Summary

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1652

First published: New York: Knopf, 1991

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Genre(s): Novel

Subgenre(s): Literary fiction

Core issue(s): Atonement; Communion; forgiveness; redemption; repentance; responsibility; sainthood

Principal characters

Ian Bedloe, the protagonist

Reverend Emmett, Ian’s spiritual adviser

Danny Bedloe, Ian’s brother

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Latest answer posted March 18, 2020, 7:52 pm (UTC)

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Lucy Bedloe, Ian’s sister-in-law

Daphne,

Agatha, and

Thomas Bedloe, Ian’s nieces and nephew

Rita de Carlo, Ian’s wife

Overview

The Bedloes in Saint Maybe are a typical Anne Tyler family: parents Doug and Bee, their married daughter Claudia, and their sons Danny (the “golden boy” ex-jock) and Ian (the typical high school senior). Neighbors consider them an all-American family, but the Bedloes do not really communicate; thus, they remain detached from each other. Just as their holiday meals are a collection of hors d’oeuvres, the family remains a group of individuals whose links to each other are little more intimate than the family’s links to the ever-changing groups of neighborhood exchange students who temporarily share their lives.

As the novel opens, Danny Bedloe introduces his family to Lucy, “the woman who’s changed my life”; the novel concludes, more than twenty years later, as Ian Bedloe introduces his family to his infant son, Joshua, and contemplates that life-changing introductions actually are everyday occurrences. For Ian, most of these life changes result from what he considers his responsibility for the deaths of Danny and Lucy. After Ian accuses Lucy of marital infidelity, Danny drives into a wall, perhaps deliberately. Likewise, a few months later, when Lucy dies of a drug overdose, Ian again blames himself, though other members of the Bedloe family frustrate his redemption by insisting these deaths are accidents and thus denying him any role. Nevertheless, Ian feels an overpowering guilt.

Searching for atonement, Ian is drawn to the Reverend Emmett’s Church of the Second Chance, an evangelical sect that has discarded traditional forms such as baptism and communion, focusing instead on confession and penance. The Reverend Emmett, a former seminarian, tells Ian that reparations must be concrete and practical, so Ian drops out of college, takes a job as a carpenter (eventually becoming a skilled cabinetmaker), and becomes a surrogate parent to Danny and Lucy’s three orphans—Agatha, Thomas, and Daphne. Initially Bee and Doug are reluctant to take responsibility for Agatha and Thomas, who are not Danny’s children, so for several years Ian attempts to locate their birth father. Eventually, though, the Bedloes learn that all three children are truly orphans. Ian formally adopts the older children, giving them the Bedloe name. However, he is particularly close to Daphne, whose reckless approach to life is in direct contrast to Ian’s caution; she is the one who gives him the nicknames “Saint Maybe” and “Mr. Look Both Ways.”

In a series of vignettes, the novel chronicles Ian’s struggles toward redemption—and his setbacks—as he tries to compensate for misjudging Lucy and forcing Danny to recognize that Daphne probably is not his child. Although he believes he has accepted responsibility, Ian apparently does not believe that religion alone has expiated his guilt; thus, even though his neighbors and fellow church members regard him as a saint, he is not convinced he should accept the Reverend Emmett’s offer to become the church’s associate minister. His focus is still his own redemption, which he believes can be accomplished if he successfully raises Agatha, Thomas, and Daphne. In contrast, the Reverend Emmett insists the task that has become his lifelong burden can actually be lifted only when Ian can forgive Danny and Lucy.

Gradually Ian realizes that he cannot force any of the children to accept his religious views. Even before she leaves home, Agatha refuses to attend church, and eventually she and Thomas move away, though they return for holidays. Daphne continues to live at home and attend church, but Ian’s attempts to influence her behavior are also unsuccessful; she has a hidden, rebellious side to her life. More than the older children, though, Daphne is concerned that Ian may be lonely. Several times she enlists her siblings in plots to develop a romance between Ian and various teachers or young women at church, but he ignores all such efforts. After Bee’s death, however, Agatha insists that Doug and Ian need help in clearing out the house, so she hires Rita de Carlo, the Clutter Counselor. To everyone’s surprise, Rita pursues Ian, even ordering a handmade chest so that she will have the occasion to see him again. Still more surprising is the fact Ian is drawn to Rita, no doubt in part because she routinely discards papers and souvenirs, separating herself and her clients from their pasts. He says, however, that he feels safe with her primarily because, unlike other women he has dated, she seems to be “someone who couldn’t be harmed.”

When they marry, Ian is forty-two and Rita is thirty, so fatherhood is not part of Ian’s plan, but during a Sunday morning service, Rita tells him she thinks she is pregnant and that she intends to be happy about that fact. Although initially startled, Ian becomes increasingly enthusiastic about the impending birth. For their son, he builds a cradle, his first work with curved lines that “required eye judgment and personal opinion.” Like marriage and fatherhood, this choice reflects his willingness to let go of the past with all its associations of guilt. When he presents his son Joshua to the family, Ian has finally forgiven himself and become focused on the future.

Christian Themes

Two prominent themes are guilt and atonement. Because he articulated his distrust of his sister-in-law Lucy, Ian Bedloe believes he is directly responsible for the death (possible suicide) of his brother, Danny, and the subsequent death of Lucy; however, his parents insist that both deaths are tragic accidents. While no one else blames Ian, there is no one to absolve him of his guilt. The Reverend Emmett’s emphasis on concrete reparations appears to suggest a path toward atonement, and his fellow church members come to regard him as saintly, but Ian remains focused on the last few words he exchanged with Danny, even after he has spent years vainly seeking atonement. Only when Rita forces him to discard the doubts and insecurity associated with his past does Ian finally manage to heed the other part of the Reverend Emmett’s advice: to forgive himself for his actions and likewise to forgive Danny and Lucy for their reactions.

Although Ian’s church, the Church of the Second Chance, does not recognize traditional communion services, the theme of communion is important throughout the novel. For example, the Bedloes create a community on Waverly Street because their holiday meals always include neighbors, including Mrs. Jordan and the Middle Eastern graduate students. At these meals, Bee serves a variety of everyone’s favorite hors d’oeuvres rather than a traditional dinner. Meals play an important role throughout the novel. A significant incident involves the various family members’ sharing their dreams/nightmares at breakfast on Claudia’s thirty-eighth birthday. Ian says nothing, but Claudia’s comment that nothing dramatic has ever happened to her contrasts with his inner conflict. Another key symbolic episode occurs at the church’s Christian Fellowship Picnic, where Doug Bedloe starts to accept Ian’s vocation and his connection with the church as Ian is able to repair damage to a valuable wooden table belonging to the wealthy relative of a church member. Later, Ian begins to regard the Reverend Emmett as an equal in the episode in which he teaches Emmett to make onion dip and the two of them make chips and dip their entire evening meal. The restoration of the Bedloe family is signaled, however, after the marriage of Ian and Rita, when Rita resumes Bee’s custom of serving hors d’oeuvres at the family’s holiday dinners.

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 heroic selfhood and the simplified, isolated life.
  • Croft, Robert W. Anne Tyler: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. Thematic critical biography combined with a comprehensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources, including source materials from the Anne Tyler Papers at Duke University.
  • Gullette, Margaret M. Safe at Last in the Middle Years:The Invention of the Midlife Progress Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. The chapter on Tyler considers the adult dilemmas of her novels and places her fiction within a context of other late-twentieth century authors focusing on midlife problems.
  • Petry, Alice Hall, ed. Critical Essays on Anne Tyler. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. Contains sample reviews of each of Tyler’s novels through Breathing Lessons (1988); interviews with Tyler from 1965-1981; and critical essays on literary parallels to, and familial relationships within, her works.
  • Stephens, C. Ralph, ed. The Fiction of Anne Tyler. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. Collection of critical essays analyzing typical Tyler themes and evaluating Tyler’s place in contemporary American writing.
  • Tyler, Anne. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. New York: Knopf, 1982. Tyler’s portrayal of the communication failures within the Tull family as they attempt to create family cohesiveness.
  • Voelker, Joseph C. Art and the Accidental in Anne Tyler. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989. This first book on Tyler considers how her Southern and Quaker past affected her vision of the world, its horrors and possibilities for grace. It argues that her characters come to view the chaos of life with greater acceptance as her novels progress.

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Themes