Marian attends a Christmas office party at her job. The party consists mainly of talking and eating various refreshments; Marian eats a jelly sandwich, but being around the large quantity of sweets and desserts makes her feel gluttonous. As Marian listens to her coworkers speak, she observes the women at the party and notices their bodies. She becomes haunted by the rolls of fat, the veins, the signs of age, the bumps. As she watches them, she begins to imagine the borders between their “outside and inside” blurring, thinking about the words, food, babies, and bodily fluids that are inside of them.
Marian feels overwhelmed by her observations and is suffocated by the “femininity” she sees. She imagines their bodies growing old and the ways in which age will strip the women of their value as objects in society. She is interrupted by Mrs. Bogue, who announces Marian’s engagement to the women at the party. Everyone congratulates Marian. Marian decides to leave the party and get some fresh air. As she walks home through a snowstorm, she recalls how she struggled to find Peter a gift for Christmas, not knowing what he wanted and further realizing how little she knows or understands Peter.
Marian walks into the park, where she unexpectedly meets Duncan. They sit together and embrace on a bench. He tells her that he was expecting her. Marian decides she needs to leave and gets up, abandoning Duncan on the bench.
Marian wanders through the supermarket, trying to find vegetarian options that she hopes she will be able to eat. As she walks through the aisles, she is reminded how brands attract consumers with bright labels and the kind of lull shopping puts her in, where she begins to grab things off of the shelves absent-mindedly. She considers how difficult eating has become for her. At Christmas dinner, she had been unable to eat any of the meat, eating only mashed potatoes and mince pie.
Marian considers how she has been seeing more of Peter, although only when other people are around, such as at cocktail parties and dinners with his coworkers and friends. She feels alienated by the people he introduces her to, and so has made plans for Clara and Joe to meet Peter over dinner; this is the meal she was buying ingredients for. She has decided to make a salad and a casserole, hoping that she will be able to eat meat if it is disguised in the casserole or push the meat aside.
When Marian arrives at home and begins preparing dinner, she realizes that the carrot she is grating was alive once too, and imagines it screaming as it was dug up. This realization strips her of the ability to eat vegetables in the same way that she is no longer able to eat meat, eggs, or dairy; she begins to cry with despair.
At dinner, Clara and Joe bring their children along. The children are covered in their own excrement and make the room smell, a fact that Clara does little to fix and which angers Peter. Peter and Joe do not get along, and Marian observes them judging each other heavily over the course of the night. Marian feels deeply uncomfortable throughout the night, and after the dinner is over, tells herself that she shouldn’t expect Peter to get along with all of her friends, especially ones from her past.
Ainsley returns from a visit to the prenatal clinic, which had caused her to miss the dinner. Marian finds her crying in her room. Ainsley explains that a psychologist had come to the clinic and lectured the women about the importance of a father in a child’s life. Ainsley is extremely distressed, feeling that she’s made a mistake by deciding to raise her child on her own and mistakenly believing that a mother is all a child needs. Ainsley vows to find a father for her child so that he doesn’t end up psychologically abnormal.
As Marian’s difficulties eating increase, they become another contributing factor to her alienation, which becomes apparent during the office party scene. Marian finds herself not only unable to eat, but disgusted and repelled by the presence of an abundance of food. The food becomes a transcendent force; something that she observes permeating the bodies of the women around her as she observes them and is able to see their “inside and outside.” The food becomes directly connected to the female bodies that she witnesses, bodies that she describes as grotesque and repulsive.
This growing disgust with the female bodies around her, and their consumption, represents Marian’s growing disgust and frustration with her own role as a woman. As she watches the women at the party, she compares them to food, fruits, and vegetables that are “overripe” or beginning to “shrivel.” Marian begins to see women as consumable; the metaphor here implies that women’s bodies are eaten away not just by age, but by the negative views that society holds about aging female bodies. Women exist to become rotten once they lose their sexual appeal; when they are no longer young and sexually desirable, they rot, and are no longer viable for consumption—no longer able to occupy status within society.
Marian, too, sees herself as one of the female bodies that disgust her, and feels “suffocated by femininity,” physically choking at the oppressive expectations that she, as a woman, faces. When faced with this overwhelming presence of women—the office party is made up solely of women—she finds herself wanting Peter, who is “solid” and “clear.” Female bodies are unclear and fluid, able to be molded, eaten, and destroyed; male bodies, on the other hand, such as Peter’s, are strong. Strict gender roles are reflected in Marian’s metaphorical perception of the women around her and Peter’s own physical presence.
These chapters also mark a turn in Marian’s relationship with Duncan—a turn that further reflects Marian’s internalized belief in gender roles. When Duncan tells her that he was waiting for her, she feels compelled to abandon him on the bench in the park. She feels repelled by his expression of sentimental feelings and desire. She rejects intimacy and real feelings of affection. Here, too, Marian appears to express an internalized belief that adheres to gender stereotypes. When Duncan tells her he wants her, he strays from the male stereotype that dictates male emotions must be distant, stoic, or silent—a stereotype that Peter, on the other hand, fulfills by being “solid.”
Within these chapters, an important reversal occurs in Ainsley. Although she had previously focused on rejecting the expected feminine stereotype of a mother and wife dependent on a man by getting pregnant of her own will and intending to raise a child alone, here she begins to return to a stereotypical female role after learning that her child needs a father to develop properly. Her rejection of the stereotype has tragically reversed, putting her in a compromised position as she must search for a father in order to ensure the healthy development of her future child. This creates an implication that even women who vow to defy gender norms are forced back into them, unable to escape and willingly returning to them in a way that creates a sort of tragicomic irony.