In Margaret Atwood’s “Stone Mattress,” the speaker, Verna, is on a vacation in the Arctic, trying to create a fresh start. She’s an older woman, probably in her late sixties, early seventies. She went on the trip to sort of get away from everything, especially men. But she soon gives up on that. While prepping herself for the flirtation, she reveals that she has been married three times, and her third husband loved Tennyson. She begins perusing the available guys (because those who are taken are too much effort, as she learned from her first husband), and realizes that there are many men there named Bob. She hates that name because of a bad experience she had when she was younger. And low and behold, the Bob who was the reason behind her bad experience is the one on the ship! OMG! He doesn’t remember her and she is enraged.
We then get a reflection on her past, when she was asked out by this Bob. She was fourteen and he was eighteen, and he asked her to go to a winter formal with him. She thought she was in love with him, and the fact that she was even able to go to this dance was a big deal because he mother was very religious, Presbyterian, and didn’t let her go out. But she thought he was a reputable guy and there were going to be a lot of chaperones, so she let them go. She tells about how she was so dressed up, but Bob thought she looked trashy and disposable.
Back to present tense, he smiles at her, not recognizing her, and Verna leaves to throw up in the bathroom. She remembers how everyone slut-shamed her because they thought she slept with him that night. Her mother sends her off to a house for unwed women when it becomes apparent that she became pregnant. She was basically shamed at the house by the adults for becoming pregnant, and when she birthed the child (which was worse than a typical birth) they took the child from her before she got to look at it. There were complications with the birth and she left with scarred tissue. They then gave her five dollars and told her to go home because she was still a minor, but she went to downtown Toronto instead.
An older man then takes interest in her, and that’s become the beginning of her sort of sexual exploration.
Back to the moment, she fixes her makeup and goes outside to where everyone is eating, and she kind of ignores him and takes a seat, but he sits next to her anyway. They converse for a bit and she reveals that she was a physiologist who specialized in rehabilitating heart and stroke victims.
She then tells the reader that each of her husbands died due to natural causes, usually dealing with a heart attack or stroke, and that she sort of aided those things. She used Viagra to get the heart rate screwed up and mixed up their medication until all three ultimately died. Two of the husbands had kids, so she gave them money to pay them off, and revealed that she still had a sense of morals, and liked balanced accounts.
Bob asks her about her husband, and she tells him she’s a widow. He reveals that his wife had just died 6 months previously, and he has kids and grandchildren and can’t imagine how empty his life would be without them.
She reminisces about how if she had been raped in present day, things could’ve been different. She could’ve gone to court because she was underage. She then goes into detail about the rape, and how he drove them out near a forest, got her all liquored up, and took advantage of her before his best friend came and did it as well. He then left her on the side of the road because she was crying. Bob had taken her panty girdle and wore it around his head like it was a prize. His friend, Ken, saw her walking on the road and picked her up before dropping her off and telling her to keep quiet. She says that was the day she lost her innocence and became this horrible, mangled woman. It was his fault that she became a murderer.
The next morning she begins planning how to handle the situation. She wasn’t going to work him up to become attracted to her because that wasn’t satisfying enough, and she wasn’t going to ignore him. The only option was to kill him.
She begins planning. Can’t push him overboard because he is too big. She’d also have to do it at the beginning of the trip before anyone really began to notice him, or put the two of them together as an item.
Before they left the ship, three staff members gave speeches to the group.
Everyone has tags on board. The first staff member told them that when they would leave, they’d flip the tags so they were red, and when they were on board, they’d flip them to green. So the staff can keep track of where everyone is. They also had to wear life jackets when travelling to shore, then put them in a bag once they got there. They also used this method to keep track of where people where. If they weren’t on shore, they jacket was in the bag.
Second staff member said they can’t take anything like artifacts or bones from the shore.
Third staff member talked about guns. They only use the guns in case of polar bears, and will shoot into the sky first to scare them off. Bullets will be removed from the guns during the trips to and from the land.
She goes back on board and is admiring the beautiful Arctic when Bob comes back up to her. He asks her out, and she declines, flirtatiously, before going to buy gloves from the store.
The next day begins with a talk from a scientist about stromatolites. He says that according the the greek roots, the word means “stone mattress” (hence the title).
She looks through her binoculars at the land and sees three ridges. She deduces that if you go behind the second one, no one will be able to see you. That is also where the best stromatolites are.
They now head to shore, Bob is in the same boat as her and he takes a picture of her, which freaks out Verna a little because she is afraid he’ll recognize her. She comes to the conclusion that if he recognizes her spontaneously, or if he apologizes, she won’t kill him.
It is revealed that you can take samples of the stromatolites back to the ship so everyone can all go look at it together.
They reach the shore, and she begins walking towards the second ridge, where she sees perfect stromatolites. She finds one that is sharp and puts it in her bag. She sees Bob, and considers if she should let things go, until a raven flies over head.
They go behind the second ridge when no one is watching and she puts on her gloves. She tells him who she is and he smiles, remembering her and not apologizing. She then stabs him with the stromatolite and laughs at how pathetic and funny he looks until he is dead. She takes his jacket, finding six miniature bottles of scotch, cleans off the stromatolite and gets everything together so there is no evidence and leaves. Once back on the ship, she switches his tag to green and pretends that he is alive and still on board by moving his stuff, and sending invitations sent to him to any of the other Bobs.
She gave the murder weapon to the scientist for everyone to look at so all of their fingerprints get on it.
The story ends with her reflecting on death, and how her memory isn’t how it once was.
Acute: the rape, the murders
Chronic: I think maybe also the rape (because it happened before the story) but also her promiscuity, and how because of the fact that she was raped, she tried to make up for it by being “trashy” and not loving anyone.
WHAT MADE IT COMPELLING?
I found her mannerisms to be intriguing. The fact that almost every single thing she did was planned or rehearsed, like the way she said certain words or even walked into a room. Now that I know about all of the murders, it is probably in response to that, because she had to lie about the deaths of all of her husbands, but also had to pretend like she wasn’t plotting Bob’s death, then had to cover it up. Everything she does is incredibly calculated and planned and I found that to be one of her more defining characteristics.
Her husbands were really interesting characters. She didn’t mention them a lot, and when she did, it was mainly her third husband. Never her second one. Her third husband often recited poetry to her, specifically “Come into the garden Maud” by Tennyson, which is a love poem where the speaker is waiting on a woman who will never love him, even in death. Which further reveals much about Verna’s feelings towards men, and how she really doesn’t care about them. She was just using the old men for their money.
I also found her relationship with men to be interesting. She goes on the trip so she can shed her skin (start over fresh after killing yet another man), and move on from all men in general. She went as far to say that they were clutter on the earth, yet, within the same day, she is ready to get back in the game and chase after a new man. She hasn’t really had a single healthy relationship with any man, because her father wasn’t really in the picture, she was raped by two men at fourteen, then began sleeping with other men (and may have been raped two more times? Still not sure about that). So either she is a man eater and just wants to get rid of every man on the earth or she can’t really move on from them.
Innocence is a theme that we see everywhere, and again in this piece. She only references her innocence when she is reflecting in scene in her past. But because the scenes are so gruesome and heart-wrenching, it makes this loss even more heart breaking. And of course we love to read sad things.
I think this is a story that exemplifies foreshadowing and a thought out story perfectly. Even the poems mentioned by her husband further characterize the speaker. Even though we know that she will murder someone (as seen in the first sentence), we got brief hints at who she murdered and the heartbreak she had gone through throughout the piece which just added the pity I felt for the character.