Margaret Atwood, whose work has been published in thirty-five countries, is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. In addition to The Handmaid’s Tale, her novels include Cat’s Eye, short-listed for the 1989 Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; Oryx and Crake, short-listed for the 2003 Man Booker Prize; The Year of the Flood; and her most recent, MaddAddam. She is the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Innovator’s Award, and lives in Toronto with the writer Graeme Gibson.
In Her Own Words: Margaret Atwood on The Robber Bride
Excerpted from the author's Address to the American Booksellers Association Convention, Miami, Florida, June 1, 1993
One of my favorite books as a child was Grimm's Fairy Tales, the unexpurgated version--the one with the red-hot shoes. My parents sent away for it by mail order without knowing just how unexpurgated it was, and then worried that it would terrify my brother and myself. It didn't terrify us, but it did fascinate us; and it's from Grimm's that I've derived the title of my forthcoming novel, The Robber Bride.
In the original story, it's "The Robber Bridegroom"--a tale of a wicked maiden-devouring monster--so why did I change it? Well, I was sitting around one day thinking to myself, "Where have all the Lady Macbeths gone? Gone to Ophelias, every one, leaving the devilish tour-de-force parts to be played by bass-baritones." Or, to put it another way: If all women are well behaved by nature--or if we aren't allowed to say otherwise for fear of being accused of anti-femaleism--then they are deprived of moral choice, and there isn't much left for them to do in books except run away a lot. Or, to put it another way: Equality means equally bad as well as equally good.
From what I've just said, you will realize that The Robber Bride is a book with a villainess in it. What kind of villainess? Well, to begin with, a villainess who knows how to make an entrance. On October 23--when, as you're aware, the sun passes from Libra into Scorpio--or, if you aren't aware, you'll find it out on page 4--three women friends are having lunch in a Toronto restaurant called The Toxique. A reader was once quoted as saying, "I like Atwood's books because I can depend on her characters to grow old along with me," and so it has come to be; thus all of these women are what the French refer to as "of a certain age." The first one is an ambidextrous military historian, whose specialty is siege techniques of the Middle Ages. The second one has psychic leanings, a complex past, and a good reason for never eating pigs. The third one is a business wheeler and dealer with gambling tendencies. When they have reached the dessert, which is assorted sorbets--I like to be specific about food--in comes a fourth woman, whose funeral service all three of the others attended five years before.
This returnee--who, due to the wonders of modern plastic surgery, is very well preserved--did awful things to the first woman in the sixties, awfuller things to the second one in the seventies, and the awfullest things of all to the third one in the eighties. In a novelistic structure based on nineteenth-century symphonies with leitmotifs, Russian dolls-within-dolls, "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," and boxed sets of gift soaps, we learn about the various awful things. Then we return to the present to find out what happens next. Will the perambulating nemesis do more awful things to our three heroines? Or will they, for a change, do awful things to her? I don't mean to imply that there is no love, compassion, sex, plangent lyricism, deep insight, wit and humor, metaphysical speculation, and language wielded with the skill of a tightrope walker crossing Niagara Falls blindfolded in this book; I certainly intended to put in some of those. But on top of that, there are awful things. Well, why not? Life contains awful things. By the time you've reached a certain age, you notice.
What do I hope the reader will get out of all of this--and, indeed, out of any book she or he may read? Exactly what I myself like to receive--and frequently do receive-- from the books of others. There's one word that sums it up; it's a quality without which all other qualities, in books or in life, ring hollow. It takes many forms--of the mind, forms of the heart, forms of the soul. It includes both tragedy and comedy, and the play of language, and Memory, the mother of all nine Muses, and above all, the experience of getting your socks knocked off. The desire for it explains--when we go back in our lives to look for causes--why we are all readers here, and why you do what you do, and why I do what I do, and why my vocation is also my obsession. It was a favorite word of the poet William Blake, and it's in the full sense of his use of it that I invoke it now. That word is Delight; and this is what I wish for you as readers--Delight, in all of its bookly incarnations.
1. In The Robber Bride Tony says that people like Zenia don't get into your life unless you invite them in. What devices does Zenia use to first gain entry into the lives of Tony, Charis, and Roz? How does she alter her techniques to attract and control men?
2. Is there one character you identify with more than others? Why?
3. On the surface, Tony, Charis, and Roz are not a bit alike yet similarities exist. For example, during their childhoods they each developed what could be called "dual" identities. How do the psychological devices they developed as children help or hinder them? In what ways do their own children differ from them?
4. While seeming all powerful, the constantly changing Zenia lacks a center of her own. Is it possible for women to achieve the same kinds of power that men do in today's society, or do they have to break rules and operate as outlaws? Discuss Charis's grandmother. Do women have a kind of power that is different from male power?
5. Magic can mean two things: sleight of hand played by stage magicians, and true "magic," or supernatural ability. What role does each kind of "magic" play in the novel, if any?
6. The name of the restaurant where Zenia reappears is called The Toxique. What role does naming--of persons and places--play in this novel?
7. War provides a subtext, and even possibly a framework, for this novel. The male characters are not the only ones affected by it. How are the others affected? How is Zenia affected? Which wars are mentioned?
8. Read the poem "The Robber Bridegroom," reversing gender as you read. What does this poem, taken together with the poem "She," tell us about the nature of evil?
9. Discuss the poem "The Loneliness of the Military Historian". What does it tell us about differences between the way men and women traditionally deal with violence? Does Atwood make a value judgment?
10. The American writer Lewis Hyde has asked, "Why is the Trickster the Messenger of the Gods?" Is Zenia a trickster? Is she also a messenger of the gods, and how?
11. Is there a difference between the lies others tell and Zenia's lies? Are there "good" lies and "bad" lies? Do the hearers play a role in the construction of these lies?
12. Think of female villains from literature and film. What do they seem to have in common? Is female villainy different from the male variety?
13. William Blake said of Milton's Paradise Lost that Milton often seemed to be of the devil's part without knowing it. Does Atwood have a sneaking sympathy for Zenia? Do you?