In her 1987 review of Beloved, Margaret Atwood notes that Toni Morrison blends into her novel a particular folkloric tradition about the dead returning from the grave when they are summoned. To further illuminate this tradition, Atwood explains that the "passions of the living,"--and, perhaps, the thoughts and feelings surrounding past issues connected to the departed--keep the dead alive; and Beloved, as the incarnation of Sethe's dead daughter, functions as a catalyst for "revelations as well as self-revelations." Through Beloved, Atwood argues, the stories of the central characters are revealed (Review 35). In her latest novel, Atwood draws from a similar folkloric tradition and narrative strategy to give added meaning and depth to another contemporary ghost story already imbued with a multiplicity of layers, ranging from the biblical and the folkloric to the metaphysical, psychological, and the Eastern philosophical.
Drawing from these various rich traditions and perspectives, The Robber Bride becomes a creation or rather a recreation of a ghost story in which the three central protagonists--Roz, Tony, and Charis--unconsciously summon through their "passions" a trickster-like woman from their past back into their lives. In addition to providing templates for the heroines' reunion with a troublesome woman from their past, folktale traditions within the novel also demonstrate that life is grounded in patterns that are far from the coincidental. Thus, Zenia's physical reemergence into the lives of the protagonists represents an event that the psychologist Carl Jung would dub "synchronistic," a purposeful and meaningful union between an inner unconscious knowledge, desire, or passion and a physical event or manifestation (Jacobi 357).
While The Robber Bride provides a demonstration of synchronicity throughout, it is primarily grounded in one central sychronistic event--Zenia's reunion with the heroines. Several years prior to the opening of the novel, Zenia, a woman who attended college with Roz, Tony, and Charis, feigns her death in order to assume a new identity and to evade responsibility for the tragedies that she inflicted upon the protagonists. At the opening of the novel, Zenia returns to Toronto and entangles her life into the lives of the protagonists who come to recognize that their reunion is hardly the mark of coincidence. Rather, the protagonists learn not only that they unconsciously summon and will Zenia back into their lives because they have many unresolved issues with her, but also that Zenia's return aids them in their individuation processes; that is, the process by which the protagonists begin to recognize and understand previously unconscious elements of their psyches.
The key to further understanding the significance of this particular ghost story, Zenia, and the personal transformations that she triggers in the three protagonists can be found in an interview with Atwood in which she discusses Surfacing and her fascination with the psychological aspects of ghost stories. Although there are a variety of ghostly narratives to fashion a novel around, Atwood admits that she is particularly intrigued with tales in which "the ghost that one sees is in fact a fragment of one's own self which has split off" (Gibson 29). In "Surfacing: Apocalyptic Ghost Story," Keith Garebian observes that the ghosts the protagonist beholds in Atwood's first novel are ultimately projections of a distressed mind (2).
From a Jungian perspective, ghosts as projections of an afflicted mind or as fragments of one's psyche can be represented as the "shadow" or dark side of one's nature that is often repressed or rejected. In "Approaching the Unconscious,"Jung argues more specifically that "the shadow cast by the conscious mind of the individual contains the hidden, repressed, and unfavorable aspects of the personality" (94). While she symbolizes a conglomeration of many folkloric and biblical traditions, Zenia also most dramatically represents the physical manifestation of an unconscious element, shadow, or "split-off" aspect of the protagonists' psyches. Indeed, Zenia represents the dark aspect of the protagonists' unconscious minds. By recognizing and integrating the shadow or the dark side of the unconscious into their own consciousnesses, the protagonists advance further in their individuation processes; they ultimately become acquainted with aspects of their characters that they did not realize existed.
Insights into the psyches and individuation processes of the heroines reveal themselves through dreams, memories, flashbacks, and visualizations. The dreams and visualizations of the three central characters in The Robber Bride reflect not only the state of their psyches, but also the broader context of their external lives, including their interactions with their social environment. On a deeper level, the interior lives of the protagonists disclose the relevance that specific myths and folklores have in explaining contemporary human behavior. Contemporary dream images, associations, and visualizations are often, according to Jung, "analogous to primitive ideas, myths, rites ..." (32). Intricately connected to myth and folklore, dreams can reflect the mythology of a culture, as well as certain human concerns (Auerbach 24). While the Bluebeard and Robber Bridegroom tales may have been circulating in various forms for generations, their depiction of human behavior and psychological issues still find meaning in contemporary life and, more particularly, in a contemporary ghost story. If we examine folklore as an expression of community or culture as does Canadian folklorist Edith Fowke (2), then we can understand the Bluebeard and Robber Bridegroom tales as stories formulated to illuminate and explain social structures and human behaviors.
In her feminist,Jungian approach to the Bluebeard folktales, Clarissa Estes notes that "the Bluebeard story is about a caper, the dark man who inhabits all women's psyches, the innate predator" (45). Indeed, Estes's analysis raises some interesting points that can be used to explain Zenia and her function in the lives of Roz, Tony, and Charis. The Robber Bride appears to be a variation of the Bluebeard tale, but one that places the female as the predator of other women and men, most particularly the men in the lives of Charis, Roz, and Tony.(1) While aspects of the Bluebeard stories certainly inform the novel, they are also intermingled with a version of the tale for which the novel is named--this providing the most direct model from which the narrative grows. At one point in the novel, Tony notices a copy of the "The Robber Bridegroom" in her friend's home and decides to read it to Roz's children. As she narrates the story, Tony focuses upon the part about a handsome man luring young girls into the woods in order to mutilate and devour them (292). At this point, Tony realizes that if she replaced the Robber Bridegroom with a beautiful, enticing female as man eater, this folktale would provide a blueprint for her present situation with Zenia. After discovering her own narrative within this folktale, Tony dubs Zenia "The Robber Broad" (293).
As a conglomeration of folkloric figures, Zenia represents the predator, robber, stalker, shadowy figure that appears in the interior and exterior lives of Roz, Tony, and Charis. Estes argues that some women who experience dreams with a "dark figure" or intruder are usually undergoing some type of"initiation--a psychic change from one level of knowing and behavior to another more mature or more energetic level of knowledge and action" (67). Estes further explains that many individuals have dreams or visions of obscure, shadowy intruders who provoke fear and agitation. On some level, an intruder or robber figure in dreams may reflect some personal crisis in the dreamer's life in which she is called "to fight or flee" (Estes 66). When faced with a difficult choice or a difficult revelation about oneself--as in the cases of the three protagonists--the woman who experiences this type of dream often feels reluctant to take the next step in her individuation process. According to Estes, the woman "is shying away from wresting her own power away from the predator, that she is not used to being/acting/striving at full bore, in all-out capacity" (67). When a woman learns to render the intruders in her life powerless of her mind and body, she learns not to be a victim to her interior and exterior life--she learns how to survive (Estes 72). Throughout the course of the novel, the three protagonists recognize that in order to understand and free themselves from the haunting, unresolved issues from their past, they must face and render powerless the dark, shadowy predator who invades their lives.
Harbingers in the lives of the three heroines foreshadow Zenia's coming, but the frightening omens experienced by Charis appear to be exceptionally revelatory and indicative of forthcoming events. Before Zenia first appears at the Toxique, a trendy Canadian restaurant where the protagonists are having lunch early in the novel, Charis senses or intuits her return. One such premonition occurs within Charis's home. While looking toward her window, Charis catches a glimpse of the shadow of a woman whom she thinks is Zenia, but who is, in fact, her daughter Augusta returning home from school. After she realizes that she mistook Augusta for Zenia, Charis becomes agitated, for she believes that the two women are exceptionally different (47). This, though, is not the first time in the course of the novel that Charis associates Zenia with a dark, shadowy archetype. Being well versed in the Bluebeard folktale traditions, Atwood strategically places Zenia near windows, doors, and other entrances, perhaps also reminiscent of the image of Zenia as an intruder walking into the lives of others and causing fear. Charis startles easily when she mistakes Augusta for Zenia near her window, and she startles easily again when she suddenly observes Zenia garbed in black, mysteriously alive and well, in the doorway of the Toxique (66).
A practitioner of Eastern and metaphysical philosophies, Charis clearly recognizes that her preoccupation with Zenia coupled with Zenia's appearance at the Toxique indicates that she still has many unresolved issues that need to be mended before she can move on to the next stage of her individuation process. As a predator and violator, Zenia lied her way into Charis's life, drained her of financial resources, and lured Billy, Augusta's father, away from her. Consequently, the return of Zenia most dramatically triggers Charis to reexperience a personal crisis associated with invasion and violation--the tragedy of incest and rape that caused Charis to suffer from psychic fragmentation and an outer body experience when she was a child. Moments after Charis actually encounters Zenia for the first time in five years, she is overwhelmed with fear. To help quell her sense of horror and reaffirm the goodness within her in the face of danger, Charis attempts to practice visualization and meditative exercises. However, the visualizations go amiss when Charis uncontrollably envisions a tall structure or building crashing and fragmenting (67).(2)
As much as Zenia triggers an acute splinting or fragmenting of Charis's psyche, she also provides Charis with an opportunity for growth and a portal to see another aspect of her character--her own capacity for hatred and anger. Charis recognizes that she can hate and despise an individual enough to push her from a cliff or tall building, similar to the hotel balcony Zenia does fall from to her death by the end of the novel. Because The Robber Bride contains strong allusions to biblical stories, it also draws a connection between Zenia's fall from the balcony to the biblical Jezebel's fall from her tower. Since she has great psychic capacity in that she intuits events and foresees the deaths of significant people in her life, Charis feels and envisions that in a confrontation with Zenia, her fragmented other, Karen, pushes Zenia from her hotel balcony (70).(3) From her experience with Zenia, Charis learns that she too contains Zenia as an aspect of herself that is perhaps repressed: "If everyone is part of everyone else, then she herself is a part of Zenia" (56). While Zenia is associated with deceit, hatred, fraud, and trickery, she is also associated with strength, self-assurance, and resourcefulness. Later in the novel when Charis envisions herself actually merging with Zenia (394), she feels more powerful not because she has allowed the destructive traits of Zenia to overwhelm her consciousness, but because she has successfully expanded her sense of self and her capabilities. In the end, Charis emerges a renewed individual less victimized by her unconscious mind and external circumstances and more understanding of the events of her life as part of a meaningful and purposeful plan.
Like Charis, Roz learns that Zenia's presence helps her undergo a meaningful transformation. When she is introduced into the novel, Roz is dreaming. From a Jungian perspective, dreams act as messengers attempting to communicate vital information to the dreamer. Through symbolic and pictorial language, dreams make the unconscious conscious for the dreamer (lung 4). In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell explains that while the symbolic and pictorial messages send by the unconscious often appear threatening to the very foundation of the dreamer's security and sense of self--as in the case of Roz--they, in fact, may well be fascinating because they offer the dreamer an opportunity for a new adventure--a more in-depth discovery of the self (8).
Such interpretations lend great insight into understanding the role of dreams in Roz's life. In her dream, Roz attempts to open a series of doors until she finds the one door that leads into the room that stores her clothing (72). From a Jungian perspective, clothes often represent the persona that one presents to the world. Accordingly, Roz's search for her clothing involves a search for the mask or persona that she presents to her world, but that she is losing touch with or having difficulty maintaining because of some crisis in her life; her unconscious mind informs her through the dream of an impending threat to her sense of security. To illuminate the folkloric significance of entrances in Roz's dream, Estes notes that the door in the Bluebeard tale often represents "a psychic barrier," a guard or shield that conceals or hides a secret. Estes additionally explains that this door or guard "... reminds us again of the predator's reputation as ... a psychic force that twists and tangles us up as though by magic, keeping us from knowing what we know" (52). Most interestingly, after Roz awakens she associates her dream with Zenia--the predator that Roz has allowed to walk into her life to disrupt her sense of security (96). Concurrent to Charis's associations of Zenia with windows is Roz's association of Zenia with doorways.
This search for the doorway that will render an understanding of the missing pieces in her life triggers Roz to recall another dream in which she actually identifies with Zenia. In her dream, Roz sees Zenia piecing her carnage back together after an explosion, but the body parts that Zenia tries to reconstruct resemble Roz (72). While this dream disrupts Roz's sense of security, it also sends her a rather pivotal message--one that enables her to behold another dimension of her sense of self. Like Charis, Roz too recognizes an aspect of herself in Zenia that she needs to claim as her own (72). She realizes that she too is Zenia. Later, while at her office, Roz admits that Zenia was her "... own monster. I thought I could control her. Then she broke loose" (95). Like Charis and Tony, Roz also remembers that Zenia had a tremendous amount of power, particularly an "undeniable power over men" (376). Because she admires this capacity, Roz desires to understand how Zenia achieved such a keen ability to dominate others.
In the midst of experiencing the consequences of Zenia's actions, Roz's understanding of Zenia deepens. After her accidental overdose, Roz learns from Charis that the tragedies that are befalling her in her present life, especially her encounter with Zenia, are past lives trying to work themselves out. In order to move on to the next phase of her life, Roz, according to Charis, must learn from these experiences of reincarnation (383). Not only must Roz learn from the impact of these past life experiences, but she also must ascertain why she admires aspects of Zenia. Earlier in the novel, Charis reflects upon a particular spiritual or metaphysical view that maintains that often when an individual needs to learn a lesson to enhance her personal growth, a teacher, which can manifest in many forms, appears (217). In this particular instance, Zenia acts not only as a catalyst triggering changes in the protagonists, but also as a teacher who will enable the protagonists to learn, albeit painfully, the lessons that they are ready to understand. Like Tony and Charis, Roz learns and admits that as much as she despises her, she desires to be more like Zenia--an individual who has studied the world and has turned it to her own advantage (388-89).
Tony, as well, perceives Zenia not only as a dark, shadowy figure and an intruder that immobilizes her prey, but as an individual who embodies certain skills that she desires to possess. When she is introduced into the novel, Tony is contemplating the significance of having had Zenia in her life. Several scenes later, Tony is again portrayed preoccupied with thoughts of Zenia despite the fact that she presumes her to be dead. Because Zenia haunts her memory, Tony thinks that she might be experiencing a premonition. However, since she also embraces a logical, rational side, Tony questions the legitimacy of this omen. When she is first introduced into the text, Tony, like Roz and Charis, is experiencing some type of conflict or unexplained unsettling. But when she fearfully bears witness to the return of Zenia at the Toxique, she understands, in part, that her agitation is justified because her premonition has, indeed, materialized. Interestingly, Tony sensed that Zenia might reenter her life, "stroll in through some unlocked door, climb through a window carelessly left open" (10). Indeed, Tony has experienced a number of chilling encounters with Zenia during her college years, but the one when Zenia climbed through a window that Tony had left open during the night and rendered her fearful and powerless is most representative of Zenia as a dark, shadowy intruder (170). Like Charis, Tony realizes that she, indeed, possesses desires to murder Zenia particularly when she fantasizes about the variety of methods she could use to kill someone whom she associates with vampires (180,401). Indubitably, Tony desires to rid her life of an individual whom she aligns with tricksters and extortionists.
As she reflects upon her capacity for hatred and her desire to rid Zenia from her life, Tony questions the security of her existence and her relationships with others (37). At this point, Tony learns that one can never feel completely safe or assured in this world, and once one realizes this, "Everything has been called into question" (35). With this realization, Tony decides to protect and fight for what she claims as her own--her husband (110). Through her interest in history, particularly her studies of war, Tony learns that when man is on the defense, waiting for the enemy to strike can be fatal, but so can retreating: "He who fights and runs away may live to fight another day, or else he may just get speared from behind" (112). Although, at times, she feels her battle with Zenia appears hopeless, Tony will not allow history to repeat itself. Thus when another opportunity to resolve past issues that haunt her unconscious and conscious mind presents itself, Tony ultimately chooses not to cling to past behavior patterns and counterattacks Zenia regardless of the risk of failure (112-13).
Ultimately, Zenia's return has prompted Tony not only to realize that "... people like Zenia can never step through your doorway, can never enter and entangle themselves in your life, unless you invite them," but also that "The dead return because we will them to" (114, 464). With Zenia's return, Tony learns to confront past issues that have haunted her since Zenia's feigned death. After she studies Zenia's strategy of preying upon the weaknesses of others, Tony realizes that she can counterattack her enemy by strengthening her vulnerabilities. When she responds to Zenia, Tony senses that she is undergoing a transformation; she envisions herself turning into a wolf and subsequently emerging an altered individual (399). For Tony, as well as the other protagonists, the next stage of the individuation process involves realizing that she possesses "another self, a more ruthless one concealed inside her" (401). As she explores the relationship between Canadian people, their culture, and animals in Survival, Atwood notes that when Canadians identify with animals, they are, in part, identifying with an animal's main goal of survival (79). When she chooses to stalk and confront her enemy, Tony exercises her need to survive--to attack before being attacked, to outwit the trickster. In the end, Tony, like Roz and Charis, emerges a transformed individual.
In an interview, Toni Morrison explains that all her novels "deal with characters placed deliberately under enormous duress in order to see of what they are made" (McKay 400). Similarly, Atwood places her characters under enormous stress to see how they cope and deal with their world--to see how they survive. In Survival, Atwood discusses various patterns in Canadian literature, including the representation of Canada as a victimized country. In her discussion of Canadian literature, Atwood explores various positions of victimization, which can be extended to the characters in The Robber Bride. If an individual recognizes and identifies herself as a victim, the individual will always suffer from powerlessness. When, though, an individual is able to overcome a state of victimization, then that individual can, indeed, make constructive personal changes (Survival :38).
Like the protagonist in Surfacing, the three protagonists in The Robber Bride learn that they cannot identify themselves as victims in areas of their lives where they do have the ability to act. The key to understanding their experiences with Zenia is their recognition that Zenia, on some level, mirrors a part of them that they must acknowledge. Zenia is their fragmented other--their shadow. Even though she plays an antagonistic role in the novel, Zenia allows the protagonists to become acquainted with values and aspects of their personalities that they preferred not to look at too closely. This is what Jung would term "the realization of the shadow" (174). Ultimately, the protagonists learn that they are drawn to Zenia because she represents not only repressed aspects of themselves, but also aspects that they must integrate into their beings in order to possess a more complete sense of wholeness. With this recognition comes the heroines' acute understanding of their capabilities--their wisdom, intuition, and inner strength--and their connection to the universal scheme.
More specifically, the novel demonstrates a more holistic perspective in that everything on the earth is intricately connected to everyone and everything else, including the greater universe. The concepts of karma, reincarnation, psychic ability, intuition, and premonitions, and dreams revealing vital information figure predominately in the lives of the three central protagonists. While Charis appears to be the one character with the most evolved physic ability and the most evolved insight into understanding the underlying principle, according to Eastern philosophical thought, for an individual's existence--that is to learn various lessons, to be both teacher and student, and to develop a stronger understanding of self--the other two characters demonstrate and develop these abilities to varying degrees, as well. By recognizing these capacities, the protagonists heighten their awareness of their current life situations relative to a larger, evolving chain of events. These abilities help the protagonists negotiate the challenges--the challenges of Zenia's return--that confront them in their daily lives.
Once the heroines confront the challenges that Zenia's return presents to them, they recognize the lesson that Atwood argues her protagonist at the conclusion of Surfacing recognizes: individuals have the freedom to choose how to act and respond in certain situations--they do not have to be fated by "the powers that be" (Gibson 24). With this newly founded understanding, the three protagonists move on to a new level of knowledge and understanding; they learn to exercise their freedom to control the circumstances of their lives that are controllable and to render the intruders of their lives powerless over their minds and bodies.
(1) While there are a variety of versions of the Bluebeard motif, Atwood appears particularly interested in the version by the Brothers Grimm or ones that explore the survival techniques of women. In "Bluebeard's Egg," the protagonist, Sally, is studying folklore and even more specifically one version of the Bluebeard tale that is relevant to The Robber Bride.
In this version, a wizard in the guise of a beggar approaches the eldest sister living in a house and asks for food. As she was giving the masquerading wizard bread, the oldest sister touches him, and then is suddenly compelled to jump into his basket. After the wizard brings the sister to his castle, he gives her an egg and keys. The sister is specifically told to preserve the egg and not to enter one particular room in the castle. When the wizard leaves for a journey, the eldest sister enters the forbidden room filled with mutilated women and subsequently drops the egg. She, like the second sister the wizard later pursues, is mutilated and left to remain in the room.
The third sister whom the wizard also pursues, however, escapes the fate of her other sisters because of her cleverness. Before she explores the castle and the forbidden room, the third sister places the egg in a safe place. After she discovers her mutilated sisters in the forbidden room, the third sister reassembles them. To the wizard's surprise, the third sister survives his test and in the end has power over him ("Bluebeard's Egg" 173-74).
(2) While this topic is not developed within this essay, Atwood draws a direct connection between Zenia and Jezebel and the Tower of Babylon biblical story. The tower that Charis envisions Zenia falling from represents the tower that Jezebel does fall from to her death. Because she is psychic, Charis not only intuits the coming of a Jezebel figure in her life, but she also foresees Zenia's actual death from a fall from her hotel balcony (284,440). In the end, the narrator directly acknowledges that "the prophecy [the Jezebel story] has come true"--time has repeated itself again (442).
(3) Flashbacks to Charis's childhood days with her grandmother reveal that Charis or Karen, as she was previously known before she changed her name, was destined to meet with a Jezebel figure.
When she was a child, Charis's grandmother would often open her bible and let a pin fall on a passage--a tradition that Charis engages in as an adult. Theoretically, this tradition would reveal some vital information to the reader. On one particular Sunday during her childhood, Charis and her grandmother engage in this practice and discover that the passage Charis's pin falls upon is, indeed, the passage of Jezebel (245). While she may have been destined to encounter Zenia, Charis realizes that she must choose how to respond to this encounter.
Atwood, Margaret. "Beloved Review." Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Eds. K. A. Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Amistad, 1992.32-35.
--. "Bluebeard's Egg." Bluebeard's Egg and Other Tales. New York: Fawcett, 1986. 144-84.
--. The Robber Bride. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
--. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Anansi, 1972.
Auerbach, Loyd. Psychic Dreaming. New York: Warner, 1991.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973.
Estes, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballantine, 1992.
Fowke, Edith. Canadian Folklore. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1988.
Garebian, Keith. "Surfacing: Apocalyptic Ghost Story. "Mosaic 3 (1976): 1-9.
Gibson, Graeme. Eleven Canadian Writers. Toronto: Anansi, 1973.
Jacobi, Jolande. "Symbols in an Individual Analysis." Man and His Symbols. New York: Laurel, 1964. 323-74.
Jung, Carl G. "Approaching the Unconscious." Man and His Symbols. New York: Laurel, 1964. 1-94.
McKay, Nellie. "Toni Morrison Interview." Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Eds. K. A. Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Amistad 1992. 396-411.
DONNA BONTATIBUS received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Rhode Island in 1995, and she presently teaches at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Connecticut.…