Thoughts on the “Robber Bride” by Margaret Atwood

On reading  “The Robber Bride,” by Margaret Atwood-   I knew I would like it- I just didn’t know how much.  Atwood is one of the few authors that can weave a tale that will keep you thinking for days- if not years.  I still revisit “Alias Grace” ten years after reading it. Her characters are complex- you may hate part of them, or love most of them.  Like onions they have layers, as we all do- a complexity-the dark secrets mixed with illumination.

The story is about three university acquaintances: Tony, Charis and Roz, who are drawn into a close friendship through a shared adversary-Zenia.  She is a woman who also was at their university, but as time passes- each decade she returns for a pound of flesh from all three.  The cost:  their men, their sense of control regarding their own lives, their innocence and possibly their own illusion of happiness.

The character of Zenia will be one of those characters that will take a while to recover  from- like a drug to the system  or a line of a song that you should know, but can’t remember .  She is the symbol of the seductress, a woman who can get anything she wants, but doesn’t want anything  she gets.  One who constantly wants more.  She plays upon the insecurities of women, feeding on every fear and mirroring it back to her victim. Men seem to be the pawns in her personal war with woman- she eats them up and spits them out, only  to be paraded as a trophy for her wall of destroyed lives.

What is her motive?  What makes her tick?  Why would anyone want to do so much harm for the simple joy of the spoils of war?  A part of me wanted to hear her side of the story; to explain her logic- as twisted as it might be.  Why she did the things she did?  No one ever really gets to know the real Zenia.  They accept her by her own stories, as we all must do with people we meet.  What is her real story?  There are so many puzzle pieces left out- was there a real love interest that she did everything for- a typical bad boy?  Did she hate men or was it women?

As a conclusion, I didn’t understand the last few chapters entitled “Outcome.” Tony, a historian and one of the main characters, is working on a battlefield  of Lavaur in which the heroine is Dame Girtrude.  She knows she will lose the battle and many, if not all of her subjects will die, but she still fights on.  Is this Atwood giving a nod to Zenia- even if you know you will lose you still must fight on?  The three main characters in the story, while destroyed in their own way by Zenia are ambivalent about her.  Did she save them from the illusion they had with the men in their lives?  The story doesn’t answer the question- it leaves you wondering.

If I were to make a cover of this book it would be of a university photo in which all of the women are present.  Roz would be boldly looking at the camera, Tony would be trying to smile, but looking uncomfortable, Charis would be looking dreamily into the camera- attractive, but somewhat vacant from herself.  There might be some men in the picture, but I don’t think their face or description matters. Then there is Zenia- she is standing behind these women.  Her body is slender, her hair brown, her dress alluring.  Too mature for university.  Somehow her face is obscured- maybe she moved during the photograph.  Knowing Zenia, it probably was intentional- another evasion of the truth.  From this photograph you get the distinct impression that had you taken the picture  a second before you would have found her staring at the other women in the picture with a look of adversarial  rage.  Even for all her beauty, she doesn’t fit in.  She is a wandering child that somehow has been locked out of a very important room that we all walk through as a right of passage-compassion.  Thank you Margaret Atwood!

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One Response to Thoughts on the “Robber Bride” by Margaret Atwood

  1. Steven M. Blois says:

    A good review, bautifully written and succinct, with interesting questions throughout. I believe we can’t ever know Zenia as we only get her story through second hand accounts based on the impact she has on the molitary historian, the career-driven CEO, and the spiritualist. She, who lives seemingly vicariously through exploiting passions, her own and others, has a perspective on life they don’t connect with.  She also has no responsibilities, living some feigned eternal ‘youth’fulness that the others shed at the close of their university days, if indeed they ever laid hold of youthful irresponsibility, pinned down as each was by childhood/family. Zenia escapes all this by adopting history, career, spirituality on a calculated whim to get what she desires, which might be some form of passion (without the suffering)… but certainly is sex, lust, instant gratification, and living in the moment. 
    It is interesting that each woman is engaged in a realm of traditionally male power: Roz as business magnate which transforms into the head of Woman’s World, Charis in the spiritual realm (which I equate with the church) and Tony commanding military research and her own battles, with female heroines, on the battlefield and in academe. Is there a subversion of male power as a theme? Although male power seems exposed as weak in the extreme – as you say, the illusions they had about the men in their lives.   Zenia exposes those beyond each woman’s own perception when she talks about how her sexual power makes men weak  and easily conquered. Anyhow, All three are undermined by Zenia’s evil form of manipulation, and she wins each battle on the other Woman’s turf. 
    What does a university education promise a woman ? Does education impact upon the men we choose, the aspirations for power, family, career? Zenia didn’t finish did she? I have no answers here, but I wonder if Zenia is the “winner,” and didn’t get (like) the ending either, as to what was learned, resolved. Do each subvert themselves in some way?

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