Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Anne Tyler's Vision of Gender in Saint Maybe

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Anne Tyler's Vision of Gender in Saint Maybe

Article excerpt

In a 1982 lecture at Waterloo University on "Writing the Male Character," Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood suggested to male and female writers alike: "Maybe it's time to do away with judgement by role-model and bring back The Human Condition, this time acknowledging that there may in fact be more than one of them" (422). Over a decade has passed since this indictment of gender-related role models, and certainly the study of sexual stereotyping and gender shifts in American literature is no longer a new pursuit. In a chapter called "Psychoanalysis, Gender, and Fiction" from Feminine Fictions (1989), Patricia Waugh calls for a more complicated analysis of gender stereotypes in today's culture that will ultimately allow both men and women to "achieve a sense of identity which consists of accepting both connection and separation, so that neither is experienced as a threat" (86). Women writers, she feels, are exploring these themes, and we can turn to literature as one site of "the expression of the desire for, and fear of, such change" (87). More specifically, women writers who are exploring changing family contexts are providing relevant insights into the study of gender shifts in American fiction.

Many critics believe that it is southern women writers who are primarily responsible for keeping the family unit alive in novels. Susan Gilbert, in speaking of southern literature generally and the novels of Anne Tyler and other women writers specifically, confirms the view that fictional females bear the responsibility as well: "A distinct mark of Southern life, if not of Southern literature, prominent in Tyler's works is the degree to which families are female affairs" (256). Yet even more relevant here is the commentary of Doris Betts, modern southern fiction writer and critic, who maintains in the introduction to Southern Women Writers (1992) that "our [women novelists'] depiction of male characters is improving faster for us than in reverse for today's male novelists" (6). She goes on to point out that the "distinctions of both gender and region are blurting" (7). This "blurring" or blending of gender roles and, in fact, the treatment of how fictional families can be male affairs will be the subject of this discussion of Anne Tyler's 1991 novel, Saint Maybe.

Carol Gilligan, in her psychological study of women's development, In a Different Voice (1982), makes an important point about this shift in gender roles in American life: "The discovery now being celebrated by men in mid-life of the importance of intimacy, relationships, and care is something that women have known from the beginning" (17). Recent studies like Gilligan's from the social sciences, although certainly limited in their immediate application to fiction, have heightened our awareness of gender roles. Because they also allow us to see how fiction writers are reflecting the issues of conformity to or defiance of stereotypes outside the area of social science, they have presented fresh perspectives on those changes. In addition, although this discussion is restricted neither to a "southern" nor a "feminist" approach, epithets generally ignored by Anne Tyler herself, it is obvious that discussions of fictional male characters created by women writers owe a great debt to research from studies in both areas.

Anne Tyler, whose twelve novels have illustrated and endorsed the worth and importance of intimacy and concern about relationships, has in her past few novels, taken some care to create male protagonists who are concerned about how they relate to intimacy, family life, and personal relationships well before the midlife points Gilligan refers to. More recently, Tyler has carefully combined these masculine and feminine attributes and invested them in one of her most successful characters to date, Ian Bedloe, of the recent Saint Maybe. While Tyler has been reluctant to label herself a southern writer, Alice Petry comments: "Whether it is attributed to her Southern literary background or to her communal upbringing, from the outset of her career as a novelist Tyler has evinced a keen interest in the complicated relationship between the individual and the family" (23). …

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