Study Guide

Madeline Martha Mackenzie in Big Little Lies

By Liane Moriarty

Madeline Martha Mackenzie

If you're looking for a central character who's all sweetness and light, who likes order and harmony and making the peace…hmm, maybe don't read Big Little Lies?

Because if there's one thing to say about Madeline Martha Mackenzie—she always introduces herself using all three names—it's that she is the absolute opposite of a shrinking violet. In fact, she's kind of a fire-starter.

Armed with a few well-deserved grudges and a killer case of PMS, Madeline likes to take on the opposition. When there's no fight to be fought, she gets bo-ored. Like, bored enough that she stops random teenagers on the road and cusses them out for texting and driving—which, real talk, is serious, but the fact that Madeline gets right up in their faces speaks volumes about her combativeness.

And, luckily for Madeline, she gets to get riled up for many, many excellent causes over the course of this novel.

Fight Club

The first fight that Madeline gets to take part in has to do with the ostracizing of little Ziggy Chapman. When Madeline hears that her new friend Jane's kid Ziggy is being excluded from birthday parties because of his alleged choking of a little girl, she gets her heckles up.

The first thing she does is pretty chill, comparatively speaking. She simply decides to boycott Renata's daughter's birthday party.

“If Ziggy isn’t invited, then Chloe isn’t going,” Madeline had said at coffee this morning.

“Please don’t do that,” Jane had said. “You’re going to make things worse.”

But Madeline just raised her eyebrows and shrugged. “I’ve already told Renata.” (20.10)

Don't be fooled by the casual-sounding tone she uses in the last sentence. Madeline is seeing red. She starts scheming a way to undermine this birthday party, going so far as to secure tickets to Disney on Ice as a way to assure that Ziggy will have a great, memorable day.

But Madeline doesn't just take up causes and fights willy-nilly. She immediately feels a kinship with Jane because Jane is a single mother…just like she used to be.

The Sisterhood Of The Single Moms

Madeline had her first kiddo—daughter Abigail—when she was still fairly young. And the issues that arise with having a newborn were seriously compounded when Abigail's dad Nathan decided to walk out on them and move to Bali. 

So Madeline spent the first five years of Abigail's life as a single mom, getting stuff done through sheer willpower and motherly love. That's why she warms to Jane so immediately: Jane reminds her of herself.

While Jane collected the family photos, Madeline looked around Jane’s small, neat apartment, reminded of the one-bedroom apartment she and Abigail used to share. (30.2)

Madeline remembers it all: life in a small apartment, being treated with suspicion by other moms, having to do all the work of raising a kid. She treats Jane with special affection, and it's because of this attentive friendship that Jane is able to finally open up about her past trauma.

Yes, Madeline is a fiercely loyal friend willing to do noble things (stand up to a cabal of powerful kindergarten moms) and super-petty things (undermine a five-year-old's birthday party). Madeline ain't a saint; she's a fighter.

Old Wounds/New Wounds

This makes it even harder to deal with a woman who seems to be striving for sainthood: Bonnie, Nathan's new wife. Bonnie's Zen-like demeanor, yoga mindset, veganism, and charity work all like a smack in the face—Madeline would way rather go pick up some new lipstick, watch trashy TV, and drink champagne.

And these saint-like tendencies make Madeline even more incensed when it becomes clear that Abigail absolutely idolizes Bonnie.

"Feel so blessed . . . A beautiful experience."
This from a fourteen-year-old who whined if she was asked to set the table. Her daughter was starting to sound just like Bonnie. (8.12)

When Abigail sends Madeline a text message from the soup kitchen at 6 a.m. on Christmas morning and says the experience is "beautiful," Madeline starts to get really scared. And things just unravel from there. The headstrong, rebellious Abigail (hmm—seems like she inherited something from her mom) wants to move in with her father and Bonnie.

This, of course, totally shatters Madeline. It's enough that Abigail idolizes Bonnie, but to choose her deadbeat dad over her loving, responsible mom? That hurts.

“I always thought that Nathan’s punishment for walking out on us would be that Abigail wouldn’t love him the way she loved me,” she said to Ed. (16.18)

Madeline suddenly has to confront her role as a mother, the fact that her daughter is growing up and flexing her independence, and the fact that she's forced to confront her ex-hubby and granola-y Bonnie at every turn. Things reach a boiling point when Abigail, inspired by Bonnie's charity work, wants to auction off her virginity in order to send the proceeds to Amnesty International.

You can absolutely bet that this makes her even more enthusiastic about fighting every fight.

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