How Atwood Rescued This Single Mom


It’s not often that a student tells you that an author turned her life around, but Ashley Kadva says this of Margaret Atwood’s novels. I’m currently mentoring Ashley’s senior project and you will be impressed by how the Canadian author came to the aid of someone who endured a very tough childhood. Because of the sensitivity of the material, I got Ashley’s permission to tell her story, and she checked over the post before publication.

Ashley’s St. Mary’s Project consists of a memoir and a thematic analysis of Edible Woman, Surfacing, and The Robber Bride. As a single mother who had returned to college in her thirties, Ashley was looking for a topic that would allow her to explore the intricacies of relationships. From what I knew of Ashley from a Pride and Prejudice essay, I suggested Atwood. Ashley glanced at Edible Woman and recognized at once that Atwood was the right author for her.

Ashley spent last summer immersed in Atwood novels, which triggered various childhood memories. These included:

–her grandmother calling Child Protective Services to force Ashley’s mother to allow her to have life-saving urinary tract surgery;
–Ashley spending days in the car as her addicted parents drove the family long distances to obtain drugs;
–a near sexual assault from a friend of her stepfather while her mother turned a blind eye; and
–a rape by a 19-year-old when Ashley was 13.

Following the rape, Ashley writes, she became promiscuous but then looked to marriage as a form of salvation. She believed those around her, including her religious grandmother, when they told her that landing a husband would make her worthy and respectable.

She increasingly felt empty in the marriage, however, and it ended. Before it did, however, she determined to go to college to find herself.

She recognized a kindred soul in Atwood when she encountered the notion of being an edible woman. Marian is a college graduate in an empty job who finds herself pressured to get married. Increasingly, however, she finds herself unable to eat. Finally, she freaks out her fiancé by presenting him with a large cake in the form of a woman. This metaphorical expression of how she feels she is being devoured drives him away and helps free her to begin exploring new possibilities.

If Edible Woman helped Ashley imagine a life outside of marriage, Surfacing alerted her to the necessity of facing up to her dark childhood. The unnamed protagonist cannot understand why is unable to experience emotions and why her relationships don’t progress. A dive into a lake functions as a metaphor for a dive into her past, and there she encounters a memory that she has repressed, a fetus from an abortion. Upon resurfacing, she goes mad, tearing down all vestiges of civilization around her—she is in a family cabin in the woods—but this tearing herself down to essentials is a necessary step if she is to begin building a new self. By the end, as Ashley interprets the novel, she is ready to leave the island and return to the world.

An important Atwood observation for Ashley, from another work, observes that “you must take the longest journey, to oblivion. And die the death, the long and painful death that lies between the old self and the new.”

The Robber Bride goes more fully into the need to take action. The novel involves three women who are plagued by a woman (Zenia) who steals and then destroys their husbands. As the novel progresses, however, it’s unclear whether this woman even exists or whether she is a dark alter ego who makes the husbands pay for their emotional abuse. The women, after all, have allowed these men to walk all over them, especially Charis (a.k.a. Karen) and Roz, so maybe Zenia is a repressed anger that rises up and takes revenge.

The figure of Karen/Charis sent Ashley back into her childhood. Karen is repeatedly raped by her uncle while her aunt closes her eyes, and she survives psychologically by imagining a double self. (While one is being assaulted, the other floats above.) She names this doubled self Charis, and Charis goes on to practice meditation and open up a shop selling crystals, incense, candles, wind chimes, and other such paraphernalia.

Charis pretends her Karen past never happened but, by repressing her anger, she becomes an emotional doormat, opening herself up to exploiters like American draft dodger Billy. Billy mooches off of her until a supposedly sick Zenia shows up, first stealing him away from Charis and then turning him into the authorities for selling pot.

Or maybe it’s an unleashed Karen who turns Billy in. In Atwood’s novel Alias Grace, the psychologist who analyzes the murderess theorizes that she has been possessed by a dead friend, the victimized and now very angry Mary Whitney, who orchestrates the murder without Grace’s knowledge. Karen, released by Zenia, may function similarly.

The point of these intricate and murky plot twists is that women may be angrier than they admit to themselves, and repressed anger turns toxic. To progress forward in a healthy way, one must acknowledge the anger. By the end of The Robber Bride, the three female protagonists have formed a sisterhood—Zenia has brought them together—and are prepared to move on.

Which is how Ashley is using Robber Bride. As she says, she wants not to be a victim but to construct a happy and fulfilling life for herself and her boys. To do that, however, she must recognize the narratives in which she has been trapped. Analyzing and applying Atwood’s novels has allowed her to do precisely that.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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