The Edible Woman: Consumption and Liberation of the Female Body

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The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood is an enduring literary work that set in the civil rights era. This novel follows a recent college graduate, Marian MacAlpin, through her career and emotional maturation in a somewhat unnatural, if not threatening, world. The unusualness of this world is characterized by a spectrum of moral viewpoints that manifest themselves and surround Marian. In effect, these viewpoints, both male dominated and sex driven, are so potent that they seem to devour Marian both physically and emotionally. Through both food and eating, Marian rebels against this cannibalistic, patriarchal society. In the end, she reclaims her identity by restoring her relationship with food.

The novel starts with Marian’s first person narrative of her relationships with her defiant roommate, Ainsley, who is intent on becoming a mother, her practical lawyer boyfriend, Peter, and her pregnant and fragile friend, Clara. As the novel progresses, Marian begins to disassociate herself from her body as she realizes the predatory and dangerous nature of the society in which she lives. This disassociation can be seen most clearly as Marian’s identity crisis spirals out of control after she accepts Peter’s hand in marriage. She develops an aversion to eating, particularly after witnessing Peter cut into a steak. Rather than viewing the meat as an inanimate object, she associates it with a living, breathing cow. As the story progresses and Peter’s domineering ways become evident, Marian develops a relationship with a narcissistic English graduate student, named Duncan. Duncan is highly unpredictable. This unpredictability is highlighted when they share an unexpected, but intimate, kiss at the Laundromat.

Marian’s final loss of self arises when she succumbs to Peter’s wish to dress up for his party. At the party, Marian cannot contain the overwhelming sense of falseness and destruction. She escapes to find Duncan and spends the night with him in a hotel room. With the final consumption of her self by Duncan, she decides to bake a cake for Peter in the likeness of a woman. She accuses him of metaphorically devouring her and a very disturbed Peter breaks off the engagement. Marian then, symbolically reclaiming her identity, ravenously eats the cake, and also allows Duncan to finish eating the cake.

Overall, this novel explores the cannibalism theme, which we analyzed in the Republic of Wine and “Diary of a Madman,” as well as the themes involving food and gender roles, which we analyzed in Week 6 of class. In Marian’s journey in particular we observe her rediscovery, if not discovery, of herself as she battles to overcome a debased, male-dominated society.

2 thoughts on “The Edible Woman: Consumption and Liberation of the Female Body

  1. Indeed it elides the discussions we have had about cannibalism as a metaphor for structures of power, and the ways that we have seen food products or food production being gendered. Very interesting!

  2. REVISION

    The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood is an enduring literary work set in the civil rights era. This novel follows a recent college graduate, Marian MacAlpin, through her career and emotional maturation in a somewhat unnatural, if not threatening, world. The unusualness of this world is characterized by a spectrum of moral viewpoints that manifest themselves and surround Marian. In effect, these viewpoints, both male dominated and sex driven, are so potent that they seem to devour Marian both physically and emotionally. Through both food and eating, Marian rebels against this cannibalistic, patriarchal society. Marian’s initial disgust with meats which progresses into a complete self-starvation symbolizes the loss of her identity and her inability claim herself in this male-dominated world. However, at the end of the novel her relationship with food is restored by her consumption of a cake in the shape of a woman, which symbolically shows her feminist attitudes and the recovery of her identity.
    The novel starts with Marian’s first person narrative of her relationships with her defiant roommate, Ainsley, who is intent on becoming a mother, her practical lawyer boyfriend, Peter, and her pregnant and fragile friend, Clara. As the novel progresses, Marian begins to disassociate herself from her body as she realizes the predatory and dangerous nature of the society in which she lives. This disassociation can be seen most clearly as Marian’s identity crisis spirals out of control after she accepts Peter’s hand in marriage. She develops an aversion to eating, particularly after witnessing Peter cut into a steak. Rather than viewing the meat as an inanimate object, she associates it with a living, breathing cow. As the story progresses and Peter’s domineering ways become evident, Marian develops a relationship with a narcissistic English graduate student, named Duncan. Duncan is highly unpredictable. This unpredictability is highlighted when they share an unexpected, but intimate, kiss at the Laundromat.
    Marian’s final loss of self arises when she succumbs to Peter’s wish to dress up for his party. At the party, Marian cannot contain the overwhelming sense of falseness and destruction of her self as she superficially morphs into the woman that Peter wants her to be. She escapes to find Duncan and spends the night with him in a hotel room. With a new resolution, she decides to bake a cake for Peter in the likeness of a woman. She accuses him of metaphorically devouring her and a very disturbed Peter breaks off the engagement. Marian then, symbolically reclaiming her identity, ravenously eats the cake, and also allows Duncan to finish eating the cake.
    Overall, this novel explores the cannibalism theme, which we analyzed in the Republic of Wine and “Diary of a Madman,” as well as the themes involving food and gender roles, which we analyzed in Week 6 of class. Similar to the novels analyzed in class, The Edible Woman interplays between the literal and figurative, threaded together with a narrative, in order to demonstrate cannibalism that is not just occurring in the story, but also in society. In the Republic of Wine, Mo Yan didactically uses the cannibalism of young boys as a critique the ills of Chinese communist world, in particular the Cultural Revolution. In addition, Lu Xun, in “Diary of a Madman,” also uses cannibalism as a means to criticize China’s traditional culture of Confucianism and feudalism. However, The Edible Woman’s usage of cannibalism is uses to critique the disparity of female power in society. In Marian’s journey in particular we observe her rediscovery, if not discovery, of herself as she battles to overcome a debased, male-dominated society.

    The Edible Woman explores the motifs of food, both metaphorically and physically, through female sexuality, marriage, childbirth and rearing identity. The introspective protagonist, who is rooted in everyday life, experiences a process of development as she realizes that society has the capability to cannibalize her. This story is divided into three parts: initial identification, identity crisis and, finally, identity reclamation. Through this journey, Marian matures and comes to the realization that she cannot allow her self to be metaphorically and physically consumed.
    The first section, that explores Marian’s initial identification, is interesting in both style and context. It begins with a first-person narrative of what is seemingly a normal and contemporary atmosphere. Marian takes coffee breaks with “the office virgins” (16) and commits to a pension plan (18-19) that foreshadows the beginning of a trend of forcible commitment. Yet, Marian’s world is troublingly abnormal as she constantly morphs her personality to adjust to Peter’s temper tantrums. Particularly, he sulks over the engagement and marriage of his friends and refers to it as “a national disaster” (23). Peter’s fears are portrayed in Ainsley and Marian’s trip to Clara’s house for dinner. Clara’s house, husband and children offer a comical depiction of chaotic domesticity. Despite the grotesqueness of both Clara’s fragile body and lifestyle, Marian identifies this lifestyle as the “normal;” a normalcy she herself would pursue. Ainsley, who reflects a similar, yet more radical, sentiment of future plans of motherhood, exclaims that she is “going to have a baby” (39). She posits the traditional view of womanhood, that “every woman should have at least one baby…It’s even more important than sex. It fulfills your deepest femininity” (41). Though Marian cannot articulate why Ainsley should not have a baby, especially without a husband, her rationale that Ainsley should not have a baby in the traditional context conveys Marina’s initial and conventional moral identity. Marian also reflects on her normal life with Peter and the fact that he is “an ideal choice when you come to think of it. He’s attractive and he’s bound to be successful, and also he’s neat, which is a major point when you’re going to be living with someone” (116). She also wants an even number of children and states that she has “never been silly about marriage the way Ainsley is” (116). However, Marian inwardly contemplates her display of normalcy and conventionalism when she meets Duncan, an English graduate student. Duncan’s unpredictability and the intimate moment that they share shatters her comfortable and banal lifestyle. Marian repeats that she is “feeling unsettled” (43) with her current situation and attempts to return to her initial normalcy by stating that she “must get organized. I have a lot to do” (118).
    Marian, however, will not return to her original normal circumstances. Rather, she has embarked upon a journey of inner growth. Marian physically continues her escape from normal circumstances when she undertakes an assignment to conduct a survey for a beer advertisement. The world she encounters is represented as agenda-driven and over-sexualized. Marian encounters a couple who attempt to indoctrinate her into the temperance movement, to which Marian silently submits. A man also attempts to make a sexual pass at her. Finally, Marian encounters a true identity crisis when she is out to drinks with Peter, Len and Ainsley. Marian’s disassociation from her body begins when Peter recounts a gory hunting story to Len, which causes Marian to realize that she is crying. “After a while I noticed with mild curiosity that a large drop of something wet has materialized on the table near my hand…I must be crying then!” (76) On this occasion, she twice breaks away, running uncontrollably, from her friends and her boyfriend. Peter attempts to scold her by saying, “Ainsley behaved herself properly, why couldn’t you? The trouble with you is … you’re just rejecting your femininity” (89). Marian begins to realize that she is rejecting Peter’s ideals and male-dominated view of society. A few moments later, however, she accepts his marriage proposal, contradicting herself and highlighting her crisis of identity.
    This identity crisis deepens in the second part of the novel when she begins to lose her appetite. While on a date with Peter she ponders her relationship with him. Her reflections manifest themselves in her inquiry of food and eating culture. For example,

    She wondered why restaurants like this one were kept so dark. Probably to keep people from seeing each other very clearly while they were eating. After all, chewing and swallowing are pleasanter for those doing them than for those watching, she thought, and observing one’s partner too closely might dispel the aura of romance that the restaurant was trying to maintain (171).

    Marian characterizes her inner turmoil in terms of food and consumption as a “violent manipulation” (174). She experiences an epiphany as she recognizes what she finds to be the sickening part of consumption: “She looked down at her own half-eaten steak and suddenly saw it as a hunk of muscle. Blood red. Part of a real cow that once moved and ate and was killed…” (175) Marian’s crisis of body and mind progresses to the point where she is unable to eat any food at all. In rebellion, she continues to see Duncan who she describes as, “drifting with the current, an endurance of time marked by no real event…they had virtually no past and certainly no future” (215). This detachment expresses Marian’s realization of the dichotomy not just within herself, but also in society. She feels that she is the victim of a male-dominated society that is typified by predators and prey.
    After realizing society’s divisions, as represented by food, Marian comes to a breaking point when she questions the society she has been living with and its embodiment of normalcy. She asks Ainsley if she believes herself to be normal. Ainsley cryptically responds with, “Normal isn’t the same as average…nobody is normal.” (239) With this said, Marian’s identity crisis comes to a head when Peter suggests that she dress up for the party he is hosting. She does not even recognize herself and states that she sees, “three reflections of [herself] at the same time…watching the way in which different bright silver parts of her body suddenly bloated or diminished.” Marian was no longer the master of, or even attached to, her body. As a result, she escapes the party and makes love to Duncan in a sleazy hotel room.
    After the events of the night, Marian realizes that she must reclaim her identity. She sets herself to making a cake in representation of a woman.

    Her creation gazed up at her, its face doll-like and vacant except for the small silver glitter of intelligence in each green eye…All that work gone into the lady and now what would happen to her.

    The cake became a symbol of her former-self, the self that was secretly an intelligent individual, but outwardly conformed to society’s expectations of women. Marian finally implores Peter with the accusation, “You have been trying to destroy me, haven’t you…You’ve been trying to assimilate me. But, I’ve made you a substitute” (320). The final cannibalistic consumption of the cake symbolizes the re-consumption of her self and the recovery of her own person. In this way, she has found a way protest against the culture of patriarchy and consumption of women by taking part in the creation of a substitute. Even more, she makes a decisions to whom can consume the substitute she created and demonstrates her acceptance as Duncan as a new man of her life by offering him the cake.
    Overall, The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood examines Marian’s identity and identity crisis through the representation of food. The distinction between what is food and what is not food, as well as what should be consumed and what should not be consumed, is analyzed in this novel through Marian’s growth of character and individuality in a male-dominated and cannibalistic society. Marian’s ability to reclaim her identity and ravenously devour her cake-woman, demonstrates her womanly strength to free oneself from the conventional path of marriage and submissiveness to a husband. In the end, Marian’s inability to consume food symbolizes her inability to subscribe to the traditional culture of consumption, particularly the consumption of women, which allows her to set herself free. She is set free in the final scene of the novel by not only protesting the patriarchal society she lives in, but also finding a way to survive it by creating a substitute for the consumption of women in society.

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