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.