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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 768

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.

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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. Titillated by her out-of-character behavior, he proposes marriage. Atwood employs a trite but effective conceit as, at Marian’s moment of acceptance, lightning flashes, permanently etching her reflection in his eyes.

Because the impending marriage also implies subsequent childbearing, Marian is surrounded by signs of fecundity; almost every female character in the novel is either already a mother, expecting a child, or plotting to become impregnated. It is no accident that the novel opens at the beginning of Labor Day weekend and that Marian refers to herself as a rabbit—not based on her desire for fertility but because of her basic vulnerability.

At a second party, an engagement party of sorts hosted by Peter, Marian begins to feel trapped and equates Peter with a carnivorous hunter destined to capture and to consume his prey. Yet subjected to his constant scrutiny of her behavior, Marian attempts to suppress these negative warnings from her subconscious and to return to “normality.” The feelings persist, however, and begin to manifest themselves in different ways: first in her affair with Duncan, an Ichabod Crane-shaped graduate student in English literature, whom she meets while conducting a meaningless consumer survey for the marketing firm where she works, and later in her body’s refusal to accept certain foods. Beginning as an aversion to eggs (an obvious fertility symbol) and to meat (the trophy of the hunter), the block is eventually generalized to other foods and culminates in her not eating at all, even though the majority of scenes are set in restaurants or kitchens and much of the action involves ingestion. At this point in the novel, Marian’s only means of control is over what she will or will not eat; she descends into an anorexic claustrophobia, afraid of losing her shape, of spreading out—in essence of losing herself. Eventually, as she rejects sustenance completely, Marian realizes that she...

(The entire section contains 4928 words.)

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