Reviewed by Laura Cameron
The Robber Bride. McClelland & Stewart, 1993.
Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride offers a complex picture of 1990s feminism, in which women are not all grouped on the same side; they can turn on each other, too. Zenia, the titular “Robber Bride,” seduces women as often as she does men: she is a “double agent” in the “confused scrimmage” of the “war of the sexes” (234). No firm lines are drawn in the sand in this war. Women now, one character observes, “don’t want all the men eaten up by man-eaters; they want a few left over so they can eat some themselves” (501). This dangerous, unstable dynamic establishes the tone for one of Atwood’s darkest and most compelling novels.
Atwood narrates the responses of three different women to Zenia’s disruptive power. Zenia fabricates fictional versions of herself designed to appeal to other women in the novel. She inserts herself into their lives, makes off with their money, beguiles their men, and threatens their careers. A glamorous Zenia befriends shy, mousey Tony in university, and then blackmails her. A weak, damaged Zenia comes to motherly Charis for help, and then runs off with her boyfriend. A confident, competent Zenia approaches wealthy, powerful Roz for a job, and then dissolves the latter’s family life. In the wake of Zenia’s destruction, the three women come together as friends to commiserate and to heal.
Although Zenia holds a great deal of power over Tony, Charis, and Roz, she is actually quite powerless in the text. She exists only in the narrations of the three protagonists. Atwood never reveals the “true” Zenia, but we learn about the other women through their interpretations of her. To Tony, a university professor and military historian, Zenia is “a puzzle, a knot” (4), “a feckless, mossless rover” (231), “the smell of scorched earth” (42). To Charis, who reads auras, who believes in crystals and teas, who does not believe in death, Zenia is an “aphid of the soul” (366), “a visible infection” (84). To Roz, an influential businesswoman and mother of three, Zenia is “a bimbag” (101), “the Rubber Broad” (377), “Venus, ascending […] from a seething cauldron” (135). She is what her readers – and this includes Tony, Charis, and Roz – want her to be. She appears and reappears as a journalist, an international spy, a drug addict, a cancer patient, a friend and confidante. She is the orphaned daughter of a White Russian prostitute, of a Roumanian gypsy, of Berlin Jews. She is the Robber Bridegroom of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, recast as a female; she is the Big Bad Wolf, huffing and puffing and telling tall tales until she blows down homes and lives.
Atwood excels, as always, at rendering unique and interesting female voices. Although the characters teeter on the edges of cliché – the detached academic, the New Age earth mother, the female president, the evil temptress – the archetypes are broadened, deepened, fascinating. Roz is affectionate, maternal, powerful and flawed, very entertaining. Tony’s voice is a familiar one in the Atwood canon – observant, sardonic, analytical. It is the most natural, the most insightful; it frames and steers the narrative. Charis’s point of view is less compatible with Atwood’s witty, ironic tone. Next to the self-deprecating humour of the other two, it is hard to tell whether we are meant to laugh at her flakey earnestness or not. Inspired by fairy tales, Zenia is so impossibly wicked that she seems at times a little forced, but this exaggeration is also what lends the novel its appeal.
The Robber Bride is a story about different kinds of power. Like Roz’s young daughters, who go through a phase of insisting “that all the characters in every story have to be female” (375), Atwood explores a world where women hold much of that power. Set against the backdrop of the great and terrible wars of the twentieth century – the Second World War, the Vietnam War, the looming Gulf War – The Robber Bride also deals with less public but no more trivial power struggles: between parent and child, rich and poor, intelligent and ignorant, beautiful and plain, tall and short. The story concludes with a scattering of ashes in Lake Ontario on Remembrance Day, a self-conscious point of closure that puts the personal, private battles of women and individuals on the same level as those earth-shattering global conflicts.
Tony, Charis, and Roz share little in common “except the catastrophe that brought them together, if Zenia can be called a catastrophe” (37). Atwood is interested in what a “catastrophe” is, how big or how small it can be, how it can divide and unite at the same time. In the end, as much as The Robber Bride is driven by war, treachery, manipulation, and abuse of power, it is primarily a portrayal of a sustained and sustaining friendship among three women.
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At press time: Laura Cameron is a PhD student at McGill University where she holds a SSHRC Canada Graduate Scholarship. Her current research concerns Phyllis Webb’s poetic career, as well as Canadian poetry more generally. She went to the same high school in Toronto as Margaret Atwood. Laura's interest in Canadian literature began in grade nine, when she noticed a plaque dedicated to Atwood mounted on the wall across from her locker.