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Feminism and Consumption: Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman

Feminist Protest in Toronto. [Photograph]. (1)

The Edible Woman is the first novel of Canadian author Margaret Atwood wrote and also it helped the writer to indicate her skills in the prose genre. Since the novel’s publication coincided with the rise of the women's movement in North America, some critics evaluated the novel as a feminist novel because in the year when the novel was published there was the rise of feminism in North America. However, Margaret Atwood described ‘’The Edible Woman’’ as a proto-feminist novel in its preface since it was written in 1965. But, it was not published until 1969.

Margaret Atwood. [Photograph]. (2)

Margaret Atwood is one of the well-known writers in Canadian literature. She started her career by writing poetry during the 1960s. Besides her writing career, she is known as a feminist critic and social activist as well. When Margaret Atwood started to write The Edible Woman, society was controlled by men intensely. Post-war feminist movements were trying to defeat the patriarchal model of family and femininity in those days. Customary gender roles were not suitable for modern women; they did not want to be just a mother, wife or housekeeper and the only alternative was a position which a person was stuck in dead-end employment. However, they thought they deserved more of the opportunities offered them.

The Edible Woman is about women’s connection with men and also society. But, Atwood describes this issue in an unusual way, she tells the story through eating disorders and cannibalism. To be more precise, she uses eating disturbance as a metaphor for revolt and protest. Margaret Atwood talks about that in an interview: ‘’ It is a human activity that has all kinds of symbolic connotations depending on the society and the level of society. In other words, what you eat varies from place to place, how we feel about what we eat varies from place to place, how we feel about what we eat varies from individual as well as from place to place. If you think of food as coming in various categories: sacred food, ceremonial food, everyday food and things that are not to be eaten, forbidden food, dirty food, if you like -for the anorexic-, all food is dirty food.’ The novel consists of three parts: in part one, background causes are shown, the second part indicates the mind and body split, third part reflects the spontaneous declaration of the problem. The book starts when the main protagonist Marian, who works in a market research firm, receives a marriage proposal from her boyfriend Peter and she accepts it without hesitation. But all of a sudden, she meets with English literature student Duncan. Unlike Peter, Duncan is more indifferent and careless. He shows Marian a world that is outside of her career plans. Besides that, when Marian finds out Peter’s consumer nature during a talk in the restaurant, she suddenly questions her boyfriend, marriage, love and her own body. Also, she started to not to eat meat. She has a big question marked in her mind: ‘’Is her own body also an object to be consumed for Peter?’’. Throughout the novel, she tries to solve this problem.

Marian's initial aversion to eating develops into an eating problem resembling anorexia nervosa. When she discerns what society -and Peter too- expects from her as a wife and mother, she loses her ability to eat, it is her body's response to society's attempt to impose its policies on her. In other words, her rejection of food is a metaphor for the male-dominated society. Even though her mind is not aware yet, her body is conscious of what she wants and it begins to control her independently from her thoughts. This sudden alteration encourages her to regain independence. Also, she begins to comprehend her own wants and feelings as she learns more about nature and the reasons for her eating disorder. Even though she is hungry, her body refuses to eat dinner with Peter. She thinks that Peter is consuming her body like the way she consumes food. Marian begins to question her decision about marriage to Peter because she is occasionally bothered by Peter's overall manner and casual attitude toward sex. Marian likens Peter’s touches to a physician after sex. “Gently over her skin, without passion, almost clinically, as if he could learn by touch whatever it was that had escaped the probing of his eyes’’ (Atwood).

First Edition of The Edible Woman. [Photograph]. (3)

Besides, she thinks that she will become objectified in the way of marriage, she will leave the decisions to Peter, take less control of her own life and even begin to make concessions on her personality, behaviour and appearance. She is right in a way, Peter wishes Marian to be more sociable and to turn into a woman who drinks and chats more. Thereupon, Marian is upset that she does not like alcohol and thinks that this situation "creates a disadvantage in her relationship with Peter". However, Peter is not worried about being disadvantaged in his relationship with Marian. As a woman, Marian is obliged to be understanding towards her lover and constantly prove that she is not one of those who try to force him to marry. After a certain point, Marian stops eating food and starts taking vitamin pills only. She begins to alienate herself and the effect of spiritual disintegration on physical space is seen step by step; her house is messy, leftovers accumulate in the refrigerator and the dishes pile up in the sink. She feels weak because she is a woman, she cannot fight against the problem. She prefers to escape, hide and run away from the problem rather than fight with it. Marian’s rebellion reaches a peak point when Peter asks her to dress differently for the party. At this point, Duncan symbolizes freedom to Marian, because Duncan does not demand anything from her, unlike Peter. In the third part of the novel, Marian starts to resolve her problems. Also, her attitudes undergo a change, she is no longer bound to any rules. Even, she runs away from the party in order to meet Duncan and make love to him in a hotel room. Moreover, she starts eating again.

She bakes a cake in the shape of a woman which represents the Edible Woman. In fact, the ‘woman-shaped-cake’ works as a symbol of the ideal woman that Peter wants Marian to be: loyal, meek and controllable. She asks Peter to eat the cake, but he becomes furious because of Marian’s strange behaviour and he leaves. Marian becomes really hungry as soon as Peter leaves, she begins devouring the cake. Marian's reluctance to be the type of woman people expect her to be is demonstrated by her consumption of the cake. It is her method of expressing her dissatisfaction with the patriarchal system, she would rather eat herself than allow others to eat her.

Cover of The Edible Woman by Dave Carley. [Photograph]. (4)

Another important thing in the novel is the type of narration used by Margaret Atwood. In the first part of the novel, Atwood uses the first-person narration, readers explore the story through Marian’s words. However, in the second part, the narrator is changed to a third-person narrator, readers begin to explore the story from the mouth of the narrator. But, at the end of the novel, narration shifts from third-person narration to first-person narration. This means Marian's reclaiming control over her life again, so, she regains her independence and freedom. At the end of the novel, Marian offers Duncan the cake and he eats and describes it as 'delicious' in the novel's final line. For him, it is just a cake.

SOURCES: Atwood, M. (1998). The Edible Woman (First Anchor Books Edition). Anchor.

Landge, W. J. (2021). A Study of Feminine Perspective: A Study of Feminine Perspective in Margaret Atwood’s Novel The Edible Woman. LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing.

Royanian, S., & Yazdani, Z. (2011). Metaphor of Body in Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman. The Criterion: An International Journal in English.

Team, T. A. (2017, May 15). The Edible Woman and Feminist Elements: Margaret Atwood Ideas. Ashvamegh Indian Journal of English Literature.

Upadhyay, M. (2012). Feministic Approach with Reference of Margaret Atwood’s Novel. International Journal of Recent Research and Review. IMAGE SOURCES: 1) Feminist Protest in Toronto. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Blog Toronto.

2) Margaret Atwood. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Sojo Net.

3) First Edition of The Edible Woman. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Wikipedia.

4) Cover of The Edible Woman by Dave Carley. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Book Shop.


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Çağla Deniz Bülbül

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