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The pleasures and dangers of storytelling in Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride.

In an undated note, found in the Atwood collection at the University of Toronto, Margaret Atwood queries the source of the following quotation or song lyric: "Ask a woman where she's going and she'll tell you who she's been" (Margaret Atwood Collection, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. University of Toronto. 27:1). Atwood's interest in this line chimes with her frequent association between female identity and past selves; the movement in this line from a progressive, hopeful (and, significantly, unrealised) geographical metaphor for selfhood and a role-playing, past-centred notion of selfhood is deeply resonant with what Atwood engages with in much of her fiction, particularly in Lady Oracle (1976), Cat's Eye (1988) and The Robber Bride (1993). It is clear to see why this quotation would have struck a chord with Atwood as it illuminates a very Atwoodian strategy for writing a woman's life. As a prescription, it reflects the power of play as a device in the forging of female identities in Atwood's fiction, perhaps most noticeably in The Robber Bride where the character of Zenia's powers of story-telling privilege the careful maintenance of simultaneous, creative identities over any cohesive subjectivity or linear trajectory of progress.

In telling her life story over and over, Zenia alters her history to meet the individual needs of the other characters in the novel--Charis, Roz, and Tony. The narrative structure of the novel is shaped around the way in which Zenia mirrors each character's anxieties and confusion about their personal and cultural origins and fills in the gaps in their individual life narratives. In telling the stories that they want or need to hear, Zenia manipulates her way into other characters' life narratives. It is her role as an interloper--played so adeptly by Zenia--that renders her such a powerful and dangerous presence in the novel. For example, Tony, who imagines herself to be a twin "the other half of which had died" (The Robber Bride. 1993, London: Virago, 1994: 137), comes to see Zenia as the missing component in her life history, a partner in the twinning suggested in Tony's ambidexterity: "Tony will be Zenia's right hand, because Zenia is certainly Tony's left one" (169). But Zenia's supposed "completion" of Tony is not, as the latter imagines it will be, a positive thing.

Central to this interest in split or multiple selfhood and identity is a revisitation of Atwood's preoccupation with the role of language and narrative in the fashioning and preservation of identity. For Tony, History is a synonym for narrative and she sounds a warning note about its inherent unreliability in the opening pages: "History is a construct, she tells her students. Any point of entry is possible and all choices are arbitrary" (4). In Chapter 6, Tony concludes that, "War is what happens when language fails" (39), and later insists that "Words are so often like window curtains, a decorative screen put up to keep the neighbours at a distance" (62). This can be read as a restatement of the narrator's suspicion of the dangers and vicissitudes of language in Atwood's earlier novel Surfacing (1972): "Language divides us into fragments, I wanted to be whole" (140). Similarly, the fact that "The story of Zenia is insubstantial, ownerless, a rumour only" (461) is what ultimately makes Zenia so dangerous to the other characters in the novel. Zenia has a particular talent for storytelling, for empathising with other characters' victimhood and exploiting the uncertainties of their individual histories. This is most extravagantly displayed in the way that she presents each character with a veiled version of their life in the telling of her own, so that Roz feels when she speaks to Zenia, it is as "one outsider to another" (366) even though Roz, like Tony, is both familiar with and wary of the dangers of "the pleasures of narration" (371).

Zenia takes particular "pleasure" in storytelling and is self-aware in her deception: she exults in narrative invention but at the same time audaciously references the sources from which her fictions are derived. In telling Tony about her life as a child prostitute in Paris, she says of her mother: "Also she was sick a lot of the time. Coughing just like an opera! Blood in the hankie" (165). She proves particularly adept at recreating the scenes of her own histories, and this comes to the fore in the way she recounts her return visit to Berlin, where as a baby she had been rescued from the Nazis by Roz's father: "I went in and up the stairs, just as my parents must have done hundreds of times. I touched the same banister, I turned the same corners [...] they were the same rooms, it was the same light. I think my parents became real to me for the first time. Everything, all of it became real. Before that it was just a bad story" (359). There is a deliberate ambiguity in Zenia's reference to the "bad story" of her past in this instance. As with all of Zenia's life narratives, it invites the question as to whether what is bad about these stories is the inevitable tragedy that befalls her or that her life stories are always just shy of cliche. In this way, Zenia not only exults in the lies and fictions of her life histories but also draws her audiences' attention to their inherent fraudulence.

In drawing attention to the "perverse joy" (170) of narrative, The Robber Bride provides an appropriate metaphor for Atwood's own relationship with language as a writer as, from the beginning of her career, she was always most interested in the liberating possibilities of such multiple identities, particularly from a feminist and Canadian nationalist perspective. It is apt that The Robber Bride ends with the tantalising promise of more stories, as the three characters claim the power of narrative for themselves: "That's what they will do increasingly in their lives: tell stories. Tonight their stories will be about Zenia" (470). Once Zenia is finally rendered "inoperational", the women are free to claim Zenia's control over the stories that impacted their lives so dramatically: an explicit recognition that their relationship with Zenia was based on desire and envy as well as fear of her powerful narratives. The Robber Bride explores the postmodern potential of an identity that is fractured and multiple: an unreliable story, "drifting from mouth to mouth and changing as it goes" (461). It is perhaps, then, all the more appropriate that Atwood should have pondered the line "Ask a woman where she's going and she'll tell you who she's been", as the origins of Zenia's identity remain elusive to the end and leave the reader, much like the other characters in The Robber Bride, in a state of uncertainty.

Ellen McWilliams, University of Bristol
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Author:McWilliams, Ellen
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2007
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