Review of The Robber Bride Who Killed Zenia? The Triple Goddess Wins, Sort of Here Are We All Like Her?

Reviews of The Blind Assassin, The Robber Bride, and Alias Grace.

The Robber Bride:

Mirror, Mirror... The Robber Bride's Windows


If you think I'm going to explain about the mirrors, you're out of luck, I'm afraid. Maybe there is a fine academic paper out there in scholarland that discusses them. If not, somebody needs to get one written. What I'm going to do here is suggest some of the questions. You might think of this as a setup for the big finish. ("Are we all like her?" How does that question relate to mirror themes?) Except it's not going to be a big finish, either. I'm still just moseying along, I'm afraid, foraging and musing, not lulling you closer for a knockout punch or getting ready to move in for the kill. The new feminist rhetoric and all that. You know, discourse as weaving and building rather than fighting or hunting, a design rather than a battle (Miriam Brody, Manly Writing: Gender, Rhetoric, and the Rise of Composition).

So, the mirrors. I feel like such a klutz. Five times I've read this book, and never focussed on the mirrors. (In fact, I'm still not getting it. As the good reader I mentioned in "Who Killed Zenia?" pointed out after reading a draft of this piece, Zenia falls through a "window" into a reflecting pool. Thanks, V.) This last time, suddenly, on reflection (no, I'm not ashamed) they were everywhere.

Perhaps the one that flashed me most painfully in the eyes was the one on the dustjacket of the American edition and reprinted on the paperback cover. That cover, a painting by Malcolm Tarlofsky, who is among other things a magazine illustrator with a knack for "dream-state paintings," has always haunted me and made no sense, with its dead hand holding a picture of a left eye looking right, off stage. It hit me, finally. It's not a picture of an eye, it's a hand mirror. And when I looked more closely, I discovered it's not a hand, either. Well, it is a hand, but of a marionette (the attaching cord and even a bit of the eyelet are visible behind Atwood's name). A tiny little hand, smaller than a squirrel's (wait a minute...), fake in spite of the fleshy look of the palm, holding a mirror in which is reflected an eye, not yours or mine, because it isn't looking back as we must in order to see our own eye in a mirror. Not Zenia's, whose eyes are blue, not this nondescript dun. Whose then? And where are the eyelashes? And — The eye is rendered in the grainy detail of a cheap Victorian illustration. It's not a mirror after all....

If I hadn't just read this book, I'd read it again to try to figure out how mirrors are a key to the novel. In The Blind Assassin, the key is books. Key in the sense of central image that we come back to, that we gnaw at and examine, as we work our way through the story, which is a pile of entangled books. Here it is mirrors, reflections, that startle us, reveal us, reverse things, just as the doll and real eye become a real hand with a cheap playing card. We are reminded early on of the Bible's most famous mirror, Paul's that we see in darkly before face-to-face. There are mirrors everywhere. When Zenia is resurrected, Tony sees her first, and in a mirror: "she looks up, and into the mirror. Zenia is standing there" (Ch 5). This is no accident. When we get Charis' version of the resurrection (Ch 10), she is facing the door, and she sees the "real" Zenia, not a reflection. "The 'real' Zenia"? I think I said that back in the "Triple Goddess" discussion. And when Roz sees her (Ch 15), it's not in the mirror either, but by turning around and looking, alerted by Tony.

So, who really sees her first? In fact, Charis does, not Tony. We hear Tony's version first, and thus we are misled into giving her precedence. But Charis is staring when Tony looks. Atwood is very precise about that. Tony looks up when she is aware that the door of the restaurant has opened, but Charis actually sees Zenia open the door. Roz is the last to know, alerted by the expression on Tony's face. Charis is first, and sees the reality, and is expecting to see her, has spent the morning anticipating it. And Charis, seeing her, here in the flesh, sees the future as well as now. She sees "in the moonlight" of noon, something toppling from a building. (And again, in the next chapter, she imagines herself "pushing Zenia off a cliff, or other high object" while watching for her through a café window.)

Windows, mirrors. Each of the women does a bit of mirror work before her respective departure for the fateful meeting at The Toxique. For Tony, it's "adjusting her face" (Ch 4) with a little powder and a few seconds of combing hair — an afterthought. For Charis, an eminently pragmatic lump check on her breasts (Ch 7) in the middle of her morning. For Roz, a first-thing-after-waking janitorial project, damage control on a face that is "silting up" (Ch 12). It is Roz who is haunted by the smart-mouthed spectre of the talking mirror from Snow White.

And Tony and Charis at least each have their own key window moment. (I suspect there's one for Roz, too, but I can't find it right now. Like I said, sue me. Ch 39, maybe, a nice practical power window.)

For Tony, the window scene is the recollection of fogging and reverse-writing on a window the afternoon her mother came home for the last time (Ch 21). "Tihs," she writes. (and I realize that one of my best bon mots, the day when my publishing team discovered they had printed a Hebrew cover left-to-right instead of correctly, which is to say, backwards, and I said, "Tish happens," I owe to Atwood and Tony and Stew/West who is not Tsew/West. Sigh.) "Kcuf," she adds, and then her mother is home. Tony's window is utterly transparent here, the opposite of a mirror, covered with words that only make sense from the other side.

For Charis, the window is in her kitchen door, where she sees her daughter's head one night, framed and shaded by darkness, and mistakes her for Zenia, who is dead (Ch 7). The scene, we will learn eventually, echoes Zenia's arrival at her door all those years ago on her mission of destruction (Ch 31). And Charis, looking at the outline of her daughter's head in the window and thinking that Zenia is back, five years dead, is not surprised. Not then either.

Zenia returns by stepping through a mirror at The Toxique, and she departs through the balcony window. What are we to make of it?

We call a mirror a glass, and so it is, but a special kind of glass, one that shows by reflection rather than transparency. Even Paul's "glass" is ambiguously mirror/window which we see through darkly, then "face-to-face." Too bad we don't spell mirror "niwwod" or window "rimror." A window is the opposite of a mirror. Or is it? The opposite, I mean. Two ways of looking. Two ways of seeing. The mirror shows us history, Tony's speciality; the window shows us the future, Charis' specialty. In the mirror, important things are backwards. A window is more accurate. The window looks out, the mirror looks in. But where is Zenia? What is the glass where we see her? Mirror or window?

I am building a scattered essay on elements of The Robber Bride — scattered in the sense that they are not meant to be read in any order. Here is a map of the pieces (the grey one is where you are now):

Review of The Robber Bride

Who Killed Zenia?

The Triple Goddess Wins, Sort of

Mirror, Mirror...

Are We All Like Her?

I have posted reviews of The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace. Upon publication of The Blind Assassin Atwood's publisher, Doubleday, put up a page for her which may still be available. The Random House "Reader's Companion" page for The Robber Bride has some useful interpretive materials, including a few Atwood poems and her address to the American Bookseller's Association the year the book was published.

She has her own website as well, the delightfully named Owtoad. Other good sites are The Atwood Society and Brittany Chenault's Atwood Links. I recently discovered a beautiful and comprehensive bibliography site,

If you like Margaret Atwood, you might like Louise Erdrich, a woman of Michif (Métis) heritage who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Love Medicine in 1985. I have posted an annotated bibliography of her work and reviews of The Antelope Wife and her newest novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.

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