Themes and Meanings
Margaret Atwood’s concern in The Edible Woman, as in her most famous novel Surfacing (1972) and in The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), is the problem of the woman who is unable to accept the roles provided for her by a male-dominated society. Marian is not consciously a rebel, nor does she think of herself as abnormal in her hopes and expectations. Her job, her way of living, and her friends are all ordinary. She has no conscious belief that her experiences and her college education had prepared her for something more in life, and she does not find Peter in any way objectionable. If he can be demanding, he is also reliable, potentially successful, everything which she thinks she ought to want. Marian is, however, unable to take the next logical step in the life for which society has prepared her. Her inability to eat is the result of her inability, literally, to stomach the kind of life her family and friends expect her to live.
Atwood does not provide alternative possibilities. At the end of the novel, there is no suggestion of what Marian will do next or what kind of life she may begin to lead. The important question for Atwood is always whether her protagonists can assert their individuality and begin the process of discovering who they are. The Edible Woman is more rooted in the processes of everyday living and less allegorical than is Surfacing, but the central concern is the same: Will the protagonist allow her job, her family, and her friends to dictate what she will be?
Atwood is pessimistic about social change. Nothing in her novels suggests that society is recognizing the need of women for self-realization, although her novels are clear demands for such change. At the same time, her protagonist does come to an intuitive understanding of herself and of her own needs. Marian MacAlpin survives her trials, and the novel concludes with her assertion of her own personality.