Let us imagine for a moment that Arya hadn’t been so fortunate as to be picked up by Yoren at Ned Stark’s execution (well, how fortunate this event actually was is debatable). What if she’d been taken by the Hound instead, or denounced by someone in the crowd, or even recognised by Joffrey, who is unlikely to forget her face as long as he lives? She’d end up back in the Red Keep (she’d kick, scream and inflict multiple injuries, but she’d still be powerless and in a state of shock) and very likely be locked up on the other side of the castle from Sansa and kept apart from her, if we know Cersei at all. Once the door is bolted behind her, she would be in exactly the same situation as Sansa. True, she wouldn’t be engaged to marry dear King Joff, but as a Stark, she’d still be wide open to his ‘punishments’ every time Robb wins a battle; these would probably go worse for her since her awkwardly androgynous looks wouldn’t make Joffrey tell his Kingsguard to leave her face alone; and she’d eventually be condemned to marry Ramsay Bolton; and we all know what he did to poor Jeyne Poole.
‘If Arya were in Sansa’s situation, she’d handle it so much better,’ are frequent criticisms of Sansa that I’m just plain tired of, so the point of this post is to imagine what would happen if Arya were in Sansa’s situation and see what pops out at the other end. Of course, there will be things I don’t think of. There will be plotholes. But we may find that the two sisters aren’t really so different after all if you put them in the same boat.
Period immediately after Ned’s death
Catelyn observes to herself at one point that if Arya is still in King’s Landing, Cersei is very likely keeping her far away from the public eye; Arya not being the type to sit down and behave. This fact would also leave Arya wide open to deliberate, obvious attempts to get her to sit down and behave by breaking her; the first and most obvious being to lock her up. Arya is a deep brooder, and it takes a lot to make her cry. So brooding is probably what she would do locked up in whatever room she’s been put into. Escape would be her first thought, which she’d probably attempt almost immediately with something brave but hopeless, like trying to shove the guard over when he delivers her food. If you think of how little mind the Kingsguard pay to Sansa’s nobility when beating her, it isn’t hard to imagine that Arya would probably get a backhand for her trouble from an ordinary soldier. She might refuse to eat after that, but then it would occur to her that eating would keep her alive to take revenge, à la Jaime Lannister. Thoughts of revenge would then lead to the first draft of the List. She’d inevitably be dragged off to see Cersei for a pep talk and an ultimatum to behave or be chastised. The latter would most likely result in Arya spitting in Cersei’s face and attempting to smash her head in with the nearest heavy object. She’d be whipped at that point without being given the option of a whipping girl (which she’d turn down anyway). Cersei wouldn’t dare allow her to attend court, so she might be spared Sansa’s ordeal of being forced to look at Ned’s head on a spike: either that, or Joffrey would give himself the sadistic pleasure of reliving the torture a second time, with another Stark daughter. If the latter, Arya would very likely manage to break Joffrey’s nose before it could occur to the Kingsguard that she might attempt such a thing. They’d grab her soon enough, however, and she’d end up whipped again, and back in her room. Then she’d cry.
Once the initial shock has worn off
I’m guessing Arya isn’t just going to change her mind and cooperate, so the only times she would see the light of day are very likely when the…let’s say monthly ritual of trying to get her to behave inevitably results in a beating, or Joffrey takes it into his head that someone needs to be punished for Robb’s victories. Something tells me he wouldn’t be averse to having both Stark girls stripped and beaten in front of him. The Kingsguard would learn quickly that Arya fights back instead of pleading; so whereas Sansa usually cries but takes her beatings like a good girl, Arya would have to be restrained (we know her well enough to perceive that she’d try anything from grabbing a poorly-placed dagger to simply running off, half naked or not). This means that her entire life would effectively alternate between long periods of isolation and vicious beatings. The problem here is when this way of living would eventually break her, the definition of ‘break’ being key here. Think of the horrors that Arya experiences, the torturing she witnesses and the killing that she sees, hears and does in the books. Do these things ‘break’ her? Think about the stereotypical image of a ‘broken’ person: ‘running on autopilot’, emotionally numb, not caring if they live or die. Yes, Arya definitely has a powerful survival instinct and does indeed care whether or not she lives or dies: she has a List of kills to do. But what about her emotions? Arya’s primary feelings when considering herself and her life are shame, fear and anger, which lead to a sort of lack of consciousness that she is human at all, and that dreadful pronouncement that she has a hole where her heart used to be. There’s a precarious, artificial calmness on the surface and in her mind that can be shattered at any moment, the ever-present fire inside losing none of its intensity. But because she fears being kicked out by the Faceless Men (and because she genuinely wants to join them), she’s no longer free to do anything she wants. She can’t be herself anymore, both literally and figuratively. So she’ll present an outward mirage of calm: inside, she’s terrified, alive, with no idea what to do about it and no idea how to find out except to keep on living, and learn. Sounds a lot like Sansa, doesn’t it?
Back in our imaginary universe, alternating between confinement and beatings may very well be a longer process than murder and torture in the books, but they would eventually have the same ultimate effect in turning her into an automaton that’s also a ticking bomb. At some point, Arya would realise that she stands a better chance of escaping and surviving by keeping her mouth shut, cooperating and observing. When this would actually occur is anyone’s guess, though after the Red Wedding seems most likely, for obvious reasons. And when Arya would eventually come to this decision, she would have to do what Sansa does every single day: smile, be polite to every Lannister she sees, participate in court life, pretend she’s a guest instead of a hostage and pray that she doesn’t get killed. A life of walking on broken shards of glass that would be a serious challenge to her already-tried nerves (remember she won’t have had the emotionally-hardening experiences of A Clash of Kings onwards and will also be suffering from cabin fever) and very likely turn her into a quivering wreck with an inexplicably strong survival instinct. In other words, it’d turn her into another version of Sansa.
Another thing Arya would certainly have done in Sansa’s place is attempt to escape. Since we should give her the credit of being able to hold out for at least a few months, if not longer, we should consider the possibility of Littlefinger’s scheme to spirit Sansa away after Joffrey’s wedding either including or excluding her. Both are possible. Littlefinger might only be interested in the eldest Stark girl for obvious reasons and therefore not pay much heed to leaving the youngest behind. But then he’d also have a considerable hand of cards in his pocket if he had both Stark girls under his control, so he might very well take them both (and hopefully put someone apart from Ser Dontos in charge). His decision to take Arya along would no doubt be motivated by how much he would stand to lose from her marriage to Ramsay Bolton. We’re never told if he knows about this, or if the idea had even been conceived of when he first started making his plans…nah. Even if he did know about the Bolton marriage, the temptations of the intrigues he could hatch with control of both Stark daughters would be too great to resist. So Arya goes along. Then what? While it’s impossible to answer this question without getting dangerously close to inventing instead of speculating, the point is still the same: we have both Stark sisters traumatised and emotionally-repressed, pawns in a game they don’t understand, both ‘handling’ their situation in the same way. Tiptoeing, swallowing fear and escaping.
So while our imagining of Arya’s journey to living as a ward of the Crown that executed her father may express greater stubbornness and courage than Sansa’s acceptance of her situation, it wouldn’t really qualify as ‘handling it better.’ ‘Handling it better’ seems to denote a greater strength of mind or a greater control of emotion, neither of which Arya possesses in greater quantity than Sansa, who has endured all the agony of her situation without snapping or going mad. Our imagining of what Arya would do in the Red Keep following Ned’s death is the long way round to the same result; a noble but pointless reaction that few characters but Brienne would applaud.
Featured image is by vici-mercedes on fanpop