Eventually, our life experiences shape who we become. As it is with human nature, some of these experiences we can control, while others we can’t, so we react. However, the ways we choose to react with love, hurt, or forgive are all our choices.
“Stone Mattress” is Margaret Atwood’s latest collection of short fiction that she calls ‘tales’ rather than ‘short stories’. The first three tales are connected by narrations and reflections of a poet’s two wives, and lover. While the other stories do not share characters or plot, the entire book is connected through major themes of aging and old age. In “Stone Mattress”, Atwood includes characters that are in their senior years, reflecting on what life has offered, making amends, or retributions.
For this discussion, we shall be analyzing the eighth tale and collection’s title; “Stone Mattress“.
The main character and narrator, Verna, is a woman in her sixties, although you can barely tell just by looking at her face. She has taken care of herself the best way money can. After the death of her fourth husband, Verna has had enough of men and is now on a cruise to the Arctic. The unexpected happens when she meets her high school rapist, Bob Goreham, on the same cruise. Filled with rage and shock, Verna carefully plans how to get back at Bob for his actions fifty years ago. Verna settles on killing Bob but before doing it, she gives him two chances to live, one being an expected apology. At the layered, 1.9 billion years old stromatolites rocks known as the stone mattress, she smashes his head with a rock, leaving him to the ravens and lemmings. In the remaining days on the cruise, Verna carefully covers her tracks and hopes she can maintain it to the end.
Margaret Atwood connects with readers of all ages by talking about what matters most; life. It’s ups and downs, experiences, mistakes, love, and hurt, all shape who we become.
From trivial things like choosing the Arctic cruise that will hide her puckering body to planning a murder, the character of Verna is tactful, cunning, and very strategic. She carefully chooses how to act and react in different situations depending on her desired endgame. In other words, Verna plans with foresight. For instance, her choice of profession and client acceptance criteria is tacitly influenced by the kind of men she wants to meet. Verna also plans Bob’s murder cautiously leaving no room for detection, and so far, she has been successful in covering it. The main character is also confident in her actions, decisions, and feminine allure. However, she was not always like this. She describes her 14-year old self, “the shy, mousy-haired, sniveling idiot she’d been at fourteen.”
One thing that Atwood achieves meticulously is to unfold Verna’s whole life while still narrating this one moment of her life on the cruise. So we’ll look at Verna’s life since she was young and see how the layers of life experiences have borne “—why not say the word?—a murderer.”
Verna has a basic childhood with a seemingly unpleasant upbringing. When she’s 14 and in high school, Bob gets her drunk during the Snow Queen’s Palace winter party and rapes her. This is a life-altering moment for the character and is mostly the basis of subsequent decisions and reactions. She thinks “So you went on to get married and have children and a normal life, just as if nothing ever happened. Whereas for me . . .” To make matters worse, Verna falls pregnant and her mother sends her off to a church-run Home for Unwed Mothers. After giving birth and the child taken away for adoption, Verna chooses not to go back home. She works in hotels and goes ahead to exchange sex with a married man for education. Verna eventually becomes a physiotherapist, with a preference for older, wealthier, male clients with particular chronic diseases that would make it easy to die of “natural” death.
There’s no telling if Verna would have turned out like this if all of the above had not happened to her. But Atwood intentionally goes further to show us how these experiences created the sixty-something Verna on the cruise. “It was Bob who’d turned her into—why not say the word?—a murderer.” Here, ‘Bob’ refers to how he raped Verna and caused her life to take an entirely different path. Verna has also learned one or two things from her life’s experiences and is now wise enough not to repeat the same mistakes. Look at her current perception of love “Gullible Verna, who’d believed she was in love. Or who was in love… Such beliefs drain your strength and cloud your vision. She’s never allowed herself to be skewered in that tiger trap again.”
Atwood also throws in words of wisdom that Verna has picked up in her sixty years or so of living. They are quote-like, like something one would say when they have lived long and learned from experience. She says things like “a sneezing man is not an attentive man.”, “it doesn’t do for an unaccompanied woman to appear too eager.”, “He’d laughed, but he’d also wriggled: a sure sign of the hook going in.” Obviously, these are not your everyday life quotes but they do convey some sort of wisdom that Verna has learned throughout her life of enticing and seducing classy affluent men. The small bits of behaviors and beliefs she has picked along the way have led to this Verna.
In Bob’s case, it is clear that there’s not been much change from the manipulative boy he was in high school. Maybe because he did not live through life-altering experiences like Verna. Nevertheless, his life-long trait of taking advantage of weaker people has brought him to this moment; his death. Back in high school, Bob took advantage of Verna because he knew that she was naively in love with him. “how amazing that golden-boy Bob had singled out insignificant Verna for the Snow Queen’s Palace winter formal.” Fifty years later, he is still using the same tactics; “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Bob says, materializing at her side. “How about that bottle of wine tonight?” When he thinks that the deal is about to materialize, he hopefully packs bottles of scotch and encourages Verna to go with him past the third ridge for “Out of sight is where he wants to be.”
There’s also evident significance in the setting of Stone Mattress where the main character murders her high school rapist. Verna is just like the Arctic with its billion years old stromatolites. The stone mattress is an ideal representation of Verna’s layers and layers of life experiences that, as far as we know, have culminated in this murder. “Stone mattress: a fossilized cushion, formed by layer upon layer of blue-green algae building up into a mound or dome.”
In this collection of tales, Margaret Atwood connects with readers of all ages by talking about what matters most; life. It’s ups and downs, experiences, mistakes, love, and hurt, all shape who we become.
What are your thoughts and questions on “Stone Mattress” by Margaret Atwood? Let me know in the comment section.