The Robber Bride

The Robber Bride

infobox Book |
name = The Robber Bride
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = A British paperback edition of "The Robber Bride".
author = Margaret Atwood
cover_artist = Malcolm Tarlofsky (first edition, hardcover)
country = Canada
language = English
series =
genre = Novel
publisher = McClelland and Stewart
release_date = September 1993
media_type = Print (Hardcover, Paperback)
pages = 546 pp (first edition, hardcover), 528 pp (Paperback Ed.)
isbn = ISBN 0-7710-0821-X (first edition, hardcover), ISBN 0-385-49103-4
preceded_by = Good Bones
followed_by = Alias Grace

"The Robber Bride" is a Margaret Atwood novel first published by McClelland and Stewart in 1993. Set in present-day Toronto, Ontario, the novel begins with three women (Roz, Charis, and Tony) who meet once a month in a restaurant to share a meal.

Plot summary

During their most recent outing, they see Zenia, a long-dead college classmate who had stolen, one by one, their respective "beaux". The novel alternates between the present and flashbacks featuring the points of view of Tony, Charis, and Roz, respectively. Zenia has given each woman a different version of her biography, tailor-made to insinuate herself into their lives. No one version of Zenia is the truth, and the reader knows no more than the characters.

Their betrayals by Zenia are what initially bring the three together as friends and bind their lives together irrevocably; their monthly luncheons began after her funeral. The novel, like other works by Atwood, deals with power struggles between men and women; it is also a meditation on the nature of friendship, power, and trust between women. Zenia's character can be read as either the ultimate self-empowered woman, a traitor who abuses sisterhood, or simply a self-interested mercenary who cunningly uses the "war between the sexes" to further her own interests. One reading posits Zenia as a kind of guardian angel to the women, saving them from unworthy men.

Atwood claims that of all the characters she has written, she identifies most "with Zenia. She is the professional liar, and what else do fiction writers do but create lies that other people will believe?"

In the novel's present, Roz, Charis, and Tony finally each individually confront Zenia in a Toronto hotel room, where she tells each of them that the men they'd been with got what they deserved, and gives various versions of her earlier staged death, each as implausible as the accounts of her life. One of the four women never leaves that hotel alive. The novel itself leaves the reader questioning who was (or were) the victim(s) of life.

Allusions/references to actual history, geography and current science

There is wide speculation that the book is, at least in part, a "roman-a-clef", and that the Zenia character is based loosely on Barbara Amiel, the real-life journalist and wife of Lord Black. Among the others who have been cited as models are the writers Gwendolyn MacEwen, and Marian Engel.

Allusions/references to horror story, mythology, and religious narratives

Title references Grimm Brothers' fairy tale, The Robber Bridegroom.

The numbers 3 and 7

Zenia has three victims, and the smallest and most vulnerable-seeming of these takes on the charmed "youngest sister" quest-role. As in three-sister fairy tales, the story of Zenia is repeated three times, each only slightly different than the previous telling.

The three chapters built around the women are bookended by four shorter chapters ("Onset," "The Toxique," "The Toxique," and "Outcome," with historian Tony's voice guiding "Onset" and "Outcome," and all three voices present in the two Toxique chapters), bringing the total to seven, and giving the novel a mirrorlike, palindromic structure. Also, the three women have four children between them, and this younger generation feels the mechanisms of Zenia as well.

The false bride motif

A common cross-cultural fairy-tale framework in which the heroine's husband is kidnapped by a bewitching rival, initiating a long, arduous quest to reclaim him.

Metamorphosis, mirrors, and shapeshifting

Zenia herself is compared to wolves, vampires, dragons, witches, part-human and non-human, supernatural entities and forces of nature; her stories and shifting autobiographies merely represent one facet of her slipperiness. She sheds these like she sheds identities and biographies, even physically transforming herself through starvation, surgery, hairstyles, to most effectively approach her victims. Roz views Zenia as a product of "Frankenstein doctors." Tony strongly identifies Zenia with her imaginary twin sister, Ynot (note the mirror-language of this name). For Charis, Zenia represents her "severed half," the repressed memory of Karen (her real name) split off as a buffer against a severe emotional trauma. Each woman is subject to dreams or visions in which she becomes Zenia.

Plot parallels

Roz, with her childhood full of menial labour and her adulthood as a wealthy entrepreneur, represents Cinderella; Tony, whose home-office is in a tower, and who, as a history professor, works in the ivory tower, is Rapunzel; and Charis, half-living in a dream world dominated by gardening and domestic arts, is Sleeping Beauty. Zenia herself, in the opening pages of the novel, is introduced as a Gretel-figure, alone in a forest from an old woodcut, without family or guardian spirits, but dangerous for this.

Film adaptation

A film adaptation of "The Robber Bride", starring Mary-Louise Parker as Zenia, Wendy Crewson as Roz, Greg Bryk as Henry, Shawn Doyle as John, Susan Lynch as Charis, Amanda Root as Tony, Tatiana Maslany as Augusta and Brandon Firla as West, aired on CBC Television in January 2007 and the Oxygen Network in March 2007.

The adaptation altered the plotline, choosing not to show Roz, Tony and Charis' childhood flashbacks and adding several new characters. As well, Augusta is taken by Zenia and the Toxique has been changed to Absinthe.


* Brian Busby, "Character Parts: Who's Really Who in Canlit", Toronto: Knopf, 2003, p. 280. ISBN 0-676-97579-8
* [ Rambles.NET review by Tom Knapp]
* [ undergraduate analysis of archetypical imagery in "The Robber Bride"]
*Margaret Atwood, [ Toronto Council of Teachers of English, Question and Answer Session, May 1995] Dead link|date=August 2008

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