Serena is one of the central characters in Serena by Ron Rash, and she is indeed a greedy and manipulative woman. The story is set in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina during the Great Depression. We know that while many people were losing everything during this time of severe economic hardship, others were greedily capitalizing on these circumstances with minimal consideration for anyone else. Serena and her husband, Pemberton, are among the latter group.
We meet Serena when she arrives at the train station with Pemberton, and it does not take long to get a pretty clear impression of her. She is a statuesque woman, beautiful but also rather masculine in her forthright ways. She is clearly not intimidated by anyone or by the prospect of living at the isolated logging camp, despite the rumors of a black lion prowling the mountain.
When Pemberton abruptly kills the father of the woman he got pregnant, Serena calmly takes the knife and hands it to the other woman with the warning that this is the only thing she will ever get from them. This cold, heartless act is not what we might expect from most women; however, for Serena it is typical.
We know that Serena targeted Pemberton and manipulated him into marriage, though of course he willingly agreed to marry her. She completely manipulates him concerning his treatment of Rachel, something he later comes to regret, at least in part.
One of Serena's first acts in the camp is to make a bet with one of the disrespectful loggers in order to establish her authority, a kind of manipulation based on greed. All of her negotiations and dealings, along with Pemberton, regarding the land for use as a national park are solely driven by greed, as well.
Serena manipulates by her words, her actions, and her cunning--she is a very shrewd business woman. A case could even be made that she is ruthless and emotionless, evidenced first by the fact that she burned her family's home and sold all the timber for profit. She is content to leave in crude and spartan conditions here so they can spend their money on acquiring more tracts of timber land. She is, indeed, greedy and manipulative.
Some people think those are positive qualities. Pemberton sure seems to think so, though his admiration takes the form of relief that he has found a wife who is interested in the same things he is and does not need to be petted and pampered because of his unusual lifestyle and occupation. At the same time, he admires her for her manipulation of Rachel and her willingness to, shall we say, get her hands dirty if necessary to accomplish their goals and acquisitions. He appreciates the qualities many would consider to be negative because they serve his cause and bring him a benefit.
Pemberton's men seem to admire her at least as much as they are afraid of her. They are often torn between these two feelings about Serena's ruthless and selfish tactics.
Others are not at all impressed by Serena's greed and manipulation of others. Rachel is a victim not only of Pemberton but of his wife, and she sees Serena for what she is.
Sheriff McDowell does not appreciate these qualities in Serena either, and sees her emotionless responses to death (like Buchanan's) as evidence of her guilt in some form.
In the end, those who benefit from Serena's worst qualities--basically Pemberton--appreciate them. Those who suffer because of those qualities--basically everyone else-- see them as negative traits.