Study Guide

The Edible Woman

by Margaret Atwood

The Edible Woman Summary

Overview

Summary of the Novel
The Edible Woman tells the story of Marian McAlpin, a young single woman who works for a market research company. Unable to foresee a fulfilling career within the company, she begins to worry about her future and about what she might become. One night, she comes to the unsettling realization that her relationship with her boyfriend, Peter, is more serious than she thought it to be. She tries to evade the matter by running away. Yet, when Peter proposes marriage that very night, Marian accepts. She had always assumed that she would get married, and Peter, she thinks, is an ideal choice: he is a lawyer and is bound to be successful. Similarly, Peter feels that marriage will aid his career.

Despite her engagement, Marian continues to see Duncan, the aimless graduate student of English Literature, whom she met while conducting door-to-door interviews for an ad campaign. The day after Peter proposes, they run into each other at a laundromat where they talk and share an unexpected intimate moment in the form of a kiss. Marian thinks the event is unrelated to Peter.

As she watches Peter cut his steak at dinner one night, Marian suddenly visualizes the diagram of a planned cow, outlining all the different cuts of meat. She is unable to finish the steak on her own plate and soon discovers that she can no longer eat meat that has any indication of bone, tendon, or fibre. Before long, the refusal spreads to other foods, leaving her unable to eat many of the things she used to enjoy. She begins to fear that she may not be normal but her married friend, Clara, assures her that the eating problem is simply a symptom of bridal nerves and that she will soon get over it.

As the wedding date approaches, Peter decides to throw a party. He enjoys displaying Marian and hints that she might want to get her hair done and buy a new dress. She complies by buying a red sequined thing that is, she thinks, not quite her. As she walks home, hair heavily scented and every strand glued in place, she thinks of herself as a cake: something to be carefully iced and ornamented. At the party, while Peter prepares to take a group photo, Marian realizes that she must escape. She finds Duncan and the two spend the night together in a hotel. The next morning, she is unable to eat a thing and has no choice but to confront her problems. According to Duncan, Marian’s problems are all in her mind: she has invented her “own personal cul-de-sac” and will have to think her own way out.

Later that afternoon Marian bakes a cake shaped and decorated into the likeness of a woman. When Peter arrives, she accuses him of trying to assimilate her and offers the cake as a substitute. He leaves quickly, without eating, and Marian begins picking at the cake herself. By the final chapter, Marian has called off the wedding and is eating regularly. Duncan tells her that she is “back to so-called reality”—a “consumer” once again. Marian then watches as Duncan eats the rest of the cake.

The Life and Work of Margaret Atwood
Few writers have equalled the success Margaret Atwood has enjoyed since her first collection of poetry was published in 1961. One of the leading Canadian writers of her generation, Atwood has garnered international acclaim as a poet, novelist, short story writer, critic, and author of children’s books. She has now published over 30 books of verse and prose and translations of her works have appeared in over 20 languages. A favourite among academics and the general reading public alike, Atwood has been honoured with numerous literary awards and nominations. She has won the Governor General’s Award twice (for the book of poems The Circle Game in 1966 and for her novel The Handmaid’s Tale in 1986) and has been short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize three times. The last time was in 1996 for her novel Alias Grace.

Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1939. The years of her childhood and early adolescence were divided between the cities of Toronto, Ottawa, and Sault Ste. Marie, and the bushes of Northern Ontario and Quebec. Although she developed her literary interests early in life, beginning to write when she was still a student in high school, Frank Davey (1984) writes that it was as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, where she studied under the highly respected literary critic Northrop Frye, that Atwood discovered and developed an interest in Canadian literature. This interest sparked a career that helped change the literary landscape in Canada and led countless other students of literature to discover for themselves the Canadian literary tradition.

By 1961, Atwood had not only obtained her B.A. in Honours English, she had also won the E. J. Pratt medal for her first published book of poems, Double Persephone. In 1962, she received an M.A. from Radcliffe College and began doctoral studies at Harvard. The years that followed, documented by Davey (1984), Carrington (1985), and VanSpanckeren and Castro (1988), brought much change and many moves. She interrupted her studies in 1963 and returned to Toronto to work for a market research company. Then, after spending a year in Vancouver lecturing at the University of British Columbia and writing what would become her first published novel, The Edible Woman, Atwood returned to Harvard. However, she left once again to accept teaching positions at Sir George Williams University in Montreal and the University of Alberta in Edmonton. During the next four to five years, Atwood published five more volumes of poems, including The Animals in That Country and The Journals of Susanna Moodie, and her second novel, Surfacing.

During the 70s and 80s, Atwood continued to publish regularly, received numerous honourary degrees, and held positions at universities across North America and abroad. Some of her most successful novels were published during this time, including Lady Oracle (1976), Cat’s Eye (1988), and The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). The latter was adapted for the screen in 1990. During the 1990s, Atwood has published two novels—The Robber Bride and Alias Grace—two collections of short stories and one book of poems. She currently resides in Toronto with her husband, novelist Graeme Gibson.

Estimated Reading Time

The Edible Woman is divided into three parts and thirty-one chapters. The major shift that occurs between parts is a change in the narrative voice. Parts One and Three are told in a first-person voice, while Part Two is narrated from a third-person perspective. Chapter length remains relatively consistent throughout the novel, as does the narrative style and general level of difficulty. Atwood’s prose is clear and easy to understand on a first reading and, as a result, readers may be tempted to read too quickly. But be warned! Margaret Atwood’s writing is intricately structured and contains many hidden complexities. Close readers will be rewarded.

Expect to spend about one hour for every three or four chapters. Below is a suggested reading schedule that follows the breakdown used for this study guide and includes estimated reading times for each section:

Chapters 1 - 4: 45 minutes
Chapters 5 - 8: 70 minutes
Chapters 9 - 12: 70 minutes
Chapters 13 - 16: 75 minutes
Chapters 17 - 19: 1 hour
Chapters 20 - 22: 1 hour
Chapters 23 - 25: 45 minutes
Chapters 26 - 29: 75 minutes
Chapters 30 - 31: 15 minutes

As with any good book, a second reading will greatly increase your understanding and enjoyment of this literary work.

The Edible Woman Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Marian MacAlpin, the first-person narrator of the first and third sections of The Edible Woman and the central character in the second section, is an apparently normal, average young woman who develops an aversion to food soon after she becomes engaged to Peter. At first, she finds only that she cannot eat red meat, but her phobia extends to other kinds of food as her wedding day approaches. Her behavior becomes erratic in other ways as well. On one occasion, she runs through the streets at night, fleeing from Peter and Leonard Slank, a friend, although she knows that such behavior will enrage Peter. She befriends an unemotional but manipulative student, Duncan, trying unsuccessfully to evoke some kind of response from him. She finds her job with a market research company less and less bearable.

Marian’s decision to marry Peter is based on his suitability. He is a conventional young man, destined for success, exactly the kind of husband for which her upbringing and her friends have prepared her. He decides to marry her because he believes that she understands him, which is true, but what he takes for understanding is in reality Marian’s willingness to accept him without complaint. All the male friends with whom he played adolescent games have married, in a sense betraying him, so he believes that he might as well marry also. Marian, in order to marry him, believes that she is willing to be something like a servant, doing what Peter wishes, fetching...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

The Edible Woman Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Marian McAlpin, a recent college graduate, works for Seymour Surveys, a marketing research company. One hot summer day she and her roommate, Ainsley Tewce, visit Clara and Joe Bates, who live nearby and have two small children. Clara is seven months pregnant, and her house is in disarray. She sits languidly in the garden, holding a baby, while Joe cooks dinner and changes the babies’ diapers. Later, Ainsley tells Marian that she has decided to have a child. Although she does not want to get married, she plans to find an appropriate man to father the child. Marian tries unsuccessfully to dissuade her.

Working the next day, Marian conducts a door-to-door survey about a proposed advertisement for Moose Beer. One person...

(The entire section is 946 words.)

The Edible Woman Summary

Part One
The Edible Woman begins with a first-person narrator in the voice of the female protagonist,...

(The entire section is 1287 words.)

The Edible Woman Summary and Analysis

Chapters 1-4: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Marian McAlpin: main character, narrator

Ainsley Tewce: Marian’s roommate

Peter: Marian’s boyfriend, he is in his articling year as a lawyer

Clara: Marian’s friend from high school and college

Joe: Clara’s husband

Arthur and Elaine: Clara and Joe’s children

Len Slank: college friend of Marian and Clara

Trigger: friend of Peter

Marian and Ainsley’s landlady: unnamed

Landlady’s daughter: unnamed

Marian’s office colleagues:
Mrs. Withers: dietician

Mrs. Grot: accounting clerk

Mrs. Bogue: head of Marian’s department...

(The entire section is 1475 words.)

Chapters 5-8: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Duncan: an English Literature graduate student

Trevor and Fish: Duncan’s roommates, also graduate students

Summary
As Marian and Ainsley walk through the dusk towards the subway, Ainsley wonders how Clara can stand such an existence. She feels that Clara allows herself to be treated like a thing while Joe does all the work. At the very least, Ainsley suggests, Clara could return to school and finish her degree. These criticisms of her friend’s current lifestyle lead Marian to recall how, after Clara’s first child was born, she had considered her absence from school as temporary. Lately, however, she had started to think of herself, bitterly,...

(The entire section is 2874 words.)

Chapters 9-12: Summary and Analysis

Summary
Surprised by Marian’s sudden sprint, Peter, Len, and Ainsley do not immediately react. Peter is the first to yell after Marian but turns back to get his car rather than give chase on foot. He soon catches up to her but Marian, threatened by the fact that he chose to enclose himself in the armour of his car, turns into a gateway and runs up the gravel driveway of an old house. As she approaches the house, the front door opens and Marian leaps into some hedges and crosses the lawn. Her flight is interrupted when she comes up against a brick wall. Hearing Len quickly approaching behind her, Marian attempts to climb over the wall. She manages to get on top of it but then begins to sway dizzily and...

(The entire section is 3412 words.)

Chapters 13-16: Summary and Analysis

Summary
Part Two of the novel marks a shift in narrative voice: whereas Marian narrated the first 12 chapters in the first person, the next 18 chapters are delivered in the third person. There is also a shift in time: two months have passed since Marian’s engagement to Peter. Chapter 13 opens with a description of Marian sitting “listlessly” at her office desk. She doodles while around her the rest of the office is in a turmoil. She used to feel a sense of participation in these minor excitements but ever since her engagement—and ever since she knew that she would not be there forever—she has viewed her surroundings with a certain amount of detachment. In fact, she discovers that she cannot get...

(The entire section is 2453 words.)

Chapters 17-19: Summary and Analysis

Summary
Chapter 17 represents a turning point in the novel—and in Marian’s life. Looking at Peter across a restaurant dinner table, Marian decides that anyone would have to agree that he is exceptionally handsome. Ainsley had once called him “nicely packaged” and Marian now thinks that she finds this quality attractive. She even feels a sense of “proud ownership” at being with him in this public place and reaches over to touch his hand. As they wait for their food to arrive, Marian and Peter resume a conversation begun earlier concerning the proper education of children. Peter talks theoretically but Marian believes that it is their own future children they are discussing. They disagree on a...

(The entire section is 2529 words.)

Chapters 20-22: Summary and Analysis

Summary
Chapter 20 opens with a description of Marian “walking slowly down the aisle” to the sound of gentle music. It is not until she reads one of the items on her grocery list that the aisle in question becomes identifiable as the aisle of a supermarket and not a church. She notices the inescapable music and, knowing that it is deliberately used to lull shoppers into a “euphoric trance” and lower sales resistance, feels resentment towards it. But knowing about these kinds of sales strategies does not make Marian immune to them. Recently, she has found herself pushing shopping carts “like a somnambulist” and, as a result, now tries to defend herself by making lists. However, she knows that this...

(The entire section is 3427 words.)

Chapters 23-25: Summary and Analysis

Summary
It is the day after Valentine’s Day and Marian and Peter are lying together in bed. As Peter enjoys a scotch and a cigarette, dumping his ashes in an ashtray placed on his fiancée’s bare back, Marian worries. Earlier that day her body finally rejected rice pudding, something that had been acceptable for weeks. She has tried, ever since her eating problem began, to pretend that there is nothing really wrong with her. She thought and hoped that the problem would eventually go away on its own. Now forced to confront the problem, Marian questions her own normality and fears Peter will think her a freak and postpone the wedding.

Earlier in the day, Marian had felt the need to discuss her...

(The entire section is 3162 words.)

Chapters 26-29: Summary and Analysis

Summary
Because the elevator in Peter’s building is not working, Marian and Peter must use the stairs to get to his seventh-floor apartment. As they reach the fifth-floor landing, Marian finally decides to tell Peter that she has invited some other friends to the party. During the car ride over, she had been wondering how she was going to tell him; she is unsure whether he will be happy or mad. Taking a step away from Peter, Marian grips the railing and tells him. Peter is only slightly irritated and is surprised to learn that Marian has so many friends that he does not know. He tells her that he will have to make a point of getting to know them to find out about her private life. Hearing this, Marian...

(The entire section is 4222 words.)

Chapters 30-31: Summary and Analysis

Summary
Marian is not home for more than a few moments before she receives a call from Peter. He is angry and demands to know where she disappeared to last night. He tells her that she disrupted his evening and that he and Lucy drove up and down the streets looking for her. He also asks about the young man (Duncan) he heard about through Trevor. Marian offers a few vague answers but does not want to talk about this over the phone. Instead, she asks Peter to come over later in the day. She has not yet made any decisions and wishes to have some more time to think things over. What she wants, she decides, is a way of knowing “what was real,” a test of some kind. She does not want to get tangled up in a...

(The entire section is 2168 words.)