is not there to be called upon. (Hoare 2)
Macon Leary hates to travel, but he takes “outward” journeys in order to write guide books. After his son dies, he takes an outward journey without the inward in the sense that he attempts to go through the motions of life without working through the emotions of loss. Because this outward journey is not accompanied by an inward emotional journey, Macon finally burns out. On one of his “outward” journeys to work on his guide book, Macon has a breakdown at a rooftop restaurant. He calls Muriel, and she tells him, “[T]hings just can’t go on this way, Macon.” “No, they can’t,” he replies. “You’re right. They can’t” (158).
Thus Muriel Pritchett steps into Macon’s life and he begins his inward journey. But because he takes this inward journey without the outward--because he is healed by Muriel without committing to her, the journey leads to selfishness. Muriel’s response to his decision to return to Sarah emphasizes this selfishness: “Macon? Are you really doing this? Do you mean to tell me you can just use a person up and then move on? You think I’m some kind of . . . bottle of something you don’t have any further need for?” (297)
Yet Macon’s inward journey, which will eventually be supplemented by an outward journey, is the beginning of his growth. Macon begins to listen to his “Inner Light” when he first chooses to live with Muriel despite his siblings objections. His family continually refers to Muriel, disdainfully, as “that Muriel person,” and Charles says she is “some kind of symptom” (237). Nonetheless, Macon begins to recognize that she is good for him, that, as he says, “I’m more myself than I’ve been my whole life long” (237). “Friends [ . . . ] recognize the light as a force which creates unity among all who respond to it or who answer it in one another. It does not follow that a majority is always right [. . . ] if a concern is deeply felt and continues to be raised, the Meeting will continue to hear it and may later come to recognized its validity” (Hoare 2). Though the majority--that is Macon’s family--believes his relationship with Muriel is ill-founded, Macon will eventually insist on its validity. Though Macon does not love Muriel, they seem to answer the light in one another. Later, he will realize that “who you are when you’re with somebody may matter more than whether you love her” (307).
It is through the guidance of his “Inner Light” that Macon is eventually able to arrive at this conclusion. To the Quaker, the “Inner Light” is a force which “through its guidance, offers the alternative of choice. Secondly, the Inner Light opens the unity of all human beings to our consciousness” (“Meeting” 3). Macon’s “Inner Light” is perhaps expressed in his dreams, which serve to guide him. Before he begins a relationship with Muriel, he has a sexual dream about her, providing to him the “alternative of choice,” and making him aware, at least subconsciously, that he could pursue a relationship with her (106). When Macon dreams of his grandfather telling him to start digging his way out of the house, the “Inner Light” may again be presenting him with a choice: either stay and stagnate or leave and grow. “How long are you going to stay fixed here?” his grandfather asks him (142). Macon does leave, and moves in with Muriel. But he eventually regresses back into his relationship with Sara.
It is at this point that Macon’s “Inner Light” presents him with a crucial choice. He dreams that he is next to a woman on a plane, and that he must try “to hold perfectly still because he sensed she disapproved of movement” (332). To his surprise, Macon discovers the woman is Miss MacIntosh, the main character of a book he brings on planes to isolate himself from strangers. The dream in effect presents him with a choice. Will he continue to remain still, trapped by his own rigidness (after all, he is the one who carries Miss MacIntosh with him), or will he choose to make a move, despite the disapproval of his family and despite the change it will require in himself?
This “alternative of choice” is forced upon Macon when Muriel follows him to France and Sara is also sent there. Although we cannot plan out every aspect of our lives, the Quakers believe that “[t]o a great extent, we are the arbiter of our own destiny, having the power of choice” (“Meeting” 3). But until this point, despite his careful plans for every day life, Macon has not been the arbiter of his own destiny:
He reflected that he had not taken steps very often in his life, come to think of it. Really never. His marriage, his two jobs, his time with Muriel, his return to Sarah--all seemed to have simply befallen him. He couldn’t think of a single major act he had managed of his own accord. Was it too late now to begin? (339).
But before Macon can properly choose between Sarah and Muriel, before he can begin to manage a single act “of his own accord,” he must achieve what the Quakers call “clearness.” Clearness is “[w]hen it is clear to you that something is right” “Answers” 8). It is probably not a coincidence that Macon chooses not to take the pill Sarah gives him. It clouds his mind, and he wants mental clearness: “anything was better than floating off on that stupor again” (339). But this mental clearness enables him to achieve spiritual clearness. It becomes clear to him that the right thing to do is to return to Muriel: “he saw now how such couples evolved. They were not, as he’d always supposed, the result of some ludicrous lack of perception, but had come together for reasons that the rest of the world would never guess” (340).
It seems as if, through a series of accidents, Macon Leary ends up with Muriel. But “[i]f one believes that in the eye of God there are no accidents, then it is easy to see the connection and meaning behind the ‘accidents’ in this novel” (Humphrey 153). Ultimately, the novel comes down not to an accident, but to a conscious decision. By listening to his “Inner Light,” Macon Leary achieves “clearness.” He knows it is right to return to Muriel, and when he does, “[a] sudden flash of sunlight hit[s] the windshield, and spangles [fly] across the glass” (342). At the end of this strange, Quaker-like journey, Macon Leary finally sees the “light.”
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