By Jessica Rupnik
Could the destiny of a person’s life lie in the tight grip of someone else’s hand? While analyzing “The Big Cat” by Louise Erdrich, that question is a reality some relationships sadly face. In the short story, we are introduced to an actor who is married to a snoring film editor. After being forced to lose his one shot at fame, he divorces his wife and remarries a wealthy and peaceful sleeping woman. Yet as his old wife and him decide to still see each other to discuss the support of their only daughter, they reconnect their feelings and decide to remarry resulting in satisfying the wife’s needs only. The concept of control is strongly explored in the short story through the use of character development, imagery, and metaphors. Through an analysis of the symbolism used in “The Big Cat” by Louise Erdrich, we see that people feel the least happy when they are not in control of their lives.
Throughout the short story, Elida’s snoring has repeatedly affected the protagonist’s happiness. The symbolism of being sleep deprived by his wife’s sleeping habits represents how the main character is under her control as the protagonist expresses, “The women in my family all snored, and when we visited for the holidays every winter I got no sleep” (Erdrich 72). Due to this chronic snoring that Elida and her family has, it causes him to lose control of a simple basic need. Elida’s firm hold over the protagonist’s life is also seen when he starts a new relationship: “I drove to my new apartment impatiently, hungrily, addicted not to a new relationship but to sleep itself” (Erdrich 74). Due to the Elida’s sleeping problem, the protagonist’s values shift in what he wants in a relationship. The word choice of “impatiently”, “hungrily”, and “addicted” all have a certain negative connotation that implies his dependency towards sleep in which he is submissive to. Moreover, even when the protagonist leaves Elida, the snoring still haunts him: “It took no time at all before I was sleeping the entire night beside a woman whom I feared I had married too quickly because she slept like a drunk kitten” (Erdrich 74). The image of Laurene looking innocent and gritty at the same time could symbolize how he cannot easily face another woman. The use of the word “fear” also illuminates how he is insecure about his actions and how he could betray his then ex-wife. Furthermore, all of this control that Elida has over her husband is not only out of power but her own pleasure: “Elida admitted that she loved sleeping in that noisy house, and sometimes they snored in unison – which was terrifying” (Erdrich 73). Considering the frightening sound of the family’s snoring implies how he is scared of the potential power that Elida has over him. This passage suggests how when she is asleep, her true character is exposed to the main character. Although this could be secretive, is it explicit in her career.
Elida in the family of “ripsaw and welders” is nicknamed “the polisher” which relates to her work as an editor (Erdrich 77, 73). Elida makes it appear that her role is more significant in their relationship: “For Elida it was the compulsive lure of film editing. In my case, the shame of acting” (Erdrich 73). The symbolism of Elida being a film editor and the narrator being an actor is symbolic to the story considering how an editor’s job is to manipulate and alter film compared to an actor’s job to be manipulated and to pretend. The word “compulsive” suggests that she is obsessed with this idea of being the controller. It is her occupation to torment her husband so much so that he refers to his passion as a shameful act. In addition, Elida’s dominance is demonstrated when decisions are made that affect their family’s future:
When Valery turned twelve, I was cast in a supporting role in a movie that got a lot of attention. It could have been my fabled break. But Elida suddenly panicked over how unhappy Valery was in high school and decided that the schools in Minneapolis were more nurturing. We moved back. I had to accept that my film career was over (Erdrich 73).
The act of moving away reveals that Elida can cut the respect out of her husband’s life to make him insignificant. He was forced to accept this obstruction in his life when otherwise he would have a sense of accomplishment and happiness. In addition, the title of the short film that Elida gave to her husband as a present shows her role as the editor over him, “The Man With a Thousand Glimpses” (Erdrich 74). The title of the present reveals her explicit feelings of her husband. The image that she labeled her husband as someone with a “thousand glimpses” suggests his insignificance and her dominance over him by considering how he can just be anyone at anytime just by how she shapes him. This leads to the protagonist’s reaction after rewatching his birthday video and how he is shocked that Elida has such a tight grip on his life:
Why had Elida killed me off, instead of letting me rescue dogs at the end? This downward trajectory gave me a moral chill. I decided that I had not only wasted my life but had acted ignobly in taking money from Laurene. Although Elida and I had made Valery happy, and I’d thought I was contented with Elida, I knew now, as I’d known before, the nature of her true feelings for me (Erdrich 80).
The fact that we are seeing the protagonist’s personal development is significant because he never had a voice over Elida in the past.
Elida’s control over the protagonist is symbolic in her character and how it contrasts with his once wife Laurene’s character. Elida is described as a woman who is very quiet, conservative and not really suited to the lifestyle of the narrator: “Elida loved the minuscule” (Erdrich 74). The symbolism of Elida loving the small is a perfect metaphor for her shaping and editing her husband. This is seen as she practically convinces him to leave his lively new wife and to even take advantage of her financially: “Are you crazy? […] That family is worth more than a hundred million! You could get a settlement. They’d never miss it” (Erdrich 78). Elida is ultimately pulling him back and making him smaller to fit her needs to benefit herself thus removing his happiness. Although Laurene fits the protagonist’s lifestyle almost better than Elida, he constantly is reminded of Elida in his life: “Laurene reveled in that sort of gala […] Elida might sip one murderous, snore-inducing glass of Cotes du Rhone between eleven and midnight” (Erdrich 75). This demonstrates how he cannot shake the impact that Elida had created on him. Through the experience of living with Laurene, he discovers that he could not be with anyone else due to this authoritative memory of Elida.
Elida’s control over the main character is strongly seen through the symbolism of her snoring, her role as a film editor, and her contrasting character, which ultimately takes away the protagonist’s chance for happiness. Overall, “The Big Cat” explores the complex human truth about the conflicts with power in relationships that we all face to a certain degree in our lives.
Erdrich, Louise. “The Big Cat.” The Best American Short Stories, edited by T. C. Boyle, Mariner Books, 2015, pp. 72-81