Reconnecting with the Past: Personal Hauntings in Margaret Atwood's the Robber Bride

Article excerpt

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. …