The Edible Woman

The Edible Woman Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4-6


Marian and Ainsley arrive at Clara’s for dinner. Clara has two children: a baby and a young son named Arthur. She is also pregnant, which Marian explains is especially noticeable because Clara is so thin. Marian assumed that Clara had called her over for dinner so that Marian could help with the children, but while Marian is at Clara’s, she feels that she doesn’t know what to do or what Clara wants from her. Clara mentions that Len Slank, one of their college friends, is in town, and Marian feels hurt that he hasn’t called her, even though he called Clara. As the three women talk, Arthur runs around them and causes continuous disruptions.

Marian, Ainsley, Clara, and Clara’s husband, Joe, all sit down for dinner together. Ainsley asks Joe who Len Slank is and he explains that Len is one of Clara’s college friends who is “unethical,” which Marian disagrees with. After dinner, as everyone sits in silence, Marian narrates how Clara was always fragile, thin, and blonde, a girl who was an embodiment of “translucent perfume-advertisement femininity.” Clara got pregnant in the middle of college with her husband, Joe, and put aside her education. Marian also recalls how helpless Clara had been when they had lived together in college, and how she had not been able to take care of herself.

When Ainsley and Marian leave Clara’s house, Ainsley says that she feels bad for Joe. Marian is confused, and Ainsley angrily states that Joe is constricted by Clara and weighed down by always needing to take care of her, pointing out that Clara should do something productive and finish her degree. Marian remembers how Clara expressed frustration about never finishing her degree and how Clara wanted to go back to school and was tired of being a housewife.

When Ainsley and Marian arrive at home, Marian calls Len Slank and sets up a time to meet up with him. Ainsley reveals to Marian that she intends to get pregnant. Ainsley explains that she wants to raise the child alone on purpose, justifying her decision by using Clara and Joe as an example of a poor influence on a child. She states that Joe does not let Clara make her own decisions and is overbearing. Ainsley makes heavy use of psychoanalytic language throughout this discussion, referencing the “mother-image” and “father-image” that the child will have. Marian vehemently disagrees with Ainsley’s decision and grows frustrated by Ainsley’s cold, planned approach to raising a child alone. The two part ways into their bedrooms and Marian goes to bed feeling “unsettled.”

When Marian wakes up, she recalls a dream she had in which her body was turning to jelly and becoming transparent. After eating breakfast, she sets out to find men to participate in the survey that Mrs. Brogue assigned to her. The survey involves beer, and so Marian is tasked with finding “average, beer-drinking men.” At the first house she goes to, a husband and wife attempt to shame Marian for promoting beer-drinking and give her pamphlets on temperance. Marian visits several other houses. In one of them, a drunk man attempts to seduce her. She is able to conduct four surveys successfully.

At one of the houses, Marian meets a young man who is dangerously thin and who looks very young. She feels uncomfortable around him, but proceeds to tell him about the survey. He surprises her by revealing that he is twenty-six, and qualifies for the survey. Marian goes into his home and attempts to sit down in the living room, which is dark and sparsely decorated. The man stops her from sitting in the chair, saying that it's “Trevor’s” and that the other one Marian tries to sit in is “Fish’s,” although it is unclear who these people are and Marian wonders if they are made up.

The young man leads Marian into the bedroom, where she proceeds to ask him the survey questions. He expresses that he likes the survey, stating that it reminds him of tests that therapists have you do. He gives elaborate answers that involve references to literature, fairy tales, and dark imagery that puts Marian on edge. She notices that the questions appear to make the young man tense. When she asks him to describe how he would rate a certain beer, he says that he never drinks it, which Marian is appalled by since the young man said he drinks seven to ten beers a week when she originally came to his door and asked him a few questions to see if he qualified for the survey. He says that he picked that answer choice—option number six—because it was his lucky number, and that Marian just asked him to pick a number.

The young man smirks and says that Marian probably enjoyed the interview, since his answers were interesting and broke up the monotony of her previous surveys. Marian is irritated and deciding whether to leave when she hears a sound. The young man says that it is Fish or Trevor, who are his roommates and who are both “bores.” A bearded man appears and asks the young man—whose name is revealed to be Duncan—if he wants a beer. Marian exclaims that Duncan does drink beer, even though he said he doesn’t, and the young man explains that he simply wanted the survey to go on longer. Duncan introduces Marian as “Goldilocks” to the bearded man, who turns out to be Fish. Marian is not blonde, and feels slightly offended by the nickname. She leaves Duncan’s apartment confused and looks at her notes, realizing that they are indecipherable because she was writing so quickly.


In these chapters, Atwood sets up pairs of characters that either contradict or adhere to gender stereotypes, such as Ainsley and Lucy. Ainsley is brash, expresses her opinions loudly, and wants to have a baby as a single woman, without a man or a father actively helping her to raise him. She reverses any expectations there are for a woman to be dependent upon a man, especially within a domestic setting. Clara, on the other hand, is totally defined by her dependency on her husband, Joe, and by her role as a domestic housewife and mother. Ainsley has a concrete plan to get pregnant; Clara, on the other hand, got pregnant without planning for it, and was roped into motherhood as a passive figure, almost unwillingly and silently taking on the prescribed feminine role within her household.

The dream that Marian recalls is of great significance. It relates Marian’s feeling of alienation and insecurity about her position within her life to her body, which begins to disintegrate in the dream. It sets up the body-mind connection that will later play a prominent role in the novel, a connection that begins to fall apart as the novel progresses and Marian’s mind and body become more separate—a physical act that parallels her psychological distress and lack of certainty in the context of her relationship, friendships, and occupation.

Duncan represents a disruption to Marian’s routine, both physically and emotionally. He interrupts the monotonous task she has to do for her job, going from house to house. His physical appearance is striking and makes Marian uncomfortable and intrigued. He disregards social norms by inviting her into his bedroom and answering the survey questions elaborately and imaginatively. He is the first character in the novel to represent some form of “intellectualism,” alluding to Shakespeare and Boccaccio’s Decameron in his answers.

Duncan is also the first character to acknowledge Marian’s education; when he asks her about her job, he says he is surprised that a young, educated woman would be doing such menial tasks. She responds that she needs to eat, and makes a joke about there being no other jobs for people with degrees, deciding not to explain that her real job involves writing. Duncan’s presence exacerbates the tension between Marian’s education, which would appear to qualify her for a better job, and her actual job, which forces her to execute repetitive tasks like collecting survey answers.

Duncan mirrors Marian’s boredom with her life, although he states it explicitly when referring to his roommates as “bores.” However, Duncan appears to rectify his boredom by approaching Marian’s survey as a joke and not answering anything clearly, lying to her about his beer-drinking just to keep her around and involved in his deception. When Marian leaves, despite taking meticulous notes, she discovers that they are indecipherable. This discovery implies that she was somehow in a trance, or unable to focus on her actual work while with Duncan. He interrupts her work, which up until this point, she has done with great efficiency and precision. The muddled nature of the notes, which she describes as a “blur of grey scribbling,” represents the chaos that Duncan brings into Marian’s life. Their “grey” nature also alludes to Duncan’s presence being somewhat dark, obscure, and not altogether positive.