By the time Anne Tyler published The Artificial Family, her 20th story, in the summer of 1975, she was already an established writer who had published her fifth novel. Soon after Toby Scott and Mary Glover meet at a party in that story, he takes her and her five-year-old daughter, Samantha, on a visit to the Baltimore Zoo, a novel experience for the girl and one in which Toby seems to feel more at ease than either of his guests. “When she and her mother stood side by side, barefoot, wearing their long [gingham] dresses, they might have been about to climb onto a covered wagon,” as Tyler herself had longed to do at about Samantha’s age” (Tyler, “SJW” 13). “They presented a solid front” (Tyler, “ArtFam” 615).
It is evident almost from the time of their meeting that Toby’s relationship with Mary is an uneasy one because their personalities contrast sharply enough that latent conflict is always in the air. Whereas Toby, a graduate student living along in a sizable apartment, is outgoing, affectionate, and generous to a fault, Mary is restrictive, highly ordered, and controlling. Both are devoted to Samantha, but they reveal it in altogether different ways; where Toby eagerly gives Samantha what time he can spare from his lab work and studies, Mary insists that she leave him alone and stay out of his specified study room, one that she had set up for him. But Toby treasures Samantha and heatedly tells Mary, “I don’t want to be alone” (617).
Although the couple are comfortable enough together that they marry a few months after they meet, their relationship lacks the warmth and intimacy normal between newlyweds. “They were happy but guarded, still, working too hard at getting along”; in the evening Toby reads to Samantha and plays with her, but “Mary he treat[s] like glass” (617). When his parents arrive to visit for a few days around Christmas, they are quietly hostile to Mary because she was previously married, and she has given them an “artificial” grandchild, not their son’s real daughter. Toby is no more comfortable than Mary around them, and both are relieved when they depart.
Mary by trade is a potter, an artist and craftsperson whom one would not expect to be overly restrictive in attitude and behavior; on the other hand, a potter has complete control over the mass of clay on her wheel, and she can shape it as she will. In a sense she is molding Samantha as if the girl were a wad of clay spinning within her controlling hands. Toby, in contrast, is a scientist who works in a laboratory all day; scientific activities are necessarily exacting in measurement and performance, yet he is far more open, imaginative, and generous with his affection and time than Mary. The marriage is soon under increasing strain because she criticizes the love and devotion he showers on Samantha, and when he reacts against Mary’s criticism by denying that his attention to the child is excessive, she hides behind a fixed smile, as if she were wearing a subtle mask; she “looked carved” (619).
Before long it becomes apparent that the marriage is doomed. Instead of making Mary and Toby closer, Samantha begins taking liberties in her talk and behavior, which her mother resents, so they drift further apart. He is “spoiling” Samantha, Mary charges, when he gives her small gifts such as any caring father might give a child, and Toby is incredulous (618). He would like to have another baby, he tells her, more than one, “an armload of little girls” (619), and she replies ambiguously, “Do you?” Yet Mary also makes a sound point when she reminds him that while he treats Samantha with gifts and love, he leaves the disciplining and cleaning up to her. Of course, the girl tends to side with Toby, and Mary gradually loses the control over her that heretofore had gone unquestioned. Consequently, one day while Toby is at work in the lab, she walks out with Samantha and the few belongings with which they arrived; when he returns to find them gone, he is devastated because his greatest fear has come to pass. “She left him for good” (620) as she had left her former husband, with or without a divorce. The “solid front” that she and Samantha present when the story opens remains secure when it ends, too solid for Toby to breach it.
From reading the fiction of Eudora Welty, Tyler learned “the importance of character over plot” (Voelker 9), and indeed in “The Artificial Family” plot is minimal. A young man meets a young woman with a child; they wed, they argue a little, and the recent bride leaves with her child for good. The power of this story inheres in its effect, which in turn is attributable to its characterization. The third-person narrative point of view is limited to Toby. From the outset the readers perceive his immediate attraction to Mary and his anxiety lest he lose the phone number she gives him before leaving the party where they meet and he compulsively asks her to dinner. We know how he feels, what he thinks and fears, because the narrator describes his internal responses. In contrast, the narrative depicts the other characters objectively, so we can perceive them both as the narrator portrays them and as Toby sees and hears them, but we cannot look into their minds and hearts as we can examine Toby’s. In consequence we feel with Toby as well as judge him, but we are essentially disengaged from the others. No matter how strong a case might be made for Mary and Toby’s parents, then, Tyler has privileged Toby himself by enabling us to react viscerally to his predicament alone, and the effect is stunning. At the end readers are left lamenting with Toby over his irreparable loss. Desertion by family members in Tyler’s other fiction, such as “Teenage Wasteland” (1983), causes lasting despondency in those who have been deserted, and Toby’s loss in “The Artificial Family” illustrates her use of this emotion-laden conclusion in one of her most engaging stories with telling effect.
Children’s literature: Tumble Tower, 1993 (illustrations by Mitra Modarressi).
Novels: If Morning Ever Comes, 1964; The Tin Can Tree, 1965; A Slipping-Down Life, 1970; The Clock Winder, 1972; Celestial Navigation, 1974; Searching for Caleb, 1976; Earthly Possessions, 1977; Morgan’s Passing, 1980; Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, 1982; The Accidental Tourist, 1985; Breathing Lessons, 1988; Saint Maybe, 1991; Ladder of Years, 1995; A Patchwork Planet, 1998; Back When We Were Grownups, 2001; The Amateur Marriage, 2004; Digging to America, 2006.
Petry, Alice Hall, ed. “Introduction.” In Critical Essays on Anne Tyler. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992, 1–18. Tyler, Anne. “The Artificial Family.” Southern Review 11, no. 3 (Summer 1975): 615–621. ———. “Still Just Writing” [“SJW”]. In The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg, 3–11. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980. Voelker, Joseph C. Art and the Accidental in Anne Tyler. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.