The Edible Woman Summary

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood is a 1969 novel about a woman who is struggling to come to terms with her engagement and impending marriage.

  • The novel follows Marian MacAlpin, a young woman who works in market research, as she becomes engaged to Peter, a successful young lawyer.
  • As the wedding day approaches, Marian finds herself increasingly unable to eat, and she begins to feel like she is being consumed by her role as Peter’s wife-to-be.
  • In an attempt to assert her own identity, Marian has a fling with Duncan, a disaffected graduate student.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 547

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.

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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 for him, and meeting his sexual needs. As time goes on, however, she feels more and more uncomfortable with this role, and that discomfort is the cause of her inability to eat.

Marian’s restlessness causes her to continue a casual relationship with Duncan, whom she first meets in a Laundromat. Duncan is a compulsive liar, telling untruths for no reason other than his own amusement. He is also entirely irresponsible, happily letting his two roommates look out for him. He has reached a state of total boredom with his graduate studies but sees no reason to try to do anything else. Faced with the prospect of a lifetime of responsible living with Peter, his career, and the children they will have, Marian finds herself drawn to Duncan’s total rejection of responsibility.

In the end, Marian helps Peter give a party, at which her disaffection comes to a climax. Decked out in a dress and a new hairdo which are totally inappropriate for her-but which would be suitable for the wife of a rising attorney-she becomes more and more uncomfortable. She flees the party before she can be included in a group picture and tracks down Duncan at the laundromat where they had first met; they spend the night in a sleazy hotel. The next day, Marian learns that their sexual encounter has meant no more to him than anything else in his affectless life. Freed by her flight from the party and the events of the night, Marian returns to her apartment and bakes a cake, which she arranges in the shape of a woman. When Peter comes to remonstrate with her, she offers him the cake. He leaves, offended, and Marian happily eats the cake, sharing it with Duncan, who drops in casually.

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Chapter Summaries