It was a time before contraceptive pills were accessible to girls, or abortion was an option. Verna – the protagonist of the title story – was only fourteen years old when Bob Goreham, “shining light from a respectable family” takes her to a high-school dance, gets her drunk and rapes her. Bob’s version of the event – what “slutty, drunken, willing Verna” did – becomes the spark that caught the forest on fire, and by the end of the week the story spreads throughout the town. Humiliated by boys and shunned by girls in school, Verna’s life is far from getting better when the story finally hits her mother’s church group. Forget that it takes two to tango, boys will always be boys, so what happened is definitely on Verna – that is her mother’s attitude when she ships Verna off to a church run Home for Unwed Mothers where ‘bad’ girls like Verna try to “redeem themselves through hard work and self-restraint.”
When Verna’s child is born they immediately take the child away from her. Why let her get attached when she is “unfit” to be a mother with all her ‘sins’? So when Verna is given five dollars and a bus ticket to return to her mother, who is still her legal guardian as she is a minor, Verna decides she can not go back to the town that brought her this plight and runs away. She then meets a married old man who would pay for her education in return for three years of noontime sex. Through her work as a physiotherapist, Verna meets her string of future husbands, all of whom she kills with a little help of her “meds-and-sex formula” to inherit their money. What will happen when the man this black widow flirts with at an Arctic expedition cruise turns out to be Bob Goreham (who doesn’t recognize her!)?
Stone Mattress is a story of a murderess. But Margaret Atwood prose is sharp enough to make us empathize with Verna, despite her shortcomings. Margaret Atwood captures the emotions that victims of heinous acts such as rape must feel, while pointing her finger at the victim blaming culture we still witness from time to time, where their perpetrators go unscathed.
On the day Verna was raped, “the Verna of the day before had died, and a different Verna had solidified in her place: stunted, twisted, mangled.” I believe only an understanding, patient, and compassionate society can uplift the lives of those who are harmed and help restore their faith in people.