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.
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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.”
Marian fares no better in trying to identify herself with the image that men have of women. Her fiancÃ©, 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.”
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?
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. 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.
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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.
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 fiancÃ©, 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.
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