In a predatory relationship, characters use each other and become dependent upon each other in an unhealthy way. Predatory relationships are based upon need, and usually the participants are unaware of their own internal motivations, which lead them to be involved in the interaction. In Notes on a Scandal, Sheba needs guidance and rules in her life because she is led by her fantasies and ideals. In addition, she is unable to control her passions and actions in the real world. Barbara has an intense need to control. She unconsciously seeks out someone who is opposite of herself, someone who is expressive and not afraid to take chances. Both characters unconsciously seek someone who will make them feel whole or complete.
In a perfect world, the boundaries between people remain clear and everyone knows his or her place. However, in the real world, people also sometimes seek solace wherever they can find it, even in inappropriate relationships and unhealthy partnerships. Heller’s Notes on a Scandal is full of those kinds of partnerships. Sheba finds comfort in Steven Connolly, which leads to a romantic attraction. Barbara satisfies her need to dominate and protect in her relationship with Sheba, which leads to obsession and is the psychological basis for the action in the novel. All three of the main characters play a synchronous role: Barbara is the predator, Sheba is the prey, and Steven Connolly is the bait. Barbara wants a sexual relationship with Sheba but cannot ask for it; Sheba is not a lesbian so she will not agree to it. By being the bait, Steven Connolly is a way to consecrate this love triangle.
Perception vs. Reality
Zoe Heller superbly conveys the limits of human perception in Notes on a Scandal. The novel is related entirely by Barbara; every detail is presented from Barbara’s viewpoint. The affair and its ramifications are told exclusively through Barbara’s limited perceptions of reality. In the end, however, the reader can see the consequences of Barbara’s justifications of her own behavior. Obsession is most clearly conveyed through Barbara’s limited point of view. Readers may feel they know Sheba, but they know Barbara even more, through her devious plans and overwhelming obsession. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that both Sheba and Barbara are living a fantasy.
Barbara believes she has succeeded in being Sheba’s only friend when Sheba becomes completely dependent. She believes she owns Sheba. Sheba, too, is unable to see the harm she has created. She lives in an illusion and cannot understand why the world has turned against her. Both women’s lives are ruined by their own skewed inner perceptions of reality. In this sense, the novel reads as a tragedy.