The Robber Bride
Margaret Atwood focuses in her work on women and their experiences, often exploring the dark side of women’s lives in disturbing portraits that call into question the treatment of women by society as a whole. In Surfacing (1972), a young woman undergoes a cathartic mental breakdown in the Canadian wilderness; Bodily Harm (1981) charts the experiences of a woman who flees from the confusion of her personal life to unexpected danger in the Caribbean; The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is set in a future where women have no rights and can serve only as wives or childbearers. Cat’s Eye (1988), which bears a thematic resemblance to The Robber Bride, tells the harrowing story of a little girl’s emotional victimization at the hands of a cruel playmate.
With The Robber Bride, Atwood takes cruelty and victimization among adult women as her subject. Three friends, Tony, Charis, and Roz, meet for lunch and discover to their dismay that a woman from their past whom they had believed dead has returned. Zenia is a beautiful, enigmatic figure, a pathological liar whom men find irresistible and women befriend with disastrous consequences. Earlier in their lives each of the women learned of Zenia’s true nature at first hand, and in each case the experience left shattered lives in its wake. Much of the book is told in flashbacks as the complicated threads that bind the women together are revealed.
Tony had been the first to meet Zenia. A quiet, intelligent loner in college, she is befriended by Zenia’s boyfriend, West, and then by Zenia herself. Flattered by the more worldly young woman’s attention, Tony quickly falls under Zenia’s sway, agreeing to write a term paper for her that Zenia later uses as blackmail. After Zenia’s abrupt departure from their lives, Tony and West begin a relationship and eventually marry, but when Zenia returns several years later, West leaves Tony until Zenia has once again tired of him.
Charis had known Zenia only by reputation in college; their friendship begins after Zenia has left West for the second time. Convinced that Zenia is gravely ill, Charis takes her into her home, where Zenia rapidly seduces Charis’ American draft- dodger boyfriend, Billy. Billy finally leaves with Zenia, who has convinced him to return to the United States and betray his friends in the student revolutionary movement, and Charis is left pregnant and alone.
Roz, too, had known Zenia only from a distance in college. Tall, ungainly, and outgoing, she is a successful businesswoman whose handsome, unfaithful husband, Mitch, married her at least in part for her money. Still, her husband and their three children are central to Roz’s security, and she is devastated when Zenia, whom she hires as a writer for a feminist magazine, has an affair with Mitch that leads to his suicide.
What lies at the heart of the novel’s compelling story is Zenia’s ability to gain the trust of each of the women. Her conquests of the men in question are a foregone conclusion, easily achieved and as easily abandoned; she is amusing herself with them, and they offer little challenge to her skills. It is for the women that Zenia reserves her most elaborate schemes and deceptions, needing to win their confidence since sexual attraction will not work to her advantage with them. The key to Zenia’s successful, damaging manipulation of the women lies in each of their pasts. Tony, Charis, and Roz have all been left with insecurities and vulnerabilities after difficult childhoods, and in Zenia’s hands these legacies become her gateway into each woman’s life.
Tony is described throughout the book as a tiny, birdlike woman for whom intellectual pursuits are the highest form of enjoyment. Emotionally restrained and rational to a fault, she is a history professor whose academic specialty is war, an interest very much at variance with her appearance and manner. Tony grew up as the only child of parents who were locked in an unhappy, emotionally destructive relationship until her mother left for California with one of her lovers; she died on the West Coast without ever seeing Tony again. Tony’s life with her distraught father ended with his suicide, and she lives in self- contained isolation at school until her friendship with West and Zenia. Zenia quickly recognizes that the center of Tony’s self-image is her intellect, and it is on that level that she works, flattering the lonely young student by seeming to accept her as a peer and a friend. So important does Zenia’s goodwill become that Tony is willing to set aside her ethical principles and write Zenia’s term paper for her—an act that places her academic future in jeopardy when Zenia uses the paper as blackmail.
By holding Tony’s career-potential hostage, Zenia has struck at the young woman in the way best calculated both to wound her and to ensure her cooperation. Tony can imagine no life for herself other than that of a history professor, and she willingly gives Zenia the money she requests, which Zenia uses to leave West and disappear. Tony’s efforts to console West lead to their own relationship, but their marriage adds a second area of vulnerability to Tony’s life. When...
(The entire section is 2144 words.)