Margaret Murphy is the author of ten psychological crime novels, published in the UK and USA, and in translation across Europe. After a string of stand-alone thrillers, she recently began her first series with The Dispossessed and Now You See Me. Her work has been shortlisted for the First Blood Award and for the Crime Writers' Association 'Dagger in the Library'. She has been a countryside ranger, science teacher and dyslexia specialist. Margaret is founder of Murder Squad, a touring group of crime writers, committee member of the Crime Writers' Association, and Chair of the CWA Debut Dagger. She teaches on the MA in Writing at Liverpool John Moores University, and presents a Writing Masterclass on Radio Merseyside Drive Time. Here she writes about Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride.
Margaret Murphy on The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
There aren't many books I re-read, but I have returned again and again to Margaret Atwood's works. She can extract the profound from a mundane situation, and in The Robber Bride, she manages to get inside the heads of not one, but three people, giving them distinctive voices, attitudes and even modes of thought.
Deciding from whose point of view the story should be told is a difficult decision, and one which David Lodge describes as 'arguably the most important single decision that the novelist has to make'. The point(s) of view chosen will determine the sympathies and antipathies the reader develops for the various characters, and will also provide the reader with clues as to whose story it is.
Atwood relates the stories of the three narrators, Tony, Charis and Roz, but underlying each story is Zenia, her effect on each woman and her role in their lives. Thus, one might say that this is Zenia's story. Zenia is in effect the central figure, the extraordinary personality that brought these very different women together, and yet we are only allowed to glimpse her essential self, with all her faults and inconsistencies, obliquely, from the perspective of others.
The narrative is opened by Tony, and immediately we are given an impression of Zenia as a liar and manipulator: 'She would lie earnestly... or haltingly, as if confessing... with a cool, defiant anger, and Tony would believe her.' It is a measure of Zenia's power that despite her awareness that Zenia will lie, Tony knows she will believe the lies. Thus the reader is placed in the superior position, enlightened as to Zenia's faults and also to Tony's naiveté, her willingness, despite her intelligence, to be duped.
Atwood establishes Tony's character and background as one: her interests, her passions are part of her being. She is a historian. She gives us historical facts, momentous events: trouble in the Gulf; the Soviet Bloc crumbling; a great hole in the ozone layer - and alongside these cataclysmic events, Zenia's return. Not only is her return ranked with events of world significance, but it has a supernatural flavour, for 'Zenia returns from the dead.'
One of the resonant themes in the novel is that people are not what they seem. Thus, Tony herself is an ambiguous figure, small - men are surprised by her femininity, by which they mean short stature - and yet she is an expert in the strategies of war. Even her name is ambiguous: Tony, an abbreviation of the name Antonia, does have a masculine quality to it, and even unabbreviated, it is the feminine form of a masculine name. She looks frail, but 'despite her lace-edged collars' - another mark of her ambiguity - she is determined and unyielding.
In two short pages, a prologue, no more, Atwood establishes a victim, Tony (the others will follow shortly), and the villain, Zenia, her catastrophic effect on the life - the history - of Tony, and her Mephistophelean powers, even her apparent dominion over death.
The narrative slips from past to present rapidly, as easily as thought; Atwood avoids confusion with time by writing in the present tense for the main narrative.
The victims, Tony, Roz and Charis, had all attended Zenia's funeral four and a half years ago. It is during the funeral that we are given a deeper insight into the way each of the victims thinks: Tony, the historian, the strategist, attends because she wants to be sure that Zenia is 'inoperational'; Charis, the mystic, wants to ensure that Zenia is 'peaceful'; and Roz, the pragmatist, that Zenia is finally 'Kaput'. It is also at this vital point in their lives that their characters are sketched for the reader. In the first piece of dialogue between the women, Roz says that she wants to see where the memorial tree is planted, so that she can train her dogs to 'widdle' on it. She cannot bring herself to use the more forthright term 'piss', despite her sassy, outspoken persona - indeed, we are told later, that 'the words are in her head, all right, but they don't come out'. Charis, indignant at Roz's vindictiveness, says, 'It's not the tree's fault', while Tony, ever the stickler for detail, points out that Roz doesn't have any dogs. I always hear Atwood's own flat, dryly humorous tones as Tony makes this pronouncement.
Atwood describes the thoughts and feelings of her narrators as facts, giving the reader little choice but to accept them as such. For example, 'Tony... doesn't want West peering in at anything that might be going on in her brain'. But we also know that 'West has a strong urge to wire up Tony'. In The Robber Bride, it would seem there are few secrets but Zenia's. Even so, the use of the word 'might' in relation to Tony's mental processes implies that Tony herself isn't quite sure what is going on inside her head. Perhaps her instinctive secretiveness, which leads her automatically, unthinkingly, to reverse words, also brings her to hide facets of her nature from herself. Perhaps it is also because, as a historian, she looks backwards through time and events, and unlike many - unlike her students who cannot see the point of history - she is able to discern the meaning. 'All history is written backwards, writes Tony, writing backwards.' And yet, even here, Tony feels the need to be perfectly truthful: she says that because there are missing pieces, but also because 'we know too much. We know the outcome', we cannot treat history like a tape that can be rewound, played backwards. This layering of present preoccupations with past experience adds weight to the characters; it bulks them out, gives them an extra dimension.
The interior dialogue and the stream-of-consciousness style of Atwood's prose allows the reader insights into each of the victims; it is during Tony's interior ramblings that we begin to understand what she truly holds Zenia to be: 'Evil doesn't require such invocations... Nothing so complicated.'
The spoken words of Zenia's victims are far less revealing of their inner turmoil, or the depths of their characters, but this is a true reflection of life. John Fowles describes novel dialogue as 'a form of shorthand... it has to perform other functions', and in The Robber Bride one of these is to reveal a great deal about the relative position of each woman within the group. At their lunch-time meeting, Roz is aggressive, an instigator of conversation, although it is more like repartee. She speaks in short, staccato sentences, going over old ground, telling Tony what she thinks she should wear, in a way that suggests she feels almost that she must, that this is what is expected of her. 'We're all in our places, with bright shiny faces. What's new?' Then, without waiting for an answer, 'Tony, I saw the cutest outfit in Holt's, it would be so good for you.' Tony and Roz engage in a lively rally of conversation about the suitability or otherwise of the 'outfit', but Charis's only observation is 'I think Tony's body is appropriate the way it is.'
Although Charis's speech is banal, prosaic, even at times incoherent, her thoughts are profound. 'Penny-pinching as a concept she finds blocking. There's something hard and grinding about it, and pinching is such a hurtful word.' Her own saving of candle ends and soap slivers is 'an act of love towards the earth'. She finds herself entirely incapable of expressing this greatness of feeling, however, so when her boss tells her she is planning to change 'Radiance', the crystal shop where she works, into a thrift store, all Charis can say is, 'But Radiance is so lovely!'
From Charis's viewpoint, words can get in the way of real meaning, and she deliberately 'tunes out' of the conversation between her friends. 'Words are so often like window curtains, a decorative screen put up to keep the neighbours at a distance.' She admits to herself that she sometimes dislikes Tony, because she 'can use too many words'. For Charis, it is feelings, thoughts and actions that count. Although the reader is positioned to view Charis as a rather unreliable, mentally unstable woman, it is she who is chosen by Atwood to have a premonition of Zenia's literal and metaphorical fall, and it is Charis who sees this vision again, at the actual moment of Zenia's death, 'She was falling, into water. I saw it! She's dead.'
Atwood uses names to great effect in her work, and often their meanings are as multi-layered as her prose. Charis is an adopted name, taken from the name Charity, after she reads an extract from the Bible, 'Charity is better than Faith or Hope'. But here again, Charis has hidden depths: Charis, the mystic, changed her name from Karen, a derivation of Katherine (which may itself be a derivation from Hecate, goddess of magic and enchantment), after she escaped from a hellish existence, subjected to sexual abuse by her uncle. Also, Charis means 'grace'. Is the reader being invited to regard Charis as being in a state of grace, and therefore able to see what is denied to others?
As suggested by the various interpretations of Charis's adopted name, the characters in Robber Bride are as complex as one would expect a living person to be, and with an underlying coherence that makes them wholly believable. Thus, the women give differing reasons for refusing to talk about Zenia. Tony says that 'She's bad for the digestion'. Roz, full of bluster and bravado, says, 'Why give her the air time?' Charis alone is honest in her given reason; although she is viewed by the other two as the weakest, the most vulnerable of the group, she is most courageous in expressing what they all feel. She says, 'Talking about her might hold her on this earth.' Perhaps the others' view of Charis as frail makes sense when we work from the militaristic viewpoint of Tony, or Roz's 'street smarts'. Where Tony is sharp, observant, secretive, Charis is soft, 'too soft... she was so soft there was no resistance'. Charis is perhaps the least ambiguous of the three, and this is reflected in her style of dress, which tends to confirm her identity - 'soft clothes: flowing Indian muslins, long gathered skirts' - whereas the other women seem to make an almost conscious effort to obfuscate who they are with their outward appearance.
When Zenia actually appears in the cafe-bar where they are having lunch, Charis's reaction is to believe that she is a ghost or visitation, and that she, Charis, has willed her back on earth. Here we must rely on Tony's objectivity, and yet, when exposed to the chilling force of Zenia's destructive potential, Tony's dispassionate analytical skills fail her, and she sees '[w]aves of ill-will flow out of her like cosmic radiation'. But we are allowed to see that this is an exaggeration, that Zenia inspires 'overdone emotions'. Thus, we are persuaded that Tony has remained detached, able to interpret the events from a rational perspective, and is therefore accurate in her assessment of the damage of which Zenia is capable.
Roz's confused background of Jewish immigrant, whose race and religion are withheld from her until she is in her teens - her mother even has her educated by nuns - is reflected in her thought patterns, in her patterns of speech, as well as her inability to 'bring herself to really swear'. She thinks tough, but she can't follow through in her actions, as least as far as Zenia is concerned. When she invents the name 'Bimbag' for Zenia, she smiles, 'So, who can it hurt, now?' She is a woman who has developed a hard outer shell, a shiny coating, an exoskeleton to protect her soft centre. Charis recognizes this attribute in her own daughter and worries that 'She's like a butterfly hardened into an enamelled label pin while she's still half out of the chrysalis. How will she ever unfold?' Atwood makes use of these subliminal echoes throughout the novel, they provide a potent confirmation of the emerging ideas and theories the reader is developing about each of the women. Roz, for example, was called Rosalind as a child - lind means shield. We may interpret this as Roz constructing a shield of expensive clothes and chink-free make-up against the hurts of life, or the reader may see, from the omniscient position granted by Atwood, that on the one occasion she let down her guard, her shield, Roz was terribly wounded. In this way, Atwood achieves a reinforcement of our understanding of the characters by the subtle use of subconscious messages.
The identity of each woman has an unfeigned quality to it. Each has different beliefs and values - the academic, the mystic and the hard-nosed business woman - an individuality and an autonomy that the reader can trust. It is, I believe, by allowing an insight into the background, the thought processes and the way in which history impinges on the present state of mind and actions of each of the main characters that Atwood is able to achieve an immediacy, despite the use of the third person narrative. This immediacy is enhanced by having much of the action in the present tense, so the reader is invited to become more involved, to accept it is happening.
Occasionally, Atwood shifts from straightforward third person narrative to what appears to be a first person narrative. Fowles states that '[t]he great majority of modern third-person narration is "I" narration very thinly disguised', and it is certainly true of these emotionally intense scenes in The Robber Bride, but there is no weakness of style here.
When Roz confronts Zenia in her hotel room, afraid that Zenia, having seduced and later caused the suicide of Roz's husband, is now turning her attention to Roz's son... 'Roz sees red. She actually sees it,' has the aspect of a fairly dispassionate, but closely-observing third person narrator, but a little later this dispassionate perspective is lost when she exclaims, 'Roz can't stand hearing this, she can’t stand it!' It seems that the narrator is entirely involved in Roz's suffering, so that we could almost believe Roz is speaking directly to the reader, rather than through the author. We are made to feel as Roz feels - her experience becomes our experience.
Zenia, by contrast, never speaks directly to the reader - we see her only through the eyes of her victims; her words, her actions and her possible motivations are interpreted for us by the main protagonists.
It may strain the credulity of a disinterested observer to be asked to believe that the three intelligent women in The Robber Bride have permitted themselves to be fooled by so evidently a malevolent spirit as Zenia, but Atwood does not allow dispassion in her readers, there is no compromise; she ensures full involvement by bringing us fully into the lives of each of Zenia's victims.
For me, there was one final touch which established the total credibility of the women, an extenuating factor which explained why they might be willing to invite such a dangerous vital force into their lives: they admired Zenia. '[P]art of what Tony feels is admiration. Despite her disapproval, her dismay... there's a part of her that has wanted to cheer Zenia on, even to encourage her.' A terrible admission, but a feeling that is shared by her friends. Roz reasons, 'It's the extremes that attract her. Extreme good, extreme evil... sometimes she would like to be Zenia.' The greatest insight is left once more to poor, befuddled Charis, who in fact sees far more deeply than her friends, and who recognizes her oneness with Zenia. On the night her daughter was conceived, 'Was it herself and Karen, sharing their body? Or was it Zenia, too?'
Charis recognizes what Zenia possesses, and what she herself lacks: 'Zenia's edges dissolve... and Charis merges into her... What she sees is herself in the mirror, herself with power.' Some texts give the name Zenia as a derivation from the god Zeus, who could metamorphose to any form he wished, just as Zenia does when insinuating herself into each of her victim's lives.
'Zena' is a name of Persian origin, meaning 'woman'. Perhaps we should view Zenia as Everywoman? Is it stretching the point too far to say that Zenia is the 'I' in Everywoman?