Christa Seeley's Reviews > The Edible Woman

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood
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Sep 07, 13

bookshelves: canlit, genre-literary, own
Read from July 27 to 30, 2013

“‘So I’m finally going mad,’ she thought, ‘like everybody else. What a nuisance. Though I suppose it will be a change.’

The Edible Woman is easily one of my top 3 Atwood novels. I can not believe this is a début - the writing is excellent, the ideas and themes are expertly built into every scene and despite it’s rather serious message it’s a fun and captivating read.

This is Atwood’s first novel – published in 1965. A lot of the groundwork for themes that pop up throughout her body of work are outlined here. It explores female identity and societal expectations but Atwood claims it isn’t a “feminist” text. It’s more proto feminist – a book that touched on some of the very ideas/opinions that were soon to come in the feminist movement. I think it’s fair to say that Atwood was a bit a head of the curve. But she didn’t just predict what was to come. She also penned – in my opinion – a novel with enduring themes. There’s a timelessness to it. Though it takes place in 1960s Toronto, so much has remained the same. Change the fashion and the food prices and this novel could have easily taken place today.

Loss of Identity

“You didn’t tell me it was a masquerade. Who the hell are you supposed to be?”

The Edible Woman is the story of Marian. A young woman living and working in Toronto, she has a pretty normal life. Has an apartment with a room mate in a decent neighbourhood, works Monday-Friday, and is dating a nice boy. It’s the kind of life she’s supposed to want. Her life is “on track”. But when her boyfriend proposes she has an…unexpected reaction. She loses herself, while she’s trying to fit the model of what society and her fiancée want her to be – the loving, adoring soon-to-be wife who is supposed to quit her job, love wedding planning, ready to have babies etc.

These expectations begin to weigh down on Marian and she sort of disconnects from her life. She begins a pseudo-affair with a graduate student named Duncan, she disconnects from food – first meat and then other foods as well. There’s this fantastic scene at the party where Marian’s fiancée is trying to take her picture. The scene is set up to show how Marian feels like she’s in the cross hairs, being hunted – at one point she even confuses his camera with a gun.

Atwood demonstrates this dramatic change with a narrative switch. I haven’t seen too many other books employ this tactic, so maybe that’s why it stands out for me so much. The first section of the book is told in first person. But after the proposal – when her life begins to turn upside down – the narrative switches to third person, like an outsider looking in. And then finally when she gets things back on track the novel switches back into first person. I think it’s kind of brilliant, and it’s actually more subtle than it sounds. I didn’t even notice it during my first read through.

“For an instant she felt them, their identities, almost their substance, pass over her head like a wave. At some time she would be — or no, already she was like that too; she was one of them, her body the same, identical, merged with that other flesh that choked the air in the flowered room with its sweet organic scent; she felt suffocated by this thick sargasso-sea of femininity.”

Food

The other thing about The Edible Woman that really stands out for me is the food. Particularly the descriptions of food and how Marian reacts to various pieces. She begins to identify with the animals (and later with vegetables and even the mould growing in her sink) and the food begins to taste differently to her. The muscles and tendons between her teeth. At times it can get quite disturbing.

Food has been a fascinating subject for me, ever since my first attempt to become a vegetarian in the 9th grade. I began to read books like In Defence of Food, Fast Food Nation, Food Inc and the like. I find the more I read about food and the consumer culture around food, the more fascinated I am by it. I’ve been a vegetarian now for a number of years and there’s a lot of moments in The Edible Woman I could relate personally too. I don’t think Atwood is advocating for vegetarianism at all in this novel – but there is something to be said about the expectations surrounding our food, misconceptions about what’s “essential” and what’s “healthy” and consumerism in general.

Furthermore, the ideas surrounding food extend to Marian herself, and the way society can sometimes seem to consume women. This is demonstrated when Marian begins to see her co-workers as entities that can be consumed.

‘They were ripe, some rapidly becoming overripe, some already beginning to shrivel; she thought of them as attached by stems at the tops of their heads to an invisible vine, hanging there in various stages of growth and decay.”

It’s also demonstrated by the final scene. Which I love, but I’ve learned that people have interpreted it in a variety of different ways. I’m going to share my interpretation and I would love to here your thoughts as well.

Warning SPOILERS for the ending of the book!

“‘You’ve been trying to destroy me, haven’t you?”, she said. ’ You’ve been trying to assimilate me.But I’ve made you a substitue, something you’ll like much better. This is what you really wanted all along, isnt it? I’ll get you a fork”

At the end of the novel, Marian makes the cake in the shape of a woman – effectively a cake of herself. She offers it to her finacee, telling him that he;s been trying to consume her so he might as well have the whole thing. When he bolts (as most people would) she proceeds to eat the cake herself.

Here’s where my question lies. The eating of the cake – what does it mean to you? Some people find it quite depressing. They see it as her becoming a consumer again. Entering back into the world of expectations and ignorance. But I see it in a more positive light. She’s re-claiming herself. Taking back the power over her life (hence the switch back to first person). Which version do you subscribe to?

I love The Edible Woman, I think it’s a darkly funny and insightful novel. It definitely leaves you with lots of food for thought (pun intended – sorry). I know a lot of people don’t care for it but it will always be one of my favourites no matter how many times I read it.

“Being a person is getting too complicated”
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Reading Progress

07/27/2013 marked as: currently-reading
07/28/2013 page 102
32.0% "Love the laundromat scene!"
07/31/2013 marked as: read
07/31/2013 marked as: need-to-review
09/07/2013 marked as: read
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