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.
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.