In Saint Maybe, Anne Tyler is concerned with the shifting roles of changing society in the twentieth century United States. Ian Bedloe finds that he must become an androgynous figure, drawing on both his male and female characteristics in order to fulfill all the demands his family and society make upon him. Far from being liberated from responsibility and obligation, Ian finds that he must do even more than his father and forefathers before him. He must learn to be mother and father, breadwinner and nurturer, anchor and sail, for Danny and Lucy’s orphaned children.
His sister-in-law Lucy, however, fails to transcend her traditional, dependent female role and survive. Poverty, lack of education, and responsibility for three small children pull her down and finally defeat her (a situation Ian comes to identify with more and more as he himself struggles to fulfill the role of single parent).
Ian’s parents’ (Doug and Bee Bedloe’s) post-World War II optimism proves to be simplistic and outmoded (as are the separate spheres of their traditional marriage). More and more, they feel forced to retreat from present realities that do not fit their upbeat, worn-out philosophy. The foreigners down the street allow Doug to escape into their happy-go-lucky student world, playing with new American technology and complex American life. With them, Doug enjoys the luxury of suspending serious concern and everyday reality—which all must face when they return home.
In Tyler’s Saint Maybe, characters must learn to survive, cope, and face life head-on in late-twentieth century American society. Those who succeed are most often androgynous figures such as the tall, bold, resourceful Rita di Carlo, Baltimore’s resident Clutter Counselor; Ian’s wards, Agatha and Daphne, who are independent women who take on new roles without losing their care for others; and Ian himself, the solitary yet nurturing protagonist of the novel. They stand in contrast to other characters who retreat from life (such as Lucy, Bee, and Doug Bedloe), characters who are demoralized by not knowing all the answers, defeated by not being able to fly, and overwhelmed by having to face daily reality (as suggested by three of the novel’s chapter titles).
The Baltimore of Saint Maybe (as in other Tyler novels) is a city in transition, part of a larger American world of constant flux and change, yet an all-too-familiar human world of disease, difficulty, and death where people such as Danny, Lucy, and Bee Bedloe (even Beastie, their dog) seem to depart willy-nilly, leaving behind orphaned children, cluttered houses, and complex messes for others to clean. Yet, for all its seriousness, Tyler’s fictional world remains a comic one in which new babies are born and loved, ordinary people learn to make sacrifices and take risks, and families and communities manage to nurture (in new and strange ways). Ian finds solace in the tiny, eccentric congregation of the Church of the Second Chance; Daphne stops accompanying Ian to church but continues to help others through Saturday “Good Work” sessions; Doug proves to be ineffectual at home but shares a beer with the foreigners down the street, helping them through hair-raising yet solvable predicaments; and Agatha, Tom, and Daphne scheme to find Ian a loving companion in tribute to his sacrifices on their behalf and forgiveness for his strange religion and embarrassing ways. If Tyler’s communities and families seem somewhat loose and haphazard, the force of love still remains alive in their midst (symbolized by Ezra Tull, the restaurant owner of Tyler’s 1982 Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant , who makes a guest appearance near the end of chapter 9, serving holiday meals...
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to the Bedloes and other lonely, distraught people).
Anne Tyler sympathizes with each of her characters, those who fail and those who survive. Through her third-person narrative perspective, she focuses closely on five different characters (Ian is given six chapters; Agatha, Tom, Daphne, and Doug, one apiece) to convey her characters’ individual lives and concerns. As her readers learn to identify with her diverse characters, those same characters learn tolerance for one another. Her protagonist Ian, especially, comes to understand his dead sister-in-law Lucy and empathize with the difficulties of her mothering role. Tyler emphasizes, however, that Ian’s tolerance is hardwon—the result of constant struggle with his own guilt and his determination to make reparation for his past wrongdoings. An ordinary man, he is torn between his desire to escape his responsibilities and his determination to fulfill them, his fear of making more mistakes and his need to lead a full life. Saint Maybe insists on the everyday sainthood of ordinary, imperfect, struggling humanity.