The central question of reading Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride lies in whether or not it is an overtly feminist work. The expectation of a novel such as Atwood's filled with all women protagonists it that it must certainly be a novel about strong women taking down the patriarchy, echoing the trope that pops into most people’s heads when they hear the word feminist.
The experience of The Robber Bride, however, is something quite different than the stereotypical feminist work, but I do not think that this takes away from the feminine power and message of the story. None of the women in this novel necessarily count as the archetypal feminist, but the novel is in itself a feminist work of empowerment and moving beyond the prescribed gender roles.
In discussions of feminist theory, gender roles are often deconstructed as a series of societally prescribed performances. In the book entitled Critical Terms for Literary Study, Myra Jehlen, author of the chapter on gender, writes about how conventional femininity is a social construct. Jehlen reaches the conclusion that “Gender is nurture rather than nature. In part this is because the performance of femininity includes observing more shrewdly, especially the performance of gender” (269).
Tony, Charis, and Roz, the four main characters of The Robber Bride, all fit into various stereotypical ‘womanly’ roles: the scholar, the earth mother, and the business woman. It takes the antagonist Zenia to bring these women out of themselves and their inherent tendencies to define themselves by men and how men factor into their lives. Zenia herself, while very obviously an antihero, fits another stereotype of women characters as the seductress. These women are at war – against Zenia and against themselves.
Thee best feminist author is the one that calls us out on our frailties, and in the characterization of her three protagonists Margaret Atwood does just that. It is the interplay of their bond as women that allows them to rise out of the battle and come into who they really are and what their lives can truly be once they are freed from their self-confinement.
It is very easy to not think much of any of the characters at the start of the novel: the tenor of their personalities as they come across on the page is amiable but their actions incredibly weak and condemnable. It is hard to comprehend how how Tony could go back to West, how Charis and Roz were so destroyed even long after their men had left.
Personally, Roz’s struggle with identity and conformity is the most relatable aspect of the novel. Coming from a background of religious schools her descriptions of the struggle to fit in resonated with my elementary, middle, and high school experiences. She crafts an image and her persona is mutable, however solid the façade of the rich, successful businesswoman and mother.
Roz notes that “she could never get away with her witless frivolity act if she were a man. But then, if she were one she might not need it" (340). Roz shows the struggle of the societal pressure to perform the role of “woman.” One must be successful, but not overpowering, insightful but not too much smarter than men. There are certain prescribed roles and emotions that women can and cannot act on if we want to be taken as seriously as men are. Sometimes it's easier to play down one's true nature in order to get further and succeed. Like Roz, I'm not entirely sure that men have the same or as complex a role to play.
Getting their three backstories as we delved further into the novel helped to see Roz, Tony, and Charis in a better light, but I was still wondering what happened to the idea of strong women who do not need a man in their life. These three women seem to be trapped by their relationships with men in a novel that was supposedly going to light a feminist fire within the reader. The men are not even admirable men.
West is weak and gullible and comes crawling back to Tony for forgiveness; Billy is manipulative and a coward if Zenia’s story is to be fully believed; Mitch is weak and cannot face life after Zenia dumps him, falls into a depression, and kills himself.
Zenia liberates them from the unhealthiness of their relationships, but in doing so strips them of the agency to do it themselves. “Women don’t want all the men to be eaten up by maneaters; they want a few left over so they can eat some themselves” (432). Zenia is that maneater, that object of the male gaze and fantasy to which women subject themselves.
None of these characters are particularly strong – be it the male patriarchal representations or the female struggle to survive in a world of men. It is a topic that can be incredibly infuriating to the reader. The novel seems to define the feminist struggle as the fight to embrace and own their role within society. It isn’t necessarily the most progressive of messages, but it is certainly an important one. Women don’t have to be superior or inferior; the struggle of feminism as it started out is based in trying to find an equality of power between both sexes.
The three women, however, need their final confrontation with Zenia to snap them out of their complacency. It is because of this that the ultimate ‘feminist’ message of the novel revolves around agency. It takes agency to achieve any sort of ownership and power over one’s own life and standing. The men are weak because they give women too much agency over them to mislead and guide them astray.
The women are weak because they cannot shake themselves of their respective inadequacies surrounding their relationship with men. They confine themselves to the comfortable role that is expected most of them – a scholar, a mother, a businesswoman, a friend. They aren’t truly living when Zenia has power over them even after her first (albeit fake) death supposedly frees them from her power.
Zenia is the only one with true agency in this novel. She may be the antagonist, but she also functions as the catalyst for change in Roz, Tony, and Charis because she has true power over how she conducts herself. Her choices, however ludicrous, are all her own. She is her own master. Men flock to her if she wants them to, she controls her appearance through surgeries and physical means, she is ultimately the master of her own life up until her death. Not many people can say that. It doesn’t necessarily redeem Zenia as a character, but it makes her a beacon of empowerment. Tony thinks to herself at the end of the novel, “Was she in any way like us? Or, to put it the other way around: Are we in any way like her?"
There is a little bit of Zenia in every one of them – the power to take agency over one’s life and role that they have to play within its framework. Zenia is anything to anyone that she wants and needs to be. Prescribed gender roles don’t have any hold over her. Perhaps we should all strive for that in a smaller way and be the most authentic version of ourselves that we can be, despite society’s attempts to hold us into the more feminine aspects of the world.
We reach for military history like Tony and we don our armor against sexism and misogyny as we step foot into the world. Women can fight the battles too; we’ve been fighting them behind the scenes for centuries. It is in this regard that The Robber Bride affirms a common definition of womanhood – whatever is the best and truest version of oneself is the recipe for success. Although, unlike Zenia, the modern day woman would do much better to ground this in fact and not skills at creating fictions.
Jehlen, Myra. "Gender." Critical Terms for Literary Study. By Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1995. 263-73. Print.