Author: Margaret Atwood
First Published: 1969
Genres: Contemporary, Feminist Fiction
Marian McAlpin is an “abnormally normal” young woman, according to her friends. A recent university graduate, she crafts consumer surveys for a market research firm, maintains an uneasy truce between her flighty roommate and their prudish landlady, and goes to parties with her solidly dependable boyfriend, Peter. But after Peter proposes marriage, things take a strange turn. Suddenly empathizing with the steak in a restaurant, Marian finds she is unable to eat meat. As the days go by, her feeling of solidarity extends to other categories of food, until there is almost nothing left that she can bring herself to consume. Those around her fail to notice Marian’s growing alienation—until it culminates in an act of resistance that is as startling as it is imaginative.
Marian is an average college-educated woman who lives with a roommate in a decent apartment, works for a survey company, is moderately good looking, and has a handsome fiancé who is on his way to being a big shot lawyer. It sounds like life is going pretty well for Marian. Yet for some reason, she feels empty, why?
The Edible Woman explores the themes of losing a sense of self with maturity. At work Marian is pushed around, her roommate Ainsley is toxic, the landlady is judgmental, and her boyfriend Peter is self-centered and makes snide comments at Marian’s expense. With each encounter, Marian puts aside her pride for the sake of avoiding conflict. The more that Marian lets the people around her eat away at her the less she eats, hinting at a potential eating disorder. Just as she feels inhibited in life, she suddenly feels inhibited with the kinds of food that she can eat.
Marian begins to dread marriage and question the direction her life is going; she fears becoming as listless as her friend and former classmate Clara, who after marriage and three pregnancies just seems beaten down. Marian’s fiancé Peter is the stereotypical perfect bachelor: a man’s man that looks down on women and views marriage as a ball and chain. Peter pushes Marian around in order to mold her into a subservient woman. There is no longer any room for her thoughts, her feelings, or her desires from under his shadow.
“They had been pathetically eager to have the wedding in the family church. Their reaction though, as far as she could estimate the reactions of people who were now so remote from her, was less elated glee than a quiet, rather smug satisfaction, as though their fears about the effects of her university education, never stated but always apparent, had been calmed at last.”
But what about work? What are women’s roles in society and the workforce? Throughout the story, there are several women including Marian with college educations, yet none of them really have a stable career. Women are expected to be wives and mothers, there’s simply no time for an education or a job. In this case, their educations are ultimately viewed as their downfall due to the crushing reality of how little opportunity they would have. This was the very sad truth at the time the book was written and thankfully is not exactly the case now in most parts of the world.
Atwood tackles a large number of social issues throughout the book that I think would be important for any young woman. Adulthood, relationships, marriage, the choice between work and education versus starting a family, and lastly what feminism really means.
There are certain elements of the book that are becoming quite dated: typewriters, the social expectation that all women can be are housewives, and the limited ways that women can dress; these things might make it difficult for young women to look past and relate to the main character. Despite this, the book is still incredibly relevant in the message that it brings about maintaining one’s individuality and the conflict between work and marriage is still present for many young women. I absolutely love this book and found a lot of my former self in its pages.
- Pros: Wonderful feminist piece about the choice between marriage and children and freedom to do literally anything else.
- Cons: Dizzying narrative that can feel more stream of consciousness at times, becoming dated.
- Warnings: Language