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If one can relate to the title character in Ron Rash’s 2008 novel Serena, one can equally relate to Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, a character to whom Rash’s heartless, brutal female antagonist has been compared, as well as to some of history’s more unsavory figures, for example, Joseph Stalin. Serena Pemberton is the personification of evil, and Rash’s novel is replete with instances of her vicious nature. No sooner does Serena begin, than George Pemberton, a wealthy timber magnate, arrives at a North Carolina logging camp with his new bride only to be confronted by the vengeful father of a girl pregnant with Pemberton’s child. The fight that ensues results in the old man, Abe Harmon’s, death, as Pemberton proves quicker and more accurate with a knife. That Pemberton successfully defends himself against the old man’s attack is not in itself particularly noteworthy; it is his young wife’s demeanor that proves both illuminating and foreboding. Rather than exhibiting any sympathy for the young, pregnant girl, Serena Pemberton instead pledges to never provide any assistance to the girl and her baby, while encouraging her husband to resolve the dispute through violence. As Rash has her instruct her husband, "Get your knife and settle it now, Pemberton."
The Pembertons embody capitalistic excess and the willingness to inflict any level of damage on the world for their own pecuniary benefits. Towards the end of the novel, George Pemberton proudly proclaims, "Give us a lifetime and Mrs Pemberton and I will cut down every tree, not just in Brazil but in the world." Taking place amidst the onset of the Great Depression, the Pembertons represent the corporate greed that Rash almost certainly utilizes as a metaphor for today’s Wall Street. Specific to the character of Serena Pemberton, however, there is no shortage of appropriate quotes regarding her character, whose propensity for violent resolutions to all problems eventually proves too much even for George. She is pure Machiavellian, at one point telling her husband, “[o]thers can make us vulnerable and the sooner such vulnerabilities are dealt with the better.”
In contrast to the pure evil that is Serena Pembleton, raised in affluence and completely devoid of compassion, Rachel Harmon embodies the nobility and humanity of the proletariat. If Serena is Stalin, then Rachel is Mother Theresa. One can easily relate to Rachel. She has lost both of her parent, her father brutally stabbed to death right in front of her. She has known more than her share of misery, and has constructed the proverbial wall around herself to insulate her from the pain of loss. In one of Rash’s more frequently cited passages, he describes Rachel as reflecting on the need to forget the personal details of the lives of those she’s lost as the only balm for the emotional pain of those losses:
“What made losing someone you loved bearable was not remembering but forgetting. Forgetting small things first... it's amazing how much you could forget, and everything you forgot made that person less alive inside you until you could finally endure it. After more time passed you could let yourself remember, even want to remember. But even then what you felt those first days could return and remind you the grief was still there, like old barbed wire embedded in a tree's heartwood.”
Her baby in her arms, Rachel similarly reflects upon the hazards of bonding too closely with her child: “And now this brown-eyed child. Don’t love it, Rachel told herself. Don’t love anything that can be taken away.”
It is, hopefully, nearly impossible for the average student to relate to Serena; it should, hopefully, be simple to relate to Rachel.
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