Saint Maybe

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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...

(This entire section contains 1957 words.)

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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: Both have their occasional raptures but are composed primarily of endurance, of daily discipline and grinding ordinariness, or being there and being patient, holding out and holding up. In Ian’s view, God becomes a sort of ultimate parental role model, keeping the world safe between steady, reliable hands. Tyler places her theme of parenthood as religious discipline squarely in a world safe between steady, reliable hands. Tyler places her theme of parenthood as religious discipline squarely in a world where parents die in accidents they might have avoided, where women give birth to so many children that they must be named in alphabetical order, where teenage mothers abandon their babies in dumpsters and the tawdry performer of the song “Like a Prayer” calls herself “Madonna.” In this grim context, Ian’s dedication to “other people’s children,” impelled though it is by his guilty longing for forgiveness, seems not only plausible but also estimable.

No one writes more graphically or less sentimentally than Tyler does here about the terrible vulnerability of children. Under her scrutiny, their smallest habits jump to life: “Daphne sucked her thumb and slid her curled index finger back and forth across her upper lip, the way she liked to do when she was tired.” Tyler deftly captures “the used, slightly tarnished look that even the best-tended children take on late in the day” and “the moist, pale, chastened look of children fresh from their baths.” Perhaps the most affecting section of St. Maybe is the chapter written from the point of view of seven-year-old Agatha during the time following Danny’s death and preceding Lucy’s. At this point Thomas is four, and Daphne is not yet walking. Lucy, despairing and grief-stricken, unable to find either a job or a man to support her and her children, spends much of her time doped up on pills, leaving the children to shift for themselves. Agatha tries hard to cope with her younger brother and sister—with their soiled clothes and bedding, with lost pacifiers and spilled milk and dirty diapers, with an overflowing toilet. In this chapter, Tyler brilliantly and movingly conveys the children’s hunger and boredom, their need for pattern and predictability, their loneliness and fear. Later, Ian realizes that “being a child at all was scary! Wasn’t that what grown-ups’ nightmares so often reflected—the nightmare of running but getting nowhere, the nightmare of the test you hadn’t studied for or the play you hadn’t rehearsed? Powerlessness, outsiderness. Murmurs over your head about something everyone knows but you.” Perhaps because he is the youngest child in his own family, still on the cusp of adulthood when Danny and Lucy die, Ian comes closest of all the elder Bedloes to understanding how the abandoned children feel.

Although it is Ian who dominates St. Maybe—in half of the book’s ten chapters the third-person narration is limited to his point of view—Tyler surrounds him with fully developed characters who also compel the reader’s interest. Among the most irresistible of these are Ian’s mother, Bee, and baby Daphne. Arthritic Bee Bedloe is the kind of woman who emphasizes whatever is laudable or hopeful about events involving her family. Her voice always at a “determined upward slant,” she adjusts to difficulties, reinterpreting them in the best possible light or finding a way to turn them into comedy. Gamely she takes on Danny and Lucy’s orphans, and they respond to her with eager affection. At one point, Thomas yearns for his grandmother: “Ian was his favorite person in the world, but when you were sad or sick to your stomach who did you want? Not Ian. Ian had no soft nooks to him.” Bee’s death late in the novel reveals how central she has been; her absence leaves a gaping hole. Daphne Bedloe, born on Ian’s eighteenth birthday, attaches herself to her uncle from infancy; her childhood feeling for him is “intense, deep, perfect love,” and he regards her as “the child of his life.” The fiercest and most troublesome of the three children, she is also the one most positively affected by Ian’s participation in the Church of the Second Chance; religion makes her “feel cared for.” At twenty-four, Daphne still has not left Ian’s orbit, and in the novel’s closing pages she is making plans to remain as involved in his middle years as she has been in his youth.

Throughout St. Maybe, Anne Tyler stays true to her distinctive vision of family life. In all of her families, major events and relationships are as mysterious and ambiguous as Danny’s suicide, Lucy’s overdose, Daphne’s parentage, Bee’s optimism, and Ian’s sainthood. A child’s loving dependence can feel both burdensome and buoyant, and parents who do their best can still fail their children. Adults and children alike are fragile, resilient creatures responsive to the miraculous possibilities inherent in the most humble domestic routines: preparing meals, doing the laundry, going to work, running errands, picking kids up at school, seeing that they do their homework and eat their vegetables. In Saint Maybe, Tyler once again elicits from her reader a deep sense of wonder—at the fundamental unknowableness of those with whom intimacy is greatest, at the way a chance encounter can forever change a life, and at the wrenching costs and sweet rewards of taking responsibility for others.

Bibliography

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.

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. A collection of essays from the 1989 Anne Tyler Symposium in Baltimore providing varied critical interpretations of Tyler’s novels. Critics explore her recurring themes and structures; her relationship to Southern and other twentieth century authors, and her sociological, psychological, and political themes.

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.

Form and Content

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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 soon afterward, the victim of an overdose of sleeping pills.

Now it is Ian, not Lucy, who will be held accountable for his actions and made to take on adult responsibilities. Overcome by guilt, Ian visits the Church of the Second Chance. The Reverend Emmett tells him to atone for his wrongdoing, face his obligations, and become responsible for his brother’s children. Ian complies, drops out of college, becomes a carpenter, and parents Agatha, Tom, and Daphne. Ian’s own parents are too tired, ill, and out-of-touch to take upon themselves full parental responsibility for their grandchildren.

From 1968 to 1988, Ian sacrifices his own life for the sake of his brother’s children. In six of the novel’s ten chapters, the third person narrative focuses on Ian’s conflicts in carrying out his role. He remains deeply religious, isolates himself from others in his work, and pushes away interested women in order to dedicate his life to the children’s well-being. At the same time, he dreams of release, even hiring a private detective to look for Agatha and Tom’s real father (only to learn he is deceased), lying to himself about his reasons for doing so. Four other chapters (also in the third person but told from the narrative perspectives of Agatha, Thomas, Doug, and Daphne) reveal family concern for the abnormal narrowness of Ian’s life. Doug wishes his son would leave the Church of the Second Chance; the children want Ian to marry. Daphne labels Ian “Saint Maybe” for the way his virtue and cowardice intertwine. At the novel’s end, Ian breaks out of his self-sacrificial pattern to marry risk-taking, sensual Rita di Carlo, only to find himself caught again in the familiar pattern of family responsibility as the father of a newborn son.

Context

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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.

Literary Techniques

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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, the narrator shifts the focus periodically to other characters. For example, after Danny's death, the focus shifts to Agatha, a nine-year-old who watches her mother deteriorate and tries to make sense of the chaos her own life has become. A later shift to Daphe's thoughts reveals how much the children have grown away from Ian and how Ian needs a new center in his life. This shift prepares the way for Ian's relationship with Rita.

Social Concerns

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The bulk of Saint Maybe focuses on spiritual concerns — sin, atonement, and redemption — but social concerns of suicide, drug abuse, and single parenting appear peripherally. Ian Bedloe's brother, Danny, kills himself rather than confront the possibility that his wife has cheated on him and their new baby is not his. Left alone to rear three children, Danny's wife, Lucy, has no job skills and thus no source of income. She has lived by her looks and wits in the past but has little luck after Danny's death. To escape from her problems, she relies on sleeping pills and accidentally overdoses. Thus, Ian is left with the children, Agatha, Thomas, and Daphne. Even though his parents help out some, he, too, faces the never-ending task of being the single, primary caregiver for the children. Not only must Ian learn to love the children, he must care for them beyond infancy. When Daphne is a somewhat rebellious teenager, he must leave work each day to pick her up from school rather than leave her to her own devices in the afternoon.

Bibliography

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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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