The Edible Woman Characters
by Margaret Atwood

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The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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Margaret Atwood surrounds Marian MacAlpin with characters who seem to offer alternative ways of dealing with life. Her roommate, Ainsley, begins as a radical feminist. She wants a child but does not want marriage, so she coldly chooses Len to be its father. After becoming pregnant, however, when she reads a book that warns that children brought up without a father figure are likely to become homosexual. Ainsley, who does not want to live with Len, quickly finds another man; ironically, it is one of the roommates who have cared for Duncan. More ironically, Ainsley at the end denounces Marian for betraying her womanhood. Marian’s friends Joe and Clara live in happy fecundity, producing child after child. Joe earns a living and cares for the house and children while Clara functions only to bear offspring. The “three virgins” who are Marian’s office friends live in the ever more unlikely hope that an eligible young man will marry them. After Marian’s flight from the party, one of them, Lucy, immediately moves in on Peter.

Peter offers Marian a thoroughly conventional, affluent, and predictable life as a housewife; he is too conventional in his life-style and in his expectations to provide any kind of interest or excitement. Marian herself is not really aware of why she reacts as she does to the prospect of marriage, but her reactions show that she is rebelling against what she subconsciously recognizes will be the destruction of her personality. Rather than permit others to destroy her, she attempts to destroy herself by not eating, even though part of her knows that she must have nourishment. Duncan, who professes to be bored by all of life, shows her what total noninvolvement can mean, and her reaction to him indicates that her life force is too strong; she cannot remove herself from life. Her gesture of baking and eating the cake at the end is a statement of Marian’s newfound ability to go on with her life as an independent individual.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Marian MacAlpin

Marian MacAlpin, a conventional young woman who works in a dull job and is engaged to Peter, a rising young attorney. As the date of her wedding approaches, she loses her appetite, first for red meat and then for all foods. Her behavior becomes increasingly erratic, and at one point she spends a night with Duncan, who seems to be completely unemotional. Marian discovers that she is rebelling against the conventions that have trained her to expect that the best life can offer her is marriage to a financially and socially successful man. The lives of her friends present her with the possible roles of mother, helpmate, companion, and feminist rebel, but she rejects them all. In the end, she breaks her engagement and finds herself alone.

Ainsley Tewce

Ainsley Tewce, Marian’s roommate. She is a radical feminist who decides to have a baby outside marriage and unemotionally chooses Marian’s friend Len Slank to be the father. Once pregnant, she panics and decides she must marry, but she rejects Len and chooses an ordinary young man to be her husband. In the end, she blames Marian for rejecting the conventional life.


Peter, a rising young attorney. He proposes to Marian because all the young men he had played games with have married and have thus betrayed him. Getting married is the thing to do; everyone else does it, so he might as well. He is thoroughly conventional and wants Marian to be the perfect wife, playing the roles of hostess, mother, and mistress and giving all of her attention to him. He is baffled when Marian’s behavior becomes strange, but he offers her no help.


Joe and


Clara, friends of Marian, a couple who exist for no apparent reason except to reproduce themselves. Joe earns a living and tends the children while Clara happily produces one child after another. They provide a look at one kind of life, one that Marian decides she must reject.


Duncan, a young graduate student whom Marian meets at a Laundromat and with whom she develops a friendship....

(The entire section is 1,747 words.)