A bildungsroman is usually a coming-of-age story, in which the protagonist progresses toward maturity. The main character is sometimes introduced as a child and ages over the years. This type of novel shares many elements with a quest narrative. The main character endures a series of challenges or overcomes obstacles in order to win a prize. This reward need not necessarily be concrete, however: in the bildungsroman the character generally gains emotional and psychological insights. A slightly different type of outcome has the hero undergoing moral development, such as learning to appreciate generosity or sacrifice, even at the cost of their own life.
In Margaret Atwood’s work, Marian McAlpin’s story begins when she is already an adult, not a child. Some elements of her quest include the search for identity and fulfillment. Material well-being seems a worthy end toward which she works. Marian pursues her discrete goals through relationships with different kinds of men: Peter, the successful lawyer whom she decides to marry despite a lack of passionate love for him, and Duncan, a younger man to whom she is strongly attracted.
Marian’s journey develops in a pattern of negative physical growth, or apparent self-destruction. She develops a distaste for food: first, she cannot tolerate meat, and soon all food seems repulsive to her. As she ceases to eat, in contrast, her sexual appetite increases, and she consummates her affair with Duncan. Marian’s emotional growth continues as she breaks up with Peter. Marian bakes a cake and offers it to him as a substitute for herself.
Marriage, if it were based on materialism, would not be an appropriate goal: she would become an object of consumption through giving herself up to a man. Once she overcomes that obstacle, she can resume eating, and her personal growth can continue. Her relationship with Duncan is a by-product of that growth, not the ultimate object, for he partakes in eating the cake.