The Robber Bride summary and themes

 The Robber Bride summary and theme

Tony, Charis, and Roz, three friends from college, meet at a fashionable restaurant in Toronto called The Toxique for their monthly luncheon. Three disparate personalities, they all have a single thing in common: a woman named Zenia, dead for five years, who wreaked havoc on their lives 20 years ago. Their differences become starkly apparent over small talk, and they wonder what holds them together as friends. Suddenly, Zenia walks in, very much alive, and their old fears and animosities rise quickly to the surface.

The Robber Bride summary and theme Tony is a quiet, tiny college student. She is a reclusive recluse who prefers her studies to other people's company. Tony develops a fascination with conflict as a result of her father's involvement in World War II and the trauma that followed. She presently focuses on wars and battle tactics when teaching history at a university. West, a classmate she is intrigued in but is too shy to approach, introduces her to Zenia. He presents her to Zenia, who was then his girlfriend. Tony is coaxed out of her shell by Zenia, who also exposes her to a world of hipsters and nightlife she has never experienced before. She poses as Tony's closest companion, but she frequently borrows money and doesn't pay it back.

Charis—formerly Karen—is a victim of emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of her mother and uncle. She spends a summer with her grandmother, a sturdy, salt-of-the-earth woman who is self-reliant and possesses mystical healing powers. Her love of nature bonds the two women; Charis learns how to farm, how to raise chickens, and most importantly how to see the world through a spiritual lens. Charis knows Tony and Roz from college, but she is too preoccupied with her own trauma to be a part of that life. She eventually buys a house on an island off the coast of Toronto that is isolated, wind-swept, and perfect for communing with nature. There, she meets Billy, an American draft dodger to whom she provides refuge. Soon, they fall in love, though Billy is itinerant, always looking over his shoulder for government agents who might arrest him for his involvement in an act of domestic terrorism. One day, Zenia shows up looking sick and battered, asking for help. Charis takes her in and attempts to help her heal, holistically. Even when Zenia overstays her welcome and drives a wedge between Charis and Billy, she lingers, pleading illness. Eventually, when Charis becomes pregnant, she asks Zenia to leave. In retaliation, Zenia leaves with Billy, possibly turning him over to the authorities.

Roz, an ebullient, dynamic personality in college, also comes from a damaged childhood. Raised in a strict Catholic home, her father was involved in secret business during World War II. She learns upon his return that she is half-Jewish and that her father, though he helped a few Jews to escape persecution, also profited from the conflict, stealing rare artifacts and reselling them years later. She eventually assumes control of her father’s successful real estate development company and marries Mitch, a lawyer who spends as much time having affairs as practicing law. They have a son and twin daughters to whom Roz is passionately devoted.

At a diner, Zenia introduces herself as a reporter working as a freelancer on a story about workplace discrimination. Additionally, she exclaims that Roz's father spared her life during the conflict. Roz arranges to meet her for beverages so she can tell him the tale. Zenia claims to be a war orphan who was raised by her aunt. She also says that Roz's father gave her and her aunt the fake papers they needed to flee the Nazis. Zenia is hired by Roz to write for her WiseWomanWorld journal, and Roz later elevates Zenia to executive editor. Zenia eventually tempts Mitch. He moves in with Zenia after leaving Roz, only to have Zenia throw him out like she did with West. Despite being heartbroken, Mitch won't accept. The Robber Bride summary and theme.

Now that Zenia is back, Tony, Roz, and Charis plot individual strategies. They each visit Zenia in her hotel room at different times on the same day, determined to confront her over her transgressions. Tony goes to the room armed with a pistol but decides against killing Zenia. Charis wants only to find out about Billy, but Zenia’s vicious verbal attacks drive her out of the room in tears. Roz’s attempt to hold Zenia accountable is met with blackmail; Zenia claims that Roz’s eldest son, Larry, is dealing drugs and that she will turn him in unless Roz pays her off. As the three friends meet at The Toxique to share their stories, Charis has a sudden vision of Zenia’s death—a vision confirmed when they go to the hotel. Zenia has fallen, jumped, or been pushed from her 14th-floor balcony. As the women struggle to cope with Zenia’s death and her lasting impact on them, they come together to sprinkle her cremated ashes in Lake Ontario and to celebrate an end to a mean-spirited life but also a powerful and resilient one.

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An academic and scholar, Tony sees the world dispassionately. As a student of war, she sees death and suffering as numbers on a spreadsheet or pieces on a chess board. She has few social skills as a young woman, and so she devotes her energies to developing her intellect. Sexual intimacy is a frightening step into maturity that she never seems ready to make, not even with West, a friend and classmate she pines over while spending hours with his girlfriend, Zenia. Tony’s vulnerability is her secret desire to expand her horizons beyond the world of books and history—a desire that Zenia reads accurately and exploits, exposing her to the hipster scene of coffee shops, late night parties, and bohemian intelligentsia. The Robber Bride summary and theme. Tony, taken in by Zenia’s attention, falls for the ruse, lending her money without question. Like Charis and Roz, Tony is a product of her childhood experiences, her mother’s emotional distance, and her father’s isolation. Their marriage is shaky at best, which is perhaps why Tony prefers books to people. She cannot imagine a successful relationship, and so she retreats into her intellectual safe space rather than explore social and sexual connections.

Whatever Tony’s flaws, she is a caretaker, much like her mother. When West is heartbroken by Zenia’s departure, Tony nurses him back to physical and emotional health. West appears to be so fragile after his relationship with Zenia, he requires Tony’s constant care. Furthermore, Tony’s habit of spelling words backward reflects a disconnection to her physical self, which in turn is removed from emotion and desire. Tony is a boring academic, but Ynot can be anything, including a warrior woman who takes what she wants and is ruled by aggressive self-confidence, not fear—like Zenia.


Charis is the most spiritual member of the group. Often perceived as naïve and out-of-touch by the other two protagonists, Charis sees the world idealistically, as opposed to Tony and Roz. She desperately wants the soul of the world to be filled with light and positivity rather than the darkness she experienced as a child. A victim of physical and sexual abuse, Charis finds solace in alternate religious practices which include crystals, meditation, and auras. These beliefs are grounded in some reality, however. As a girl on her grandmother’s farm, she witnesses her grandmother’s uncanny healing power, which she perceives as a radiant light. She herself sees auras, and she accurately foretells Zenia’s death. She even notices an aura of energy bursting from Zenia’s cremation urn as it mysteriously splits apart. The Robber Bride summary and theme.

For Charis, being close to nature is the closest she can get to God, or whatever form God may take. She is an old soul, eschewing all things modern for a holistic, natural lifestyle. She grows her own vegetables, raises chickens, and lives on an island away from the hurly burly of 20th century Toronto. She is fully aware that Tony finds her spirituality weird and illogical, but Charis likewise finds Tony’s fascination with war and death ultimately destructive to her soul.

While all three women have vulnerabilities that Zenia exploits, Charis’s open-mindedness and generous spirit present the easiest opening for Zenia, who readily invites herself into Charis’s life. Were it not for Charis’s pregnancy, Zenia might be living under her roof indefinitely. Her charity also accounts for the presence of Billy in her life, a man on the run from the law who evokes in Charis a protective instinct. As a survivor of abuse, she sees it as her moral duty to protect others. Charis’s obsession with only seeing goodness prevents her from acknowledging her own dark impulses. When her anger towards Zenia pushes her to contemplate violence, she must attribute those impulses to Karen, her long ago discarded identity. Karen was abused and rendered incapable of love, and therefore all negative energy must stem from Karen, not Charis. The only way for Charis to acknowledge both her darkness and her light is to expunge Karen from her soul, an act of will that only Zenia seems capable of invoking in her.


Roz is the dominant female if Atwood's three characters are archetypes: the astute entrepreneur and dealmaker who knows how to make more money. Roz's past offers hints at the woman she will become; she learns poker from her "uncles," places bets at the races with her father, and builds a solid understanding of the interior workings of his business. Roz has only the female "roomers" in her mother's boarding house as role models because she spent a large portion of her childhood without a parent. She picks up her love of makeup and fashion from Mrs. Morley, and her fascination with detective tales from Miss Hines, which leads her to hire a detective to follow Zenia years later. Roz, who was raised in squalor, eventually


Zenia is a mystery, with no verifiable past or family background. Her identity is fluid depending on the situation and her needs at any given moment. Her assorted backstories include investigative reporter, cancer patient, firsthand witness to global political events, and beatnik. She claims to have reported from war-torn regions across the world, a story that is debunked upon closer examination. She is variously a Russian sex worker, an escapee of the Holocaust, or a Romani woman. Parts or none of these stories may be true, but that’s not the point. Solving the mystery of Zenia’s identity won’t change her narrative role as a devious force of malice who weasels her way into three lives and changes them forever. While she unquestionably leaves disaster in her wake—a broken West, a possibly deported and arrested Billy, and a dead Mitch—she also unwittingly establishes a bond between three women who would most likely never socialize after college. They travel in widely different spheres and share almost none of the same interests, but Zenia is the nuclear force that holds them together years after her presumed death. Atwood suggests that, in the end, Zenia is little more than a drug runner and an opportunist, seducing men and befriending women solely for material gain—or simply because she can—only to toss them aside when she’s milked them dry. Zenia is less a fully formed character and more of an antagonistic force, and as such, no fuller dimensions are necessary. It is enough that Zenia appears, destroys lives, and then recedes into the shadows, lurking until she is ready to strike again. Ironically, even after putting Tony, Charis, and Roz through the emotional wringer, they still grieve her death, lamenting her malevolent impulses but admiring her cunning and power.


The importance of Charis’s grandmother cannot be overstated. She is the only light for young Karen in an otherwise dismal childhood. Charis is without a father, and her mother suffers from mental illness, beating her cruelly. Part of her mother’s anger toward her daughter stems from Karen’s eerie ability to perceive things beyond the reality of her five senses, but once she spends a summer at her grandmother’s farm, she finds a nonjudgmental atmosphere and a sense of where those abilities came from. Her grandmother’s fatalism, which attributes everything to the cycles of nature, her strange healing ability, her rituals with the Bible, and her deep connection to the earth all resonate profoundly with Karen. Her grandmother is a fitting mother for Karen at the time.

Her time on the farm is a mixed blessing, however, and Karen’s life is shaped by both positive affirmation and the difficult reality of death. Karen cannot abide killing, and her grandmother’s nonchalance about killing her pigs for food traumatizes her into becoming a vegetarian. Her grandmother doesn’t shrink from death the way Karen does; she shrugs it off, stoically accepting it as all part of life. In the character of the grandmother, Atwood implies that individuals’ lives, perspectives, and belief systems are informed by the positive and negative influences of guardians, and that both are necessary to create a fully-formed person.


While Atwood gives all three men backstories, their true narrative purpose is to give Zenia a target. While all three enter the story from distinctly different places and come to very different ends, by the time Zenia is done with them, they are all putty in her hands, molded and shaped to her specifications, and then crushed between her manicured fingers. West, Billy, and Mitch have almost no agency nor will to resist the evil manipulations of Zenia. Pre-Zenia, all three are independent men, each with his own path. At first, West appears to be the dominant one in his relationship with Zenia, but after she dumps him for being “boring,” he becomes so fragile and delicate, Tony must care for him like a piece of valuable china. Billy is young and nervous, which gives Zenia plenty of room to toy with him, though Billy is suspicious of Zenia’s story from the outset, betting Charis that she’d find no surgery scars anywhere on Zenia’s body. Mitch would seem the hardest to manipulate. A high-powered attorney who travels in well-heeled circles, Mitch is nevertheless no match for Zenia, and he pays the ultimate price for his obsession. In the characters of West, Billy, and Mitch, Atwood implies that men are ruled primarily by their sexual desires, and that in the presence of temptation, they lose all rational thought and are transformed into hormone-crazed teenagers. The Robber Bride summary and theme.



By all accounts, Tony, Charis, and Roz are very different women—they have different interests, different career paths, and different views of the world. Tony is a solitary and introverted academic. Charis would rather till her garden and meditate than examine the world around her. Roz’s life revolves around business, profits, and hobnobbing with the social elite. In most tales, these three paths would never cross, much less run congruently for 20 years, but their shared trauma is a unifying force that holds them together despite their considerable differences. In addition to uniting disparate personalities, a common enemy can provide a tangible sense of power and even comfort when facing uncertainty: “Instead of believing that bad things happen for no reason, enemies give us a sense of control, allowing us to attribute bad things to a clear cause that can be understood, contained, and controlled” (Rathje, Steve. “Do We Need a Common Enemy?” Psychology Today, 17 December 2018).

Tony, Charis, and Roz experience a great deal of uncertainty in their lives. In college, Tony focuses on her studies to compensate for her social anxiety. As Charis deals with her past trauma, she navigates totally new ground with Billy, her first love and a fugitive to boot. Roz is dealing with Mitch’s affairs as well as an economic recession that threatens her company. In the midst of all this upheaval comes Zenia, a physical embodiment of malevolence and a perfect target for Tony, Charis, and Roz’s collective anxiety. It is much easier to contain and control a single woman than global economic forces or the persistent pain of sexual abuse.

Zenia, however, proves a formidable foe, and Atwood presents her as a superhuman flesh-and-blood demon who, like a mirror, reflects all of these women’s pain back at them. This is precisely what it takes to forge the strong bonds of friendship between three such unlikely allies: a sense of shared pain—the underlying common thread all humans share despite their differences—that can only be mitigated by uniting against a common enemy. Trauma is best dealt with not alone, as each woman attempts to do, but in the supportive embrace of a community. Zenia, in spite of her evil ways, illuminates this fundamental truth for these women.


The Robber Bride summary and theme. One of Zenia’s many talents is her ability to know exactly what her victim wants to hear. Tony wants a hip friend who can help her out of her shell and show her a world beyond the classroom. Charis, because of her deep empathy for any wounded thing, wants someone more damaged than herself to care for. Roz wants to be more than a craven capitalist by using her wealth for justice and equity. In all three cases, Zenia intuits exactly what these women want and need, and she constructs the perfect identity with the perfect rallying cry to snare each of them. Tony may be forgiven for her naiveté since she is Zenia’s first victim, but Charis and Roz are both aware of Zenia’s deceptions, and yet they willingly open their doors to her. Zenia is like a vampire who can only enter a house when invited, so she must use her considerable wiles to distract and deceive.

Zenia’s lies would have no effect, however, without the willing participation of her victims. Both Charis and Roz convince themselves that Zenia must have changed. After Zenia cobbles together yet another story of hardship, this one tailored for Roz’s sympathies, Roz falls for it: “How badly Roz has misjudged Zenia! Now she sees her in a new light, a bleak light, a lonely, rainy light; in the midst of it Zenia struggles on, buffeted by men, blown by the winds of fate” (404). Zenia understands all too well the human desire to have one’s hopes validated no matter the plausibility of the story.

Tony, perhaps the most cynical of the bunch, allows Zenia back into her home and into West’s company, despite her misgivings. Roz approaches Zenia with the wariness of a high-stakes business merger, but she is still taken in by her web of lies—lies that could have been debunked fairly easily—because Zenia told her what she wanted to hear. Contemporary examples abound, as individuals often seek out sources of information that confirm their biases, whether that information is verifiably false.


In the characters of Tony, Charis, and Roz, Atwood presents three women who are in many ways more independent than the men in their lives. They are all self-sufficient career women who follow their own passions. Yet Atwood suggests that, for all its empowerment and glass ceiling shattering, feminism is a double-edged sword. Roz looks at her board of directors, once a group of fiery, gender equality warriors now retrofitted in ‘80s business suits keeping a close eye on the bottom line. When Zenia transforms the magazine, WiseWomanWorld, from a platform for women’s issues and serious journalism to a glossy fashion magazine featuring articles on sex advice and makeup tips, the board offers no resistance. Even Roz cannot deny the rising profits, and so she allows Zenia to have her way. How easily, Atwood implies, do individuals sacrifice their principles for comfort.

Furthermore, although her three protagonists are all women, their Achilles Heel is without exception their men. Tony’s love for West, Charis’s love for Billy, and, most pointedly, Roz’s love for Mitch who continues to betray her, all suggest a codependency that many feminists would decry. Ironically, the most authentic feminist of the group may be Zenia. She has total agency over her life, she exercises her feminine power without restraint, and she has no shame or inhibitions about her sexuality. She moves through a man’s world easily, using her unique gifts, morally questionable though they may be, to get what she wants. In the end, however, she must die—perhaps because of her evil deeds but also because of her audacity in the face of a patriarchal society.


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