Margaret Atwood situates Marian, who is approaching marriage, among two female friends, Clara and Ainsley, who are at different points in their lives. Clara represents the most traditional female role of wife and mother. Ainsley, in contrast, is unmarried and has some conflicts regarding motherhood. In Marian’s office, there are other minor female characters: unattached young women referred to as “the three virgins.” Marian progresses from accepting the idea of marriage to Peter, through profound uncertainties manifested in an eating disorder, to finally rejecting him, specifically, and possibly the idea of marriage altogether.
Clara and Joe have an ultra-traditional marriage, which seems quite fulfilling to Clara. She has three children and stays at home to care for them while only Joe works outside the house.
Ainsley is Marian’s flatmate. A self-professed feminist, she nevertheless yearns to have a child. Deciding to bear and raise a child on her own, she starts shopping around for a suitable father. Initially she chooses Len, Peter’s friend, but breaks with him after experiencing qualms about raising the child without a father in the home.
Marian sees Peter, an attorney, as a suitable match but initially cannot figure out the basis of her resistance: is it him or is it marriage she is rejecting? She cannot distance herself enough from the entanglement of her engagement to analyze her feelings. Instead, she turns in on herself. As she sees husbands and children absorbing the woman’s energy, she understands this as consumption, feeling that Peter literally wants to devour her body and becoming unable to eat. While Clara and Ainsley rarely rise above the level of the stereotype, Marian’s relationships with them set the stage for her critique of, and ultimately escape from, marriage.