Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 558

Atwood is among the most powerful and successful of the women writers who have presented the central concerns of feminism. The Edible Woman, her first novel, is very much a product of the late 1960’s in the way it poses the central problem of its protagonist. Neither Marian’s life nor the lives of those around her give any hint that careers or life-styles other than the most conventional are open to women. In this regard, the protagonist is even more limited than is the heroine of Surfacing. In this novel, there is no hint that women might pursue interesting careers, and the character of Ainsley seems to suggest that even those who aim for independence find that they must quickly conform.

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Atwood shows little sympathy for the men in her female characters’ lives. Marian’s place of employment symbolizes mens’ advantages and women’s limitations in the world of work. The men in the company occupy executive positions and work on the floors above; the women, on the lower floors, can have no hope of advancement and can only hope to be rescued from their meaningless jobs by marriage. Among Marian’s friends, Joe is cooperative and amiable, but he sees nothing wrong with what has happened to Clara, who was once one of his students. Len, once he recognizes that Ainsley has seduced him coldly, reacts with great resentment, insists that he will never marry her (she does not want him to), and is so distraught by her behavior that he becomes a recluse, living in Joe and Clara’s home. Duncan is totally self-indulgent. Peter is, under the outward signs of success, a void.

One of the problems in The Edible Woman is that none of the characters is much more than a type. Ainsley is somewhat amusing, and her cold-bloodedness in identifying a potential father for her child makes her unusual, but in other ways she is a caricature of the superficial female. The minor characters are typified by Marian’s landlady, a stereotype in her insistence on genteel behavior and her overprotection of a repulsive teenage daughter, and by the three virgins in Marian’s office, with their single-minded...

(The entire section contains 558 words.)

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