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Just one example for today, but it’s a full one. It appears that in childhood I did not get so thorough a grounding in Western storytelling traditions as I had thought. I entirely missed the robber bridegroom stories and all variations thereupon, which explains why I sadly found Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride an unfulfilling read. Of course, I read it immediately after her The Blind Assassin, after which, frankly, just about any piece of fiction would be unfulfilling. However, I have since been schooled in the matter of the robber bridegroom, and, just as Atwood keeps returning to this tale, I have returned to Atwood with her “Bluebeard’s Egg”. It is about a woman called Sally who is tasked with reimagining the robber bridegroom story in her writing course, all the while her life also fits along its features. Or maybe it doesn’t – we’ll see. Sally’s a rather more ambiguous subject than she wants us to know her to be. So let’s talk about the ambiguity of the feminine subject, shall we?

The thing about Sally is that she’s both an uncertain subject and an unreliable focaliser, because she’s presenting herself in the terms of all the established narratives on which she can get her hands. Sally both understands her world through popular texts and forms herself according to the frequently patriarchal understandings they represent. For example:

She was spoiled when young by reading too many Agatha Christie murder mysteries, of the kind in which the clever and witty heroine passes over the equally clever and witty first-lead male, who’s helped solve the crime, in order to marry the second-lead male, the stupid one, the one who would have been arrested and condemned and executed if it hadn’t been for her cleverness. Maybe this is how she sees [her husband] Ed

The word “spoiled” is interesting, because it both reinscribes and challenges Sally as a feminine subject. It has connotations of infantilised, feminised error. But the description also indicates that Sally believes reading has invested her with masculine qualities like wit and cleverness that “spoil” her for a subordinate gender role, don’t you think?

So we as readers are textually trapped within Sally’s perspective, one mediated and constructed by fictional forms – and one with a patriarchal influence. This is where knowledge of the robber bridegroom stories comes in handy, because her summary of the tale makes it crystal clear that Sally is having trouble centring women in her lived and written narratives both. The robber bridegroom stories begin with successive brides being trapped by an evil man, and end with the last woman triumphing over him. Sally only tells half the tale: ‘There was more, about how the wizard met his come-uppance and was burned to death, but Sally already knew which features stood out for her’. Female subjectivity does not stand out for her. And Atwood’s going to hit us over the head with that in just a minute.

The thing about patriarchal fictional forms is that they take on the assumptions of perspective in patriarchal society. The feminine and the female are minimised, and the supposedly universal subject is far from universal. The focaliser can never have everything in focus. The clinching moment for Sally comes when we learn that she has been given a writing assignment prior to the beginning of “Bluebeard’s Egg”. ‘They couldn’t use the Universal Narrator, however: they had done that […] this time they had to choose a point of view’. Not only does this become a source of frustration for Sally, making evident that she is having trouble moving past traditional viewpoints, but it’s suddenly clear to readers that we ought to check our assumptions about the legitimacy of Sally’s perspective, and how that might have been influenced by her reflections on point of view to which we have not been privy. This is a gorgeous way Atwood has of gently undermining patriarchal thinking in texts. My favourite bit is that we can’t pin down our female subject, and she slips out of the textual grasp again – not to mention the grasp of a patriarchal perspective that would like to contain and subdue the feminine.

Patriarchy pits women against each other, makes us fight for scraps and tear each other down, where we do so much better when we band together. Sally worries about undermining her career by taking on traditional female tasks like bringing her boss coffee. She triumphs, because ‘they both have a secretary that does that anyway’. Bam. Since Ed’s ex-wives’ ‘actual fates have always been vague to Sally, she’s free to imagine all kinds of things, from drug addiction to madness’. Sally can only consider herself valuable by undermining the other women in her world, because only by being her fairytale’s heroic third bride can she gain any place of value under patriarchy. And, knowing Sally to have a skewed perspective, we don’t take any of these values she’s espousing on board. That’s the use of hypodiegetic narratives like this one: incorporating patriarchal ideas into a feminist frame transforms them.

There are a thousand little ways in which Atwood unsettles Sally’s desire to embody the feminine. She swaps about traditionally masculine and female symbols, but we’ll be here all day if I start on those. Of her husband, Sally asks herself ‘Why did she choose him (or, to be precise, as she tries to be with herself and sometimes is even out loud, hunt him down), when it’s clear to everyone she had other options?’ She’s both a husband-hunter and this story’s Bluebeard – as much as she tries to figure Ed as Bluebeard, it never fits. She’s a fusion of narratives about the feminine and the masculine. She’s not being precise at all, but is trying to stay in the role of the passive fairytale heroine rather than answering her question with an acknowledgement of her transgression.

I thought this was a great story, clever, subtly so. I love feminist reworkings of fairytales, like Angela Carter’s. Fairytales are scary because they tap into culturally embedded fears – and cultural norms. Feminist treatments might not make them less scary, but they do open them up to examination. Not to mention examination of our own perspectives, and what we accept.