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.
Along with novelists such as Mordecai Richler, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Lawrence, and Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood is one of the most respected and successful writers ever to emerge from Canada. But Atwood’s popularity is not limited by borders: she is an internationally renowned poet and novelist known for addressing serious issues and social problems with humour and wit. Respected by feminists for her exploration of gender politics, Atwood also explores humanity’s relationship to nature and often parodies many of our social and cultural conventions.
Atwood is often described by critics as a writer concerned with the search for identity. Her first three novels, for example, have been described as Romances and Gothic Romances in which the narrator must search for her identity in a dark and threatening world (Carrington, 1985). But for Atwood, the search for personal identity is often paralleled by the search for a national one. When she began publishing in the 1960s, Canadian writers were considered “freaks of nature” (Atwood, Great Unexpectations, 1988), inferior to, or pale imitations of writers from England or the United States. In 1970, she published the collection of poems The Journals of Susanna Moodie in which she examines Canadians’ attitudes towards their own country. Two years later, she published Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, a nonfictional critical analysis of Canadian literature, and has continued to address Canadian subjects and themes in her poetry and prose. The relationship between English and French cultures in Canada is a major issue, as is Canada’s relationship to the United States. The latter plays a major role in Atwood’s second novel, the immensely successful Surfacing. In it, the American culture of consumerism and violence, often criticized in Atwood’s writing, is described by the narrator as “the disease ... spreading up from the south.”
The influence of American culture in Canada is also addressed in Atwood’s first novel (Marian’s job at a market research company links her to consumer culture, as does her relationship with Peter, a soon-to-be successful lawyer and caricature of the ideal male), but it is fused with problems relating to gender politics. The Americanized culture of consumerism is a male world. The question asked by Marian at the beginning of the novel, “What could I expect to turn into at Seymour Surveys?” is representative of the questions many women were asking in the mid-1960s. Throughout the novel, Marian attempts to define her identity in a world where the models, plastered on advertisements and decorating the covers of magazines, have all been manufactured by men. Expected to conform to a societal ideal of femininity, Marian struggles to break free of what she initially views as her inevitable fate.
The early reviews of The Edible Woman were mixed; some praised Atwood’s ironic satire, others found reason to fault (Carrington, 1985). In fact, over the years, certain critics have maintained that Atwood’s true talent is to be found in her poetry, not in her novels. Nevertheless, The Edible Woman established Atwood as a writer of fiction and is now a highly respected work that has been the subject of much scholarly debate. Funny, perceptive, and thoroughly entertaining, The Edible Woman is a remarkable first novel by one of North America’s finest contemporary authors.
Master List of Characters
Marian McAlpin—main character, narrator, a young single woman, university educated, currently working for a market research company.
Ainsley Tewce—Marian’s roommate, also single and university educated, currently working as a tester of defective electric toothbrushes.
Duncan—an English Literature graduate student.
Trevor and Fish—Duncan’s roommates, also graduate students of English Literature.
Peter—Marian’s boyfriend/fiancé, he is in his articling year as a lawyer.
Clara—Marian’s friend from high school and college.
Arthur and Elaine—Clara and Joe’s children.
Len Slank—a college friend of Marian and Clara’s.
Trigger—a friend of Peter’s; he gets married early in the novel.
Marian and Ainsley’s landlady—unnamed.
Marian’s office colleagues:
Mrs. Withers—the company’s dietician.
Mrs. Grot—accounting clerk.
Mrs. Bogue—head of Marian’s department.
Emmy, Lucy, Millie—collectively, the three office virgins (a term coined by Ainsley).
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.
Summary (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
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.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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 who responds to the survey with interesting but ambiguous answers is a mysterious young man named Duncan. Marian meets him unexpectedly in various places: a park, a Laundromat, and a movie theater. Duncan takes her to a mummy exhibition at a museum and invites her for dinner at the apartment he shares with Trevor and Fish, fellow graduate students in English.
Marian’s boyfriend, Peter Wollander, is a young lawyer. He is depressed because one of his friends just got married, so Marian hopes to cheer him up by introducing him to her friend Len Slank, who has recently returned from England. They go to a bar and are surprised when they find Ainsley there. She has come to check out Len as a possible father for her child. She has...
(The entire section is 946 words.)
The Edible Woman begins with a first-person narrator in the voice of the female protagonist, Marian McAlpin. For the first several chapters Marian describes her relationships to her roommate, Ainsley; her boyfriend, Peter; and her pregnant friend, Clara. Marian also describes her job, which requires her to take the technical language of survey questions and translate it into a language that the layperson will understand. When asked to substitute for one of the company's surveyors, Marian reluctantly goes from house to house asking people their opinions about a beer ad that will soon be broadcast on the radio. It is during this survey that Marian meets Duncan, an unconventional young man who throws Marian off guard with his lies and almost immediate admittance of his dishonesty.
After watching Clara interact with her children, Marian's roommate, Ainsley, announces that she wants to get pregnant. When Marian asks if this means that Ainsley wants to get married, Ainsley says no. She wants to raise the child by herself. She also wants to choose a man who will not make a fuss about getting married. Ainsley then proceeds to make inquiries about a friend of Marian's whose name was mentioned while they were dining at Clara's house. The old friend is Len Shank, and he has the reputation of a being a womanizer.
Peter is introduced in a phone conversation with Marian, in which he tells her about the engagement...
(The entire section is 1287 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Chapters 1-4: Summary and Analysis
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
Emmy, Lucy, Millie: collectively, the three office virgins
It is morning and Marian and her roommate, Ainsley, are preparing for the last work day before Labour Day weekend. Marian works for Seymour Surveys, a market research company, where she revises questionnaires. It is a good job, better than most she thinks, yet she can’t help envying Ainsley her job as tester of defective electric toothbrushes. Marian thinks of her job as the kind of position one is expected to have after earning a B.A.; Ainsley’s is unusual and more temporary. Hung over from a party she attended the night before, Ainsley tells Marian that her evening was so dull that she had to console herself by getting...
(The entire section is 1475 words.)
Chapters 5-8: Summary and Analysis
Duncan: an English Literature graduate student
Trevor and Fish: Duncan’s roommates, also graduate students
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, as “just a housewife.”
When they get home, Marian calls Len Slank and the two make plans to meet the following evening for drinks. During their conversation, Len asks Marian about the new man she is seeing and whether or not it is serious. Marian assures Len that her relationship with Peter is not at all serious. As soon as she is off the phone Ainsley again inquires about Len. She then tells Marian that she has something important to tell her: she wants to have a baby. Marian initially interprets this as meaning that Ainsley is getting married. This surprises Marian because Ainsley has always been decidedly anti-marriage. Ainsley assures Marian that she has absolutely no intention of getting married. In fact, she believes...
(The entire section is 2874 words.)
Chapters 9-12: Summary and Analysis
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 falls. She is caught by Peter who sped around to the back of the house in his car. He is annoyed by her behaviour but does not make a fuss.
Marian, relieved to hear Peter’s “normal voice” again, slides willingly into the car. They arrive at Len’s apartment and ascend the stairs in “decorous couples.” Inside, Peter begins to fiddle with a couple of Len’s cameras and Marian, feeling deflated, wishes she could be alone with Peter so he could forgive her. She sits on Len’s bed sipping a cognac and becomes entranced by the space between the bed and the wall. It would be quiet down there, she thinks, and quickly glances around the room. She wedges herself sideways between the bed and the wall but finds it uncomfortable. She...
(The entire section is 3412 words.)
Chapters 13-16: Summary and Analysis
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 involved or interested even when she would like to.
Lunching out with Emmy, Lucy, and Millie, Marian is asked about Peter. She has been keeping her engagement a secret from her office friends but the question catches her off guard. Unable to resist, Marian smiles glowingly and announces that she and Peter are getting married. She then watches as the expressions around her turn from expectation to dismay. Momentary elation is followed by a series of remote and impersonal questions about the wedding. Finally Lucy asks: “How on earth did you ever catch him?” Marian looks away from their “pathetic and too-eager faces” and says that she does not know. Now that she has told them, she feels sorry for having raised their hopes...
(The entire section is 2453 words.)
Chapters 17-19: Summary and Analysis
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 discipline issue and Peter accuses Marian of not understanding “these things.” He tells her that she has led a sheltered life.
After a few moments, a dinner consisting of rare filet mignon wrapped in bacon is delivered to their table. As she eats, Marian’s thoughts turn to the way Peter sometimes looks at her and touches her in bed. She describes his touch as clinical and devoid of passion and likens the experience to that of a patient on a doctor’s examination table. Her attention is then focused on Peter’s plate. She watches him cut his meat and suddenly views the action as an act of violence. This thought triggers a series of others: she is reminded of the Moose Beer commercials for which she now feels responsible. This...
(The entire section is 2529 words.)
Chapters 20-22: Summary and Analysis
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 precaution will be only partially successful. Her position at Seymour Surveys has taught her that products are all essentially the same. The only way you can make a choice, she thinks, is to abandon yourself to the music and make a random snatch. Eventually, she will have to make a choice, thereby validating what some planner or marketing strategist had hoped and predicted she would do.
Picking through the vegetables, Marian wishes that she could once again become a carnivore. She recalls her trip back home at Christmas: at dinner she had said that she was not hungry and then, secretly, had eaten huge quantities of cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and mince pie. She thinks, too, of her family’s reaction to her engagement—a...
(The entire section is 3427 words.)
Chapters 23-25: Summary and Analysis
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 feelings and paid an after-work visit to Clara. But instead of the comfort she had hoped to receive from her friend, the visit makes her feel envious. Marian finds Clara sitting in a playpen with her second youngest and realizes that “whatever was going to happen to [her] had already happened.” Clara had already become what she was going to be. Although Marian would not want to trade places with Clara, she would like to know what she is becoming. The thought of waking up one day and discovering that she has already changed fills her with dread. She wants to know what direction her life is taking so that she can be prepared. She finally tells Clara about her eating problem and asks if she thinks that she is normal. Clara assures Marian...
(The entire section is 3162 words.)
Chapters 26-29: Summary and Analysis
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 begins to panic and asks herself how she could have been so stupid as to invite all those people. She worries that Duncan might give her away or drop an insinuating remark. Peter, of course, would be furious: he would think that someone had infringed on his “private property rights.” She tries to think of a way to stop them from coming.
Inside the apartment, Marian removes her overcoat and Peter puts his hands on her bare shoulders, kisses her lightly on the back of the neck, and says: “Yum yum.” She takes her coat into the bedroom and, seeing her reflection in the mirror, is reminded of Peter’s reaction when he came to pick her up. He told her that she looked marvellous, implying that it would be greatly appreciated if she...
(The entire section is 4222 words.)
Chapters 30-31: Summary and Analysis
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 discussion with Peter and tries to think of something that will allow her to avoid words. She begins to write out a grocery list but quickly puts down her pencil. All of a sudden, she knows “what she [needs] to get.”
Marian goes to the supermarket and moves “methodically” up and down the aisles finding everything she needs. Not wanting to use anything that was already in the house, she buys eggs, flour, lemons, sugar, icing sugar, vanilla, salt, food colouring, and cocoa. When she gets home she bakes a sponge cake. Once it is mixed and in the oven, she makes and divides the icing. One portion she dyes bright pink, another chocolate brown, and a third she leaves white. As the cake cools Marian feels glad that Ainsley is not at...
(The entire section is 2168 words.)