Themes of the Search for Self and Gender Roles in Atwood's Novel
Reading Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman is similar to eating a tofu sandwich. Both the book and the sandwich begin and end in the same way, and the flavor of the book and the tofu sandwich depend on the spices that are added to it.
Tofu is a nutritious, but pallid, bean curd. If no spices are brought to it, the satisfaction of eating a tofu sandwich is minimal. In comparison, if no understanding of the complex social issues surrounding The Edible Woman is brought to the reading of this book, the story might be simplistically summed up as follows: nice, refined, middle-class young woman has no clue what to do with her life. She has a dull, egocentric boyfriend and a dull, going-nowhere job. She meets an eccentric, self-absorbed second young man and has an affair. First boyfriend proposes marriage. Nice refined young woman accepts the proposal, then rejects it. In the end, nice, refined, middle-class young woman has no clue what to do with her life.
If, however, a little time is taken to investigate the spices that might compliment tofu and add flavor to this sandwich, and the sandwich is eaten a little more slowly, a little more consciously, the satisfaction rating increases. Correlating the story to this second version of the sandwich, the novel becomes a little more interesting: college-educated 1960s woman is dissatisfied with her role in a patriarchal society. Although she is somewhat intrigued with her job and her independence, she jumps at the chance to marry as a means of retiring from the job and the responsibility for having to make her own decisions. She thinks she loves her fiancé and that he loves her. She believes that, at least, she and her fiancé will create an organized home and a rational relationship. These assumptions are somewhat altered when she meets an eccentric male graduate student who challenges her beliefs. Eventually she realizes that she does not fit into the role that her fiancé and her society want her to play out, and she loses her appetite. In the end, college-educated 1960s woman is dissatisfied with her role in a patriarchal society, and her new awareness is at least the first step in resolving her conflicts.
The third possible sandwich recipe involves a little more time, a little more background information in the culinary arts, and a little better understanding of nutrition. The ultimate eating experience is comparable, now, to dining in one of the finest gourmet restaurants. In these terms, the synopsis of the story would read as follows: college-educated, intelligent, 1960s woman struggles with the complexities of feminism and sexuality in a patriarchal, or male-defined, society. She attempts to come to terms with the classic challenges of most females living in a male-dominated world: the body versus mind dichotomy; the profession versus motherhood conflict; and the sanity versus insanity definitions imposed on her by roles that were constructed by men and no longer fit the times, or more significantly, her needs. She lashes out, and tries to run away from her fiancé and her proposed marriage. She also tries to run away from herself, which results in a breakdown and eventual breakthrough in identifying her own basic elements. In the end she bakes a cake-woman in her own image, tests her assumptions by testing her fiancé who fails, and with her appetite returned she proceeds to eat the cake herself. However, when the cake is finally consumed, this college-educated, intelligent, 1960s woman must still struggle with the complexities of feminism and sexuality in a patriarchal, male-dominated society.
To describe Atwood's The Edible Woman as a tofu sandwich is not a criticism. Or at least it is not a criticism of Atwood's writing. After all, tofu is made from soybeans, one of the most completely nutritious vegetables that humanity has cultivated. The allusion to a tofu sandwich is more of a critique of the role of the reader. Read the book quickly, and The Edible Woman is entertaining. Read the book more carefully, looking at Atwood's use of food as metaphor, understanding the psychological implications of eating disorders, and fully realizing feminist concerns, and The Edible Woman deepens with issues that are still relevant today.
First, there is the bread of the sandwich. This idea of a sandwich, in some ways, comes from Atwood herself. As Darlene Kelly states in her essay "Either Way, I Stand Condemned," Atwood describes The Edible Woman as a circle in which the heroine ends where she began. The search for one's place, a recurring theme in all of Atwood's fictional writing, begins with this book, her first novel. But Although she is somewhat intrigued with her job and her independence, she jumps at the chance to marry as a means of retiring from the job and the responsibility for having to make her own decisions."
Marian McAlpin, the main character in The Edible Woman, fails, according to Kelly, to "clearly and unambiguously carve out such an abode." A possible reason for this failure, Kelly adds, may be that the book was "written at a time when what was wrong with the old order had been spelled out but the alternatives had not." So the reader is left without answers, like the protagonist, at the end.
But the bread acts only as the cover of the sandwich, and everyone knows not to judge a book by its cover. There is...
(The entire section is 2226 words.)