The Golden Compass
by Philip Pullman
Underneath Mrs. Marissa Coulter's glitzy, glamorous surface is a whole lot of nastiness. Her daemon is a golden monkey, and her powers come from her feminine wiles. In Part 1 of the novel she acts as Lyra's guardian, but Lyra will eventually learn that Mrs. Coulter is actually her mother and Lord Asriel is her father.
Charming Mrs. Coulter
When we first meet her, Mrs. Coulter represents a certain kind of adult womanhood that Lyra finds appealing:
On Lyra's other side Mrs. Coulter sat working through some papers, but she soon put them away and talked. Such brilliant talk! Lyra was intoxicated; not about the North this time, but about London, and the restaurants and the ballrooms, the soirées at embassies or ministries, the intrigues between White Hall and Westminster. Lyra was almost more fascinated by this than by the changing landscape below the airship. What Mrs. Coulter was saying seemed to be accompanied by a scent of grownupness, something disturbing but enticing at the same time: it was the smell of glamour. (4.90)
This lady is a smooth-talker, that's for sure, but Mrs. Coulter is also a society woman who knows her way around London. She is Lyra's ticket to fancy parties and posh hobnobbing – a definite contrast to the scholarly world of Oxford from which Lyra hails.
Lyra is definitely "intoxicated" by Mrs. Coulter (an interesting verb choice, don't you think? It's like she's drunk on Mrs. Coulter's dazzling ways). However, Mrs. Coulter also attempts to remake Lyra in her own glamorous image:
On the afternoon of the cocktail party, Mrs. Coulter took Lyra to a fashionable hairdresser's, where her stiff dark blond hair was softened and waved, and her nails were filed and polished, and where they even applied a little makeup to her eyes and lips to show her how to do it. (5.29)
Mrs. Coulter teaches Lyra, the tomboy, how to dress and act in a more feminine manner. Is this what it means to be an adult? What does Pan think? What do you think?
Wicked Mrs. Coulter
Lyra eventually sees beneath Mrs. Coulter's charming surface and realizes that even though she is pretty on the outside, all those polished manners and frilly frocks actually mask a cruel nature. We get a taste of Mrs. Coulter's meanness when her golden monkey attacks Pan before the cocktail party:
Lyra sobbed in terror.
"Don't! Please! Stop hurting us!"
Mrs. Coulter looked up from her flowers.
"Do as I tell you, then," she said.
"I promise!" (5.37-41)
Mrs. Coulter is arranging flowers while her golden monkey grabs Pan and threatens to tear his ear off. Pretty brutal, isn't it? This lady isn't only mean, she's also a control freak. And it's an interesting juxtaposition of images. Why do you think the novel associates beauty with brutality in this manner?
We understand the full implications of Mrs. Coulter's cruelty when we learn that the General Oblation Board severs children from their daemons. As the head of the Gobblers, Mrs. Coulter bears full responsibility for these inhumane actions. This fact is brought home when Lyra finds little Tony Makarios, now severed, clutching a dead fish in the place of his daemon. (Mrs. Coulter kidnapped Tony Makarios earlier in the book.)
Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel
Mrs. Coulter and her ex-lover Lord Asriel have a love/hate relationship going on. Lyra was the result of an affair between them; they never married. The two are bound together by a mutual thirst for power. We finally see them locked in a cruel embrace in the final chapter of the book:
His hands, still clasping her head, tensed suddenly and drew her toward him in a passionate kiss. Lyra thought it seemed more like cruelty than love, and looked at their daemons, to see a strange sight: the snow leopard tense, crouching with her claws just pressing in the golden monkey's flesh, and the monkey relaxed, blissful, swooning on the snow. (23.73)
Kind of messed up, right? This image speaks volumes about the relationship between these two. In the end, Mrs. Coulter won't take Asriel up on his offer to cross the bridge into the other world. Her place, she tells him, is in this world. Why might that be?