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“As Canadian as possible under the circumstances": how girls grow up canadian in Margaret Awood’s The Robber Bride

« Aussi canadien que possible dans ces circonstances » : comment les jeunes filles sont élevées en canadiennes dans La Voleuse d’hommes de Margaret Atwood
Ellen McCarthy
p. 160-171


Cet article explore comment Margaret Atwood, dans La Voleuse d’hommes (The Robber Bride, 1993), élargit l’éventail des possibilités existantes pour concevoir l’identité nationale anglo-canadienne. Il se concentre sur la façon dont le roman réaborde et reformule certaines des questions sur l’identité canadienne qui sont posées avec insistance dans les premiers récits de fiction et essais critiques d’Atwood. L’article s’intéresse, en particulier, à la manière dont les récits d’évolution personnelle s’entrecroisent avec les discours sur l’identité féminine et canadienne dans La Voleuse d’hommes. Il s’agit d’examiner comment les trajectoires d’évolution personnelle explorées dans le roman attirent l’attention sur la relation complexe entre narration et identité, et d’expliquer comment progrès et évolution, dans les romans, sont influencés ou déterminés par un positionnement politique identitaire nationaliste spécifiquement féministe et canadien.

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1Atwood’s representation of Canadian identity in The Robber Bride reformulates a recurring trope in her fiction, that of divided or multiple identity, and thus poses a challenge to the idea of a cohesive or authentic version of Canadianness. This article offers an extended consideration of these issues, and examines the role of storytelling in the formation or construction of the Anglo-Canadian identities invoked in the novel. It will also pay attention to how narratives of feminist and national identity are subjected to compatible processes of interrogation throughout the text.

2In PractisingModernism, Reading Postmodernism, Patricia Waugh acknowledges the compatibility of feminist and postmodernist strategies: “many women writers are using postmodern aesthetic strategies of disruption to re-imagine the world in which we live, while resisting the nihilistic implications of the theory” (129). Atwood’s fiction into the 1980s and 1990s is a prime example of this potential compatibility and the juxtaposition of competing fictions of selfhood in her work is of particular importance in this regard, particularly in relation to the representation of female and Canadian national identity.

3The Robber Bride (1993) exhibits remarkable similarities to Atwood’s earlier novels The Edible Woman (1969), Lady Oracle (1976), and Cat’s Eye (1988) in its preoccupation with split or multiple identities. The main characters variously indulge in self-invention, self-mythologising, role-playing, and self-division, while identity is presented as unstable and duplicitous throughout the novel. The character of Zenia is most interesting in this regard and myths of Zenia are present at two levels in the novel. They are generated by the character of Zenia herself and, as will be seen later in the discussion of feminist identity in the novel, are also intimated in the narrative. Furthermore, Zenia serves as the catalyst and focal point for the other three main characters’ development and progress. If Atwood’s earlier novel, Lady Oracle (1976) marked a change in terms of the fashioning of identity in Atwood’s fiction and presents an alternative to the victim positions most evident in her first two published novels (The Edible Woman [1969], Surfacing [1972]), then The Robber Bride may be read as further elaborating the potential for self-invention and multiplicity to be both dangerous and liberating to the subject. This double-sidedness, as will become apparent, is something that Atwood grows more comfortable with as her œuvre progresses. Her later work celebrates the possibilities and the release of divided identity, particularly in relation to Canadian national identity, and the rendering of such multiplicity in The Robber Bride does not contain the same anxiety about the precariousness of such a position, as do early novels such as The Edible Woman and Surfacing. In a letter to Marge Piercy written in 1973, Atwood, having just begun Lady Oracle, ponders the necessity of moving forward from the ambivalent closure of her first two novels: “Woman in Surfacing is left at the edge… all we know is that it will be different, but we don’t know how. (Because I don’t). Next novel won’t resolve that, I don’t feel (novels seem always about 2 yrs [sic] behind what I think when writing them) but the one after that will either have to or die.” (Atwood Collection 2:4). In fact Lady Oracle does suggest a creative solution to this ambivalence as Joan Foster’s subversive play with identity marks a point of departure in Atwood’s treatment of female and Canadian victimhood. The Robber Bride, however, most fully realises this early promise in its emphasis on the dangerous but exciting and liberating possibilities of embracing a subversive alternative to the humanistic ideal of a unified cohesive subjectivity: that of self invention and self construction. Furthermore, The Robber Bride employs these possibilities with the specific purpose of interrogating the notion of a stable, authentic Anglo-Canadian identity.

4Like Lady Oracle, the novel opens with the main character’s rebirth following the faking of her own death, and this sets the tone for the model of identity explored throughout; cohesive life trajectories do not apply and, where they do, are not to be trusted. The outrageous multiplicity of Zenia’s self-invention is most dramatically manifested in her diverse and incompatible claims about her origins: she is, variously, the abused daughter of a white Russian, the orphan of a Romanian gypsy, and the daughter of a Greek immigrant. Similarly, while seeming to be sexually provocative and indifferent to what she considers to be Toronto’s puritanism, she later reinvents herself as frigid and sexually vulnerable. In this way, the character of Zenia literalises and brings together “polarities” similar to those examined in the short story of the same name in Dancing Girls (1977). In transcending the traditional and related binary opposites of feminine and masculine, victim and victimiser, the character of Zenia brings together two frequently intersecting sets of coordinates in Atwood’s discussions of the shared ambitions of Canadian feminism and nationalism in the 1970s. In The Robber Bride, Atwood replies to her earlier fiction and criticism from a very different cultural context.

5In an undated note to her assistant, in the Atwood collection at the University of Toronto, Atwood requests the source of the following quotation or song lyric: “Ask a woman where she’s going and she’ll tell you who she’s been” (27:1). Atwood’s interest in this line chimes with her association between female identity and past selves; the movement in this line from a progressive, hopeful (and, significantly, unrealised) geographical metaphor for selfhood and a backward looking, role playing, past-centred notion of selfhood is deeply resonant with what Atwood engages with in much of her later fiction. As a prescription it reflects the power of play as a device in the forging of female identities in Atwood’s own writing, particularly in The Robber Bride where Zenia’s she-devil con-artistry privileges the careful maintenance of simultaneous, creative identities over any cohesive subjectivity or linear trajectory of progress. It is, in fact, in this role-playing that Zenia’s remarkable power over the other characters’ lives lies. In telling her life story over and over, she alters her history to meet the individual needs of Charis, Roz, and Tony. Zenia mirrors each character’s anxieties and confusion about their personal and cultural origins and fills in the gaps in their individual life narratives. It is her role as an interloper—played so adeptly by Zenia—that renders her such a powerful and dangerous presence in the other characters’ lives. In the fictions that she perpetuates about herself, she completes the gaps and elisions in the other characters’ life narratives and this serves as a means of winning their trust and ultimately as a weapon of malevolent control. For example, Tony, who imagines herself to be a twin “the other half of which had died” (137), comes to see Zenia as the missing component in her life history, a partner in the twinning suggested in Tony’s ambidexterity: “Tony will be Zenia’s right hand, because Zenia is certainly Tony’s left one” (169). But Zenia’s supposed “completion” of Tony is not, as the latter imagines it will be, a positive thing.

6As prevalent in the novel as Zenia’s elaborate talent for multiplicity is the recurrence of divided or split subjectivity. In the case of the character of Tony, this division is apparent in the afore-mentioned ambidexterity and also in her alternative private language. This “slippery double” (Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing 2002) recurs as a motif throughout Atwood’s work, taking on various guises from schizophrenia to a much more exultant play with narratives of selfhood. In The Robber Bride it emerges not just as a ploy of self-invention but also as a self-protecting device, particularly in the case of the characters of Tony and Karen/Charis. Tony’s ambidexterity, and her private language based on her ability to read effortlessly from right to left, is a skill born out of coercion that becomes a defence mechanism and a signifier of her fantasy life. In school, her teacher ties Tony’s left hand behind her back, forcing her to write with her right hand, and so her left hand becomes the property of her twin persona, Tnomerf Ynot, (Tony Fremont spelt backwards), a fearless female medieval warrior and a fantasy alternative to Tony’s timid day-to-day persona as a diminutive academic. Tony’s private language is presented as the point at which these two personas meet: “It’s her seam, it’s where she’s sewn together, it’s where she could split apart” (19). This juxtaposition of opposites in Tony’s identity is all-defining, not just in the way that she presents herself to the world, but also in the way that she sees the world – it has an overriding influence on her imagination. It is no coincidence that, in spite of the mild persona that she presents to friends and colleagues alike, her research specialities centre on the more bloodthirsty vicissitudes of warfare and military strategy.

7Central to this interest in split or multiple selfhood and identity, both individual and national, is a revisitation of a typically Atwoodian preoccupation with the role of language and narrative in the fashioning and preservation of identity. For Tony, History is a synonym for narrative and she sounds a warning note about its inherent unreliability in the opening pages: “History is a construct, she tells her students. Any point of entry is possible and all choices are arbitrary” (4). This suspicion of language and narrative resonates with Atwood’s early fiction, in particular with the position of the narrator of Surfacing (1972). In Chapter 6, Tony concludes that, “War is what happens when language fails” (39), and later insists that “Words are so often like window curtains, a decorative screen put up to keep the neighbours at a distance” (62). This can be read as a restatement of the narrator’s suspicion of the dangers and vicissitudes of language in Surfacing: “Language divides us into fragments, I wanted to be whole” (140). Similarly, the fact that “The story of Zenia is insubstantial, ownerless, a rumour only, drifting from mouth to mouth and changing as it goes” (461) is what ultimately makes Zenia so dangerous to the other characters in the novel. Zenia has a particular talent for storytelling, for empathising with other characters’ victimhood and exploiting the uncertainties of their individual histories. This is most extravagantly displayed in the way that she presents each character with a veiled version of their life in the telling of her own, so that Roz feels when she speaks to Zenia, it is as “one outsider to another” (366) even though Roz, like Tony, is both familiar with and wary of the dangers of “the pleasures of narration” (371). Zenia takes particular “pleasure” in storytelling and is self-aware in her deception: she exults in narrative invention but at the same time references the sources from which her fictions are derived. In telling Tony about her life as a child prostitute in Paris, she says of her mother: “Also she was sick a lot of the time. Coughing just like an opera! Blood in the hankie” (165). She proves particularly adept at recreating the scenes of her own histories, as comes to the fore in the way she recounts her return visit to Berlin, where as a baby she had been rescued from the Nazis by Roz’s father: “I went in and up the stairs, just as my parents must have done hundreds of times. I touched the same banister, I turned the same corners […] they were the same rooms, it was the same light. I think my parents became real to me for the first time. Everything, all of it became real. Before that it was just a bad story” (359). There is a deliberate ambiguity in Zenia’s reference tothe “bad story” of her past in this instance. As with all of Zenia’s life narratives, it invites the question as to whether what is bad about these stories is the inevitable tragedy that befalls her or that her life stories are always just shy of cliché. In this way, Zenia not only exults in the lies and fictions of her life histories but also audaciously draws her audiences’ attention to their inherent fraudulence.

8In drawing attention to the “perverse joy” of narrative The Robber Bride provides an appropriate metaphor for Atwood’s own relationship with language as a writer as, from the beginning of her career, she was always most interested in the liberating possibilities of such “sleight of hand”, particularly from a feminist and Canadian nationalist perspective. It is appropriate, then, that The Robber Bride ends with the tantalising promise of more stories, as the three characters claim the power of narrative for themselves, much as Atwood did as a Canadian woman writer caught up in the processes of forging a new literary tradition in the 1970s: “That’s what they will do increasingly in their lives: tell stories. Tonight their stories will be about Zenia” (470). Once Zenia is finally rendered “inoperational,” the women are free to claim Zenia’s control over the stories that impacted their lives so dramatically: an explicit recognition that their relationship with Zenia was based on desire and envy as well as fear. The Robber Bride, then, explores an identity that is fractured and multiple and based on the unreliable source of a story “drifting from mouth to mouth and changing as it goes” (461).

9Such emancipatory potential of narrative play and subversion is most evident in the rewriting of Zenia as muse in The Robber Bride. In addition to the different life histories that Zenia fabricates, the narrative presents another set of images that serve to subvert the kinds of cultural myths about women that are famously described by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex:

Woman is at once Eve and the Virgin Mary. She is an idol, a servant, the source of life, a power of darkness; she is the elemental silence of truth, she is artifice, gossip, and falsehood; she is healing presence and sorceress; she is man’s prey, his downfall, she is everything that he is not and that he longs for, his negation and his raison d’être (175).

10The Robber Bride is clearly most interested in the darker side of the myths of femininity enumerated by de Beauvoir. Such engagement with patriarchal narratives introduces an element of parody and play that reconfigures the discourse, renegotiating embedded power structures, and this proves to be a highly effective strategy for survival. As various critics have noted, from the subversive connotations of the very title of the novel, The Robber Bride inverts and subverts the female muse as a passive victim. Indeed, in the novel itself, Zenia is never described in terms of passive female archetypes, instead Atwood seeks out a range of alternative models: Frankenstein’s monster, a Banshee, Medusa, Jezebel, the wicked Godmother at the fairytale christening, and Helen of Troy. Zenia’s power lies in her ability to exploit the femme fatale archetype, to become a woman with power. Zenia is an arch-villainess, the dark side of Atwood’s Rapunzel figure invoked in Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972) and in Lady Oracle, but one who indulges in weaving not rescue narratives, but powerful, controlling narratives that are dangerous to both men and women.

11Gender relations in the novel are often described in Tony’s military rhetoric, which can be examined in a series of playful references to the “battle of the sexes.” Tony, a military historian, begins her relationship with her future husband when she “drags West from the field of defeat and carts him off behind the lines, and tends his wounds, and mends him” (179). When Zenia returns to claim West, Tony concludes of Zenia’s hold over him that he was “occupied territory” all along (186). Similarly, the independence afforded by her buying her own home is described in terms of military strategy: “Tony’s castle, her armoured house, her one safe place” (413). As pointed out in notes on fairytale motifs in the Atwood collection: “Over our own lives we have a little more control. We can play roles, strike poses, co-operate with the poses of others. The knight in shining armour is of course incomplete without a maiden to rescue. Being rescued has also its price” (Atwood Collection 56:9). Tony’s home, and indeed Tony herself with her boy-short hair and androgynous body, presents a radical adjustment to the Rapunzel motif which first appears in Atwood’s work in Survival. This is particularly the case in the way that Tony’s “turret room” also serves as a fortress lookout: “From the street her room must look like a lighthouse, a beacon. Warm and cheerful and safe. But towers have other uses. She could empty boiling oil out the left-hand window, get a dead hit on anyone standing at the front door” (189). Tony’s character is less concerned with weaving the means of her own rescue but rather appropriates the fairytale tower and renovates it as a refuge complete with its own defence strategy. Perhaps here Atwood fully realises another possibility for a Canadian and feminist version of Rapunzel: one that reinvents and revitalises the Canadian “garrison mentality,” for a more positive purpose.

12In the draft of a piece entitled “Answers to Frequently Asked Questions” (1982) (Atwood Collection 74.1.4), Atwood responds to the question “Are your novels autobiographical?” as follows: “My books are certainly autogeographical so far at any rate. That is, they are set in places that really exist, and in which I’ve spent some time.” This “autogeographical” element of Atwood’s work is strongly present in the representation of Toronto in The Robber Bride. If Atwood applies a Joycean model to her interpretation of her role as a Canadian writer in the 1970s, then The Robber Bride is to Atwood what Dubliners is to James Joyce, in the way that it fosters a distinctive sense of place and pays great attention to what we might call “autogeographical” detail. Repeated reference to the Toronto cityscape as well as the importance of Queen St, China Town, Spadina Avenue and the Toronto Islands ensures that Toronto as a setting comes into sharp focus, particularly in comparison to Atwood’s earlier fiction. In addition to the significance of Toronto in the fictional geography of Atwood’s fiction, The Robber Bride also contains a subtext of Canadian cultural commentary that can be read as a development of her work as a Canadian cultural critic (and, indeed, agitator) in earlier decades. Coral Ann Howells also argues that The Robber Bride is concerned with interrogating the idea of Canadian identity at a very specific time and place in its development: “The novel primarily addresses English Canadian anxieties about changing representations of national identity, focused at a precise point in time and space: Toronto in 1990-1991” (“The Robber Bride; or, Who is a True Canadian?” 89). According to Howells, the novel is largely concerned with deconstructing myths of Anglo-Canadian authenticity:

Atwood is peering beneath the surface of English Canadian narratives of identity as she looks into the life stories of three white Canadian women born during World War II, growing up and still living in Toronto in the 1990s. And what does she see? She sees hidden histories of immigrant and cultural displacement, split subjects, dislocated identities, reinventions, and renamings, a pervasive sense of otherness and not belonging. To read The Robber Bride in postcolonial terms reveals how the white subject fractures under this analysis too. This is no way meant to trivialise or minimise the experience of nonwhite subjects in Canada, nor the painful experiences of “negative othering”, but rather to highlight how Atwood’s fictional representations of subjectivity reveal the nonfixity of identity and how her narrative strategies uncover secrets hidden in the past as she deconstructs myths of white English Canadian authenticity showing how difference is a crucial factor in any identity construction. (“The Robber Bride; or, Who is a True Canadian?” 90)

13Thus, much like Zenia’s self-invented histories, the novel presents Canadian national identity as being subject to processes of fictionalisation. From its opening lines the novel displays an extraordinary wariness of origins: “The story of Zenia ought to begin where Zenia began. It must have been someplace long ago and distant in space, thinks Tony; someplace bruised, and very tangled” (3). This interest in tangled origins is sustained throughout the narrative, most particularly in the experience of Roz. Roz undergoes a series of shifts in name and identity: she goes from being Roz Greenwood, to Roz O’Grady, to Roz Grunwald and, as a result, comes to see her own identity as a “pastiche” (346). With an Irish Catholic mother and Jewish Eastern European father she is acutely aware that both parts of her identity are subject to Victorian racialist stereotypes and her bifurcated Anglo-Canadian identity is both a source of confusion and painful embarrassment. In the case of her Irish Catholic identity, the prejudices that she encounters as a child are only a short imaginative leap away from a Punch magazine caricature of the nineteenth-century Canadian frontier: “Tony, who is more interested in these details than Roz is, once showed Roz an old picture—the men standing in metal washtubs, to protect their legs from their own axes. Low comedy for the English middle classes, back home, living off the avails. Stupid bog-trotters! The Irish were always good for a smirk or two, then” (305).

14While as a young girl Roz comes to identify her Eastern European father as a “displaced person” and purveyor of multiple passports, the character of Shanita sustains this narrative of instability and multiplicity in the present-time narrative of the novel. Shanita can be read as another, more positive, version of Zenia given that she embraces cultural role-playing, identifying with different origins as a means of frustrating the racial othering that she is subject to as a woman of colour living in Canada. Not only does she identify different grandmothers—“Shanita has more grandmothers than anyone she knows. But sometimes she’s part Ojibway, or else part Mayan, and one day she was even part Tibetan. She can be whatever she likes, because who can tell?” (57)—but she is also adept at reinventing herself as a business-woman and is strong, resourceful and kind; she constitutes a life-affirming reflection of Zenia. As Howells suggests, in foregrounding the complexity of white, Anglo-Canadian origins, Atwood does not in any way seek to elide ethnic difference or draw inappropriate comparisons between the experience of white Canadians and Canadians of other ethnic backgrounds (“The Robber Bride; or, Who is a True Canadian?” 90). In fact, “The Robber Bride” draws repeated attention to Charis’s envy of Shanita and to her frustration at being “stuck with being white” (58), while Roz, in spite of having suffered the pain of cultural displacement as a child, guiltily admits failing to sympathise with a new generation of Canadian immigrants:

But things are getting more confusing: for instance, how many immigrants can you fit in? How many of them can you handle realistically, and who is them, and where do you draw the line? The mere fact that Roz is thinking this way shows the extent of the problem, because Roz knows very well what it’s like to be them. By now, however, she is us. It makes a difference (100).

15Most importantly, in her identification of the instability of the seemingly cohesive narrative of Anglo-Canadian identity, Atwood replies to critics who classify her as belonging to an Anglo-Canadian tradition that takes up the kind of unquestioned anglocentric “settler point of view” that is suggestive of one conservative and exclusive version of authentic Canadian national identity (Mackey 49). While Survival, as a work of criticism, might seem to be too doggedly in pursuit of a defining theme in Anglo-Canadian literature, Atwood’s own fiction more than compensates for the apparent narrowness of her early vision. In her critical writing, Atwood often cites a Canadian in-joke about Canada’s national self-awareness which replaces the classic cliché, “as American as apple pie,” with “as Canadian as possible under the circumstances.” This engagement with an American catch-phrase has more implications for Atwood’s reading of the state of Canadian national identity than might at first seem apparent. As a representation of Canadian identity it suggests a refusal of absolutes and an awareness of Canadian identity as contingent upon other discourses, or as containing a multiple meanings, or, indeed, as open to multiple interpretative possibilities. It is exactly such contingency and multiplicity that is foregrounded in “The Robber Bride”. It is, furthermore, a testament to her own writing that as an author she transcends the limits of her early work as a critic.

16At the same time, the novel does return to familiar Atwoodian territory in the representation of the lingering myths of the Canadian colonial mentality. There are number of explicit references to the cult of Canadian victimhood—“Aggressively Canadian, what a contradiction in terms” (93)—and yet at the same time the novel takes up where Lady Oracle leaves off in terms of the narrative’s refutation of Canadian victimhood. In teaching a course on siege strategy, Tony concludes: “They were all victims! They took turns!” (21). Furthermore, each of the character’s individual history presents a different slant on Anglo-Canadian experience. For example, Tony’s English mother is a modern day version of Susanna Moodie, the nineteenth-century pioneer who recorded her experience of life in the Canadian wilderness in a series of books that served as a guide and, to some degree, a warning to other immigrants. Tony’s mother describes her arrival in Canada in terms that contains real echoes of Moodie’s disillusionment in Roughing it in the Bush:

She was forced, she was coerced, she was carried off by that cruel thieving lout, Tony’s father, to this too-cramped, two-storey, fake Tudor, half-timbered, half-baked house, in this tedious neighbourhood, in this narrow-minded provincial city, in this too-large, too-small, too-cold, too-hot country that she hates with a strange, entrapped, and baffled fury (145).

17 In addition, Zenia’s illusion of exoticism has the effect of foregrounding the apparent inadequacy of a Canadian national identity in a similar way to that explored in short stories such as “The Man from Mars” and “Dancing Girls” (Dancing Girls). Next to Zenia’s adventures in Europe and the United States, Tony’s life history seems “no more than an incident, minor, grey, suburban; a sedate parochial anecdote; a footnote” (166). It seems most appropriate that all of Zenia’s sometimes tragic, sometimes glamorous personas belong to Europe, preying exactly on the vulnerability of the other characters and their anxieties about their own Canadianness, and reflecting Atwood’s own reading of the Canadian colonial mentality: “Where has she been? Well, Europe, she says, gesturing towards a higher, a deeper culture; and the States, where the big folks play; and the Middle East. (With a wave of her hand she invokes deserts, date palms, mystic knowledge, and better shish kebab than anything capable of being grilled in Tony’s wee Canadian oven)” (182). Zenia has a similarly crushing effect on Roz’s self-image: “Zenia has been out in the world. The wide world, wider than Toronto; the deep world, deeper than the small pond where Roz is such a large and sheltered frog” (360). Zenia serves to remind Roz of her own anxieties about the apparent limitations of being Canadian:

‘I wouldn’t want this to get around’, she says ‘but that’s the reason I came back to Canada. It’s kind of a safe haven for me—you know? Things were getting just a little too interesting for me, over there. Canada is such a—such a gentle place’ […] It doesn’t escape Roz that the opposite of interesting is not gentle, but boring (367).

18In a speech addressing the Parliamentary Committee on Free Trade in 1987 Atwood rather ruefully expresses an ongoing concern for the future of Canadian sovereignty: “Our national animal is the beaver, noted for its industry and its co-operative spirit. In medieval bestiaries it is also noted for its habit, when frightened, of biting off its own testicles and offering them to its pursuer. I hope we are not succumbing to that form of impulse” (Atwood Collection 97:10:9). Thus Canada moves, in Atwood’s imagination, from the positive virtues of cooperation and hard work, to being self-emasculating in the most gruesome, least dignified, fashion imaginable (and what the sober national Committee made of this one dare not guess). However, a number of shifts in emphasis may be noticed in Atwood’s reading of Canadian confidence in Canada’s place in the world by the time came to write “The Robber Bride”. Many critics have noted how, in the final pages, Tony imposes her street plan of Toronto, the city so carefully mapped in the novel, onto her home-made diorama of warfare, so that Toronto displaces the European palimpsest. Thus, the Canadian identity found lacking in earlier work such as Dancing Girls is asserted with a new confidence. It is apt that a street map of Toronto should ultimately displace the war-torn battlefields of Tony’s imagination, given that Roz ultimately concludes of Canada’s “safe-haven”: “boring has something to offer, these days. Maybe they should export a little boring. It’s better than getting your head shot off” (367). More than this, as discussed elsewhere, Atwood is at this point in her career an internationalist rather than a nationalist and so

myths of origin are discredited, identities are reinvented, and her otherness finds its mirror reflection in the lives of the three Canadian-born protagonists. Her border crossings are a reminder of the international context within which Canada as a nation operates, a point that is elaborated more sharply with references to the recession and the Gulf War, an acknowledgement of how much the country is implicated in the forces of global capitalism (Howells, “The Robber Bride; or, Who is a True Canadian?” 100)

19It is thus fitting that the novel should open and close with a detailed documentation of international events and contexts. This is a clear indication of Atwood’s shifting concerns as a Canadian writer interested in political and social internationalist concerns as most fully propounded in novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003). The Robber Bride contains an acute, exploratory drive to discover how the self is constructed, and how those constructions, whether individual and personal, or collective and national, are both powerful and limiting.

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ATWOOD Margaret, Margaret Atwood Collection, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.
----,Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.
----, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, Toronto: Anansi, 1972.
----, The Robber Bride, 1993, London: Virago, 1994.

HOWELLS Coral Ann, “The Robber Bride; or, Who is a True Canadian?”, in Sharon Rose WILSON, Atwood’s Textual Assassinations: Recent Poetry and Fiction, Colombus: The Ohio State University Press, 2003, 88 101.

MACKEY Eva, The House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada, London: Routledge, 1999.

MOODIE Susanna, Roughing it in the Bush, 1852, London: Virago, 1986.

WAUGH Patricia, Practising Postmodernism, Reading Modernism, London: Edward Arnold, 1992.

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Ellen McCarthy, « “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances": how girls grow up canadian in Margaret Awood’s The Robber Bride »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. III - n°2 | 2005, 160-171.

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Ellen McCarthy, « “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances": how girls grow up canadian in Margaret Awood’s The Robber Bride »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. III - n°2 | 2005, mis en ligne le 28 octobre 2009, consulté le 22 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Ellen McCarthy

(Bristol, Great Britain)
Ellen McCarthy graduated with a BA in English and German from University College Cork, Ireland in 1998, before studying for an MA in Modern English at University College Cork and the University of Constance, Germany. She recently completed her Ph.D. entitled Margaret Atwood and the Female Bildungsroman at the University of Bristol and currently teaches in the English department there.

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