Study Guide

Big as Life

by Maureen Howard

Big as Life Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Big as Life is the second installment, after A Lover’s Almanac (1998), in a planned quartet of books chronicling the seasons, this one devoted to Spring. The work is a collection of three novellas—“Children with Matches” (April), “The Magdalene” (May), and “Big as Life” (June)—which, though separate narratives, coalesce in ingenious ways. All deal with the powers of continuity and regeneration and the salvific influence of art on human consciousness.

On the surface, the tales appear to have nothing in common with one another. “Children with Matches” centers on Marie Claude Montour, who has inherited the family estate, now fallen into miserable disrepair. Initially she intends to sell the place, both because of its condition and because of painful memories of having been abandoned there with maiden aunts while her mother flitted off to another of her many trysts. However, soon the house intrigues her and becomes symbolic of the feminist research project she is engaged upon, concerning a colonial woman who refused to cede her property to her widower husband.

“The Magdalene” traces the growth of Mae Boyle, a child of privilege who chafes against her good fortune and opts for a punishing piety of atonement. The family bears a rough similarity to the Kennedys, with their wealth, their cavalier self-confidence, and the patriarch’s unscrupulousness. The story is told from the point of view of Nell, a cousin ten years Mae’s senior, who has been banished from her village in Ireland. Mae pleads with her for stories of pain and misfortune, but Nell has secrets which she never reveals to her cousin, and instead Mae apotheosizes Nell into a heroine for her service as a World War II nurse.

The most densely textured tale is the eponymous “Big as Life,” which itself is divided into three interlocking narratives. The first deals with painter-naturalist John James Audubon and his disastrous finances as he traipses about the landscape, shooting birds and meticulously painting their most minute features. Set in 1826, while Audubon is away in England selling commissions for his as-yet-unpublished masterpiece, The Birds of America, the story concentrates on his wife Lucy and her mounting frustration at her husband’s absence and the family’s grim prospects. The second vignette deals with Artie Freeman and Louise Moffett, a mathematician and sculptor who appeared in A Lover’s Almanac, who have fled New York City with their son for Long Island, where Freeman works as a fellow for a brilliant academic maverick, William Salvino. Like Audubon, his attention drifts away from his family until he explodes at Salvino’s pretensions and abruptly aborts his part in the project. The final episode presents an anonymous first-person voice talking about her family’s horticultural failure and her own teen years spent pouring over Audubon’s books in the local library. With references to Irish Catholics, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and a husband named Mark, the reader can safely infer that this is a fictional projection of Howard herself, entering her own narrative to comment on its significance.

Each is a family narrative, but these are hardly traditional domestic stories; rather, they are tales of dysfunction. Families in Big as Life throw out nets that ensnare their progeny and leave them in states of grief—Marie Claude, abandoned and dreaming of a knight of deliverance to rescue her from her tower; Mae Boyle shriving herself for her family’s sins; Nell ostracized for daring to have loved; Lucy Audubon pining for a mate permanently absent; and Artie and Louise dithering over careers and whether to marry. These families do not nurture confidence and stability but instead despair and diminishment. Not surprisingly, many of the characters are in flight from their relatives, a collection of Dedaluses anxious to be away, anywhere but home. However, even after flight, the nets go out in the form of generational legacies that demand attention and induce guilt and shame.

Each story focuses on the experiences of a woman, and while none of them is a tendentious tract, each does carefully examine women’s marginality. Those in “Children with Matches” are either adornments or lost souls, and even Marie Claude, who seems a self-sufficient, modern woman with an academic career, sees her fulfillment in the attentions of a wealthy man who is often away on one project or another. Her research interest in a colonial feminist who would not bow to the economic conventions of...

(The entire section is 1857 words.)