Every female character in The Edible Womanembodies a certain set of values that either conform to or defy stereotypical female gender roles. Each woman's relationship to gendered expectations also serves as a source of conflict. On the exterior, Marian is a vision of standard, unobtrusive femininity: she fetches Peter drinks when he asks her to, speaks little and never argues with him, holds a mundane job at which she never causes any problems, and dresses conservatively. However, her conformity also leads to a deep sense of unhappiness and loss of self. Clara, Marian's friend, represents another vision of typical femininity: the housewife. Clara abandoned her education to serve as a complement to her husband, raising their children and staying within the domestic role. Ainsley is a complicated portrayal of both someone who defies gender roles—she is loud, talks about sex, and wants to seize her independence—but at the end, conforms to them by hastily marrying Fish in order to create a nuclear family.
As much as the novel is concerned with femininity, it also offers a variety of portrayals of masculinity. Peter is the "standard" man, attractive and with a steady job. However, this standard masculinity also comes with a tendency to behave towards Marian in a misogynistic manner, ignoring her feelings and continuously asking her to execute "female" tasks such as fetching drinks. Duncan, on the other hand, is a juxtaposition to standard masculinity. He is physically weak and has no desire to explicitly control Marian. However, even he has several typical masculine traits, primarily his desire to treat women not as individuals, but as people who can fulfill certain roles that help him.
Marriage is a contentious and complex topic within the novel. At first, Peter is averse to marriage, lamenting the loss of his friends to women who he sees as constricting and villainous for taking his friends away. However, he then proposes to Marian, partially out of his feelings of obligation to do what is "standard" and expected, so that he has a wife to take to his work parties and appear respectable. Marian, although accepting of Peter's offer, immediately begins to feel a subconscious revolt against it, and perpetually questions her relationship with Peter and how it became so serious. Clara and Joe's marriage also comes under intense scrutiny; several characters, including Peter, Ainsley, and Marian see it as miserable. Clara and Joe offer a vision of what Marian and Peter could become, and serve as a warning. Ainsley is another portrayal of a certain attitude towards marriage. At first, she is extremely critical of the constrictive institution. At the end, she revokes this feeling, and begins a quest to seek a husband, eventually marrying Duncan's roommate Fish.
Marian's job is a totally mundane pursuit. She feels unfulfilled and restricted within it, unable to voice her opinions and forced into executing menial tasks that have little to do with what her actual job is supposed to be, such as tasting rice pudding when she should be writing surveys or editing them. The job symbolizes one of the many forces that strips Marian's agency and renders her life unsatisfying. Although Marian is educated, she is unable to pursue a job that satisfies her or is intellectually stimulating. Marian's position emphasizes the lack of options that women faced at the time that Atwood wrote The Edible Woman.
Although sex is often discussed through coded language within the novel, it is used to characterize many of the personages within it. This includes the "office virgins" that Marian works with, as well as Ainsley, who is sexually active and open about her liberal attitude toward sex. At the end, Duncan wants to have sex with Marian, and the experience ends up being an unfulfilling, terrifying experience that Marian takes little pleasure in. The novel portrays several modes of women's relationships towards sex, from fear to pleasure, with Marian's conflicted relationship to her body at its center. Marian realizes that her body is objectified, that she is something Peter would like to "consume" both physically and mentally, and is extremely subconsciously averse to this idea, as she loses her ability to consume anything that used to be alive after witnessing Peter eat at dinner. Consumption, and eating, serve as one of the ways Atwood considers sex's role within relationships and gender expectations.
After witnessing Peter eat at dinner, Marian begins to lose her ability to eat various foods. At first she is unable to eat meat, before slowly becoming disgusted by eggs, dairy, and certain vegetables. Marian is revolted by the life she sees within these foods; when she eats them, she can't help but feel intense empathy with the loss of life that occurs when she eats these foods. She imagines herself viscerally tearing away at the heart, muscle fibers, and lungs that she projects onto the food. Her own consumption mirrors the consumption she feels at the hands of those around her, primarily Peter. She feels consumed by Peter; thus, she becomes averse to her own ability to consume. At the end, Marian tests Peter by presenting him with a cake in the form of a woman, a symbol for him to potentially devour so she can see if he really wants to destroy her. He refuses; instead, it is Duncan who eats the cake, which makes the ending ambiguous, since it is unclear whether Marian "wants" to be devoured by Duncan and enter a relationship with him.
Over the course of the novel, Marian feels physically disconnected from her body. She enters spaces where lights blur together and her senses lose control. This alienation is a powerful symbol of Marian's own loss of self at the hands of the structures around her. She feels powerless within her job and her relationship, and thus, loses control over her own body in scenes where she feels particularly constricted by these forces, like at the outing for drinks with Peter, Len, and Ainsley, where Marian crawls underneath the bed and feels herself totally removed from the scene. As Marian grows more and more alienated from her friends and Peter, she also grows more separate from her own body, totally losing herself.
The Edible Woman Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Edible Woman is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The title, is metaphorical of course. Marian considered herself an edible woman, whom Peter and the society devoured upon. She broke this image of herself by eating the cake-woman she had made. She left all the negativity behind, and released...
In Chapter Ten, Marian tells Ainsley about her engagement, but Ainsley has no interest, as she is busy looking at the calendar and plotting which days will be the best for her to get pregnant by Len. Ainsley explains her strategy to Marian and...