“She remembers one phase, when [the twins] were, what? Four, five, six, seven? It went on for a while. They’d decided that all the characters in every story had to be female. Winnie the Pooh was female, Piglet was female, Peter Rabbit was female. If Roz slipped up and said “he,” they would correct her: She! She! they would insist. All of their stuffed animals were female, too. Roz still doesn’t know why. When she asked them, the twins would give her looks of deep contempt. “Can’t you see?” they would say.”
In The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood has written a retelling of an old brothers Grimm fairytale, with the genders of its main players reversed: instead of helpless young ladies, it’s the men who are hunted. Instead of a robber bridegroom, we have the almost mythical figure of Zenia, a femme fatale who lures boyfriends and husbands away from their women, wraps them around her little finger and leads them to their doom. The result is a fascinating emotional whirlwind of a novel full of revenge and frustration, with Zenia at its roaring centre.
However, Zenia is not a straightforward fairytale villain. We never get to know her because she shows a different version of herself every time she speaks; she adjusts to whom is listening to her and plays on their respective weaknesses and desires. Who she really is is not important; what matters is the effect she has on the three main characters, three women who are all struggling with repressed emotions in some way. According to Alice M. Palumbo, Zenia exists as the negative these women define themselves in contrast to:
As the lost twin of Tony, Charis, and Roz, Zenia enacts the return of the repressed, and is the repository of their submerged aggression and anger. Coming to terms with Zenia means accepting their own potential for hostility, anger, and rage, and integrating it into themselves. Cut yourself off from these conventionally feminine emotions, and they will return to you in distorted form; […].
Zenia is seductive, furious, and incredibly powerful. As these women’s “dark double”, she is everything they are not and hits them exactly where she knows it will hurt the most, spitting out harsh truths that they have tried so hard to deny. In a way, she fulfills a role much like Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason who, according to Susan Gubar and Sandra M. Gilbert’s revolutionary work The Madwoman in the Attic (read my post here), personified not only Jane Eyre’s repressed undesirable emotions, but also Charlotte Brontë’s rage and frustration about the misogynistic world she lived in. Like Bertha Mason, Zenia is an uncontrollable doppelganger, everything the main characters won’t allow themselves to be.
One of the most intriguing passages has one of the women, Roz, admitting that perhaps there is some appeal to Zenia and her methods. She reflects on the feminist movement so far and how the struggle seems impossible because many women have internalised the male gaze:
Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.
Zenia, on the other hand, lets the patriarchal system work for her and uses these male fantasies to her advantage: she caters to men’s desires and cleans out their pockets along the way. Roz finds herself wanting to be Zenia, to break free from the role she and her proper upbringing have carved out for her and do something bad.
As the book reaches its conclusion, it becomes increasingly clear that the men in this universe are all awful in their own way. They are spineless little boys with hero complexes, easily manipulated philanderers, shameless liars, thieves, rapists, and the three of the main characters struggle to make their way in a world that is dominated by these creatures. They have been used and abused, pushed down, ignored, and abandoned by men, and it becomes very tempting to wonder if Zenia isn’t doing the world a favour by crushing them under the heel of her snakeskin boot.*
This book is a fascinating read, not only for lovers of fairy tales and good writing in general, but especially for readers interested in gender issues. Atwood has created three incredible characters who all struggle with a dark double, one who may have a point when it comes to fighting back against misogyny. Leading all these men to their doom may be taking it too far, but Atwood seems to suggest that the right answer lies somewhere in the middle. At one point in the novel, Roz wonders when “the Other Woman” will join the feminist movement, but Atwood argues that we need to find this Other Woman within ourselves. Perhaps it’s a good thing to let her out every once in a while instead of suppressing all these undesirable emotions until they suddenly break free and turn on us.
There may be something to be said for being angry.
* Interestingly, the only male character to come out completely unscathed is gay. Make of that what you will.
Note: Whatever you do, don’t watch the movie. Just don’t.