Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Edible Woman, the premier work of fiction by noted Canadian poet Margaret Atwood, is a forerunner of much of the feminist literature that would follow the theme of woman in search of individual identity and worthwhile meaning in her life. The work is divided into three distinct sections, separated by the literary device of alternating narrative point of view. Although the narrator does not change, the voice changes as her perspective of herself alters. Section 1 employs first-person, though unreliable, narration, in section 2 the narrator refers to herself in third person as she essentially loses touch with who she is, and the third section returns to first person as the narrator reclaims her identity. At the time of its release, the novel was a fresh approach to the presentation of women characters in fiction, an almost surreal type of feminist black humor.
Although the story is set within the time frame of the free-love 1960’s, when women were beginning to discover themselves as individuals, the protagonist, Marian MacAlpin, seems wedged in by the values and myths of the generation that preceded her. Consequently, it is her adopted belief that in order for a woman, even an educated woman, to attain full identity, she must be defined by association with a successful man. In acquiescence to this code, Marian becomes involved with and subsequently engaged to Peter, an attractive young up-and-comer who expects her to act and react only in prescribed, predictable, and, above all, sensible ways.
The metamorphosis of Marian begins one evening when she has too much to drink at a dinner party and begins to realize that she is essentially disappearing as an individual. To illustrate this point, she first crawls under a bed, mentally escaping the others in attendance; then, when discovered, she physically runs away. Peter pursues and reclaims her....
(The entire section is 768 words.)
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Although The Edible Woman was poorly received in initial reviews, it has come to be considered one of the first heraldings of women’s right to independence. The book was not released until 1969, after a delay of five years, and despite the fact that the women’s movement had made significant strides during the 1960’s, an independent woman was not yet a totally acceptable ideal at that time. Additionally, and regardless of the fact that ritualistic cannibalism has been a theme in the world’s literary canon since its conception, some critics were offended by the approach in Atwood’s work, chiding her for moral irresponsibility when discussing birth and emotions in such tones.
Near the end of the work, Duncan, as alter ego to the protagonist, points out, as they sit on the edge of an empty pit, that Marian’s life is her “own personal cul-de-sac,” that she invented it and she would have to find her own way out. Though Marian MacAlpin has been little changed by the unfolding events in her life, she nevertheless becomes more human as she retreats slightly from her dead-end destination and becomes a hero of sorts in accepting her own complicity in her victimization, thus serving as a positive role model for future authors and readers alike. One reviewer missed this point, however, and complained that the novel was wasted paper, peopled with insignificant characters. Although the work is open-ended, one is left with the faint hope that Marian will escape her “abnormal normality” and become a beacon of hope for others trapped in their own constrictive relationships.
Chapters 1-4: Questions and Answers
1. What is Marian’s job?
2. Why does she envy Ainsley her job as a tester of defective
3. Where do Marian and Ainsley live?
4. Describe Marian’s relationship to Ainsley.
5. What does Marian look at on her way to work?
6. Why is Marian unhappy with her company’s mandatory pension plan?
7. What is Ainsley’s nickname for Marian’s colleagues, Emmy, Lucy, and Millie?
8. Why is Peter upset about his friend Trigger’s marriage?
9. When Marian visits her friend Clara, what does she think her role will be for the evening?
10. What does Ainsley think of...
(The entire section is 278 words.)
Chapters 5-8: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Ainsley criticize Clara’s lifestyle?
2. What reason does Ainsley give for wanting to have a baby?
3. What does Marian decide to do about her friend’s sudden decision to have a child?
4. What is Marian’s first impression of Duncan?
5. How did Marian meet Peter?
6. Why does Peter choose the bathtub (according to Marian)?
7. Why does Ainsley show up at the bar dressed to look much younger than she actually is?
8. What does Marian decide to do about Ainsley’s use of
9. How does Marian interpret the look Len gives her in the bar?
10. Why does Marian run...
(The entire section is 399 words.)
Chapters 9-12: Questions and Answers
1. Describe Peter’s, Len’s, and Ainsley’s reactions when Marian begins to run away from them.
2. What does Marian find so attractive about the dusty space beneath Len’s bed?
3. Describe Marian’s thoughts as she lies hidden beneath the bed.
4. Why does Marian run away yet again after Peter gets her up?
5. How does Peter react to the property damage he causes with his car?
6. What is Ainsley’s reaction to Marian’s engagement to Peter?
7. How do Marian and Peter view their engagement to each other?
8. Describe Duncan’s fascination with laundromats. Why does he go there so often?
(The entire section is 638 words.)
Chapters 13-16: Questions and Answers
1. How has Marian’s attitude towards her job changed since her engagement?
2. Why do Marian and her friends from work go to a fancy restaurant for lunch?
3. What are the three office virgins hoping to get from Marian following the announcement of her engagement?
4. What is the link between Peter and the “Underwear Man”?
5. What peculiar sensation overcomes Marian in the movie theatre?
6. Why has Marian been avoiding her friend Clara?
7. What does Marian think she has escaped when she leaves Clara’s hospital room?
8. Explain Duncan’s addiction to ironing.
9. What goes through Marian’s...
(The entire section is 468 words.)
Chapters 17-19: Questions and Answers
1. Describe Marian’s feelings towards Peter as they sit together in the restaurant.
2. What triggers Marian’s thought of the diagram of the planned cow?
3. What does Marian make of her inability to eat certain foods?
4. Does Peter have any difficulty finishing his steak? What does he say when he is finished eating?
5. What brand of beer does Marian offer Len? Why did she choose to buy this particular brand?
6. After learning that Ainsley planned to get pregnant, Len makes a comment concerning women and college education. What does he say?
7. At the office Christmas party, Marian sits with Lucy, Millie, and Emmy even...
(The entire section is 371 words.)
Chapters 20-22: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Marian resent the music that is filtered through the aisles of the supermarket?
2. How does Marian’s knowledge of marketing strategies help protect her against the various schemes used to increase the desire to buy?
3. Earlier in the novel, Len made a comment about women and education. In Chapter 20, a similar view is expressed. What is it?
4. Marian’s dinner party is not a success. After her guests have left, Peter decides that he and Marian will never be like Clara and Joe. Marian decides that it does not matter if Peter does not get along with them—why?
5. According to Duncan, what do sex and the writing of term papers have...
(The entire section is 441 words.)
Chapters 23-25: Questions and Answers
1. Lying in bed with Peter on the day after Valentine’s Day, Marian worries about her body’s recent rejection of rice pudding. What else is Marian worried about?
2. Explain the jealousy Marian feels towards her friend Clara.
3. What does Marian give Peter for Valentine’s Day? Why? When?
4. Does Peter like the gift? Does Marian?
5. Why does Marian choose to buy a red sequined dress that she does not really like?
6. Marian is not pleased with her new hair style but does not ask the hairdresser to change it. Why not?
7. Why is Marian afraid of losing her engagement ring?
8. What does Marian do when feeling...
(The entire section is 401 words.)
Chapters 26-29: Questions and Answers
1. Describe Marian’s feelings as she contemplates Peter’s wardrobe closet.
2. What is Peter’s response when Marian asks if he loves her?
3. Why is Joe so happy that he and Clara were invited to the party?
4. What is Trevor’s reaction when Marian opens the door?
5. What is Duncan’s reaction?
6. How does Peter react to Len’s “baptism in utero”?
7. When Marian realizes that she is still safe, that Peter has not yet snapped her photo, she decides that she must get out before it’s too late. Too late for what?
8. Where does Marian go when she leaves the party?
9. On the morning after...
(The entire section is 329 words.)
Chapters 30-31: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Marian bake a cake shaped like a woman?
2. What does she hope to accomplish by presenting Peter with a substitute woman?
3. When Marian completes her cake, she feels a certain pity for it. Why?
4. Is there any evidence that Marian is still not completely sure of herself?
5. What does Ainsley think of Marian’s cake-woman?
6. What is to be made of Marian’s statement, “Now that I was thinking of myself in the first person singular again. . .”
7. Does Ainsley find a father image for her baby?
8. What does Duncan think of Marian’s explanations for breaking off her engagement to Peter?...
(The entire section is 291 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Grace, Sherrill E., and Lorraine Weir, eds. Margaret Atwood: Language, Text, and System. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1983. A compilation of critical essays written about Margaret Atwood and her work. One piece discusses Atwood’s transition from poetry to fiction; another is a feminist reading of her poetry. The longest entries discuss the novel Surfacing in relation to syntax and theme, particularly related to Amerindian influences and shamanism.
McLay, Catherine. “The Dark Voyage: The Edible Woman as Romance,” in The Art of Margaret Atwood, 1981. Edited by Arnold E. Davidson and Catherine Davidson....
(The entire section is 295 words.)