The Edible Woman
The Edible WomanIntroduction
For Further Study
Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman is about women and their relationships to men, to society, and to food and eating. It is through food and eating that Atwood discusses a young woman's rebellion against a modern, male-dominated world. The female protagonist, Marian McAlpin, struggles between the role that society has imposed upon her and her personal definition of self; and food becomes the symbol of that struggle and her eventual rebellion. In the essay, "Reconstructing Margaret Atwood's Protagonists," Patricia Goldblatt states that "Atwood creates situations in which women, burdened by the rules and inequalities of their societies, discover that they must reconstruct braver, self-reliant personae in order to survive." At the end of The Edible Woman, Marian partially reconstructs that new persona, or concept of self, through a renewed relationship to food.
The Edible Woman was published at the same time that feminism was experiencing a renewed popularity among political movements. But as Darlene Kelly notes in "Either Way, I Stand Condemned," the rhetoric of political movements "is often at odds with reality." In other words, the concepts of women's liberation were in contrast with the actual experience in women's day-to-day lives. Also, anorexia, although known in the medical profession, was not a popular topic of conversation in the lay community. Eating disorders were diagnosed in a doctor's office but were not being widely discussed in women's magazines. Having been published in this era prior to full-blown discussions of women's rights and women's health issues, The Edible Woman received many reviews that mainly emphasized the book's literary techniques.
Margaret E. Atwood, born in Ottawa, Canada, in 1939, spent most of her early years in the wilderness areas of Northern Quebec. She lived with her family in a log cabin that had no electricity, no running water, and no television or radio. It was in this isolated setting that she learned to entertain herself by reading books like those by the Brothers Grimm and Edgar Allan Poe.
Not until she was eleven years old, when her family moved to Toronto, did she attend school full-time. In Geraldine Bedell's "Nothing but the Truth Writing between the Lines," Atwood reportedly said that upon her introduction to city life, as contrasted with her own unconventional childhood, all social groups seemed to her "equally bizarre, all artifacts and habits peculiar and strange." This outsider view plus her early and intense fascination with literature may have been responsible for pulling her toward writing, for by the time she graduated from high school, her graduation yearbook declared that Atwood's intentions were to write the great Canadian novel.
In 1961, the same year Atwood graduated from the University of Toronto, she was awarded the E. J. Pratt Medal for her collection of self-published poems titled Double Persephone. Five years later, while she was enrolled as a graduate fellow at Harvard University, she won the Canadian Governor General's Award for another early collection of her poems, The Circle Game.
Atwood described this time of her life in a speech she delivered at Hay on Wye, Wales, in 1995:
After two years at graduate school at the dreaded Harvard University, two broken engagements, a year of living in a tiny rooming-house room and working at a market research company which was more fun than a barrel of drugged monkeys and a tin of orange-flavoured rice pudding, and after the massive rejection of my first novel, and of several other poetry collections as well, I ended up in British Columbia, teaching grammar to Engineering students at eight-thirty in the morning in a Quonset hut. It was all right, as none of us were awake.
Atwood sent her first novel, The Edible Woman, to a publisher who subsequently lost it. Four years later, after Atwood won her awards for poetry, this same publisher took her out to lunch and promised to publish her novel. When Atwood asked him if he had read it, he answered no. As fate would have it, the timing of the book's publication (1969) matched a resurgent interest in women's rights and feminism, thus promoting a concurrent interest in The Edible Woman.
Over the years, Atwood has written, among other things, several books of poetry, novels, short stories, children's stories, a radio play, and a play for television. She is known internationally as a champion of Canadian literature.
The Edible Woman begins with a first-person narrator in the voice of the female protagonist, Marian McAlpin. For the first several chapters Marian describes her relationships to her roommate, Ainsley; her boyfriend, Peter; and her pregnant friend, Clara. Marian also describes her job, which requires her to take the technical language of survey questions and translate it into a language that the layperson will understand. When asked to substi-tute for one of the company's surveyors, Marian reluctantly goes from house to house asking people their opinions about a beer ad that will soon be broadcast on the radio. It is during this survey that Marian meets Duncan, an unconventional young man who throws Marian off guard with his lies and almost immediate admittance of his dishonesty.
After watching Clara interact with her children, Marian's roommate, Ainsley, announces that she wants to get pregnant. When Marian asks if this means that Ainsley wants to get married, Ainsley says no. She wants to raise the child by herself. She also wants to choose a man who will not make a fuss about getting married. Ainsley then proceeds to make inquiries about a friend of Marian's whose name was mentioned while they were dining at Clara's house. The old friend is Len Shank, and he has the reputation of a being a womanizer.
Peter is introduced in a phone conversation with Marian, in which he tells her about the engagement of his last remaining bachelor friend. A day later, in an attempt to wear off his depression, Peter and Marian have sex in the bathtub, a setting that Marian describes as Peter's attempt at being spontaneous. Marian is disturbed with the incident, and for a variety of other reasons from that point until the end of the story her discomfort intensifies.
In a restaurant Marian introduces Peter to Len. Marian is surprised when Ainsley appears at their table. At this point Marian realizes that Ainsley has targeted Len as the proposed father of her child. Through the rest of the evening, Marian is caught up in emotions that she does not understand. She finds herself crying without knowing the reason, and, later, she runs away. When the group reunites at Len's apartment, Marian hides under a bed. Eventually she is confronted by Peter, and she tells him she didn't know what she was doing. But before saying good night, Peter proposes marriage by telling her that it is time for him to settle down. Marian accepts and relinquishes to Peter all responsibility for making decisions.
Shortly after her engagement, Marian bumps into Duncan at a laundromat. It is the first time they have seen one another since the survey. They share an abbreviated conversation, then kiss, stare at one another, and depart.
Part One ends with Marian commenting on her engagement, concluding that although her actions have recently been inconsistent with her true personality, life is run on adjustments. She then sees one of her childhood dolls and remembers how she used to leave food with this doll overnight but was always disappointed in the morning when the food had not been eaten. With this image, Atwood leads into the next section, which deals with Marian's eating problems.
Part Two begins with a third-person narrator. Instead of being inside Marian's head, the narrator now looks at Marian from a distance. There are other shifts as well. Clara has given birth to her third child and is once again in "possession of her own frail body." Peter has begun to stare at Marian as if he were trying to read her as he would read a manual of how to work a camera. Also in this section, Marian and Duncan's relationship intensifies. The more fascinated she becomes with Duncan, the less suited she is for coping with her life with Peter.
It is at this point of the story that Marian has her first troubled encounter with food. At dinner with Peter, she looks down at her plate, and instead of seeing a steak, she sees the live animal from which it was taken. She watches Peter cutting his steak and refers to it as if he were operating on a cow. Along with Marian's increasing inability to eat food, she also imagines that her body is beginning to disappear. The first images come to her in a dream in which her feet and hands are disappearing.
Marian meets with Duncan again, finding his "lack of interest [in her] comforting." She also tries to convince herself that her relationship with Duncan has nothing to do with Peter although she fears that if the men were ever to meet one another, they might end up destroying one another.
In contradiction to his lack of interest, Duncan tells Marian that he needs something real in his life. He's hoping it is Marian. He then adds that to find out if she is real, he wants her to peel herself out of all the woolen layers that she is wearing and go to bed with him. Marian agrees, but they do not know where to go, except to a hotel where Marian would be looked at as a prostitute. They do not go to the hotel this time, but this scene is a foreshadowing, or preview, of a later scene in which Marian is wearing a sequined red dress and has her face made up. She realizes, in this later scene, that she does look like a prostitute and even encourages that impression by flirting with the hotel clerk.
The last section of Part Two tells of Peter's party and its aftermath. Marian's eating patterns have eliminated all natural foods. She is down to "eating" only vitamin pills. Peter remains unaware of her problems and suggests that for the party she should buy a new dress, something less "mousy" than her normal wardrobe. He also hints that she should do something with her hair. Although Marian feels uncomfortable in the new red dress and new hairdo, she succumbs to Peter's wishes.
Before the party, Marian takes a bath, during which she sees three separate versions of herself reflected in the hot and cold water taps and the faucet. Later, in her bedroom, she again sees three images. This time it is two of her dolls on either side of a mirror, with her own reflection in the middle. When she stares at the three images, she feels that the dolls are pulling her apart.
After Marian puts on her new red dress, Ainsley makes up Marian's face, attaching false eyelashes to her lids, and teaching Marian how to create an alluring but false smile. Later, at the party, Marian explores her new image in a mirror and wonders what is beneath the surface, holding her together. Everything that she sees of herself is false.
Despite her assumption that she is coping at the beginning of the party, in the end Marian runs away. She searches for Duncan, who has refused to enter Peter's apartment once he sees how Marian is dressed. She finds him, and they finally have sex. Later Duncan takes her for a long walk and literally and symbolically points out her way back home.
The next day, Marian bakes a cake-woman, clothing her as if the cake-woman were wearing a red dress. She makes this cake-woman as a test for Peter. Peter fails the test, refusing to take part in the parody. So Marian eats the cake herself.
Marian cleans up the apartment and plans to move on. In the last few sentences, she tells Duncan that she is eating again, and he welcomes her back to reality. Then she watches Duncan finish off the cake.
Clara is a somewhat neglected and very pregnant friend of Marian McAlpin, the protagonist. Marian has difficulties talking to Clara. Marian states that "more and more, Clara's life seemed cut off from her, set apart, something she could only gaze at through a window." Clara is pregnant with her third child at the beginning of the story. She dropped out of college with her first pregnancy and has been having children ever since. She describes her children as "barnacles encrusting a ship and limpets clinging to a rock." In The Edible Woman, the image of marriage and motherhood are pitted against the image of the single, professional woman. Clara is a symbol of traditional motherhood as well as an extreme example of someone who has made a very literal self-sacrifice by giving up her studies to have her children. Clara is also used as a contrast to Ainsley's more radical approach to motherhood. Marian describes Clara in terms such as weary, isolated, bored, and needing rescue.
Joe is Clara's husband. He is a philosophy instructor, and the parent most responsible for keeping his children fed and diapered. He cleans house and cooks, and tends to think of "all unmarried girls as easily victimized and needing protection." Joe is very protective of Clara to the point of believing that she (and all women) "shouldn't be allowed to go to university at all; then they wouldn't always be feeling later that they've missed out on the life of the mind." Marian describes Joe as a "shaggy man with a slight stoop." Joe stands in contrast to Len Shank who "is horrible with women, sort of a seducer of young girls." When Joe is asked what he thinks of Len Shank, Joe says, "He's not ethical."
Mrs. Bogue is Marian's department head at Seymour Surveys. She symbolizes the professional woman. Marian looks at Mrs. Bogue as a possible future self. Marian sees Mrs. Bogue as attempting to preserve a sense of humanity in a mechanized world, as when Mrs. Bogue shouts to the male executives: "We're working with humans, not with machines."
Duncan is the moody, manipulative graduate student with whom Marian has an affair. He appears to be incapable of loving anyone, as he is so totally wrapped up in his own needs. However, it is through Duncan that Marian is able to grope her way through a challenging journey of lost identity and eventually grasp a better image of herself. Marian describes Duncan as being "cadaverously thin" and his eyes are "obstinately melancholy, as though he was assuming the expression on purpose." When he smokes a cigarette, she says that he is like "a starved Buddha burning incense to itself."
Duncan is the antithesis of Peter, Marian's fiancé. Duncan is not very attractive and appears to have little sense of direction in regard to his future. Duncan pulls Marian into his life through pity, but just as Marian starts to lean toward him, he pushes her away by exposing his own manipulative techniques. Despite the layer of lies in which Duncan hides, he convinces Marian that he needs something real in his life. Marian has trouble resisting him. Duncan represents adventure. He is spontaneous and unconventional. He hopes that Marian is real and proposes that she go to bed with him so he can find out for sure. "God knows you're unreal enough now, all I can think of is those layers and layers of woolly clothes you wear." Duncan encourages Marian to get rid of all the outer layers and expose herself to him. Later at Peter's party, when Duncan sees Marian in her red dress and makeup, he says, "You didn't tell me it was a masquerade. Who the hell are you supposed to be?"
It is through Duncan that Marian finds her path back to herself. In the last passages of the book, Duncan tries to sum up the journey but then decides that all that really matters is that Marian is "back to so-called reality."
Marian McAlpin is the protagonist. Toward the end of the book, Marian says, "I'm coping, I'm coping." These words sum up Marian's character. Darlene Kelly in her essay "Either Way, I Stand Condemned" says that "Marian is a pawn, not of fate … but of other people. In the hands of her fiancé, of her roommate, of her colleagues, of her friends, and of her acquaintances, she is completely passive and suggestible." And in Marian's own words, when presented with ideas that contradict her own beliefs, she says, "I would simply have to adjust to the situation." Kelly continues, "Marian is like fresh putty on whose receptive form one imprint rapidly succeeds another."
Marian copes with her roommate Ainsley's radical ideas about getting pregnant without first getting married. Marian copes with Peter's moods, adjusting her emotions around his. Marian copes with Duncan's manipulation of her sentiments. She copes with his lies and his self-absorption. She copes with a boring job, a snoopy landlady, a sloppy apartment. She even copes with her slowly diminishing appetite and inability to eat.
As Patricia F. Goldblatt sees it in "Reconstructing Margaret Atwood's Protagonists," Marian is an "exiled little girl" who clings to the notion that her life "will be improved by the arrival of a kind stranger, most likely a handsome suitor." Marian finds a man. Actually she finds two. Then she stops eating. She also loses contact with herself. "After a while I noticed … that a large drop of something wet had materialized on the table … I poked it with my finger … before I realized with horror that it was a tear." Marian was losing contact with her body. Reinforcing this concept Goldblatt adds that Marian's "mind and body have split away from each other." Deeper into the story, Marian dreams that she is dissolving. And when she takes a bath, she refers to herself as "the body that was … somehow no longer quite her own."
But once again, Marian copes. She bakes a cake. Although she smiles in the last passages, she must endure as Duncan eats her cake "without exclamations of pleasure, even without noticeable expression." Despite this, Goldblatt believes that "women trust methods that have helped them cope in the past in order to alter the future…. The womanly art of baking provides Marian with a way to free herself."
- Margaret Atwood wrote two screenplay versions of The Edible Woman for Minotaur Films in 1970 and for Windfall Ltd. in 1971.
- Dave Carley wrote a play adapted from Margaret Atwood's novel The Edible Woman. The play premiered with the 2000 summer season in both Canada and the United States.
Millie, Lucy, and Emmy are three single women who are known collectively as the Office Virgins. They work with Marian at Seymour Surveys. They are, as Marian states, "all artificial blondes" and all "virgins." Their thoughts about virginity/sexuality are representative of the standard societal views of the early 1960s. Millie believes that it is easier to wait until you are married. Lucy wonders what people would say, and Emmy, "the office hypochondriac," believes it would make her sick. Lucy is singled out toward the end of the novel at Peter's party where Marian finds Lucy flirting with Peter. Then Marian catches Peter "grinning boyishly" back at Lucy. Lucy symbolizes the artificial woman that Marian feels she has become for Peter's sake.
Len is an old college friend of Marian and Clara. He is described as a womanizer of very young women, and he and Ainsley become involved in a twisted game of one player trying to outsmart the other. His goal leans toward "corrupting, as he called it, greenish girls." Ainsley's goal is to trick him into getting her pregnant. Len stands in opposition to the fatherly role of Joe Bates. Marion describes Len in this way: "He was a self-consciously-lecherous skirt-chaser; but it wasn't true as Joe had said, that he had no ethical sense. In his own warped way he was a kind of inverted moralist … he was constantly accused by women of being a misogynist and by men of being a misanthropist, and perhaps he was both."
Fish is a graduate student and roommate of Duncan. His most prominent scene is at what David L. Harkness, in his essay "Alice in Toronto: The Carrollian Intertext in The Edible Woman," refers to as the Mad Tea Party. It is Fish who recites the interpretation of Alice in Wonderland that Harkness says various critics have used as an "inroad to understanding the novel, taking Marian as a type of 'Alice' and Duncan as a type of 'Mock Turtle.'" Fish uses a Freudian interpretation of Alice In Wonderland, stating that the story consists of these points:
Of course everybody knows Alice is a sexual-identity-crisis book … this is the little girl … trying to find her role … as a Woman. One sexual role after another is presented to her but she seems unable to accept any of them … she rejects maternity … nor does she respond positively to the dominating-female role … you can't say that by the end of the book she has reached anything that can be definitely called maturity.
By the end of The Edible Woman, Fish steps into Ainsley's life as a substitute father figure for her unborn child.
Ainsley is Marian's roommate. Ainsley represents the progressive, alternative woman. She is aggressive and determined. She shuns the role that society tries to impose on her. She is also manipulative, and by the end of the story, several contradictions in her personality are exposed.
In the beginning, Marian defines herself in contrast to Ainsley, who "had a hangover, which put me in a cheerful mood—it made me feel so healthy." Minutes later, Marian compliments herself on her "moral superiority" over Ainsley. Marian also states that she and Ainsley "don't have much in common."
Ainsley looks at men differently than Marian does. Ainsley plays with men "pretending to be terribly interested" in them. She says that she does not want a man to take care of her, treating her as if she were a "thing." She also claims that she is anti-marriage. When she announces that she wants to get pregnant, she responds to Marian's questions by saying, "No, I'm not going to get married…. The thing that ruins families these days is the husbands." At Ainsley's strongest point in the story, she declares, "How is the society ever going to change if some individuals in it don't lead the way?"
However, halfway through the story, Marian makes a statement that signals her and Ainsley's reversing roles: "Our positions have shifted in some way I haven't yet assessed." After that point, Ainsley's character becomes contradictive to her initial stance as the new, independent woman.
By the end of the story, Ainsley is convinced that it is psychologically unhealthy to raise a child alone, and she basically takes the first man who comes along to become her husband. She is also horrified to see Marian eating the cake-lady. In turn, by the end of The Edible Woman, Marian suggests that there is a connection between Ainsley and their landlady, a connection that Marian had never seen before. "How did she manage it, that stricken attitude, that high seriousness? She was almost as morally earnest as the lady down below."
Trevor is Duncan's second roommate, also a graduate student. Duncan says that Trevor "subconsciously thinks he's my mother."
Trigger is the last of Peter's friends to get married. As his name implies, Trigger's marriage triggers Peter to make a marriage proposal as well.
Peter is Marian's fiancé. Marian considers Peter a good catch: "He was ordinariness raised to perfection." He is a lawyer whose status is "rising … like a balloon." His living quarters give a hint about his personality. He lives in an apartment building that is still under construction for which he receives a discount on his rent in exchange for allowing his residence to be used as a model apartment. The one room that is most completely furnished in his apartment is his bedroom, in which hangs a collection of weapons: "two rifles, a pistol, and several wicked-looking knives."
Peter thinks of most women as "designing siren[s]" who carry men off. After one of his friends gets married, Peter attacks his bride, "accusing her of being predatory and malicious and of sucking poor Trigger into the domestic void." Shortly after Peter loses his last bachelor friend to marriage, he proposes marriage to Marian, relenting with the sentiment that "it'll be a lot better in the long run for my [law] practice." Peter views Marian as a "sensible girl" and confesses that sensibility is "the first thing to look for when it comes to choosing a wife."
Peter is confident, but Marian believes that most of this confidence comes straight out of the popular fiction and men's magazines that he reads. For instance, he and Marian have sex in his bathtub. Marian is not comfortable in this scene, thinking that Peter's choice of setting may have come to him from a murder mystery that he's recently read.
Throughout the story, Peter tries to change Marian to match his image of the perfect woman. It is Peter's version of femininity that pushes Marian into buying the red, sequined dress for the party at the end of the story. And it is at the party that Marian asks Peter if he loves her. "Of course I love you … I'm going to marry you, aren't I? And I love you especially in that red dress." Then as Peter tries to take a photograph of her, he tells her to "stick out your chest, and don't look so worried darling, look natural." In the end, Peter fails Marian's test.
Woman Down Below
This is Marian's landlady who lives on the first floor of the rooming house. She and her pubescent daughter are known respectively as The Woman Down Below and Child. Marian describes the child as looking cretinous or stupid. The woman down below enforces rules, checks on visitors, and in other ways tries to control Marian's and Ainsley's actions, always for the sake of protecting the innocence of this child. For "whatever happened the child's innocence must not be corrupted." The Woman Down Below symbolizes a kind of strict mother figure, or generalized, conservative voice of society, who does not approve of male visitors, drinking alcohol, or leaving a ring of soap scum around the bathtub.
Search for Self
Marian McAlpin, the protagonist in The Edible Woman, begins her story by relating in the first few lines that she is "all right … if anything I was feeling more stolid than usual." The use of the word "stolid" is interesting for at first glance it might be misread as "solid," which is exactly the opposite of what Marian soon will feel. On top of this, the actual definition of "stolid" is to be "impassive and unemotional," which also is in opposition to what Marian will soon experience as she searches for a definition of self, one of the two main themes in The Edible Woman. Another curious observation is Marian's supposition that feeling "stolid" (another definition of this word is "slow witted") is, in her words, "all right." The fact that Atwood imposes this word on Marian at the very beginning of the story suggests that the young female protagonist, in terms of her concept of self, is, at best, a bit confused.
Later when she goes to work, Marian is asked to sign a pension plan document. This not only depresses her, it throws her into a "superstitious panic." In Marian's mind, she has now become committed to a future "pre-formed self" who has been put, in the form of the signed document, into a file in a cabinet and "shut away in a vault somewhere and locked." Marian does not fully understand her uneasiness concerning this document, and she has trouble ridding herself of her fears that someone has taken something away from her. She feels locked into a future self from which she cannot escape.
Without consciously knowing what she is doing, Marian searches for clues to her identity by observing the women around her. She has little in common with her roommate, Ainsley, whom she describes as a "quick-change artist" who likes to wear clothes that are neon pink and too tight across her hips. When Marian considers talking about her own concerns about her future to Ainsley, Marian hesitates, knowing that Ainsley might mock her.
Neither does Marian identify with her friend Clara, whom she has neglected because she feels Clara needs her only as an entertainer, "someone who would listen to a recital of [her] problems." Marian feels Clara is pulling on her in an attempt to be rescued from boredom. Clara is pregnant, and Marian describes her as looking like a "strange vegetable growth, a bulbous tuber." Clara, Marian says, represented in her youth "everyone's ideal of translucent perfume-advertisement femininity." However, in Marian's mind, Clara is fragile, passive, and impractical. Marian pities Clara. Every time she encounters Clara, Marian stares at the wall or the ceiling, struggling to find something to say. Clara is motherhood personified, an identity that Marian would like to put off for some time, possibly store somewhere behind a glass wall where she could gaze at it from time to time without taking part. When she leaves Clara in the hospital after the birth of Clara's third baby, Marian feels as if she has "escaped, as if from a culvert or cave. She was glad she wasn't Clara."
Topics For Further Study
- Americans are constantly exposed to ads each day via television, radio, billboard signs, and printed material. But even more interesting is the general acceptance of consumers to wear apparel with company names stamped in large letters across their heads, backs, and feet. Take a class survey of how many people object to wearing company logos on their clothes. Then debate the pros and cons of such a practice, keeping in mind topics such as consumer rights and possible actions that consumers might take to ban this type of free advertising.
- Today, even though women have gained more rights and recognition, the industrial world is still very much a patriarchal society. Think about what a matriarchal society might be like, then discuss what you think the differences between the two societies would be in terms of employment and marriage.
- A woman often has to choose between motherhood and a profession. If she wants both, she finds herself in a constant battle to meet the responsibilities of both. If she chooses to work full time, her children are often left in day-care centers for long periods of time. What do you see as the future solution for this problem? Should one of the parents stay at home to raise the children until they are at least of school age? Which one? And should there be monetary compensation for the stay-at-home parent? If so, where do the funds come from? Or should the government and businesscommunities work together to establish more accessible day-care centers? And how do you propose day-care centers could be improved?
- For Peter's party, Ainsley applies lipstick, eyeliner, and false eyelashes to Marian's face. This application of cosmetics is an accepted practice for women. Discuss how you think this practice came to be accepted. What are the psychological implications of women being encouraged to wear makeup? And why do you think society-discourages men from wearing makeup?
- The concept of femininity can be so broadly defined that it includes images that range from being seductive to being submissive. How would you define femininity today, and how do you think that term has changed since your parents' generation, and since your grandparents' time?
Marian fares no better in trying to identify herself with the image that men have of women. Her fiancé, Peter, thinks of most women as "predators," while her friend Duncan thinks of women as nursemaids for men; and Len, an old college friend of Marian's, either uses women for sex or puts them on pedestals and adores them. Clara's husband, Joe, sees women as vulnerable victims, easily preyed upon.
Unable to find a suitable definition of her identity outside of herself, Marian turns inward. But when she looks in a mirror, a symbol of turning in, she sees only "a vague damp form … not quite focussed … something she could not quite see … whatever it was in the glass … would soon be quite empty."
By the end of the story, although Marian has not completely defined her identity, she is at least aware of her need to do so. In creating the symbolic cake-woman, she attempts to rid herself from the false and empty identities that have prevailed throughout the story. She describes the cake-woman as "an elegant antique china figurine … its face doll-like and vacant."
A final breakthrough occurs when Marian regains her hunger and starts devouring the cake-woman. When confronted by Ainsley's remarks that Marian is rejecting her femininity by eating the cake-woman, Marian responds: "Nonsense, it is only a cake."
Closely related to her search for identity is Marian's attempt to define her role as a woman. Initially she gets lost in other people's definitions. Early in their relationship, Peter defines Marian's role as "the kind of girl who wouldn't try to take over his life." In response, Marian says that Peter's definition suits her. Their roles, she says, were defined at face value and as long as they saw each other infrequently, the "veneer," or thin coating, wouldn't have a chance to rub off.
But who decides what roles are to be played? Are people, especially women, always going to be told from some external source that they have a role in life to play? Does a woman have a life or is she only an actor in a play? These are some of the questions that Atwood seems to be asking. It is the roles that begin to disintegrate as Marian and Peter's relationship becomes more involved and as Marian tries to step out of the play that she and Peter have written.
Marian first notices a slight distortion in their preconceived roles when Peter talks about things that Marian finds offensive. She rationalizes that Peter is not acting like himself. She wants him to slip back into his role and talk in his "normal voice." Conversely, when Marian acts in a way contrary to the role Peter has created for her, Marian says that he gives her "a peculiar look, as though he was disappointed with me."
One night Marian lets go of Peter and begins to run. She says, "I had broken out; from what or into what, I didn't know." After breaking away from him, Peter scolds Marian: "Ainsley behaved herself properly, why couldn't you? The trouble with you is … you're just rejecting your femininity." Since Marian knows that Ainsley is playing a game to seduce a man into getting her pregnant, this statement of Peter's is rather ironic. However, despite the irony, Marian does a complete turnaround and slips back into her role, succumbing to Peter's proposal of marriage for reasons that may have been "a little inconsistent with [her] true personality," she says. Marian likes the security of having a man make the major decisions in her life, of having a man play the role of the provider. She has sensed the confines of their role-playing, but she cannot, at this point, see beyond them. The struggle against those roles consumes her for the rest of the story, ending in an eventual, though somewhat passive, breakthrough.
Marian tests Peter, in the end, with the cake-woman. At the same time, she is also testing the role that she has been playing. "If Peter found her silly [for making the cake and asking him to eat it] she would believe it, she would accept his version of herself." As she watches him, waiting for him to react to the cake-woman, she thinks about how easy it is to see Peter (as well as her role-playing) as normal and safe, but the "price of this version of reality was testing the other one." In other words, the roles she and Peter had created were at odds with a deeper sense of herself. When she puts the cake-woman in front of Peter, she accuses him of trying to destroy her. "This is what you really want," she tells him, referring to the cake-woman, the false image or the role that he has encouraged her to play. She wants him to eat the cake-woman and laugh at the play. But instead, Peter doesn't seem able to break out of his role and seems incapable of seeing Marian outside of hers. She has changed, and he no longer recognizes her. After he leaves, Marian thinks of Peter as "a style that had gone out of fashion."
Point of View
One of the most obvious style techniques that Atwood uses in The Edible Woman is her unusual use of point of view, or the perspective from which the story is told. Atwood begins the story with a first-person narrator, Marian McAlpin, telling the story from her own perspective, almost sounding as if she were talking to herself.
However, immediately following Marian's engagement to Peter, Atwood changes the narrator, and for the entire second part of the book, the story is told from a third-person point of view. This distances the reader from Marian, just as Marian begins distancing her mind from her body. Darlene Kelly says in "Either Way, I Stand Condemned" that Marian "seems always out of touch with reality, even with who she is … this estrangement from herself corresponds perfectly to her use of a detached, third-person voice." In the last two chapters of the book, Marian comes back to herself with the statement, "Now that I was thinking of myself in the first person singular again, I found my own situation much more interesting." Correspondingly, Atwood switches back to a first-person narration.
Prevalent in The Edible Woman is the cultural attitude of the early 1960s toward women and the institution of marriage. This was a time prior to the revitalization of the women's movement, a time when women were expected to marry and upon that marriage to quit their jobs, if they had them, and stay home and have children. "Atwood's pragmatic women," says Patricia Goldblatt in "Reconstructing Margaret Atwood's Protagonists," were "young women blissfully building their trousseaus and imagining a paradise of silver bells and picket fences." Goldblatt continues, "these women … search for a male figure, imagining a refuge. Caught up in the romantic stereotypes that assign and perpetuate gender roles, each girl does not doubt that a man is the solution to her problems." Struggling against the patriarchy, or male-dominated society, and the roles that society imposes on women, the female characters in The Edible Woman each deal with the cultural attitude in their own way, each coming to different conclusions, each taking different paths.
Food and eating are the prominent metaphors, or images, in The Edible Woman. Beginning with the title of the book and journeying through the final chapters, someone or something is either being described in terms of food, or is being eaten. Besides the obvious and plentiful breakfasts, lunches, and dinners that prevail throughout the book, Marian uses food to describe herself and her environment. For instance, her office is "layered like an ice-cream sandwich" with her department being the "gooey layer in the middle." And in one of Marian's dreams she says that her feet were dissolving like "melting jelly."
Emma Parker in "You Are What You Eat: The Politics of Eating in the Novels of Margaret Atwood" says that "eating is employed as a metaphor for power." Those who eat are the powerful, Parker says, and those who don't are the powerless. As Marian's wedding approaches, she begins to feel that Peter is consuming her. This is when Marian stops eating. There are several scenes where Marian cannot eat, but she sits watching Peter eat without restraint. At the end of the book, Marian offers herself as food to Peter in the form of a cake. It is at this point, when Marian has reestablished her power within herself, that Peter is unable to eat the cake, and Marian eats it for him. "Food is one of the few resources available to women," says Parker. Females, in the cultural context of this story, control food. It is their major responsibility to buy and cook food. Parker says that in Atwood's works, "food functions as a muted form of female self-expression."
Historical and Cultural Context
Patricia Goldblatt in "Reconstructing Margaret Atwood's Protagonists" begins her essay by describing the historical and cultural context within which Margaret Atwood lives and works:
Margaret Atwood weaves stories from her own life in the bush and cities of Canada. Intensely conscious of her political and social context, Atwood dispels the notion that caribou-clad Canadians remain perpetually locked in blizzards while simultaneously seeming to be a polite mass of gray faces, often indistinguishable from their American neighbors. Atwood has continually pondered the lack of an identifiable Canadian culture…. In an attempt to focus on Canadian experiences, Atwood has populated her stories with Canadian cities, conflicts, and contemporary people.
Atwood and a handful of other women writers in Canada are considered to have marked a turning point in Canadian literature. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, was written before the resurgence of the women's movement, but the ideas in her novel helped to spark the need for change.
Atwood attended college during the 1960s, both in Canada and in the United States. It was during this time that the feminist movement, also referred to as the Women's Liberation Movement, experienced a renaissance in both countries. Intrinsically involved in this rebirth were two books that Atwood has admitted reading. Darlene Kelly, in the essay "Either Way, I Stand Condemned," states that "Margaret Atwood recalls that when she composed the book [The Edible Woman] in 1965 there was no women's movement in sight, 'though like many at the time I'd read Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir behind locked doors.'"
Compare & Contrast
- 1965–1969: Forty women in Canada are reported to have died because of illegal attempts to end their pregnancies.
1968: The McGill Student Society publishes "The Birth Control Handbook" although the distribution of information on birth control is illegal in Canada. It becomes an underground bestseller.
1969: The House of Commons in Canada passes an Omnibus Bill covering birth control. The dissemination of birth control information is decriminalized.
1991: A federal law that would legalize abortions in Canada is defeated although it is legal in some provinces.
1992: The number of abortions in Canada exceeds 100,000.
- 1969: The Montreal Women's Liberation Movement is founded.
1990: A young man shoots and kills fourteen young women in Montreal, stating "You are all feminists."
1993: The Canadian federal government sets up a panel on violence against women.
- 1973: A farm wife is denied half-interest in the farm that she and her husband built together. Her work is seen simply as the fulfillment of her wifely duties.
1984: The Canadian Royal Commission on Equality in Employment makes recommendations for sweeping changes in this area but later tables its report.
1970: In Canada, almost 52 percent of families with children headed by single mothers are poor.
1984: The percentage of poor, single-mother families rises to 62 percent.
Today: The percentage of poor, single-mother families stands at 50 percent.
- 1970: Women make up 37 percent of full-time undergraduate students in Canadian universities.
1983: Women make up 56 percent of full-time undergraduate students in Canadian universities.
1989: Twenty-five Canadian universities have women's studies programs.
1991: York University in Canada admits its first students into a Ph.D. program in women's studies.
Friedan's book was called The Feminine Mystique, and it raised awareness of the suppression of women's rights to work outside of the home. Women should be allowed, Friedan observed, to have the same freedom as men. Friedan also attacked the conditioning of women to accept passive roles and depend on male dominance. Two years after Friedan's book was published, Friedan helped start the National Organization of Women (NOW).
Simone de Beauvoir's book, The Second Sex, discusses how women always define themselves in relation to men. One of her basic concepts is that of the "other," as in how men see women not as a being like them, a peer or collaborator, but rather that they see women in the same way that they see a stranger or someone foreign to their country. Women, de Beauvoir suggests, have submissively accepted this role, which has been imposed on them by men.
These books raised women's awareness about their role in society. This awareness led to the organization of women's liberation groups in Canada. These groups began to form in the late 1960s, most of them as consciousness-raising groups. In other words, women gathered together to discuss common problems and to help make one another aware of issues of oppression. The issues focused on economic and social equality.
According to the article "A Battle Not Yet Won" by Rupert Taylor,
feminists of the 1960s concluded that the whole of society is pervaded by a sexism that relegates all women to a subservient role. Sexism is a deep-rooted, often unconscious, system of beliefs, attitudes, and institutions in which distinctions between people's worth are made on the grounds of their sex and sexual roles.
Taylor continues by pointing out that a man who is a sexist sees women as inferior. Having had these issues brought into women's awareness, one of the major issues of feminism during the 1960s was for women to gain control over their bodies. As these groups progressed, they joined together into larger groups, giving them a stronger voice and helping them influence their government and judicial systems, changing laws which would eventually lead to great equality.
Canada's federal government set up the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in 1967 to examine women's role in society; three years later, the commission made 167 recommendations for greater equality for women.
In 1961, at the age of nineteen, Margaret Atwood wrote a collection of poems that she self-published. The collection was called Double Persephone and it won her the prestigious E. J. Pratt Medal. In 1966, another Atwood poetry collection, The Circle Game, won her the Canadian Governor General's Award. This was how she launched her career as a writer.
The Edible Woman was the first novel that Atwood wrote. At the time of its publication, Atwood was considered a poet. This may have played a part in the somewhat discouraging reviews of her first published attempts at prose. The book is described as being thin and tedious by several reviewers. Many of these reviewers do, however, see the potential in Atwood's writing and hold out hope that her next attempt at writing prose will be much better.
For example, in 1969 in a review in the Times Literary Supplement, Andre Deutsch writes that "at its best the novel exactly catches [Marian McAlpin's] compulsive behaviour and her unspoken difficulties … but the author's tendency to shy away from her own interests and her failure of nerve quite spoil these moments." In a 1970 review in the Saturday Review, Elizabeth Easton says, "Margaret Atwood, a Canadian poet, tries hard to be whimsical about all this [the plight of Marian McAlpin] but what might be briefly amusing becomes tedious when presented lengthily in rambling fashion…. Sharp imagery cannot make up for trite characterization and lack of plot."
John Stedmond in the Canadian Forum in 1970 states that
the novel as a whole does not live up to the promise of its parts. The characters, though clearly sketched, do not quite jell and the narrative techniques creak a little…. The novel's approach to the 'position of woman' question is fresh and the method of dealing with it is full of possibilities. But the potentialities are disappointingly unrealized. The author's second book should be better.
In the Library Journal in 1970, John Alfred Avant says,
Atwood, a young Canadian poet, can do nice things with a prose style; some of her phrases work themselves out in perverse little ways … but the material here is terribly thin. The characters are essentially uninteresting; and the situation … might do for a short story but just isn't enough for a novel. I can't recall a book more padded with tedious, irrelevant detail. There's no reason to purchase The Edible Woman; but Atwood … might some day write a novel worth reading.
T. D. MacLulich more specifically calls The Edible Woman a work of art. In his essay "Atwood's Adult Fairy Tale," he finds it a perplexing book: "My reaction to The Edible Woman does not seem to match the prevalent opinion." He contends that many critics view this book as a novel about external events only and that is the reason for the critical disinterest in this novel. "Today a novel about events in the external world is thought of as somehow more superficial than a novel which seeks to portray inner psychological events." MacLulich goes on to describe The Edible Woman as a "parable illustrating the complex nature of society." In conclusion MacLulich says,
The unresolved ending of The Edible Woman forces the reader to attempt his own interpretation of the novel's meaning. Atwood does not serve her message up on a platter, but lets the symbols and incidents reverberate within the reader's mind, in the manner in which … art has always worked within the human mind.
Since the publication of The Edible Woman, Atwood has written many more books. She has sold millions of copies of her books, which have been translated into twenty different languages. Her works are taught in 78 percent of all British universities.
Hart, a former college professor, is a freelance writer and editor who has written books for the study of English as well as nonfiction articles for national magazines. In the following essay, she discusses the themes of the search for self and gender roles in Atwood's novel.
Reading Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman is similar to eating a tofu sandwich. Both the book and the sandwich begin and end in the same way, and the flavor of the book and the tofu sandwich depend on the spices that are added to it.
Tofu is a nutritious, but pallid, bean curd. If no spices are brought to it, the satisfaction of eating a tofu sandwich is minimal. In comparison, if no understanding of the complex social issues surrounding The Edible Woman is brought to the reading of this book, the story might be simplistically summed up as follows: nice, refined, middle-class young woman has no clue what to do with her life. She has a dull, egocentric boyfriend and a dull, going-nowhere job. She meets an eccentric, self-absorbed second young man and has an affair. First boyfriend proposes marriage. Nice refined young woman accepts the proposal, then rejects it. In the end, nice, refined, middle-class young woman has no clue what to do with her life.
If, however, a little time is taken to investigate the spices that might compliment tofu and add flavor to this sandwich, and the sandwich is eaten a little more slowly, a little more consciously, the satisfaction rating increases. Correlating the story to this second version of the sandwich, the novel becomes a little more interesting: college-educated 1960s woman is dissatisfied with her role in a patriarchal society. Although she is somewhat intrigued with her job and her independence, she jumps at the chance to marry as a means of retiring from the job and the responsibility for having to make her own decisions. She thinks she loves her fiancé and that he loves her. She believes that, at least, she and her fiancé will create an organized home and a rational relationship. These assumptions are somewhat altered when she meets an eccentric male graduate student who challenges her beliefs. Eventually she realizes that she does not fit into the role that her fiancé and her society want her to play out, and she loses her appetite. In the end, college-educated 1960s woman is dissatisfied with her role in a patriarchal society, and her new awareness is at least the first step in resolving her conflicts.
The third possible sandwich recipe involves a little more time, a little more background information in the culinary arts, and a little better understanding of nutrition. The ultimate eating experience is comparable, now, to dining in one of the finest gourmet restaurants. In these terms, the synopsis of the story would read as follows: college-educated, intelligent, 1960s woman struggles with the complexities of feminism and sexuality in a patriarchal, or male-defined, society. She attempts to come to terms with the classic challenges of most females living in a male-dominated world: the body versus mind dichotomy; the profession versus motherhood conflict; and the sanity versus insanity definitions imposed on her by roles that were constructed by men and no longer fit the times, or more significantly, her needs. She lashes out, and tries to run away from her fiancé and her proposed marriage. She also tries to run away from herself, which results in a breakdown and eventual breakthrough in identifying her own basic elements. In the end she bakes a cake-woman in her own image, tests her assumptions by testing her fiancé who fails, and with her appetite returned she proceeds to eat the cake herself. However, when the cake is finally consumed, this college-educated, intelligent, 1960s woman must still struggle with the complexities of feminism and sexuality in a patriarchal, male-dominated society.
To describe Atwood's The Edible Woman as a tofu sandwich is not a criticism. Or at least it is not a criticism of Atwood's writing. After all, tofu is made from soybeans, one of the most completely nutritious vegetables that humanity has cultivated. The allusion to a tofu sandwich is more of a critique of the role of the reader. Read the book quickly, and The Edible Woman is entertaining. Read the book more carefully, looking at Atwood's use of food as metaphor, understanding the psychological implications of eating disorders, and fully realizing feminist concerns, and The Edible Woman deepens with issues that are still relevant today.
First, there is the bread of the sandwich. This idea of a sandwich, in some ways, comes from Atwood herself. As Darlene Kelly states in her essay "Either Way, I Stand Condemned," Atwood describes The Edible Woman as a circle in which the heroine ends where she began. The search for one's place, a recurring theme in all of Atwood's fictional writing, begins with this book, her first novel. But Marian McAlpin, the main character in The Edible Woman, fails, according to Kelly, to "clearly and unambiguously carve out such an abode." A possible reason for this failure, Kelly adds, may be that the book was "written at a time when what was wrong with the old order had been spelled out but the alternatives had not." So the reader is left without answers, like the protagonist, at the end.
But the bread acts only as the cover of the sandwich, and everyone knows not to judge a book by its cover. There is still the "meat" of the sandwich that must be examined. During the 1960s, with its renewed interest in the feminist movement thanks to books like Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, women were focusing on what was missing in their lives. They questioned the roles of their mothers who, for the most part, had not gone to college, who had not, except possibly during World War II, held jobs, and who, in their early twenties, were married and already had children.
Kelly states that by the time Atwood wrote The Edible Woman, marriage had been critically examined and found wanting by feminist writers like Simone de Beauvoir. Although it was popular jargon to accuse women of "trapping" men into marrying them, or to define a man as a "good catch," women of the 1960s were beginning to see that it was they who were being caught and trapped in the confinement of marriage. Kelly says, "By restricting a woman to what de Beauvoir called 'immanence,' that is, the confinement of her activity to home and family, marriage was said to inhibit the full deployment of a woman's talents in the social, political, and professional realms."
But what are the alternatives? This is the question that Atwood attempts, but fails, to answer, not because she falls short of her goal, but rather because in that historical timeframe, there were no answers. It is this open-ended finale in The Edible Woman that becomes one of the book's most fascinating elements. It is this unanswered question that Atwood was smart enough and brave enough to leave unanswered. It is this unanswered question that not only allows, but also invites her readers and literary critics to add their own flavors and spices to the sandwich.
What Do I Read Next?
- Margaret Atwood's prizewinning 1996 novel Alias Grace is about a young woman who is accused of murder. Atwood provides a vivid portrait of the status of women in nineteenth-century Canada.
- Margaret Atwood's Dancing Girls and Other Stories (1982) is a collection of short stories about women, relationships, and life.
- Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, explores the causes of women's frustrations with their traditional roles in late 1950s and early 1960s America. It describes the sense of personal worthlessness that women were feeling during those decades, as their roles demanded that they seek their identities only as wives and mothers.
- Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, published in 1970, was one of the first major theoretical works in the renaissance of feminism. It helped to define the ideas and goals of the women's movement.
- Virginia Woolf is often called the mother of twentieth-century feminist literary criticism. Her book Orlando (1928) analyzes the way gender determines the individual's relationship to property and art at different moments in history.
- Alice Munro, another Canadian writer, has a collection of short stories called Open Secrets: Stories which was written in 1994. The stories focus on the struggles of women to find their identity as well as to discover their roles in society.
- Alice Walker's You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (1981) is a collection of short stories that explores the lives of modern African-American women who are searching for empowerment, love, and friendship.
- Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch, which helped popularize feminism, has written a new book titled The Whole Woman (1999). In it she modernizes her views about the women's movement, highlighting her concerns about love and power.
- Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe (1987) is a book that is both humorous and poignant. It tells a story on two separate levels of time, following key moments in the lives of three women in their search for love and friendship.
To see Atwood's book as a sandwich is not too far flung an idea, as food is a very central part of The Edible Woman. Emma Parker states in her essay "You Are What You Eat: The Politics of Eating in the Novels of Margaret Atwood" that in Atwood's writing, "food imagery saturates [her] novels and becomes the dominant metaphor the heroines use to describe people, landscape, and emotion." The first chapter of The Edible Woman, for instance, opens in the kitchen with Marian making breakfast. Before the end of this chapter Marian is hungry and eating again. At the beginning of the second chapter, Marian is at work, where she is being asked to sample more food. She also describes the company where she works in terms of food, such as it is layered "like an ice cream sandwich." Before the second chapter ends, Marian goes to lunch, where she talks to her friends about people who live in Quebec and eats too many potatoes. And not to belabor the point, but just to demonstrate the saturation level of food and consumption in The Edible Woman, in the third chapter Marian is assigned the task of taking a survey about beer, is asked to write a letter to a woman who found a fly in her cereal, is turned down for a dinner date by her soon-to-be fiancé, Peter, then as she is thinking about what food she has in the freezer at home, she is interrupted by a phone call from a friend who invites her to dinner. And all of this food talk occurs in just the first twenty-five pages of the novel.
Not until Part Two of the novel, after Peter and Marian become engaged, does Marian have her first real difficulty with food. She realizes, of course, that if the problem persists, it could lead to her death, but she feels powerless in finding a solution. Her body acts on its own volition, as if Marian's mind has lost control over it. It is also at this point in the story that Atwood changes the voice of the narrator. She switches from first person (Marian's voice) to a third-person observer. With this structural change, Atwood distances the reader from Marian, just as Marian's body distances itself from her mind, just as Marian distances herself from food.
While Marian and Peter are sitting in a restaurant, Marian looks at the steak on her plate not as a meal, but rather as a part of a living mammal "that once moved and ate and was killed, knocked on the head as it stood in a queue like someone waiting for a streetcar." Not only does Marian see it as a once-live animal, she takes it one step further. She personifies the steak, making its history include the human action of waiting for a bus, something that Marian does almost every day. This is the first hint that Marian is beginning to feel like food; beginning to feel that she, too, is being consumed. In this same scene, just as Marian pushes away from the steak, she also senses her own helplessness and supposed inferiority to Peter. "She meant to indicate by her tone of voice that her stomach was too tiny and helpless to cope with that vast quantity of food. Peter smiled and chewed, pleasantly conscious of his own superior capacity."
At the time Atwood wrote The Edible Woman, public awareness of eating disorders like anorexia was negligible. Despite this lack of information, Atwood seems to have intuitively made her own conclusions about the significance of women and their relationship to food. Parker states that Atwood uses eating "as a metaphor for power and [it] is used as an extremely subtle means of examining the relationship between women and men. The powerful are characterized by their eating and the powerless by their non-eating."
In the essay "No Bread Will Feed My Hungry Soul: Anorexic Heroines in Female Fiction," Dr. Giuliana Giobbi states that "anorexic girls are actually uncertain, asocial, fundamentally shy persons who lack any power of initiative." Dr. Giobbi continues that anorexia is an attempt "to escape from the hardships of adult life." This turning away from the adult world can be seen in Marian when Peter proposes marriage and later asks her to choose a date for the wedding. Marian's response comes out impassively: "I heard a soft flannelly voice I barely recognized, saying, 'I'd rather have you decide that. I'd rather leave the big decisions up to you.' I was astounded at myself. I'd never said anything remotely like that to him before. The funny thing was I really meant it."
David L. Harkness also postulates that Marian's loss of appetite is a symbolic turning away from the responsibilities of adult life. Harkness, in his essay "Alice in Toronto: The Carrollian Intertext in The Edible Woman," compares Marian to Alice in their dual descent into a fantasy world where they both try to evade the issues surrounding growing up and having to make decisions. Harkness compares Marian to Alice but states that whereas Alice is "eternally young and can return to Wonderland without risk, Marian … is not a character in an engaging children's book. She does grow older, and … though she may not necessarily live happily ever after, she does manage to achieve some measure of personal growth and psychic integrity and thus go on to a happy ending."
While Harkness believes Marian eventually finds a happy ending that ending is not evident in Atwood's book. There is hope, however. She is, after all, eating again. Not only is she eating, she is consuming the image of femininity that she found, at last, so artificial. "'I'll start with the feet,' she decided." Then "she plunged her fork into the carcass, neatly severing the body from the head." So ends the artificial cake-woman, and so ends the book.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on The Edible Woman, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Coral Ann Howells
In the following essay excerpt, Howells examines The Edible Woman within the context of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, finding many thematic similarities between the works but arguing that Atwood's novel greatly differs in its "dimensions of fantasy and metaphorical thinking."
In this chapter I shall trace Atwood's exploration of sexual power politics through social myths of femininity and representations of the female body in two texts which mark very different stages in her writing career and in the history of feminism. The Edible Woman, her first novel, appeared in 1969 at the beginning of 'second wave' feminism, whereas the savage little fable 'The Female Body' written 20 years later (after Bodily Harm, The Handmaid's Tale, and a woman artist's paintings of the female body in Cat's Eye) belongs to the explicitly political context of feminism in the early 1990s, laying out the implications of patriarchal myths and fantasies about women with diagrammatic simplicity. The differences between these texts also explain why my chapter title reverses the terms of Toril Moi's influential essay of the mid-1980s, 'Feminist, Female, Feminine', in order to indicate the direction in which Atwood's work has shifted.
The Edible Woman belongs to a specific moment in the history of North American postwar feminism, which registered the first signs of the contemporary women's movement in its resistance to social myths of femininity. This is the territory charted by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (1963), a study that Atwood herself read 'behind closed doors' like many other young women at the time, and I propose to read The Edible Woman in that context. Atwood and Friedan highlight the same new area of gendered social concern, and the thematic issues in The Edible Woman could even be classified under the chapter headings in Friedan's book. However, the very title of Atwood's novel signals significant differences with its dimensions of fantasy and metaphorical thinking which are absent from Friedan's sociological treatise, for The Edible Woman is an imaginative transformation of a social problem into comic satire as one young woman rebels against her feminine destiny. Whereas The Feminine Mystique documents the anxieties and frustrations felt by a whole generation of young women in America in the 1950s and early 1960s, The Edible Woman goes beyond women's anger and bewilderment in its exploitation of the power of laughter to reveal the absurdities within social conventions. This is a subversive rather than a confrontational novel which engages obliquely with social problems, adopting the form of a parodic revision of a traditional comedy of manners with its fixation on the marriage theme. Here Atwood mixes those earlier conventions with the language of 1960s advertising and cookery books, adding a dash of popular Freudianism and a few of the Jungian archetypes so fashionable in literary criticism of the 1950s and 1960s, to produce a satirical exposure of women's continuing conditions of entrapment within their own bodies and within social myths. The novel mounts its attack on social and gender ideology very wittily, though it bears the mark of its historical period with its deprecatingly feminine glance back over the shoulder when one of the characters comments, 'I don't want you to think that all this means anything'. It is part of Atwood's playful ambiguity that the speaker here is male. That same speaker, a young graduate student in English literature, happens to be the novel's most vigorous critic of gender stereotypes, of advertising and of the consumerist ethic. Under a series of comic masks Atwood's novel explores the relation between consumerism and the feminine mystique, where one young woman's resistance to consuming and to being consumed hints at a wider condition of social malaise which the new feminist movement was just beginning to address….
The role of Margaret Mead as the professional spokesman [my Italics] for femininity would have been less important if American women had taken the example of her own life, instead of listening to what she said in her books. Margaret Mead has lived a life of open challenge.
Atwood's dramatisation of the contradictions within the concept of femininity according to the 'functional freeze' doctrine provides some of the best comedy in The Edible Woman in her two parodic versions of earth-mothers, one a passive victim of the feminine mystique and one (a former psychology student and evidently a devotee of Margaret Mead) whose relentless pursuit of a father for her child 'bore a chilling resemblance to a general plotting a major campaign'.
In North American society of the late 1950s and 1960s where 'adjustment' for a woman meant accepting a dependent 'feminine' role, it was as Friedan says, 'very hard for a human being to sustain such an inner split—conforming outwardly to one reality, while trying to maintain inwardly the values it denies'. In a chapter whose full title is 'Progressive Dehumanization: the Comfortable Concentration Camp', Friedan glances at the territory of female neurosis which Atwood's novel explores with such imaginative insight:
If the human organism has an innate urge to grow, to expand and become all it can be, it is not surprising that the bodies and the minds of healthy women begin to rebel as they try to adjust to a role that does not permit this growth.
Friedan cites case histories of women suffering from fatigue, heart attacks and psychotic breakdowns, a catalogue of female hysterical illness induced by women's attempts to conform to the (impossible and undesirable) codes of the feminine mystique. It is precisely in that speculative area of pathology so 'puzzling to doctors and analysts' that the nervous eating disorder of Atwood's heroine is located, where the female body becomes the site of victimisation, internal conflict and rebellion.
I think I have said sufficient to establish that The Feminine Mystique may be an appropriate lens through which to read The Edible Woman as social critique, for it is a 1960s story of a woman's identity crisis provoked by pressures against which she finds herself seriously at odds. Marian MacAlpin is a young graduate in her twenties with an independent income, living in Toronto and sharing an apartment with another young woman, Ainsley Tewce. She also has a boyfriend to whom she becomes engaged, Peter Wollander, an ambitious young lawyer with a passionate interest in guns and cameras. The narrative traces the stages of Marian's rebellion against social conformity as she becomes increasingly disillusioned with her job and her fiancé to the point where her inner conflict finds its outward expression in an eating disorder whose symptoms resemble anorexia nervosa. While the novel hints at the connection between social institutions and personal relations which would become the central theme in Atwood's collection of poems Power Politics (1971), it cannot easily be classified as a realist text for it insistently challenges the conventions of realism by its excursions into fantasy and its flights of metaphorical inventiveness. The Edible Woman is a comedy of resistance and survival which subverts social definitions from within, shown by the way Marian finally wins her independence from the feminine mystique through her traditionally feminine gesture of making a cake, which she offers to the two men in her life. Her fiancé refuses it; her strange changeling mentor and guide, Duncan the graduate student in English, helps her to eat it all up. Clearly, an iced cake in the shape of a woman is the central metaphor for Marian's perception of woman's condition and fate as decreed by the feminine mystique so that her cake-baking is both a gesture of complicity in the domestic myth and also a critique of it. Atwood described the tea ritual as 'symbolic cannibalism', with the cake as simulacrum of the socialised feminine image which Marian rejects; but it is also of course a party game with Duncan as the 'child' and Marian as the 'mother' once again in control. Eating the cake is an act of celebration which marks the decisive moment of Marian's recovery from an hysterical illness and her return to the social order. Once again she becomes a 'consumer', for it is difficult if not impossible to reconstruct one's identity outside the symbolic and social order, and individual survival is likely to mean compromises with society. This is a conclusion similar to the one in Surfacing (1972), and Atwood's comment on the similarities between the two books draws attention to what her female protagonists have accomplished in finding new subject positions for themselves more in harmony with the world they live in.
As a woman writer Atwood has always been intensely aware of the significance of representations of the female body, both in terms of a woman's self-definition and as a fantasy object:
The body as a concept has always been a concern of mine. It's there in Surfacing as well. I think that people very much experience themselves through their bodies and through concepts of the body which get applied to their own bodies. Which they pick up from their culture and apply to their own. It's also my concern in Lady Oracle and it's even there in The Edible Woman.
The originality of The Edible Woman lies in its exposure of the 'sexual sell' promoted by the feminine mystique, for the narrative reveals how social paradigms of femininity may distort women's perceptions of their sexuality in the interests of creating childlike or doll-like fantasy figures. A young woman like Marian, sensitised as she is to the social script of gender relations and feminine expectations, seems to have little consciousness of her own body either in terms of its maternal urges or its erotic pleasures. Female bodies and biological processes like pregnancy, childbirth and menstruation figure in the novel, but they are treated with a measure of comic detachment. When viewed through Marian's eyes, sexually mature female bodies become grotesque and rather disgusting, whether it is her friend Clara's pregnant body or the fat ageing bodies of her fellow office workers at the Christmas party or the fiasco of the coast-to-coast market research survey on sanitary napkins, where some of the questionnaires 'obviously went out to men' ('Here's one with "Tee Hee" written on it, from a Mr Leslie Andrewes').
In contrast to Marian, her friends Clara and Ainsley celebrate women's biological destiny, though their different approaches to motherhood turn them into parodic images of the maternal principle. Clara, who enters the narrative heavily pregnant with her third child, looks to Marian 'like a boa-constrictor that has swallowed a water melon'. Marian sees her as one of the casualties of the female life, a representation of the duplicities of the feminine mystique which could transform a girl who was 'everyone's idea of translucent perfume-advertisement femininity' into a kind of female monster, the helpless victim of her own biology:
She simply stood helpless while the tide of dirt rose round her, unable to stop it or evade it. The babies were like that too; her own body seemed somehow beyond her, going its own way without reference to any directions of hers.
There are several ironies here, not least a foreshadowing of Marian's own bodily insurrection, but the most obvious is that Clara's own attitude to motherhood is quite savagely unmaternal: 'Her metaphors for her children included barnacles encrusting a ship and limpets clinging to a rock'. Yet when Clara's baby is born, she describes the process to Marian with a kind of rapture: 'Oh marvellous; really marvellous. I watched the whole thing, it's messy, all that blood and junk, but I've got to admit it's sort of fascinating'. Marian's response is not one of sympathy but of alarm at possibly being implicated by her age and her gender, and she escapes from the maternity hospital 'as if from a culvert or cave. She was glad she wasn't Clara'.
If Clara represents woman's passive fulfilment of her biological destiny, then Ainsley represents a more intellectualised approach to maternity as she embarks on it as a social project with the aim of becoming a single parent. (Ainsley's derogatory remarks about men and fatherhood are amusingly similar to those of Offred's mother in The Handmaid's Tale written 20 years later). Her programme is entirely ideological and in a curious way academic and theoretical:
'Every woman should have at least one baby.' She sounded like a voice on the radio saying that every woman should have at least one electric hair-dryer. 'It's even more important than sex. It fulfils your deepest femininity.'
Ainsley's pursuit of Marian's friend Leonard Slank, a notorious womaniser with a penchant for inexperienced young girls, works as a comic reversal of the traditional seduction plot exposing the dynamics of the sexual game in all its duplicity. Ainsley's artful imitation of youthful innocence ('It was necessary for her mind to appear as vacant as her face'), and Leonard's pose of world-weary drunken lecher are equally false, as is revealed when she triumphantly announces to him that she is pregnant. He collapses in a crisis of Freudian horror:
Now I'm going to be all mentally tangled up in Birth. Fecundity. Gestation. Don't you realize what that will do to me? It's obscene, that horrible oozy …
'Don't be idiotic,' Ainsley said '… You're displaying the classic symptoms of uterus envy.'
It is Leonard who is the casualty in this battle between the sexes. However, as part of the comic deconstruction of stereotypes here, the most passionate advocate for the maternal principle is a male Jungian literary critic, the graduate student Fischer Smythe, who is obsessed with archetypal womb symbols and who in turn becomes fascinated with the pregnant Ainsley as an Earth Mother figure just as Leonard Slank recoils from her 'goddam fertility-worship'. Indeed, it is the male characters who display far more interest in female biology than the women and whose language rises to heights of eloquence or abuse in their fantasy representations of the female body. By contrast, Marian refuses to get involved either with Ainsley's 'fraud' or Clara's domestic chaos.
Not only does Marian feel threatened by childbearing but she also feels alienated from her body in other ways as well. At the office Christmas party, surrounded by the fat and ageing bodies of her colleagues, Marian's perspective shifts from a kind of anthropological detachment to a sudden shocked recognition that she too shares this mysterious female condition:
What peculiar creatures they were; and the continual flux between the outside and the inside, taking things in, giving them out, chewing, words, potato-chips, burps, grease, hair, babies, milk, excrement, cookies, vomit, coffee, tomato-juice, blood, tea, sweat, liquor, tears, and garbage … At some time she would be—or no, already she was like that too; she was one of them, her body the same, identical, merged with that other flesh that choked the air in the flowered room with its sweet organic scent; she felt suffocated by this thick sargasso-sea of femininity.
We begin to understand that Marian does not wish to turn into any of the models of adult women offered by society, and that behind her conventional femininity lies a horror of the body which relates to her fear of growing up signalled either by marriage, maternity or the office pension plan. She wants none of these futures, and it is in this context of challenge to the discourses of both femininity and adulthood that her hysterical eating disorder needs to be interpreted.
The design of the narrative with its radical shift from the first person narration in Part 1 to the third person in Part 2 underlines Marian's loss of an independent sense of self; it is also Part 2 which signals the onset and crisis of her nervous disease. As the bride to be, she has already opted out of the professional world and has nothing to do but wait passively for her wedding: 'It was all being taken care of, there was nothing for her to do. She was floating, letting the current hold her up.' Under the spell of the feminine mystique, she is merely biding her time, yet there are signals that this is for Marian what Friedan would call 'The Mistaken Choice'. Though an apparently willing victim, Marian is troubled by her strange eating disorder and by inexplicable intimations of 'sodden formless unhappiness'. Perhaps the best gloss on her state is provided by another victim of the feminine mystique in the late 1950s, the American poet Adrienne Rich, who writes about her own condition using similar imagery of drifting and self division: 'What frightened me most was the sense of drift, of being pulled along on a current which called itself my destiny, but in which I seemed to be losing touch with whoever I had been, with the girl who had experienced her own will and energy almost ecstatically at times, walking around a city or riding a train or typing in a student room'. It is the concept of freedom which Duncan represents, enhanced in his case by a Peter Pan pose of childlike irresponsibility as he refashions the world according to his own wishes and so fantasises an alternative reality. He challenges all Marian's traditional ideas of masculinity, romantic love and parent-child relations, while his 'family' of two other male graduate students, Trevor and Fish, forms a gaily subversive trio who transgress traditional gender roles, dedicated as they are to the domestic arts of washing and ironing, cooking and parenting. Caught between this playful student world and the world of social conformity, Marian loses any sense of herself as a unified subject, beginning to hallucinate her emotional conflict in images of bodily dissolution and haunted by hallucinations of fragmentation. Lying in the bath on the evening of the first party which she and Peter are giving as an engaged couple, she begins to believe that her body is 'coming apart layer by layer like a piece of cardboard in a gutter puddle.'
That party, to which all the main characters in the novel are invited, represents the climax of Atwood's 'anticomedy':
I think in your standard 18th-century comedy you have a young couple who is faced with difficulty in the form of somebody who embodies the restrictive forces of society and they trick or overcome this difficulty and end up getting married. The same thing happens in The Edible Woman except the wrong person gets married … The comedy solution would be a tragic solution for Marian.
Atwood's fictional method is what is now recognised as a feminist revision of a traditional genre highlighting the artifice of literary conventions and the social myths they inscribe. There are other divergences from traditional comic patterns here as well. Not only is the artifice of femininity exposed ('You didn't tell me it was a masquerade', says Duncan, looking at Marian's lacquered hair and her slinky red dress) but the party provides the first occasion when the male protagonists speak about femininity from their own perspective, revealing a surprisingly high level of masculine anxiety about this topic. The most devastating attack on the feminine mystique comes from Clara's husband Joe, the philosophy lecturer, who earnestly challenges such mythologising, making a political statement from his personal point of view as a husband and a teacher:
She's hollow, she doesn't know who she is any more; her core has been destroyed … I can see it happening with my own female students. But it would be futile to warn them.
At last Marian knows what she does not want, and so she escapes from the social script to her unscripted meeting in the laundromat with Duncan and into their brief liaison in a sleazy hotel. Though it begins as a parody of lovemaking with Duncan's complaint that there is 'altogether too much flesh around here' (an echo of Marian's own disgust with female bodies), it ends rather differently with him gently stroking her 'almost as though he was ironing her'. There is also a suggestion of their wilderness affinity as Duncan's face nudges into her flesh, 'like the muzzle of an animal, curious, and only slightly friendly', and it is in the wilderness of a Toronto ravine to which he guides her that Mar-ian's undramatised clarification of mind occurs. Duncan's action in leaving her alone there is exactly what Friedan might have prescribed for bewildered dissenters from the feminine mystique, 'for that last and most important battle can be fought in the mind and spirit of woman herself.'
By following her own line of metaphorical thinking, Marian discovers a way to solve what for her is an ontological problem, 'some way she could know what was real: a test, simple and direct as litmus-paper.' The test is of course the cake which she bakes and then ices in the shape of a woman, a transformation of science into domestic ritual. Gazing at the cake lady and thinking of her destiny she says, 'You look delicious … And that's what will happen to you; that's what you get for being food.' However, when offered the cake Peter flees, either from Marian's literalised metaphor or from her undisguised hostility, probably into the arms of Lucy, one of Marian's office friends with 'her delicious dresses and confectionery eyes.' Maybe Marian was right and an 'edible woman' was what Peter had really wanted all along. It is as if a spell has been broken: Marian's confusion falls away, and recognising that 'the cake after all was only a cake' she starts to eat it. Only Ainsley, ever alive to symbolic implications, bothers to translate the significance of Marian's cake eating, ironically echoing Peter's earlier accusations. 'Marian!' she exclaimed at last, with horror. 'You're rejecting your femininity!' This interpretation is confirmed by Marian's 'plunging her fork into the carcase, neatly severing the body from the head.' That violent gesture with its parody of vampire slaying carries a further implication that the feminine image has been draining Marian's life blood but will have the power to do so no more.
The third section with its energetic return to a first person narrative, 'I was cleaning up the apartment', is devoted to tidying up the plot in a comic dénouement where it is significant that the three women protagonists survive better than the men: Peter has left and Marian is once again independent; Leonard Slank has had a nervous breakdown and is being cared for by Clara like another of her numerous children, while Ainsley has fulfilled her biological mission while managing to conform neatly to social convention by marrying Fischer Smythe and going off to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon. Marian's house-cleaning works as another domestic analogy for her own rehabilitation, as her response to Duncan's phone call suggests: 'Now that I was thinking of myself in the first person singular again I found my own situation much more interesting than his.' Their tea is a replay of Peter's visit, though with the important differences that Duncan eats the cake (described by Marian as 'the remains of the cadaver') and that they talk together in a way that she and Peter did not manage to do. It is a curious conversation in which Duncan casually offers five possible interpretations of the preceding narrative action as if he were commenting on a literary text in a graduate seminar. The one reading he categorically rejects is Marian's assertion that Peter was trying to destroy her:
'That's just something you made up'. Instead, he multiplies the possibilities around the question: Who has been trying to destroy whom? Duncan's ironising (like his passion for ironing things out flat) represents a deliberate distancing from Marian's personal crisis in a general comment on human behaviour. Such a device with its opening up of multiple perspectives shifts any reading of this novel beyond a single feminist focus, implying that the politics of gender is only one example of the power struggles in any relationship. It is Duncan who has the last word, transforming this into a comedy of good manners as he finishes cleaning up the cake: '"Thank you," he said, licking his lips. "It was delicious".' He is the good child who says thank you as Marian the mother regards him with a smile. Yet the ending is not quite the sentimental resolution it may look at first glance, for Duncan remains an enigma, and on a psychological level his eating of the cake resembles nothing so much as the activity of the Sin Eater, a role assigned to the therapist in one of Atwood's later stories.
The domestic scenario raises one last point which relates to the important question of female creativity. It is significant that Marian has chosen to make her protest through a traditionally feminine mode which bypasses language: 'What she needed was something that avoided words, she didn't want to get tangled up in a discussion.' She thinks that she has accomplished her purpose, though as any reader in the 1990s would note, none of the three young women—Marian, Ainsley nor Clara—has escaped from their culturally defined gender roles; they are still producing cakes and babies. This leaves unresolved the issue of women's attempts to establish themselves as independent speaking subjects working creatively through writing or painting, a topic to which Atwood will return in Surfacing, Lady Oracle and Cat's Eye.
Twenty years later Atwood is still preoccupied with 'writing woman', both in the sense of woman as writer and woman as written about, though we might expect that a fable belonging to the 1990s like 'The Female Body' would show a more explicitly feminist awareness of the political and theoretical dimensions within representations of the feminine than a novel written at the end of the 1960s. In both texts the focus is on woman as spectacle or fantasy object of desire and violence, and representations of the female bodies in the later text double back to take in the same images of fashionable femininity or women's captivity as in The Edible Woman. In both, women are represented as victims: a woman being eaten alive (playfully figured as a sponge cake) and woman as murder victim.
Source: Coral Ann Howells, "'Feminine, Female, Feminist': From The Edible Woman to 'The Female Body,'" in Margaret Atwood, Macmillan, 1996, pp. 38-54.
Atwood, Margaret, "Margaret Atwood, Writing Philosophy," Waterstone's Poetry Lecture Series delivered at Hay On Wye, Wales, June 1995, taken from "Canadian Poets" on the Canadian Poetry website, University of Toronto, 2000, www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry (last accessed March, 2001).
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This discussion of Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale explores her views on feminism, postcolonialism, and utopianism.
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Patton claims that Atwood's work is often analyzed primarily with psychological interpretations. Patton prefers to look at Atwood's stories in terms of politics.