“I’m not as perfectly comfortable with manslaughter as you.”
–Donnie to Alison in Orphan Black
I would say that Serena Pemberton of Ron Rash‘s eponymous novel is cut from the same cloth as Lady MacBeth. But that would be inaccurate, since Lady MacBeth eventually has a change of heart. No, I’d argue that Serena’s closest literary doppelganger is a hybrid of Heinsenberg and his famous blue crystal meth. She is a near-mythological character whose reputation in the book makes a far greater impression than her dialogue or actions ever could. She is at a such a remove from the events and perspective of Rash’s narrative, that one can almost forget that she is the center of all the chaos. Although Serena appears to be in the background of her own story, her presence–noticeable or not–is what causes the downfall of everyone in her wake.
On the other hand, George Pemberton–Serena’s husband and unaware lackey–is Walter White. He’s a seemingly regular guy whose high tolerance for evil acts remains dormant until he meets his wife. Then he takes to her horrendous agenda in such an enthusiastic way that you know he always had the ability to do terrible things. He just needed the motivation.
This is all a really roundabout way of saying that Outside Girls do not necessarily have to be good people. The women I’ve covered so far are decent for all intents and purposes, even if there is an ethical hiccup now and again. But Serena Pemberton is independent, strong and occasionally sardonic. And, yet, she is the catalyst of this Greek tragedy (complete with a chorus of crewmen and multiple deaths) posing as a Southern Gothic. And she gives Vee of Orange is the New Black fame and Rachel “Pro-Clone” Duncan of Orphan Black considerable competition for Sociopath of the Year Award.
Like Vee and Rachel, Serena initially tricks the reader into thinking that her rejection of rules and norms is just plain bad-ass, not scary or amoral. When I started reading Serena, I was planning on siding with the flawed titular character, just as I rooted for Anna Karenina and Edna Pontellier of The Awakening. In fact, Rash had me at his first description of Serena: “At five-nine, Serena stood taller than either man, but Pemberton knew other aspects of Serena’s appearance helped foster Buchanan and Wilkie’s obvious surprise–pants and boots instead of a dress and cloche hat, sun-bronzed skin that belied Serena’s social class, lips and cheeks untinted by rouge, hair blonde and thick but cut short in a bob, distinctly feminine yet also austere.”
I mean, who wouldn’t love that?
Throw in Serena’s sexual agency in an era where it was unheard of, her ability to grow Pemberton Lumber Company into an empire during the Great Depression, her success in training an eagle to hunt rattlesnakes and the fact that she saves her husband from being killed by a bear, and you’ve got a character that sounds objectively awesome. However, everything that makes Serena seem cool on the surface conceals something darker at her core.
Serena Pemberton’s attributes:
- Declaration that her marriage is a partnership; intolerance for cheating or lying
- Survival and reinvention after her entire family dies in a flu epidemic
- Rescue of a Galloway, a crew member, when he loses a hand
- Keen business mind
- Lack of concern for what anyone thinks of her
- Willingness to stand up for herself
And their troubling counterparts:
- Determination to kill her husband’s former lover and his illegitimate child
- Inability to feel; comfortable with eliminating anyone she sees as an enemy or traitor
- Use of said crew member to do her bidding (violent and otherwise)
- Willingness to destroy any available forest; lack of sympathy for anyone she fires or puts out of business
- Refusal to listen to reason
- Thirst for revenge under the flimsiest of circumstances
I am tempted to say that Serena’s inability to use her strengths for good is a negative thing. Of course, I could just be feeling guilty for rooting for her throughout the first half of the novel. But I don’t necessarily think that Serena Pemberton’s obvious evil means she is a disappointing literary representation of a woman. After all, there are dozens of beloved male anti-heroes from Alex of A Clockwork Orange to Tony Soprano to Severus Snape to Don Draper to, you guessed it, Walter White. What’s disturbing is the fact that most anti-heroes (male or female) experience some sort of about-face, even if it is only temporary, while Serena never doubts herself or feels a morsel of regret. But, then again, maybe that is what gives Serena her outsider status. It’s not the fact that she is morally bankrupt or selfish or makes Lorne Malvo look downright cuddly. It’s that she is fully committed to being really, really bad and hasn’t the slightest interest in being good.
Who are your go-to anti-heroes? Do you find evil female characters more or less disturbing than their male counterparts? Do you think Serena is morally ambiguous, or just plain villainous? Let me know in the comments!
(Image #1 courtesy of rusoffagency.com; #2 courtesy of zap2it.com; #3 courtesy of eonline.com; #4 courtesy of goodreads.com)