Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Edible Woman, the premier work of fiction by noted Canadian poet Margaret Atwood, is a forerunner of much of the feminist literature that would follow the theme of woman in search of individual identity and worthwhile meaning in her life. The work is divided into three distinct sections, separated by the literary device of alternating narrative point of view. Although the narrator does not change, the voice changes as her perspective of herself alters. Section 1 employs first-person, though unreliable, narration, in section 2 the narrator refers to herself in third person as she essentially loses touch with who she is, and the third section returns to first person as the narrator reclaims her identity. At the time of its release, the novel was a fresh approach to the presentation of women characters in fiction, an almost surreal type of feminist black humor.

Although the story is set within the time frame of the free-love 1960’s, when women were beginning to discover themselves as individuals, the protagonist, Marian MacAlpin, seems wedged in by the values and myths of the generation that preceded her. Consequently, it is her adopted belief that in order for a woman, even an educated woman, to attain full identity, she must be defined by association with a successful man. In acquiescence to this code, Marian becomes involved with and subsequently engaged to Peter, an attractive young up-and-comer who expects her to act and react only in prescribed, predictable, and, above all, sensible ways.

The metamorphosis of Marian begins one evening when she has too much to drink at a dinner party and begins to realize that she is essentially disappearing as an individual. To illustrate this point, she first crawls under a bed, mentally escaping the others in attendance; then, when discovered, she physically runs away. Peter pursues and reclaims her....

(The entire section is 768 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although The Edible Woman was poorly received in initial reviews, it has come to be considered one of the first heraldings of women’s right to independence. The book was not released until 1969, after a delay of five years, and despite the fact that the women’s movement had made significant strides during the 1960’s, an independent woman was not yet a totally acceptable ideal at that time. Additionally, and regardless of the fact that ritualistic cannibalism has been a theme in the world’s literary canon since its conception, some critics were offended by the approach in Atwood’s work, chiding her for moral irresponsibility when discussing birth and emotions in such tones.

Near the end of the work, Duncan, as alter ego to the protagonist, points out, as they sit on the edge of an empty pit, that Marian’s life is her “own personal cul-de-sac,” that she invented it and she would have to find her own way out. Though Marian MacAlpin has been little changed by the unfolding events in her life, she nevertheless becomes more human as she retreats slightly from her dead-end destination and becomes a hero of sorts in accepting her own complicity in her victimization, thus serving as a positive role model for future authors and readers alike. One reviewer missed this point, however, and complained that the novel was wasted paper, peopled with insignificant characters. Although the work is open-ended, one is left with the faint hope that Marian will escape her “abnormal normality” and become a beacon of hope for others trapped in their own constrictive relationships.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

A women's rights rally in Farragut Square in downtown Washington, D.C., in 1970 Published by Gale Cengage

Historical and Cultural Context
Patricia Goldblatt in "Reconstructing Margaret Atwood's Protagonists" begins her essay by describing the historical and cultural context within which Margaret Atwood lives and works:

Margaret Atwood weaves stories from her own life in the bush and cities of Canada. Intensely conscious of her political and social context, Atwood dispels the notion that caribou-clad Canadians remain perpetually locked in blizzards while simultaneously seeming to be a polite mass of gray faces, often indistinguishable from their American neighbors. Atwood has continually pondered the lack of an identifiable Canadian culture ... In an attempt to focus on Canadian experiences, Atwood has populated her stories with Canadian cities, conflicts, and contemporary people.

Atwood and a handful of other women writers in Canada are considered to have marked a turning point in Canadian literature. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, was written before the resurgence of the women's movement, but the ideas in her novel helped to spark the need for change. Atwood attended college during the 1960s, both in Canada and in the United States. It was during this time that the feminist movement, also referred to as the Women's Liberation Movement, experienced a renaissance in both countries. Intrinsically involved in this rebirth were two books that Atwood has admitted reading. Darlene Kelly, in the essay "Either Way, I Stand Condemned," states that "Margaret Atwood recalls that when she composed the...

(The entire section is 647 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
One of the most obvious style techniques that Atwood uses in The Edible Woman is her...

(The entire section is 628 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Given Atwood's proclivity for creating first person narrative voices, her experimentation in The Edible Woman is doubly intriguing....

(The entire section is 301 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Edible Woman offers a fascinating glimpse into the situation faced by talented young women before the social changes brought about...

(The entire section is 591 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Margaret Atwood's first published novel, The Edible Woman, introduced readers to many of the themes that she elaborates in her later...

(The entire section is 247 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1965-1969: Forty women in Canada are reported to have died because of illegal attempts to end their pregnancies.


(The entire section is 250 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Americans are constantly exposed to ads each day via television, radio, billboard signs, and printed material. But even more interesting is...

(The entire section is 363 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Atwood's self-conscious literary sensibility and training make her very aware of the traditional forms she adapts for her own uses, and in...

(The entire section is 334 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Published in 1971, Atwood's poetry collection entitled Power Politics offers another study in the decay of a relationship amid the...

(The entire section is 57 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Margaret Atwood wrote two screenplay versions of The Edible Woman for Minotaur Films in 1970 and for Windfall Ltd. in 1971....

(The entire section is 46 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Margaret Atwood's prize-winning 1996 novel Alias Grace is about a young woman who is accused of murder....

(The entire section is 314 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Grace, Sherrill E., and Lorraine Weir, eds. Margaret Atwood: Language, Text, and System. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1983. A compilation of critical essays written about Margaret Atwood and her work. One piece discusses Atwood’s transition from poetry to fiction; another is a feminist reading of her poetry. The longest entries discuss the novel Surfacing in relation to syntax and theme, particularly related to Amerindian influences and shamanism.

McLay, Catherine. “The Dark Voyage: The Edible Woman as Romance,” in The Art of Margaret Atwood, 1981. Edited by Arnold E. Davidson and Catherine Davidson....

(The entire section is 295 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


Atwood, Margaret, “Great Unexpectations: An Autobiographical Foreword,” Margaret Atwood: Visions...

(The entire section is 497 words.)