Saint Maybe

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Anne Tyler’s Baltimore, the Homesick Restaurant stays open on holidays so that people without families or the emotional wherewithal to get a meal on the table will have someplace to go. Here, a few months after Grandma Bee Bedloe’s death, the Bedloe family gathers for an unexpectedly pleasant Christmas dinner hosted by Ezra, the restaurant’s owner. Long before this dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, however, the reader of St. Maybe, Tyler’s twelfth novel, has been traveling in familiar familial territory. The Bedloes begin the novel as an “ideal, apple-pie household” with “two amiable parents, three good-looking children, a dog, a cat, a scattering of goldfish”; their youngest child, Ian, is seventeen. By the end of the novel, Ian is forty-two, and the Bedloes have been transformed by their “extraordinary troubles” from a “special” family into an “ordinary” one. An ordinary family with extraordinary troubles—this is Anne Tyler’s great subject, and in St. Maybe she handles it with assurance and with the rich blend of humor, offhandedness, and profundity that has won her so many devoted readers.

The story opens with the marriage of the Bedloes’ oldest son, Danny, to Lucy Dean, a woman he has met only three weeks before. Lucy has two young children from a previous marriage; seven months after marrying Danny, she gives birth to a third child. By the end of the novel’s opening chapter, Danny has died in a car crash; within six months, Lucy is also dead, leaving the three children to be reared by the surviving Bedloes. Stricken not only with the loss of Danny and Lucy but also with the certainty that he is directly responsible for his older brother’s death and indirectly responsible for that of his sister-in-law, Ian Bedloe decides to quit college to help his parents, Doug and Bee, take care of the orphans, who have no other relatives.

Ian’s motives for taking this remarkable step are complex, and Tyler presents them convincingly and with considerable psychological subtlety. A major element in Ian’s motivation is his guilt about his own sexuality. In his last year of high school, when the story begins, Ian is eager to sleep with his girlfriend, and he also finds himself uncomfortably attracted to his sister-in-law. Viewing Lucy’s behavior through the distorting lens of his own desire, Ian begins to suspect that she is being unfaithful to Danny. The drunken car crash in which Danny dies occurs just after Ian has told Danny of his suspicions, so Ian believes that he has caused Danny to commit suicide. When Lucy dies six months later of an overdose, perhaps accidental and perhaps not, Ian learns that what he has told Danny about Lucy was not true. Desperate not only for forgiveness but also for some punishment that might ease his “racking anguish over something impulsively done that could not be undone,” Ian is drawn one evening to a religious service in a storefront called the Church of the Second Chance. Here he learns that complete forgiveness is available but must be earned: He must care for the children that Danny and Lucy have left behind.

Thus family feeling, always central in Tyler’s work, is treated in St. Maybe both as “a matter of blind circumstance” and as a religious discipline. Completely separated in Ian’s experience from sexual passion, from gender socialization, and from blood kinship, parenthood becomes for him a vocation. Undoing his sin by taking responsibility for seven-year-old Agatha, four-year-old Thomas, and ten-month-old Daphne becomes the purpose of Ian’s life. He finds a job as a carpenter, develops a personal view of Jesus, and becomes a committed participant, with the children, in all the activities of the Church of the Second Chance: regular worship, public amending, good works, Bible camp. Determined to earn forgiveness, to become good again by working at it, Ian follows his church’s prohibitions against consuming sugar, coffee, and alcohol and having sex outside marriage. His parents, Doug and Bee, view his religious commitment with embarrassment, and his girlfriend starts calling him “Mr. Holiness” and gradually drifts away. Nevertheless, Ian holds fast to his faith in the promise of forgiveness, and, ambiguously motivated though his sainthood may be, eventually receives his reward, embodied in Rita di Carlo, the Clutter Counselor.

Tyler portrays religion as offering infrequent moments of transcendence—for example, Ian prays by “picturing…this spinning green planet safe in the hands of God, with the children and his parents and Ian himself small trusting dots among all the other dots”—but the emphasis in St. Maybe is not on ecstatic experience. Rather, Tyler’s view of religion parallels her view of parenthood:...

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Saint Maybe Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Saint Maybe, through its male protagonist, Ian Bedloe, focuses on the difficulties and responsibilities of single parenting. Doug Bedloe, Ian’s father, has only once in his life changed a diaper. His son Ian’s life will be more complicated—a mixture of the traditional male role of breadwinner and the traditional female role of nurturer for his dead brother’s three children. At the age of nineteen, Ian quits college and becomes father and mother to Agatha, Tom, and Daphne. For the next twenty years, until 1988, when he is forty-one, he finds himself locked into responsibilities that seem both of his own choosing and, at the same time, unfairly thrust upon him.

Ironically, at the outset of the novel, Ian has been unsympathetic to Lucy Dean Bedloe for not fulfilling the ideals of her roles as wife to his brother Danny and as mother of her three children. For one thing, Ian finds Lucy too attractive to be completely trustworthy. For another, she is divorced, bringing two small children into her marriage with Danny. Furthermore, after the birth of a third child only seven months into the marriage (when she has known Danny for only a few weeks), she burdens Ian with babysitting chores after school to escape from the baby and her other two children. Once, when she returns wearing a new dress, Ian concludes that the dress is a gift from a lover. When Ian tells Danny that Lucy has been unfaithful, Danny has a car accident and dies. Lucy succumbs...

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Saint Maybe Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Throughout her novels, Anne Tyler concerns herself with family—as have a majority of American women writers from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Louisa May Alcott, Kate Chopin to Alice Walker. Tyler asks a central question in Saint Maybe, one that she voices again and again in her novels: What is one’s obligation to one’s family and what is one’s obligation to oneself? While women throughout history have borne primary responsibility for the nurturance and well-being of family members, Tyler’s protagonists, female as well as male, come to feel that they must make choices between their desire for domesticity, on the one hand, and their need for independence, on the other.

Sometimes Tyler’s characters break from their families only to adopt new ones of their own choosing, as does Elizabeth Abbott in The Clock Winder (1972). At other times, they break free only to return home again, as do Sarah Leary in The Accidental Tourist (1985) and Charlotte Emory in Earthly Possessions (1977). Other protagonists must learn to bestow freedom on those within their families: Pearl Tull in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), Maggie Moran in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons (1988), and Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist (1985). Some begin the journey toward freedom when they no longer believe they are needed at home: Morgan in Morgan’s Passing (1980) and Mary Tell in Celestial Navigation (1974).

Ian Bedloe in Saint Maybe chooses domesticity to provide security for the orphaned Agatha, Tom, and Daphne, yet he desires freedom as well. When Ian breaks loose at forty-one to marry the youthful, bold Rita, he finds himself paradoxically tied once more to fatherhood and family responsibilities. Through Ian Bedloe, Tyler also focuses on her other central themes: the hardships posed by family life, the need for androgyny on the part of her fictional survivors, the influence of accident on their lives, and the artist’s need for isolation versus the need for society. Drawing her characters vividly, their predicaments unflinchingly, Tyler embraces her most troubled figures with gentle affection. Her realism and compassion place her firmly within the female literary tradition.

Saint Maybe Literary Techniques

The entire novel is written in third person, and Ian's thoughts dominate, but as if to demonstrate that the story is more than Ian's alone,...

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Saint Maybe Ideas for Group Discussions

Saint Maybe explores the ambivalences of family relationships, just as other Tyler novels do. In addition, it moves from sickness to...

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Saint Maybe Social Concerns

The bulk of Saint Maybe focuses on spiritual concerns — sin, atonement, and redemption — but social concerns of suicide, drug...

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Saint Maybe Related Titles

In this novel, Tyler adopts a serious and thoughtful tone about religion. Although it creates a religious context for the issue of control,...

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Saint Maybe Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bail, Paul. Anne Tyler: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Detailed critical analysis of individual novels with a separate chapter devoted to the place of each novel in the Tyler canon.

Carson, Barbara Harrell. “Complicate, Complicate: Anne Tyler’s Moral Imperative,” Southern Quarterly 31, no. 1 (Fall, 1992): 24-35. This essay argues that Tyler’s novels affirm individuality while asserting life’s complexity and the need for human interconnectedness. Tyler offers a female value system contradicting traditional literary equations between...

(The entire section is 334 words.)