You want the quick answer? Yes, we are all like her. After all, a Poodle is like a Persian cat, and different from a Pekingese. Oak is like rock and different from pine.
But no, the answer to Tony's glib reflecting question ("Was she like us/Are we like her?") is really "No." Zenia is the vacuum that nature abhors. She is the spirit of denial. She is all the more cardboard and celluloid, a fabrication, as Tony, Charis, and Roz become more real for us. Her motivations are missing, not just her history. She is like Claggart and Iago, the spirit of motiveless malevolence. After all, why bother to damage these trivial, insignificant women? It doesn't even sound like it was much fun, as Roz observes after Mitch is gone and back again.
She is unbelievable in convenient ways, like a cartoon villain. Her talent for knowing the things she needs to know is incredible, and I mean literally. Tony would have us believe that she simply has an instinct for the right manipulative approach; I keep in mind that she has an omniscient coach feeding her the plays — initials MA again. With Roz she is both at her best and her most unbelievable.
Consider. Here is a case where the motivation is transparent enough. She wants to get her hands on the rich lady's money, and taking her husband away would be a nice side benefit. Not that she has anything against Roz, mind. As Roz mentions when they meet at the beginning of "the story of Roz and Zenia" (Ch 40), they didn't even know each other in college or since. But nevertheless, she sets her sights on Roz. She takes a job waitressing in a restaurant Roz would never consider entering, and Mitch takes Roz to lunch there, which just happens to put them in Zenia's shift at Zenia's table. When Roz recognizes her, Zenia immediately produces a cover story that will lead logically into Roz's business interests, and then she springs her real trap, the connection to Roz's father.
Folks, that's weeks of research and preparation and rehearsal for what is in fact an accidental meeting. As if I were to decide I want to meet Atwood, so I take a job at Grand Forks International Airport and wait for her to fly through. I'm not buying it. I'm not buying that Zenia knows that presenting her background as "mixed" is the way to poor Catholic Jewish Roz's heart. Roz knows that. Atwood knows that. You and I know that. Somebody told Zenia. It wasn't me, you, or Roz. I'm not buying her genius, not even a focused genius for one idiotic savance, destructiveness. Any more than I'm buying the notion that the sick, beaten waif who turns up at Charis' door one night is, in actuality, faking. Charis is out of touch with reality, but not that out of touch with reality. It's not just that Zenia couldn't pull it off, it's a question of why she should bother. The people of Atwood's very real world are crazy, stupid, thoughtless, vain, irrational. But they don't act without motive. They are no more driven by charity, logic, or good will than by what drives Zenia. But what they do is motivated by causes and reasons, however ill-chosen or misleading.
Atwood said in an ABA address that she wrote the book because she found herself observing, "Where have all the Lady Macbeths gone?" The Robber Bride is, she warns, "a book with a villainess in it." But her villainess is flat, for all her pneumatic cleavage. Flat and frivolous in her malice. Of the three battles we see her initiate, only the first assault on Tony seems believable, accountable — purposeful, however malicious the purpose. And there the oddity, the unreality, underlying Zenia's motivation is just put off a bit. Given that Zenia's only interest in West is to take him away from Tony, why is she with him before there is a Tony to take him away from? If he is boring and poor, what's the point? What's the appeal? Once again, nonsense.
Am I suggesting a flaw in this wonderful novel? Well, the thought has haunted me sometimes, but just now, no, to the very contrary. I think the diminution of Zenia to her cardboard status is necessary and important. Ultimately, Tony, Charis, and Roz must take responsiblity for their lives. There is an uncomfortable moment in the confrontations, for each of them, when Zenia says, in one way or another, "Stop kidding yourself," and she is right. Roz and Charis are well rid of the men they loved. Neither man deserved the love he was taking and, more to the point, both men were doing the lover more harm than good. Amusing as Roz's game of punish and forgive is to hear it described, even she knows that there is something ugly and unhealthy in the routine she has adopted to cope with Mitch's philandering. There is no question that if Billy had stayed, the cost of his presence would have been Augusta's childhood happiness.
What Zenia reveals to Tony is much more subtle, the very thing Tony refers to in that last thought of the book: complicity. She echoes Tony's judgment on Mitch. She utters Tony's secret assessment of Charis. And she agrees, as Tony has made so clear, that West is boring. All three women have confessed, in the course of the novel, to wishing, sometimes, that they could be Zenia. So what, though? When I'm feeling down, I watch Conan the Barbarian and imagine myself armed and dangerous. Semag lautcelletni! On, sselmrah! But what Tony learns is that she is like Zenia. Not could be, but is. And, we know, is not.
I am not dismissing the longing to "be Zenia, if only for five minutes" (Roz, Ch 49). And I'm not ignoring the fact that Charis can only enjoy sex by "being Zenia." And I'm not pretending I don't notice the similarity between how Tony imagines Zenia and how she imagines the mighty, amoral Ynot, whose name is either pronounced "I, not" or "Why not?" rather than "Eee note," I suspect. We are like her, and we would like to be like her. We would like to be rich and intelligent and beautiful and amoral, because it seems like it would be so much simpler than being so, well, human. And yet, Roz is rich, and Tony is intelligent. Is Charis "beautiful"? There are hints of it in Tony's first description of her, where she is compared to advertising models for wholesome products, Ophelia, and the Virgin Mary, no slouches on the beauty front. How neat that would be, but I don't remember anything explicitly to that effect. Zenia's beauty, for all the harping on it, is fake. And if she's so smart, how come she's the dead one? And she dies broke, even though she has piles of potential heroin income. Oh well, she gets to keep "amoral."
Zenia is the toxic anti-matter of what matters. She is the poison that intoxicates. She is the invisible worm that Boyce warns Roz against. She is the ultimate mirror. She is the cardboard rattlesnake with real fangs; she is lost and therefore with us always, in our thoughts; she is the illusion that defines the real.
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):
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, luminarium.org
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.