The Edible Woman Themes
by Margaret Atwood

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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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.


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Like the narrator of Surfacing (1972; see separate entry), Marian undergoes a series of changes that push her to the edge of insanity, from which she finally recovers; Atwood's indebtedness to R. D. Laing's theory of transformative madness has often been noted. Because Marian's self-respect has always rested upon her assurance that she is "a sensible girl" with a pronounced talent for "coping," her steadily eroding control over her emotions and behavior, just when she seems to be moving in the approved direction, profoundly unsettles her. Her body rebels by rejecting food and signaling a radical split between her physical and mental being. Torn between the life she is supposed to lead and the life she would lead for herself, she learns to trust her own irrationality and decides against the tyranny of convention. Marian thus rejects the pattern of passive victimization that plagues so many of Atwood's characters and takes responsibility for her own existence. That means she must also renounce the self-abuse of not eating, which ignores the necessities dictated by the human condition itself. Despite its comic-tone, Atwood asserts that "in the end it's more pessimistic than Surfacing" because the narrative pattern is circular, putting Marian back where she started. In eating her edible cake surrogate, she rejects the primary options held out to her by her society as consumable product, but she has yet to go into the world and forge new options. The threshold on which she stands as the novel ends is at best only ambiguously hopeful.


(Novels for Students)

Search for Self
Marian McAlpin, the protagonist in The Edible Woman , begins her story by relating in the first few lines that she is "all right ... if anything I was feeling more stolid than usual." The use of the word "stolid" is interesting for at first glance it might be misread as "solid," which is exactly the opposite of what Marian soon will feel. On top of this, the actual definition of "stolid" is to be "impassive and unemotional," which also is in opposition to what Marian will soon experience as she searches for a definition of self,...

(The entire section is 1,962 words.)