45 pages 1 hour read

Margaret Atwood

The Edible Woman

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1969

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 1969, The Edible Woman was Margret Atwood’s first novel and established her reputation as a significant contemporary novelist. The Edible Woman follows recently engaged Marian McAlpin as she attempts to reconcile her need for personal autonomy with the gendered expectations inherent within the roles of a wife and mother. As Marian begins to feel a loss of identity, her body suddenly refuses certain foods, particularly meat. To reflect the inner struggle her protagonist has with alienation and autonomy, Atwood switches between first and third person points of view. Atwood’s novel discusses the implications social roles have on our physical bodies as well as the way traditional feminine values are understood in academia, society, and relationships.

All quotations in this guide are from the 1998 First Anchor edition of The Edible Woman.

Plot Summary

Having recently graduated from university, Marian McAlpin works at Seymour Surveys rewriting psychology-based survey questions into colloquial language. She lives with her roommate, psychology graduate Ainsley Tewce, and has a casual relationship with the lawyer Peter Wollander. Marian’s life at the beginning of the novel is primarily characterized by her distaste for marriage or beginning a lifelong career at Seymour Surveys.

Marian is sent out on a sample survey to interview men about a beer commercial. One of the men she interviews is Duncan, an English graduate student with a codependent relationship with his roommates. Marian is intrigued by Duncan’s complete lack of interest in her thoughts or emotions, being too self-involved to truly notice her. She leaves the interview with no way to get in touch with Duncan again.

After visiting her pregnant friend Clara, Marian and her roommate Ainsley discuss the importance of having a child to a woman’s understanding of her femininity. Ainsley has decided that she wants to have a child and raise it on her own; her plan is to seduce any man with good enough genes. Because of this, Marian attempts to keep Ainsley apart from her friend Len Slank, who recently moved back to town. Marian goes out for drinks with Len and Peter, but Ainsley unexpectedly shows up and begins flirting with Len. Marian, overwhelmed by the sudden realization that she and Peter are in a more serious relationship than she intends, hides in the bathroom to cry. When the group leaves for the night, Marian runs away from them down the street. She intends for her running away to signal to Peter that she wants to break up with him, but as she struggles to speak her emotions aloud to anyone, she allows herself to be caught by Peter. Later that night, Marian attempts to run away again, but Peter pulls up with his car and tells her to get in. He proposes marriage to her, and she agrees.

Ainsley begins plotting to seduce Len using her psychology training by manipulating his sexual preferences and desires. Marian, newly engaged, goes to dinner with Peter more often. One night, while watching Peter cut a steak, Marian becomes horrified that the steak was once a living thing and finds she is unable to eat her own. After this night, Marian’s body becomes increasingly averse to meat, then other foods, limiting what she is able to eat. Ainsley becomes pregnant with Len’s baby and reveals to him that she planned it the entire time. After hearing a male psychologist talk about the importance of a father figure in a child’s life, Ainsley decides that she doesn’t want to raise the child by herself after all. When Len refuses to marry her, Ainsley plots to find another suitable man who will.

Marian tells her coworkers at the office of her engagement; once news spreads to her supervisors, Marian is then expected to resign her position as a newly married woman would be an unreliable worker if she becomes pregnant. While doing laundry at the laundromat, Marian runs into Duncan. They share a kiss, and while they make no plans to meet again, they begin to run into each other more often. Duncan proposes that they sleep together as he has always been unable to enjoy sex and thinks it might be easier with her. Marian meets Duncan’s roommates Fish and Trevor, who invite her to dinner. As she cannot eat the meat that Trevor serves, she moves her portion onto Duncan’s plate, who secretly eats it for her.

With their wedding date approaching, Peter holds a party at his apartment. Marian dresses up, does her hair, and has Ainsley do her makeup, altering her appearance so much that her feelings of dissociation and lack of autonomy reach a crisis. She invites Duncan and his roommates, Ainsley, and other friends to Peter’s party to support her but finds herself still unable to calm down. She leaves the party to find a hotel with Duncan. They have sex, but both are disappointed. Marian realizes that Duncan cannot help her reclaim her sense of individual identity. She returns to her apartment and begins baking a woman-shaped cake for Peter. He arrives angry at her for leaving the party without explanation but quickly becomes frightened of her behavior and the woman-shaped cake. When he leaves, they both understand that their engagement is over. Ainsley returns home with Fish, announcing that the two are now committed to each other. Marian begins to eat the cake, which instigates her body’s ability to begin eating meat again. In the final scene of the novel, Duncan finishes the woman-shaped cake.

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