Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Big-Breasted Pilgrim” is a story told through the eyes of its main character, Richard Howard Manson. The allusions to the eighteenth century literary biographer James Boswell and to the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day (1989), suggest a connection among Richard, Boswell, and the protagonist of The Remains of the Day, a butler named Stevens. Boswell’s claim to fame is that he spent a good part of his adult life recording the words of the great eighteenth century English writer Samuel Johnson and wrote what became a classic literary biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791). Boswell devoted his life to immortalizing his hero. Akin to Boswell, Stevens lives to serve his employers. In The Remains of the Day, Stevens recognizes that he has lost his opportunity to live. Life has passed him by in his devotion to serve others.

Both literary allusions have profound implications for “The Big-Breasted Pilgrim.” Richard’s relationship with Lowell is similar to the relationship of Boswell to Johnson and Stevens to his employers. Like them, Richard derives meaning and purpose in direct proportion to his service. In exchange for this sense of meaning and purpose, he allows life to pass him by. When Lowell dies at the end, Richard recognizes that he has lost the gamble in living his life through service to another. His reward is emotional destitution. If “The Big-Breasted Pilgrim” has a message, it might well be that people should live for themselves.

As with all first-person narratives, everything that Richard says is a reflection of his personality, limitations, needs, hopes, and aspirations. He states that his life had been a failure until he met Lowell. Since then, sometime in the late 1970’s, Richard has lived with a sense of duty and obligation. He is grateful to Lowell for the quality of life he has experienced living with him. He has profited from Lowell’s success, though at the sacrifice of his own unrealized aspirations.