Feminist criticism about The Edible Woman is generally divided, with no clear consensus on whether Marian truly breaks free from her subordinate role as a woman at the end of the novel. The novel has often been read as a novel concerned with feminism, and hailed as an essential text within the larger feminist movement that emerged over the late 1960s and through the 1970s. The novel's themes—the female body, sex, gender roles, female loss of agency—resonated with the core motivations of the second-wave feminist movement, which sought to liberate women from the prescriptive roles that restricted their societal power. There are several characters who embody exactly what second-wave feminism aimed to combat, introducing an element of what could be seen as "feminist" criticism into the novel. Clara, for example, is a college-educated woman who is restrained by her three children and husband. Clara routinely expresses frustration with her place in life, and the other characters all pity her, seeing her as a woman who is aimless and has lost potential.
However, like the rest of the female characters within the novel, Clara isn't a two-dimensional portrait of a housewife. Her attitude towards her own position is complex, and her unhappiness is put into perspective when Clara gives advice to Marian, who, although unmarried and having finished college, is just as restrained by the man in her life. Ainsley, another representation of womanhood, is at first portrayed as liberal, a woman who proclaims herself to be a feminist and savors her own liberation. However, towards the end of the novel, Ainsley seems to contradict herself; she marries a man and has a child, the very two actions that she criticized earlier in the novel as restraining and enslaving women.
Marian, herself, is a difficult character to place within the question of women's agency and gender stereotypes. Gendered expectations subconsciously eat away at Marian and make her feel trapped. However, at the end, when she presents the cake, she still allows it to be eaten—even though Peter refuses it, she offers it to Duncan, who eats it with delight. This ending casts Marian's desire to be "free" or "liberated" of male expectation as doubtful; after moving on from Peter, will she now subject herself to being "destroyed" and "assimilated" by Peter? Atwood, herself, has routinely commented on her disdain for the "one-dimensional" feminist criticism that became attached to the novel over the decades since its publication. Complex female characters like Clara, Ainsley, and Marian present dissonances within their relation to their own femininity that make it difficult to label as either liberated, feminist, or anti-feminist.