8 September 2022
On The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
My mind needed a break from nonfiction – I’ve been dumping so much in so quickly. It was time for a novel, and Atwood is one of my idols. This tome came from the used discount sale bin at the Pohick Regional Public Library on Sydenstricker in Burke, VA. Its pages are tanned, its cover tattered, it sat on my bookshelf next to The Blind Assassin for nearly ten years before I rediscovered and needed it.
Who doesn’t relish a bit of gossip about the girl everyone loves to hate? On the surface, that’s what this book offers – and so perhaps it would be enjoyable even for those who seek no more from Atwood. But of course, with Atwood, there’s always more. As we know from The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, Atwood’s playground is psychology and the machinations of the human mind, and in this book, she flexes on that front: each main character’s dynamic, complex psyche is laid bare, from upbringing through adulthood, as a means of illustrating the Robber Bride (Zenia’s) capacity to mirror them all individually in a grandiose, complexly interwoven manipulation. All of it just for a bit of money, it turns out – except that we cannot believe Zenia is only about the money; no, she’s far more ambitious than that, so it’s also about control, power, winning, ergo ego.
Without any specific textual evidence, let me make a flimsy (but not unfounded) claim: this story is not about men. It is about women. Like that Meg Ryan movie The Women from 2008, the men in this story are figureheads, placeholders, and pawns. Not only are they all quite weak (none of them is immune to Zenia’s machinations, sexual or otherwise), but also none of them has a personality independent of his woman. Perhaps with Tony, West is not codependent; yet, with Zenia, whom West deems feeble and helpless, West’s codependency kicks in – he is incapable of not helping Zenia, of not falling for her hapless heroine trap. Mitch, we are given to understand, only married Roz for her money – and out of a sense of self in absentia, spends his entire life attempting to find himself through a parade of progressively younger mistresses. When those women no longer provide for him that vision of himself he prefers, he runs back to Roz, whom he knows will always receive him, always forgive him, always provide for him a safety net. But why? Why would Roz do this? Codependency and absent self-respect. Mitch was easy for Zenia to manipulate; all he wanted was the sex that her body exuded naturally. Finally, there’s Billy. What do we even truly know about Billy? He has the personality and ambition of a dead fish. He smelled like one, too. A loafer, a taker, an impostor, Billy did nothing, offered nothing, thought little. Billy was a drain on Charis, nothing more, hanging about her house like a leech, eating her food, sleeping in her bed, and only occasionally telling her that he found her lovely, beautiful, sexy. He never even cared if she enjoyed the sex.
These weak men! What sad representations of their gender they are – and perhaps that is what they needed to be for this story. There are, of course, strong, respectable men in this world; these ones, however, are fatally flawed, which made them prime targets for a strong woman like Zenia. For her, they were pawns, the feeblest opponents in her game of chess.
**spoiler alert beyond this point**
By stealing each of their men from them, Zenia teaches Tony, Charis, and Roz valuable lessons about themselves. Zenia’s despicability as it arises alongside her charismatic, magnetic feminine strength reinforces Tony’s view of history: good and evil are constructs assigned to different sides of a scuffle (or war) based on outcome (who won?). For Tony, Zenia is equal parts despicable and admirable; her motives are base (mostly money) but her execution is glorious (raw audacity). In a very roundabout way, by stealing Billy, Zenia teaches Charis about her own tragic, toxic codependency. Zenia proves to Charis the drawbacks of such weakness and unearths Karen, Charis’s bold, childlike alter-ego. In fact, we cannot be certain it wasn’t Karen who ultimately destroys Zenia – we suspect she’s capable of murder, she is so strong and volatile. Finally, Roz learns from Zenia that she must stop shrinking herself to accommodate others; from Zenia, Roz learns the value of boldness, of taking up space, of not shrinking herself to accommodate the men around her – she learns that she could’ve done so much better for herself than someone like Mitch.
But all three, I think, would agree upon the larger lesson from Zenia: an admiration of Zenia’s audacity and strength. Each one of these women could be more powerful, and Zenia proves that by turning each into a victim, using their own unique weaknesses against them. All three love to hate Zenia; all three simultaneously loathe her and want to be her. Don’t we all, just a little bit? That’s the draw of the grandiose narcissist: charisma, audacity, raw power. All three find within themselves, in their battles against Zenia, that they too hold some of that power:
Roz laughs. “Thanks for what? Thank you, God, for creating Zenia? Only next time don’t bother?”
“No,” says Charis. “Because she’s going away, and we’re still alright. Aren’t we? None of us gave in.” She’s not sure exactly how to put it. What she means is, they were tempted, each one of them, but they didn’t succumb. Succumbing would have been killing Zenia, either physical or spiritually. And killing Zenia would have meant turning into Zenia. Another way of succumbing would be believing her, letting her in the door, letting her take them in, letting her tear them apart. They did get torn apart some, but that was because they didn’t do what Zenia wanted. “What I mean is…”
“I think I know what you mean,” says Tony.
“Right,” says Roz. “So let’s give thanks. I’m always in favour of that. Who’re we thanking and what do we do?” (498-99)
So they all give thanks that a bit of Zenia’s power rubbed off on them – enough power to spurn Zenia and save themselves from her destruction.
Ok – let’s move on: Atwood’s treatment of history as a concept (via Tony) aligned so tidily with my own that it startled. Ever since my youth, I’ve found history impossible. It was always about memorizing dates, but the dates did not contain the stories. The dates, without the weight of narrative, were meaningless to me, and therefore utterly useless. Thus, I performed poorly in history classes – which is ironic, because history is literally a narrative. History is nothing about dates, really, except as timestamps, as markers, to identify what might’ve been happening simultaneously elsewhere. Here’s Atwood’s take:
Where to start is the problem, because nothing begins when it begins and nothing’s over when it’s over, and everything needs a preface: a preface, a postscript, a chart of simultaneous events. History is a construct, she tells her students. Any point of entry is possible and all choices are arbitrary. Still, there are definitive moments, moments we use as references, because they break our sense of continuity, they change the direction of time. We can look at these events and we can say that after them things were never the same again. They provide beginnings for us, and endings too. Births and deaths, for instance, and marriages. And wars.
It’s the wars that interest Tony, despite her lace-edged collars. She likes clear outcomes.
So did Zenia, or so Tony thought once. Now, she can hardly tell. (4)
This makes me think even of my family. Despite my closeness with my sister, despite understanding the basic structure and rhythm of her life, I know nothing about her story. Because her story is happening simultaneously with mine and my focus is on my own, not hers, it’s come to my attention that I know nothing about her life! Not really, anyway. I can only assume based on her retelling – and her retelling of her own story might be riddled with perceptual inaccuracies, biases, or intentional misrepresentations! Imagine your friends. No matter how much you feel you know, really, unless you’re living in direct, daily relationship with someone, you cannot truly know. Even as it pertains to my husband, I know startlingly little: he spends most of his day at work, where I am not and cannot perceive. What I know of that time is only what he tells me – it is his perspective alone, and we all know how subjective perspective can be. So what is his true truth? Atwood inspects the idea of historical truth, too, here:
But why bother, in this day and age – Zenia herself would say – with such a quixotic notion as the truth? Every sober-sided history is at least half sleight-of-hand: the right hand waving its poor snippets of fact, out in the open for all to verify, while the left hand busies itself with its own devious agendas, deep in its hidden pockets. Tony is daunted by the impossibility of accurate reconstruction. (518)
To me this nearly obliterates the concept of “history” as an educational subject area – because of its subjectivity. Unless we can learn history with a giant question mark perpetually hovering above it, how can we ever feign accuracy? Atwood’s final words on this…
Or, as Tony says to her students, Time is not a solid, like wood, but a fluid, like water or the wind. It doesn’t come neatly cut into even-sized lengths, into decades and centuries. Nevertheless, for our purposes we have to pretend it does. The end of any history is a lie in which we all agree to conspire. (522)
The implication here is that these are Tony, Charis, and Roz’s truths; of course, they cannot be Zenia’s truth. In fact, it appears that nobody knows Zenia’s truth – she even once faked her own death. This death seems more credible as an “end of history,” but Zenia doesn’t truly end with her death, either. Her lessons live on inside these three women (and probably many others whom she also victimized for wealth and power), so is she truly dead? Is this war over? Has this history ended? All great speculations, no real answers.
The greatest thing about this book is it allows the reader to become vicariously manipulated by a grandiose narcissist like Zenia without requiring that they relinquish their soul for the experience. Vampires like Zenia exist in the real world, and all too often we succumb to them without first realizing it. Tony might’ve been the first to recognize Zenia’s machinations for what they were – through Tony we might learn to develop an early warning system by listening to our intuition, by trusting our gut, by resisting the love-bombing phase in whatever form it presents itself.
Or maybe not.