Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543

Aunt Maria features a rich cast of characters. Mig (a nickname for Naomi Margaret) is a central figure along with brother Chris, mother Betty Laker, and of course, Aunt Maria. Mig, through whose words the story is told, is the most intriguing character, partly for the way she changes as the story unfolds. She is bright, ambitious, resourceful, chatty, and unswervingly loyal to her brother. Inner strength and a matured outlook emerge as she is drawn into a power struggle that engulfs her immediate family members and leaves her alone to thwart Aunt Maria.

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While Mig confronts Aunt Maria warily, brave Chris—alienated from the imperfect adults in his life—is inclined toward sarcastic remarks and defiance. As a result of Aunt Maria's magical retaliation, Chris spends a good part of the novel courageously but helplessly staging his protest as a wolf. "Mum" Betty Laker is cheerful and kind, but susceptible to guilt feelings and "too civilized," Mig says, not to fall under Aunt Maria's sway. Betty's mild self-assertiveness emerges only through Mig's efforts.

Aunt Maria herself is characterized as the "Great Dictator," the "Queen of Cranbury," and the "Female Pope." The elderly woman gives the appearance of being lonely, helpless, and kind, but she rules with an iron hand through provocation of guilt, disapproving suggestion, and—as a last resort— magic. Anyone who does not obey her every whim may be transformed into an animal or even a buried ghost. The best that can be said about Aunt Maria is that she is unable to see the error of her ways.

Other characters fascinate largely as extensions of Aunt Maria's power, which is the point of the novel. There are "the Mrs. Urs," respectable, tea drinking townswomen whose individual names are unimportant because they echo Aunt Maria's every wish. There is black-clothed, next-door neighbor, Elaine, who functions as Aunt Maria's lieutenant. There are clone-like children and zombie-like townsmen who include Elaine's husband, the boring "voiceless Larry," as well as Mig's sarcastic, indifferent father Greg Laker. There is the gray cat which oddly resembles Aunt Maria's missing live-in helper, Lavinia.

Cranbury-on-Sea's stand-out residents are the Phelpses across the street and Antony Green, characters who object to Aunt Maria's power. Nathaniel Phelps believes in men's powers and scoffs at women. His sister Amaryllis Phelps, afflicted with falling spells, rejects the idea that anyone at all should rule. Antony Green at first is a ghostly apparition, but he comes seeking a magical box that holds the town's secrets. Forced to deal with the box and Antony, Mig must join a wolf-hunt that endangers Chris, then be transformed into a cat and undergo time travel.

The results are momentous, however, since Antony Green becomes a character who can undo Aunt Maria's powers. In the course of the story Mig finds her own potential and comes to understand her parents, but more is involved. Antony Green's box bears directly on the thematic concepts of the nature of the male-female relationship, power in society, and individual freedom. Mig sees that power belongs to men and women equally, that "unreasonableness" can lurk beneath respectable conventions, and that abuses can be undone. What finally happens to Aunt Maria introduces the theme of just punishment, which ends the story with hope.

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