The Edible Woman may have been Atwood’s first published but it novel is still as polished and sophisticate as her others.
Published in 1969, Atwood argues that the novel couldn’t be feminist because she wasn’t writing during a time where there was a feminist movement — one would follow not long after. Therefore, for Atwood, it is a proto-feminist novel. And I think that is accurate. The female characters are striving for power and freedom in implicit ways but still intertwined with marriage and reliance on men.
The novel follows the protagonist and narrator Marian (a character whom I’m convinced influence Rooney’s Normal People) who works for a survey company and spontaneously gets engaged to Peter after he decides it is the right time to marry. Whilst out surveying she meets Duncan a post-graduate student who likes to iron and a weird sort of affair begins to happen between them. The duration of the novel follows the engagement of the couple and how as they grow closer to marriage Marian begins to lose all control and deteriorates — quite literally.
Atwood was concerned with symbolic cannibalism. Seeing cakes of humans in shop windows she wondered what this meant. In the novel, Marian is eaten up by Peter. Literally and figuratively. Peter consumes all her time and thoughts. Once they are married her job will be gone. In the lead up to their marriage, he is removing all her power so she will make the perfect submissive wife. By the end of the novel, Marian realises what Peter has been doing. She bakes him a cake — a cake of herself. She confronts him: “You’ve been trying to destroy me, haven’t you … You’ve been trying to assimilate me”.
It takes Marian the entirely of the novel to realise that it’s not her fault that she can’t eat anything; it was Peter’s. Her control and fear over food starts one evening when they were on a date. She looked at Peter eating meat, carving it up, and couldn’t eat in any more. It is around this time the book begins to comment on Peter’s controlling habits as well. “She had fallen into the habit in the last month or so of letting his choose for her” and “Lately he had been watching her more and more”.
The novel never explicitly mentions an eating disorder, but Marian’s behaviour is restrictive and dangerous. She can see that but she also cannot stop herself. Perhaps because the ’60s still didn’t understand the importance of mental health, Atwood didn’t feel she could explicitly talk about such things. Or maybe by not mentioning what Marian was suffering from, Atwood could draw closer attention to the abuse and control that caused Marian’s downfall.
The narrative follows Marian as she becomes scared of more and more foods. And when she looks at a carrot one day and begins to see it as alive she knows that she is going crazy. That if she carries on there will be nothing left for her to eat. She needs to find a way of freeing herself from this oppressive way of thinking — leaving Peter was the only way.
The novel focuses on the influence of external forces. Marian works with companies and is aware of all the tricks consumerism has. Even though she knows them she still falls into their traps. The same occurs with her relationship with Peter. When you are being controlled and manipulated from afar, you believe that you are still in control. That was why she believed she was the one causing her mental breakdown. Atwood summarises this external pressure perfectly:
“When he chose violence it was removed violence, a manipulation of specialised instruments, the finger guiding but never touching, he himself was watching the explosion from a distance; the explosion of flesh and blood. It was violence of the mind, almost like magic you thought it and it happened”.
Your body being taken over by an external force is also reflected in the narrative. While Marian is just dating Peter, before their engagement, the narrative is in the first person. After the engagement, it shifts to the third person before switching back to first as she regains her control. Her narrative becomes disembodied because it is not her speaking. It is influenced by patriarchy. This clever shift is disorientating for the reader as well. You can’t quite understand why it has changed and keep waiting for the autonomous ‘I’ to appear again. You understand the control and manipulation just as Marian does; and perhaps the contemporary reader is a little quicker to pick up on in than Marian.
The Edible Woman is a unique title but inside the covers is a story so many women still undergo. The book may be over fifty years old but it is still relevant today and arguably more influential. The writing is as witty and clever as any other Atwood book and the ending — well I’ll let you see for yourself.