Essays and Criticism
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.
Tofu is a nutritious, but pallid, bean curd. If no spices are brought to it, the satisfaction of eating a tofu sandwich is minimal. In comparison, if no understanding of the complex social issues surrounding The Edible Woman is brought to the reading of this book, the story might be simplistically summed up as follows: nice, refined, middle-class young woman has no clue what to do with her life. She has a dull, egocentric boyfriend and a dull, going-nowhere job. She meets an eccentric, self-absorbed second young man and has an affair. First boyfriend proposes marriage. Nice refined young woman accepts the proposal, then rejects it. In the end, nice, refined, middle-class young woman has no clue what to do with her life.
If, however, a little time is taken to investigate the spices that might compliment tofu and add flavor to this sandwich, and the sandwich is eaten a little more slowly, a little more consciously, the satisfaction rating increases. Correlating the story to this second version of the sandwich, the novel becomes a little more interesting: college-educated 1960s woman is dissatisfied with her role in a patriarchal society. Although she is somewhat intrigued with her job and her independence, she jumps at the chance to marry as a means of retiring from the job and the responsibility for having to make her own decisions. She thinks she loves her fiancé and that he loves her. She believes that, at least, she and her fiancé will create an organized home and a rational relationship. These assumptions are somewhat altered when she meets an eccentric male graduate student who challenges her beliefs. Eventually she realizes that she does not fit into the role that her fiancé and her society want her to play out, and she loses her appetite. In the end, college-educated 1960s woman is dissatisfied with her role in a patriarchal society, and her new awareness is at least the first step in resolving her conflicts.
The third possible sandwich recipe involves a little more time, a little more background information in the culinary arts, and a little better understanding of nutrition. The ultimate eating experience is comparable, now, to dining in one of the finest gourmet restaurants. In these terms, the synopsis of the story would read as follows: college-educated, intelligent, 1960s woman struggles with the complexities of feminism and sexuality in a patriarchal, or male-defined, society. She attempts to come to terms with the classic challenges of most females living in a male-dominated world: the body versus mind dichotomy; the profession versus motherhood conflict; and the sanity versus insanity definitions imposed on her by roles that were constructed by men and no longer fit the times, or more significantly, her needs. She lashes out, and tries to run away from her fiancé and her proposed marriage. She also tries to run away from herself, which results in a breakdown and eventual breakthrough in identifying her own basic elements. In the end she bakes a cake-woman in her own image, tests her assumptions by testing her fiancé who fails, and with her appetite returned she proceeds to eat the cake herself. However, when the cake is finally consumed, this college-educated, intelligent, 1960s woman must still struggle with the complexities of feminism and sexuality in a patriarchal, male-dominated society.
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.
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 Although she is somewhat intrigued with her job and her independence, she jumps at the chance to marry as a means of retiring from the job and the responsibility for having to make her own decisions."
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...
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Feminine, Female, Feminist: From The Edible Woman to The Female Body
In this chapter I shall trace Atwood's exploration of sexual Power Politics through social myths of femininity and representations of the female body in two texts which mark very different stages in her writing career and in the history of feminism. The Edible Woman, her first novel, appeared in 1969 at the beginning of 'second wave' feminism, whereas the savage little fable 'The Female Body' written 20 years later (after Bodily Harm, The Handmaid's Tale, and a woman artist's paintings of the female body in Cat's Eye) belongs to the explicitly political context of feminism in the early 1990s, laying out the implications of patriarchal myths and fantasies about women with diagrammatic simplicity. The differences between these texts also explain why my chapter title reverses the terms of Toril Moi's influential essay of the mid-1980s, 'Feminist, Female, Feminine', in order to indicate the direction in which Atwood's work has shifted.
The Edible Woman belongs to a specific moment in the history of North American postwar feminism, which registered the first signs of the contemporary women's movement in its resistance to social myths of femininity. This is the territory charted by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (1963), a study that Atwood herself read 'behind closed doors' like many other young women at the time, and I propose to read The Edible Woman in that context. Atwood and Friedan highlight the same new area of gendered social concern, and the thematic issues in The Edible Woman could even be classified under the chapter headings in Friedan's book. However, the very title of Atwood's novel signals significant differences with its dimensions of fantasy and metaphorical thinking which are absent from Friedan's sociological treatise, for The Edible Woman is an imaginative transformation of a social problem into comic satire as one young woman rebels against her feminine destiny. Whereas The Feminine Mystique documents the anxieties and frustrations felt by a whole generation of young women in America in the 1950s and early 1960s, The Edible Woman goes beyond women's anger and bewilderment in its exploitation of the power of laughter to reveal the absurdities within social conventions. This is a subversive rather than a confrontational novel which engages obliquely with social problems, adopting the form of a parodic revision of a traditional comedy of manners with its fixation on the marriage theme. Here Atwood mixes those earlier conventions with the language of 1960s advertising and cookery books, adding a dash of popular Freudianism and a few of the Jungian archetypes so fashionable in literary criticism of the 1950s and 1960s, to produce a satirical exposure of women's continuing conditions of entrapment within their own bodies and within social myths. The novel mounts its attack on social and gender ideology very wittily, though it bears the mark of its historical period with its deprecatingly feminine glance back over the shoulder when one of the characters comments, 'I don't want you to think that all this means anything'. It is part of Atwood's playful ambiguity that the speaker here is male. That same speaker, a young graduate student in English literature, happens to be the novel's most vigorous critic of gender stereotypes, of advertising and of the consumerist ethic. Under a series of comic masks Atwood's novel explores the relation between consumerism and The Feminine Mystique, where one young woman's resistance to consuming and to being consumed hints at a wider condition of social malaise which the new feminist movement was just beginning to address....
The role of Margaret Mead as the professional spokesman [my Italics] for femininity would have been less important if American women had taken the example of her own life, instead of listening to what she said in her books. Margaret Mead has lived a life of open challenge.
Atwood's dramatisation of the contradictions within the concept of femininity according to the 'functional freeze' doctrine provides some of the best comedy in The Edible Woman in her two parodic versions of earth-mothers, one a passive victim of The Feminine Mystique and one (a former psychology student and evidently a devotee of Margaret Mead) whose relentless pursuit of a father for her child 'bore a chilling resemblance to a general plotting a major campaign'.
In North American society of the late 1950s and 1960s where 'adjustment' for a woman meant accepting a dependent 'feminine' role, it was as Friedan says, 'very hard for a human being to sustain such an inner split—conforming outwardly to one reality, while trying to maintain inwardly the values it denies'. In a chapter whose full title is 'Progressive Dehumanization: the Comfortable Concentration Camp', Friedan glances at the territory of female neurosis which Atwood's novel explores with such imaginative insight:
If the human organism has an innate urge to grow, to expand and become all it can be, it is not surprising that the bodies and the minds of healthy women begin to rebel as they try to adjust to a role that does not permit this growth.
Friedan cites case histories of women suffering from fatigue, heart attacks and psychotic breakdowns, a catalogue of female hysterical illness induced by women's attempts to conform to the (impossible and undesirable) codes of The Feminine Mystique. It is precisely in that speculative area of pathology so 'puzzling to doctors and analysts' that the nervous eating disorder of Atwood's heroine is located, where the female body becomes the site of victimisation, internal conflict and rebellion.
I think I have said sufficient to establish that The Feminine Mystique may be an appropriate lens through which to read The Edible Woman as social critique, for it is a 1960s story of a woman's identity crisis provoked by pressures against which she finds herself seriously at odds. Marian MacAlpin is a young graduate in her twenties with an independent income, living in Toronto and sharing an apartment with another young woman, Ainsley Tewce. She also has a boyfriend to whom she becomes engaged, Peter Wollander, an ambitious young lawyer with a passionate interest in guns and cameras. The narrative traces the stages of Marian's rebellion against social conformity as she becomes increasingly disillusioned with her job and her fiancé to the point where her inner conflict finds its outward expression in an eating disorder whose symptoms resemble anorexia nervosa. While the novel hints at the connection between social institutions and personal relations which would become the central theme in Atwood's collection of poems Power Politics (1971), it cannot easily be classified as a realist text for it insistently challenges the conventions of realism by its excursions into fantasy and its flights of metaphorical inventiveness. The Edible Woman is a comedy of resistance and survival which subverts social definitions from within, shown by the way Marian finally wins her independence from The Feminine Mystique through her traditionally feminine gesture of making a cake, which she offers to the two men in her life. Her fiancé refuses it; her strange changeling mentor and guide, Duncan the graduate student in English, helps her to eat it all up. Clearly, an iced cake in the shape of a woman is the central metaphor for Marian's perception of woman's condition and fate as decreed by The Feminine Mystique so that her cake-baking is both a gesture of complicity in the domestic myth and also a critique of it. Atwood described the tea ritual as 'symbolic cannibalism', with the cake as simulacrum of the socialised feminine image which Marian rejects; but it is also of course a party game with Duncan as the 'child' and Marian as the 'mother' once again in control. Eating the cake is an act of celebration which marks the decisive moment of Marian's recovery from an hysterical illness and her return to the social order. Once again she becomes a 'consumer', for it is difficult if not impossible to reconstruct one's identity outside the symbolic and social order, and individual survival is likely to mean compromises with society. This is a conclusion similar to the one in Surfacing (1972), and Atwood's comment on the similarities between the two books draws attention to what her female protagonists have accomplished in finding new subject positions for themselves more in harmony with the world they live in.
As a woman writer Atwood has always been intensely aware of the significance of representations of the female body, both in terms of a woman's self-definition and as a fantasy object:
The body as a concept has always been a concern of mine. It's there in Surfacing as well. I think that people very much experience themselves through their bodies and through concepts of the body which get applied to their own bodies. Which they pick up from their culture and apply to their own. It's also my concern in Lady Oracle and it's even there in The Edible Woman.
The originality of The Edible Woman lies in its exposure of the 'sexual sell' promoted by The Feminine Mystique, for the narrative reveals how social paradigms of femininity may distort women's perceptions of their sexuality in the interests of creating childlike or doll-like fantasy figures. A young woman like Marian, sensitised as she is to the social script of gender relations and feminine expectations, seems to have little consciousness of her own body either in terms of its maternal urges or its erotic pleasures. Female bodies and biological processes like pregnancy, childbirth and menstruation figure in the novel, but they are treated with a measure of comic detachment. When viewed through Marian's eyes, sexually mature female bodies become grotesque and rather disgusting, whether it is her friend Clara's pregnant body or the fat ageing bodies of her fellow office workers at the Christmas party or the fiasco of the coast-to-coast market research survey on sanitary napkins, where some of the questionnaires 'obviously went out to men' ('Here's one with "Tee Hee" written on it, from a Mr. Leslie Andrewes').
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