What is the significance of the two dinner guests in Chapter 7 of Saint Maybe?

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In Chapter Seven, Daphne and her siblings, Agatha and Thomas, think that it is time for their uncle Ian to be married. In order to accomplish this aim, Daphne concocts an excuse to ask her teacher, the beauteous Miss Ariana Pennington, to dinner. First, she maneuvers Ian into attending the...

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In Chapter Seven, Daphne and her siblings, Agatha and Thomas, think that it is time for their uncle Ian to be married. In order to accomplish this aim, Daphne concocts an excuse to ask her teacher, the beauteous Miss Ariana Pennington, to dinner. First, she maneuvers Ian into attending the parent-teacher conference at her school. Then, before Ian's conference with Miss Pennington ends, Daphne asks to have her teacher to dinner. Put on the spot, Ian can do nothing but agree to the mad scheme.

On the day of the dinner, however, Daphne and her siblings are frustrated to find that their uncle has also invited two other guests, Sister Harriet and Mr. Kitt, from his church. During the dinner, Ian further disappoints the children when he pays scant attention to Daphne's gorgeous teacher. Whenever Miss Pennington tries to engage him in conversation, Ian responds without any hint of the characteristic charm and masculine grace that he has come to be known for. The evening ends disastrously when Daphne accuses Sister Harriet of having designs on her uncle Ian.

The children know that Ian holds them responsible for the ill-fated events of the evening. However, they comfort themselves in the knowledge that Ian is not one to hold grudges. Ian, for his part, realizes that his nieces and nephew care very much about his happiness. However, he finds it difficult to forgive himself for misguided impulses in the past which led to the death of his older brother and sister-in-law. Throughout the years, he has also struggled to forgive the duo for his present predicament.

Presumably, Ian invited the two guests as a form of self-preservation and a buffer against his ambivalence; although he wants to marry and to be able to have his own family, Ian feels obligated to live a life of atonement. In this penitential existence, life must involve nothing more than complete dedication to the welfare of his nieces and nephew. We see evidence of this in Chapter Six in the exchange between Jeannie and Ian. Jeannie is deeply interested in pursuing a relationship with Ian, but Ian rebuffs her advances and her rationale for developing a life apart from his charges. So, the two guests represent Ian's emotional paralysis and mental doubts about his right to pursue his own interests in the face of his past sins.

It is also obvious that Ian thinks finding a woman who will accept and embrace all three children will be a near impossibility. He believes that only a 'Church Maiden' from the Church of Second Chance can uniquely fill this penitential, maternal role he has envisioned for himself and any future bride.

In his daydreams...he... found a lovely, golden-haired girl sitting just ahead. She would be so intent on the sermon that she wouldn't even look his way...They had the most proper courtship...They would marry at Second Chance with Reverend Emmett officiating. She would love the three children as much as if they were hers and stay home forever after to tend them. The Church Maiden, Ian called her in his mind.

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