The Edible Woman Summary

Margaret Atwood

The Edible Woman

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The Edible Woman Summary


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The Edible Woman is a 1969 Margaret Atwood novel that established her as a heavyweight writer. It tells the story of a woman who begins to identify with food so much that she loses the ability to eat. Atwood calls it a proto-feminist work, and many of the themes deal with issues of control and identity. The narrative shifts from the first person to third and back again to illustrate the main character’s detachment from reality and her ability to regain control.

The main character, Marian, works in market research; crafting survey questions and sampling products. She shares a top floor apartment with Ainsley and dates Peter, a dependable but boring man. She also keeps in touch with a college friend, Clara, who is now a constantly pregnant housewife.

One day, Ainsley declares that she intends to have a child without getting married. Marian is shocked, but Ainsley claims that fathers are what ruin families these days. She sets her sights on Len, a man who has no interest in having a family at all and is a serial bachelor.

At work, Marian is given an assignment about a new beer. As she gathers responses about the beer, she meets Duncan, a graduate student who charms her with his unexpected answers. Later that evening, she goes on a dinner date with Peter and Len. Ainsley arrives dressed as an innocent school girl, intending to seduce Len.

Marian begins to dissociate from her body as Len recounts a gory rabbit hunt. She is unable to finish her food and runs from the restaurant. Peter chases after her and, since he is unaware of Ainsley’s plan, asks Marion why she couldn’t behave more like her roommate. He proposes to her by the end of the night, and she finds herself unable to say when she would like to hold the wedding.

Ainsley succeeds in seducing Len, and when she tells him that she is pregnant, Len confesses his childhood fear of eggs to Marian. Marian is then unable to eat her usual breakfast of a soft boiled egg. Subsequently she loses the ability to eat vegetables and cake.

Marian decides to throw a party and invites the office virgins, Duncan and some of his friends. Peter tells her to buy a new dress, something less mousy, and she buys a red dress to please him. Before the party, Ainsley does her make up: red lipstick and false eyelashes. Duncan isn’t pleased and leaves the party, but Marian follows. They go to a motel and have unsatisfying sex and then breakfast the next morning. She is unable to eat anything at all.

Marian realizes that Peter is metaphorically consuming her. She feels that after their marriage, she will cease to exist. To test him, she bakes a woman-shaped cake and offers it to him. She taunts him by saying that this is what he really wants. He is disturbed, and when he leaves, she eats it herself.

The next morning, Duncan shows up at her apartment, and Marian returns to telling the story in the first person. She offers him the rest of the cake, which he accepts and enjoys. He eats the entire thing.

One of the major themes of the book is that of identity. Atwood looks at traditional feminine ideals such as submission to men and quiet, meek attitudes. When Marian, feels that she is losing her identity her physical body reacts by refusing to eat. This inability to eat is an act of solidarity with other prey, such as the rabbits in Len’s story, because Marian feels that she is prey as well.

The narrative moves between the first and third person as Marian loses her grip on reality. She dissociates from her body during one of Len’s stories and is unable to return until she consumes the cake she made,  which is a representation of herself. Her desire to be in control of her own identity is exemplified by the cake, which Peter rejects. Duncan, on the other hand, enjoys it ad what it represents, and we understand that Marian has regained her sense of identity again.

Atwood doesn’t offer any answers beyond Marion’s reclamation of her own identity. Nowhere in the novel does it suggest that society will rearrange itself to accept this woman’s more direct control of her life. Instead, Marion is literally unable to stomach the kind of life that is expected of her upon her marriage to Peter, and Atwood explores Marian’s feelings about this through images of food. Atwood is more concerned about whether the character will choose to assert her own identity.

The book is less about societal change and more about personal choices. Marian doesn’t come to any profound realization about herself. Instead, she takes steps to get her life back and to decide what kind of future she might like as an alternative to what society offers.

At the beginning of the book, Marian led an ordinary, unexamined existence, and by the end, she is beginning to take control of her life. Her eating issues represented her profound unwillingness to proceed through life as a passive example of ideal femininity.