Theory:

"The Accidental Tourist" is a lesson written by Bill Bryson. It is a chapter extracted from Bryson's collection of travel articles called "Notes from a Big Country" (1998). Alternately, the book was released in the United States under the title "I'm a Stranger Here Myself".

The lesson is narrated from the first-person point of view and hence, is subjective in nature. It contains instances and experiences from various point of the narrator's life.

The introductory paragraph of the lesson is important because it sets the tone for the entire lesson. The narrator begins his narrative by declaring that he is poor at almost everything in the world. He says, "living in the real world" is something the narrator cannot do. Moreover, the line "of all the things I am not very good at" suggests that the narrator is not good at so many things. The line also indicates that he is quite critical about himself.

The line "of all the things I am not very good at, living in the real world is perhaps the most outstanding" also describes the kind of humour that the writer has used in the lesson. The humour is worked on the ignorance or the stupidity of the narrator rather than on somebody else. Hence, it is self-deprecating.

The narrator, as declared before, is quite inept in doing a lot of simple things. He says that he has found himself in several 'hard' situations that people generally consider normal.

He recounts a couple of such recurring situations. For instance, when he looks for a lavatory in a film theatre, he kind of gets lost or ends up locked in a room or alley with self-locking door. Unfortunately, he would either have to take a detour to reach his destination or might get stuck inside until he attracts help from the other side of the door.

The narrator is also forgetful in nature, and he often forgets his room number whenever he is staying at a hotel. As a result, he had to pay frequent visits (two or three times in a day) to the hotel desk to find his room.

Hence, it is evident that the narrator is forgetful, clumsy, and is "easily confused".

In the second paragraph, the narrator starts describing an incident from the narrator's life. The incident took place during the previous travel he took with his family. It was during Easter, and they were flying to England from Boston, U.S.A. It was a big trip, and they were planning to spend a week there.

The family arrived at the Logan Airport in Boston. While they were in the line to check-in, the narrator suddenly remembered the privilege card he had with him. He had recently joined British Airways’ frequent flyer programme, and by using the card, he would be eligible to gain more points.

A check-in line at an airport

The programme works like this: the more the members travel, the more points they gain. With the points they have earned, they will be eligible for a number of privileges. For instance, they will be able to redeem the points for a free flight or become eligible for a free (or with a discount) holiday package. However, the member should produce the card at the desk before checking in. If not, the journey will not be considered and, as a result, it will not yield any points to the member.

Hence, the narrator starts searching for the card. He remembered putting the card in his carry-on bag which was hanging around his neck.

The paragraph ends with the narrator saying that all the trouble started there. The concluding statement of the paragraph suggests an impending humourous situation.

The narrator proceeds to describe the incident.

So this is what had happened. The narrator tried to open the bag's zip. However, as luck would have it, the zip was stuck. He tried pulling it open, but nothing happened. He pulled it harder, and with more force and focus.

He slowly started to feel the pressure on him. People were waiting, and they were observing him. They were probably judging him too.

So the narrator yanked at the zip harder than before. He was so frustrated that he did it with increasing grunts and frowns. He kept this up for about ten minutes with no positive outcome. Finally, he pulled it harder with all the strength he could summon.

It is not hard to imagine what would have happened next. Yes, the zip came undone without any warning. The narrator lost his control over the bag and dropped all its contents on the floor.

The narrator's bag was filled with things such as newspaper cuttings, some loose papers, a 14- ounce (i.e., approximately 397 grams) tin of tobacco for his pipe, magazines, passport, English currency, and filmstrip.

The real problem here was not the fact that the narrator dropped the things on the floor, but rather he dropped them all over the place. As he likes to emphasise, "everything was extravagantly ejected over an area about the size of a tennis court".

While the phrase "extravagantly ejected" suggests the speed at which the contents flew out from the bag, the phrase "the size of a tennis court" indicates that the things were spread across a vast area of land. It also implies that the narrator was going to have a harder time finding all his belongings, despite the fact that the contents came out quite abruptly and quickly.

The narrator was shocked to see all his documents flying across the hall. To the narrator's dismay, there were about a hundred carefully arranged documents. All his coins went bouncing and rolling noisily across the floor in all directions. And to make things worse, his tobacco tin's lid got removed when it fell, and the container rolled across the lobby with the tobacco flowing out as it moved.

The narrator was disturbed, given that he would have to spend a considerable amount to get that much tobacco in England. Moreover, England had revised its budget recently and hence, getting adequate amount tobacco is going to cost him more. He pondered over all these concerns when he cried "my tobacco!" in horror and pain.

However, the cry "my tobacco!" changed very quickly into "my fingers!" when he discovered that his finger was bleeding. He had hurt his finger when the zip had come undone abruptly. Now that his finger was bleeding, he went into a panic mode. The narrator never felt good at the sight of blood in general, and given that the blood in question came out from his fingers, he becomes quite distraught and hysterical.

The narrator goes into panic mode

While the narrator was panicking and being hysterical, his wife looked at him with an expression of pure wonder. She was neither angry nor irritated with him though she had all the reasons to be. But she was only astonished and bewildered, and she told him that she couldn't believe he did that every time, as if being clumsy was his calling or job.

The narrator admits that he could understand why his wife feels so. He says that he always ended up in disastrous situations when he travelled. After saying so, the narrator describes yet another incident that took place in his life. So you see, there is another story within the story. This feature is called embedded narrative (or a story within a story).

The incident which the narrator was about to narrate happened while he was travelling on an aeroplane. The narrator was settled on his seat when he discovered that his shoelaces had come undone. He did what anyone in the situation would have done: he leaned over to tie them.

But what followed next could not be considered as something usual. While the narrator was leaning down to tie his shoelace, the passenger before him threw his seat back so that he could lie down.
Unfortunately, the narrator got stuck in the crash position between the floor and the seat's back. He lied helplessly for a while before he could manage to get the attention of his neighbour. He scratched the leg of the man sitting next to him and brought his plight into the latter's notice. In the end, thanks to the help from the neighbour, the narrator freed himself from the uncomfortable position.

Later, the narrator recounts yet another incident that happened while he was on a plane. He accidentally knocked a soft drink onto the lap of his fellow passenger. It is interesting to note that the narrator describes the passenger as "a sweet little lady". This description is essential because it adds more meaning and depth to the situation.

For instance, you could say that the narrator was feeling sorry for what he had done to the lady and, as a result, described her as sweet and little. Moreover, the narrator found her sweet because she never retaliated but remained calm. Or it could merely be a description of her physical stature. She was described as little because she was probably short. Regardless of the possible intention behind the adjectives, what follows next intensifies the mood.

After knocking the drink, the flight attender came, cleaned the lady up, and brought the narrator a replacement drink. As luck would have it, the narrator knocked it on the woman again! The lady was dumbstruck! She couldn't believe that the narrator would do it again. She was so astonished and taken aback that she muttered the unspeakable expression, "Oh for ****'s sake". The narrator was more than surprised to hear the lady utter the phrase in public, and more so because she was a nun.

Thinking back to the incident, the narrator says that he could never figure out how such things happened. He felt like his arm acted on its own. He remembers reaching out for the replaced drink, and he watched helplessly how his clumsy arm moved abruptly and violently to knock the glass off. The narrator also compares his clumsy arm to a cheap prop from one of those 1950s horror movies with a name like "The Undead Limb".

Following the two incidents that had happened during a flight, the narrator proceeds to the lesson’s 4th narrative. The narrator creates anticipation in the audience by saying that the previous two incidents, though quite embarrassing and terrible in nature, were not as terrible as the following incident. He claims that the incident he was about to narrate had been the worst experience of his.

The incident, as expected, had also taken place on a flight. The narrator was writing important notes such as 'buy socks' and 'clutch drinks carefully' on his notebook. It is funny how the narrator calls these seemingly mundane tasks as "important". The irony here is that though the tasks may sound petite, the narrator actually considers them important and high priority.

So, back to the incident, the narrator was thinking hard of the important things to be noted down and was sucking thoughtfully on the end of his pen. Meanwhile, he fell into a conversation with an attractive young lady in the next seat. He indulged in an exciting conversion, throwing witty remarks occasionally, for about $$20$$ minutes. Later, when the narrator excused himself to the lavatory, he was startled to find that the pen he had been sucking on had leaked. His mouth, tongue, teeth, gums, and even his chin had turned navy blue. Moreover, the ink was very bright and scrub-resistant. Despite trying to rub it off, it remained on his face for several days.

Poor narrator! It is worth to imagine how the narrator must have faced the lady, now that he knew his face had been ‘blue' during the entire conversation. Or rather (to begin with), how and 'when' he had left the lavatory, given that the stain was stubborn and scrub-resistant.

The narrator desires to be suave (meaning 'confident and charming') for once in his life. He might be good at greater or intellectual matters, but when it comes to the meagre and day-to-day matters, he may seem half-witted or imbecile.

The narrator wishes he could rise from a dinner table without looking like someone who had just experienced an earthquake. Or get in a car and close the door without leaving some inches of his coat hanging outside. Or wear light-coloured trousers without discovering at the end of the day that he got stains from chewing gum, ice cream, cough syrup or motor oil on his back.

The narrator's wife is particularly conscious of him eating while on a plane. When the food is delivered on the plane, his wife would ask their children to take the lids off the food for him, since it is likely that he would spill the contents. Or when he is about to cut his meat, his wife would ask their children to put their hoods up, as he might end up throwing the knife, meat or its residue on the kids.

The narrator says that the things are different when he is flying alone. When he is on his own, he doesn’t eat or drink. He would neither lean over to tie his shoelaces, nor would he put a pen anywhere near his mouth. He simply sits very quietly. Sometimes, he sits on his hands to avoid them from flying out unexpectedly and causing troubles.

Poor narrator, he always tries to turn into a stone when he is on a plane. He says refraining from doing anything cuts down on the laundry bills although it’s anything but fun.

The narrator talks about flyer miles in this paragraph. Flyer miles refer to the travel points that you claim by flying through one’s privilege card. As explained in the earlier sections, with the points, you could buy more air tickets. But the narrator says that he never got his air miles because, as evident from the initial incident, he can never find the card in time.

The narrator was unhappy about losing travel points. While everyone he knows was travelling first class to Bali or around the globe using their air miles, he never collected any points.

One has to fly $$100,000$$ miles a year to use the card. But he has accumulated only about $$212$$ air miles, despite having taken twenty-three airlines so far.

The narrator missed his points because he forgot to ask for the air miles when he checked-in. Or he would ask for the points, but the airline would fail to record them. Or else, the check-in clerk would inform him that he somehow was not eligible for the points.

So, the narrator describes one final incident to demonstrate his trouble with the air miles.

It was in January when the incident happened. He was on a flight to Australia, a flight for which he would get about a zillion air miles. So when he extended his privilege card to the clerk to register his travel, the clerk shook her head and told him that he was not entitled to any.

The narrator asked the clerk the obvious question: why? The clerk responded by saying that the ticket was in the name of B. Bryson, and the card was in the name of W. Bryson.

This part of the lesson is crucial because we learn that the narrator’s name is Bryson and realise that both the narrator and the author are the same. "B" in B. Bryson stands for "Bill", and "W" in W. Bryson stands for William. A basic knowledge on the author would make it clear that Bill is a short form of William, and that the writer is better known as "Bill Bryson" while "William Bryson" is his registered name.

Back to the lesson, the narrator tried explaining to the clerk the relationship between "B" and "W" in the names. But, as is the rule, the clerk couldn't accept it. Hence, he missed the points.

The narrator was obviously unhappy as he didn’t get his air miles, and he won’t be able to fly to Bali first class. But he concludes the lesson by saying that air miles may never matter, to begin with; because, if he had to travel, then the narrator would have to eat, and then he would have to relive through all those ordeals. And of course, he could never travel such a long distance without eating.

The narrator could never travel such a long distance without eating

The title of the lesson "The Accidental Tourist" refers to the narrator himself. A tourist is someone who travels to places for fun and pleasure. But here in the lesson, the narrator calls himself an accidental tourist because, unlike the real tourist, travelling is a dreadful experience for the narrator. A tourist is also a stranger to the places he travels to, and so is the narrator. To the narrator, the real world is as alien as the place that a tourist travels to. As the narrator says at the beginning of the lesson, 'of all the things that the narrator is not very good at, living in the real world is perhaps the most outstanding'. Hence, through the lesson, the narrator talks about how he is an accidental tourist in the real world.

"The Accidental Tourist" by Bill Bryson has auto-biographical undertones. The plot of the lesson can be seen as an exaggerated projection of the author's personal life and experiences. The lesson’s humour is more self-deprecating, as the author creates humour around his stupidity and ignorance. It is subtle and harmless, and though the reader ends up laughing at the incredulous situations, he/she also feels pity towards the narrator.

Speaking of the tone adopted by the writer, the lesson echoes the humour found in Jerome K Jerome’s works. Like Jerome's works such as "Three Men in a Boat" and "Three Men on the Bummel", "The Accidental Tourist" by Bill Bryson has humour that is devoid of sarcasm, irony, or incongruity.