The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood's first novel, was published in 1969 and established Margaret Atwood as one of the most important writers of the late 20th century. Atwood would go on to become famous for her use of socially conscious themes and her investigation of issues relating to social justice such as feminism, women's autonomy, and nationalism, especially within the context of Canada-U.S. relations. The novel emerged at one of the turning points of the feminist movement as second-wave feminism emerged and women began to advocate for the dissolution of constrictive gender norms that kept them within domestic roles, out of the professional spheres, and with little room for ascension or career development. The novel's protagonist, Marian McAlpin, represents this frustrating reality; her position at Seymour Surveys, where she serves as a reader and editor for the questionnaires that the company writes, offers her no opportunity to ascend or develop within her role.
The novel explores themes of gender identity, expectations, and stereotypes, showing the ways that an individual can either conform to or defy these expectations. Marian is suffocated by the societal structures she participates in, from her friendships to her engagement with Peter, who represents the stereotypical, average version of masculinity. The novel's pivotal moment comes when Marian gets engaged to Peter, after which she begins to lose the ability to eat. The novel's title comes from the final scene, in which Marian presents Peter with a cake in the shape of a woman to serve as a proxy woman for him to "assimilate" and consume, as she finally realizes that he has been consuming and pushing her into a restrictive feminine identity.
The Edible Woman is often hailed as a proto-feminist work due to its analysis of themes surrounding women and identity. However, Atwood has consistently pushed back against the label, citing her hesitation to conform to one label that associates her with the movement and constricts the novel's complex, nuanced treatment of gender. The idea of a "feminist" work, at the time, was rarely acknowledged or as widespread as it is today, and Atwood has stated in many interviews that she was not consciously attempting to write a "feminist" novel. The novel has no characters that fit a straightforward vision of feminist or female empowerment and is focused on the conflicts women experience when they are caught within competing desires and desires to find their own identity.