It is no longer possible to ignore that voice … of so many American women. This is not what being woman means, no matter what the experts say. For human suffering there is a reason; perhaps the reason has not been found because the right questions have not been asked, or pressed far enough. I do not accept the answer that there is no problem because American women have luxuries that women in other times and lands never dreamed of … And women who think it will be solved by more money, a bigger house, a second car, moving to a better suburb, often discover it gets worst. (Friedan 71)
A study of women history during the sixties enables the reader to know that North American women and mainly Canadian women have long been oppressed and alienated within the patriarchal framework. This theme is perfectly highlighted in Margaret Eleanor Atwood writings, who was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Canada. Her father was an entomologist, her mother was a nutritionist and her partner is the novelist Graeme Gibson. She is one of the most famous and brilliant contemporary Canadian writers, whose writings made a turning point in Canadian literature. Atwood wrote influential novels, poems, collections, literary criticism and so forth. She received many international awards during her career mainly the Book Prize one time and Governor General’s Award two times. She was well known as a feminist and environmental activist. Her works were internationally published and translated in so many languages.
Interestingly, Atwood’s novels are tremendously centered in female issues resulted from male ubiquitous hegemony. Atwood’s protagonists are always female characters, who echo the voice of the silenced women for the goal of female self-empowerment. Hence, Atwood’s first novel The Edible Woman is highly concerned with women’s emancipation from marginalization and powerlessness in the early 1960’s patriarchal world. In this book, women are urgently called to resist against all kinds of subjugation, from voiceless objects to powerful subjects.
As a feminist, Atwood harshly refuses the images given to women by male writers. She aims at demonstrating the long literary and cultural representation as well as the naturalization of women as edible objects for consumption. Throughout history, women have never enjoyed the status of complete human beings. From the moment of birth, women destiny is drawn and determined by men on how to become good wives, professional housekeepers and mothers. In The Edible Woman, Atwood’s first goal is to destroy the gender-politics and to underline female status as objects of consumerism in the male dominated world. In her essay “The Anxiety of Being Influenced: Reading and Responding to Characters in Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman,” J. Brooks Bouson points that Atwood’s protagonist is employed in the novel in order “to subvert the ideological constructs that have long defined and confined women” (230). Atwood is deeply concerned with the politics of power over women’s body in the world of consumerism.
She raises female consciousness of the nature of power structure. She epitomizes the social, cultural and political conditions of women in society. The novel deals with women’s identity formation in a male dominated world with the emphasis on the danger of female subordination. Atwood highlights that female vulnerable submission to male hegemony reflects their complicity in a system that has long deprived them of an equal human existence. Atwood is unveiling the nature of the world power structure with the hope of opening new doors for women to struggle for freedom and independence. Atwood believes that every woman has an inner strength, which has to be voiced to struggle against all forms of subjugation.
Furthermore, the representation of food in The Edible Woman is highly significant. Food is represented as a focal symbol in literature to deal with specific issues related to personality in relation to society. In fiction, the theme of food is connected to social issues of power, body and gender. Atwood represents a fictional world in which food is symbolically used to describe the protagonist’s life and her changeable psychological attitudes. In the novel, food is given a profound meaning as it is linked to sexual politics and gender rules in the late fifties and early sixties in Canadian society. Significantly, Atwood is often depicted as a political writer, who criticizes gender inequality. According to Atwood, food is an issue of politics; she explains: “Politics, for me is everything that involves who gets to do what to whom … Politics really has to do with how people order their societies, to whom power is ascribed, who is considered to have power” (Ingersoll 149). Along the same lines, Atwood pays a great attention to the strong connections between eating disorder and feminism. The objective of the food abstinence is a response to the unfair position of women in the masculine world. Marian starts to look at everything in relation to food. It is clear that food is very close and similar to herself to the point that she identifies with it. Marian is in her way to be consumed by her future husband. Hence, the novel’s basic aim is subverting the gendered power politics of that period.
This paper aims at studying The Edible Woman from a feminist theoretical scope. Margaret Atwood’s early works raised women’s consciousness about their actual position in society and enlightened their path towards their emancipation from longtime male hegemony and marginalization in the sixties. Accordingly, feminism is a movement nourished from the belief that men and women are both human being who have to be sentenced to equal rights and opportunities in society. However, the world is divided into unequal gender roles under the title of male supremacy and female inferiority. More specifically, feminists initially started to eliminate patriarchy and sexism by raising women’s awareness about their victimization.
Importantly, feminist movements are divided into three major phases. The first phase is extended from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century with the objective of broadening women’s rights mainly the right to suffrage, personal property and education. The second phase took place in the 1960s and 1970s. It was largely focused on different issues of gender equality and justice to end discrimination. It was centered on women’s oppression in workplace, unequal salary, abortion right and domestic male violence exercised against women that is privately done. The Third Wave Feminism extends from the 1990s to present days. It is deeply associated with struggle against racism, colonialism and capitalism. It is also a response to the backlash of the Second Wave. This phase seems to be very controversial with diverse feminist destinations and viewpoints. Feminist theory arose from these three feminist movements.
Interestingly, Atwood has always pointed that her novel preceded the Second Wave Feminism as it was written in 1965 and was published in 1969. She raises interesting feminist questions through her novel, she comments, in this context:
The Edible Woman appeared finally in the 1969, four years after it was written and just in time to coincide with the rise of feminism in North America. Some immediately assumed that it was product of the movement. I myself see the book as proto-feminist rather than feminist: there was no women’s movement insight when I was composing the book in the 1965, and I am not gifted with clairvoyance though like many at the time I’d read Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir behind locked doors. (Second Words 370)
Thus, The Edible Woman is not a narrative nourished from Women’s Liberation Movement but rather a proto-feminist masterpiece. However, it is deeply rooted in the movement’s concerns and interests with female life, which was analyzed as strongly politicized under patriarchal power structure. The novel deals with these problems through Atwood’s protagonist Marian as a subjugated female character. The novel was written in the early sixties, where injustice, gender inequality and male hegemony were what characterized the era. Notably, Atwood’s chief concern is to underline women’s inner suffering and dissatisfaction due to the control of the patriarchy. In fact, Atwood believes that the way out of self-darkness towards self-assertion is transgressing passivity. Feminist literary works aim at offering an understanding of the world structure in order to change it by opening a gate for social equality. Feminists were calling all women to fight for their existence because female identity is not inherited, but rather constructed.
Interestingly, Betty Friedan and Simone De Beauvoir writings and their feminist ideas are of great influence on Atwood’s first novel. In 1963, the American feminist and activist Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, this book gave birth to The Second Wave Feminism in America and fuelled women’s anger of humiliation and exclusion. Friedan’s concerns about the educated women, who end up as housewives prisoned by domestic constraints and male, are deeply seen in the heroine’s attitudes towards marriage, pregnancy and motherhood. This image becomes totally dark and rejected when Marian visited her friend Clara and saw an unpleasant future similarity. In addition, the French existentialist Simone De Beauvoir published her book The Second Sex in 1949. The book highlights the historical victimization of women under male supremacy. In the view of the author, women have occupied a second place in society in relation to men. While men represent humanity and freedom, women represent the dependent incomplete Other. Hence, men empower their subjectivity by extensively objectifying women.
Within the feminist framework, it is highly significant to highlight Atwood’s criticism of male gaze. According to Bouson, throughout the novel, Marian is objectified by Peter’s hunting eyes which signifies his male gaze on her body as soon to be his consumed wife. Male gaze is legalized within the patriarchal context. When Peter talks about his hunting story of the rabbit, Marian simultaneously identifies herself with the animal being hunted. Her identification with the animal is reasonable as Marian and the animal are both suffering and voiceless. Hence, Marian gets consciousness of being a similar prey and an object of male gaze. Marian represents what Bouson describes as: “the object of male desire, Marian is subjected to the male gaze that seeks to assimilate, and thus erase, the female self” (20). Interestingly, the concept of gaze is linked to female body and transforms her into an edible object.
Drawing mainly on the psychoanalytical theory from a political dimension, Laura Mulvey coined in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” the concept of “male gaze.” She underlines the significant role played by mass Media in strengthening gender stereotypes and patriarchal domination. She puts emphasis on the film industry and how it reduces women into sexual commodities empowered by male gaze. Mulvey defines male gaze as the pleasure in looking at others and portraying them as objects of gaze; she states: “the determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure” (33). In film industry, Mulvey points out that men hold the camera and control women’s position as a commodity. This image is so present in Atwood’s novel when Peter holds his camera and control Marian’s position for the shooting.
Mulvey’s central point is highlighting the way in which women are objectified to provide a pleasurable visual image for men. This view is underlined in Atwood’s The Edible Woman, when the protagonist recognizes herself as being an object of her fiancé male gaze. This sense of her objectification and industrialization into a sexual commodity, her awareness of her submissiveness along with her willing for an autonomous self leads her to a state of anorexia. Indeed, her loss of appetite is a symbolic indication for her loss of identity. In this context, many critics like Emma Parker have linked the metaphor of eating and non-eating to power. In her “You Are What You Eat: The Politics of Eating in the Novels of Margaret Atwood,” Emma Parker skillfully demonstrates the significance of eating manners in revealing characters’ personalities. She interprets Marian’s anorexia as “a physical expression of her powerlessness and, at the same time a protest against that powerlessness” (350). Hence, the awareness of the female submissive position is the first step to overcome complicity towards rebellion.
Furthermore, the novel is closely analyzed from feminist, psychoanalytical and psychological theoretical standpoints by many literary critics like J. Brooks Bouson and Sarah Sceats. They provide scrutinized interpretations of many aspects of the novel. In her book Brutal Choreographies: Oppositional Strategies and Narrative Design in the Novels of Margaret Atwood. Bouson presents a useful reading of The Edible Woman focusing on Atwood’s criticism of gender politics and her manipulation of the conventional romantic plot, which is based on female revenge, control and resistance to social conventions. Bouson asserts that Atwood aims at subverting male hegemonic environment, which deprives women from freedom. Moreover, in her book Food, Consumption and the Body in Contemporary Women’s Fiction, Sarah Sceats examines the importance of the metaphor of food, eating and the body in revealing powerful meanings in The Edible Woman. These metaphors are deeply connected to gender hierarchy and power politics in the patriarchal context. Sceats equally demonstrates the novel’s theme of female identity formation and the issue of female eating disorders. She relates female inability to eat to women’s dissatisfaction with their position in society as consumed commodities.
This paper is divided into three main chapters. The opening chapter offers a general overview of the period in which the novel was written; a patriarchal framework where women are offered a predefined identity by men. Women are associated with inferiority while men with superiority. This image is underlined mainly in the structure of the protagonist workplace where men are the upper executives and women are lower operators. The workplace seems to be a miniature of the power structure of the patriarchal society. Along with male hegemony, women’s submission strengthens the patriarchy. Atwood demonstrates how women’s life is limited in getting married and raising children. Their roles have to be restricted in domesticity. After accepting her boyfriend’s proposal of marriage and after visiting her friend Clara, the protagonist discovers the bitter reality of female life after marriage. She also rejects her roommate’s Ainsley who wants to have a baby outside of “wedlock” to fulfill her femininity. In addition, Marian equally examines her colleagues the three office virgins who restricted their life in their physical appearance for the target of marriage. As a result, Marian feels out of place and in state of gradual loss. However, her encounter with Duncan, an English graduate student, leads her to question her existence and find her true identity. Duncan is what her fiancé is not. Peter is obsessively concerned with appearance, domination and aggression. Duncan, instead, is a quite person, he does not care about appearance and he shows a complete rejection of social norms.
Chapter two discusses the metaphoric use of food and eating in the novel and how it provides a significant tool in revealing patriarchal power structure. After discovering her fiancé’s consumer nature, the protagonist becomes aware of her position as a victim. As a result, Marian gradually loses her appetite and stops eating. This is a symbol of the unsatisfactory choices offered to her by patriarchal society and its predefined model of femininity. Marian shows rejection of capitalism and “consumerism” that have long objectified and reduced women into cheap commercialized products. Marian has examined how the patriarchal system directs women’s spirit towards obsessive physical interests to promote their mental absence. Notably, Atwood uses a corporal language as a symbol of resistance and challenge. During Peter’s party, Marian adjusts to her fiancé’s wish by wearing a short red dress, putting make up and changing her hair style. This point is perfectly discussed by Brooks Bouson. He comments that Marian comes to an eventual recognition of herself as a passive edible object when she finds herself adjusting to patriarchal demands that goes against her desire.
The last chapter focuses on Atwood’s reversal of the literary fictional closure by an open ending. In her novel the wrong people get married and the protagonist does not. The traditional happy ending is dissatisfactory to Atwood. Ainsley, who seems to be an extremist feminist and stands against marriage gets married. As she was refused by Len she gets married to Fisher. Moreover, Marian’s marriage is not fulfilled. She escapes from Peter’s party as a symbol of her rejection of the imposed femininity and reshaped identity. Marian escapes from Peter and has a sexual intercourse with Duncan. Duncan is used by Atwood to enlighten her way towards self-assertion. Therefore, Marian learns that female empowerment is a personal step to achieve. The following day, Marian gets back home and bakes a cake in the shape of woman. She presents it to Peter informing him that he intends to make her an edible object. This act pushes him to leave quickly. Immediately, Marian’s appetite is back and she eats the cake and latterly shares it with Duncan. This episode is highly valuable and results in huge amount of readings.
Therefore, critical sources are divided into confused, optimistic and pessimistic readings of the novel’s closure. Critics like Barbara Hill Rigney, Pamela. S. Bromberg and Lecker Robert have interpreted the closure as confusing due to Duncan’s eating of the rest of the cake woman and his comment on Marian’s appetite returning. Other critics, however, like Sharon Rose Wilson, Catherine McLay and T. N. Dhar have presented positive readings of the ending of the novel. They have read the novel as an awareness-raising literary works towards female emancipation and self-assertion. They perceive the protagonist’s journey as a successful way as she becomes a self-assertive person instead of an object for consumption.
Female Alienation and Objectification in the 1960s Patriarchal Culture
1.1 Patriarchal Hegemony and Female Submission
Since patriarchal times women have in general been forced to occupy a secondary place in the world in relation to men … this secondary standing is not imposed of necessity by natural ‘feminine’ characteristics but rather by strong environmental forces of educational and social tradition under the purposeful control of men. This … has resulted in the general failure of women to take a place of human dignity as free and independent existents. (Beauvoir 9)
Being highly influenced by De Beauvoir’s feminists concerns, Atwood raises similar female issues during the sixties. She shows the fact that female identity is primary a male constructed and reshaped identity in the patriarchal context. In her novel, Atwood focuses on female problems during the sixties mainly the limited work opportunities, marriage and pregnancy. In the fifties, men went back from the battlefield of the Second World War and women left the workforce and turned back home to be skilled housekeepers, dutiful wives and successful mothers. Therefore, women’s role was restricted in the domestic space. They were supposed to take care of their houses. In other words, society teaches women what to do and how to do it and women have no choice but to follow patriarchal instructions.
Marian McAlpin, the protagonist of the novel, represents the woman of the sixties, who struggles the social demands to find her true identity. In fact, Marian is a young graduated girl in her twenties, she shares a small apartment with Ainsley Twece. Marian has a boyfriend called Peter Wollander, he is a successful lawyer. Marian works for a market research company at Seymour Surveys, managed by Mrs. Bogue. In her work, she prepares questionnaires for a beer survey. Marian is a young working girl, who is expected to end up as a respectable married woman. Through presenting Marian’s situation as a woman in a male dominated society, Atwood makes a harsh criticism of patriarchal hegemonic culture. She puts Marian and Peter relationships in the context of patriarchy. Roxanne J. Fand defines patriarchy as:
A process of thinking that works toward the concentration and retention of power regardless of which ideology is current, to the detriment of both men and women kept too long at the margins, as well as to the detriment of those isolated at the center. It is only called patriarchy because it is associated with a very broad masculine hegemony that is by no means monolithic in the diverse and even conflicting fons it may take. Even in the period of modem revolution the concentration of power in a masculine order has continued precisely because masculine power, relative to feminine power, is decentralized at the level of the individual’s self-image, where every man is (ideologically at least) the power center of his domestic domain, the king of his castle. (18-9)
Along with this definition, the protagonist is in gradual threat of being dominated by the masculine upper power, her future husband Peter. Of course, Peter likes Marian primarily because of her readiness to meet his sexual desire and accept whatever he decides; this empowers his status of superiority and control. Marian permits herself to be manipulated by Peter so that she is no longer herself. Marian is, what Iris Young depicts as: “gazed upon as a mere body, as shape and flesh that presents itself as the potential object of another subject’s intentions and manipulations, rather than as a living manifestation of action and intention” (155). It is clear that Marian is gradually losing her personality in relation to her fiancé, the reason of his gradual domination over her that expands almost all fields of her life. She becomes Peter’s owned object.
Put simply, woman is an autonomous human being, who lives in an atmosphere where she is forced not to enjoy her life as a self but rather as the Other. This Other is treated like an object not a subject. The binary opposition of the self and the Other is very obvious in the relationship between Peter and Marian. Clearly, Peter represents the self, the manipulator and the consumer, while Marian represents the other, the manipulated and the consumed. In fact, throughout the novel, Atwood’s female characters are not victims but rather complicitous in their own victimization within the patriarchy. Marian’s conformity to social norms provides her with social acceptance, thus, she is compromised in power politics. The ideology of male superiority enables men to take power over women in all fields of her life. It is characterized by a total female subjugation and exclusion to maintain their control over them. Obviously, men represent hegemony and domination by creating a profound oppressive world for women. In the patriarchal context, hegemony is a culture of manhood characterized by female exclusion and oppression. It aims at creating an autonomous powerful gender system ruled by men, who need conventional femininity and domestic subordination. It represents men as superior human being to women, who are seen as inferior creatures.
Furthermore, the work field in the sixties was a masculine possessed environment with a limited accessibility for women in low positions. Clearly, Marian’s job reinforces female alienation and exclusion in a world of masculinity. In the sixties, female alienation at work is interpreted in terms of marriage and pregnancy since Mrs. Bogue considers: “pregnancy as an act of disloyalty to the company” (TEW 19). In her essay “The Female Body Politic: From Victimization to Empowerment,” Peter Hidalgo comments in this context:
Marian is still free from the horror of enforced domesticity does not mean that she does not play a ‘feminine’ role in her work place. The structure of market research Company represents the power distribution between the sexes. All men who are executives enjoy their private offices. All women share a large room and are supposed to take a human element, the interviewers. Since Marian has a degree in English, she revises the questionnaires devised by the men so that they can be understood by ordinary people. She says: “she is a mediator between masculine ‘scientific’ jargon and the daily experience of the house wives targeted by market research. (291)
The profound difference between men and women makes Marian unable to realize what she wants. The structure of the company is described in terms of food metaphor: “The company is layered like an ice-cream sandwich, with three floors: the upper crust, the lower and our department, they gooey layer in the middle” (TEW 13). Men’s superiority and women’s inferiority are obviously structured in the company, which reflect Marian’s static low position. This means that Marian’s life set by her society for her, seems to be far from being grounded in working field. For example, an interviewer once told her that: “you ought to be at home with some big strong man to take care of you” (TEW 47). This comment summarizes women’s status in a patriarchal society where they are deprived of choices in their life.
In this sense, Marian’s goals, similar to women of her age, have to be directed towards finding a suitable husband and growing up children after marriage. Obviously, Marian’s function in Seymour Surveys is to make questionnaires to test the consumers’ opinions about the products she works on. This job makes Marian complicitous with society’s consumption lines. She is unconsciously used by the company to increase consumers’ number of the product of Moose Beer she makes questionnaire about. She is a means exploited by capitalist system to achieve their goals of big sale in the market. Therefore, it is clear that the company of Seymour Surveys works to guide people to meet social requirements. For instance, Atwood highlights the different strategies used by the supermarkets to lead people to buy more products especially by putting music. Obviously, Marian is well aware of this strategy, which she considers unethical:
She resented the music because she knew why it was there: it was supposed to lull you into a euphoric trance, lower your sales resistance to the point at which all things are desirable. Every time she walked into the supermarket and heard the lilting sounds coming from the concealed loudspeakers she remembered an article she had read about cows who gave more milk when sweet music was played to them. (TEW 187)
Marian observes that capitalist companies extensively use workers as commodities in order to earn much possible material benefits as they can. Therefore, as a worker there Marian is involved in this capitalistic process as a tool for the company’s profits. However, Marian soon questions her function in the company and comes to realize that her position as a woman does not allow her to reach a more innovative and interesting career, she says: “When I got the job after graduation I considered myself lucky it was better than many but after four months its limits are still vaguely defined” (TEW 13). Her work appears to be a trap; she reflects her dissatisfaction in these words:
What could I expect to turn into a Seymour Surveys? I couldn’t become one of the men upstairs; I couldn’t become a machine person or one of the questionnaire- marking ladies, as that would be a step down I might conceivably turn into Mrs. Bogue or her assistant, but as far as I could see that would take a long time, and I wasn’t sure I would like it anyway. (TEW 14)
Marian gets to realize that she will never be satisfied with this job especially when she was asked to sign the Pension Plan. When Marian realized that the signature is compulsory, she signed then she felt dissatisfied and reluctant, as she states in the following passage:
I was suddenly quite depressed; it bothered me more than it should have. It wasn’t only the feeling of being subject to rules I had no interest in and no part in making: you get adjusted to that at school. It was a kind of superstitious panic about the fact that I had actually signed my name, had put my signature to a magic document which seemed to bind me to a future so far ahead I couldn’t think about it. (TEW 15)
Marian expresses her discomfort at work, she feels out of place, a strong feeling of estrangement. Atwood highlights the gendered structure in the workplace and society during the sixties. Marian, as an office employee, is presented by Atwood as an excluded Other. In her book The Everyday World As Problematic, the feminist sociology Dorothy E. Smith asserts that female alienation and objectification are what characterize chauvinistic environment, where men are subjects and women are objects for several restricted functions. She observes that:
The ideological practices of our society provide women with forms of thought and knowledge that constrain us to treat ourselves as objects. We have learned to set aside as irrelevant, to deny, or to obliterate our own subjectivity and experience. We have learned to live inside a discourse that is not ours and that expresses and describes a landscape in which we are alienated and that preserves that alienation as integral to its practice. (36)
Atwood’s chief concern in the novel is to resist the objectification of women as sexual commodities characterized by powerlessness. Importantly, Marian behavior and willed passivity show that women are participants in their own objectification. The novelist insists victimization and passivity as reasons behind female commodification. She asserts that women may ignore the fact of being subjects and perceive themselves in terms of objects, whereas confirmation and passivity reflect a kind of weakness. In fact, abstinence of this position as victims is important in Atwood’s book and it links to the idea of her appetite politics. Sceats furthers this idea: “Atwood makes her most incisive and damning criticism of the sexual politics of the 1950s and early 1960s … Atwood suggests that women collude in their oppression (in being edible), through passivity and the assumption of innocence” (98). Thus, female passivity and submission is a pivotal element in empowering male hegemony.
According to Catharine A. MacKinnon, male domination over women is “not a discrete location, but a web of sanctions throughout society which controls the principal means of coercion that structure women’s everyday lives” (169). She claims that women are participants in and responsible for male domination over them. That is to say, women are complicitous in male power. Notably, Marian gradually gets aware of her complicity in her own victimization. In her book, The Canadian Post Modern: A Study of Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction, Linda Hutcheon states: “as both a Canadian and a woman, Atwood protests any tendency towards easy passivity and naivety; she refuses to allow … women to deny their complicity in the power structure that may subject them” (12). Atwood believes that raising female awareness of their submission to male domination is the first step towards rebellion and change.
Significantly, Atwood’s writing is clearly demonstrating the nature of gender power structure in which men hold a powerful position and women become his voiceless objectified possession. In fact, Atwood’s female characters are involved in their own objectification. Their identity is physically determined through their body; they follow the path drawn for them by the patriarchy. According to Camille Peri, those women are “generally neurotic, sardonic, and rather aimless women, ‘escape artists’ who must eventually confront the realities they have carefully constructed for themselves” (30). In her novel, “men victimize and women comply in their own victimization” (30). Thus, women are responsible for their victimization. Obviously, men link women’s identity to their appearance in order to possess control over them all the time. By being obsessively concerned about their body image, women restrict their identity in physical appearance. This promotes men’s target to put them away from their true identity and reinforce male omnipresent power. Thus, men are always in women’s thoughts, behaviors and every aspect of life. This means that satisfying men becomes women’s first goal.
Interestingly, Peter views Marian as an object that completes his chain of guns, knives and cameras. It is interesting to note that marrying Peter will offer Marian a safe space and a high social status. Peter has a great future career in law and is “rising in it like a balloon” unlike Marian’s job at Seymour Survey (TEW 56). Most importantly, Marian has to be normal and has “to adjust to Peter moods” in order to be “the kind of girl who wouldn’t try to take over his life” (TEW 61). For Peter, Marian ideally corresponds to the conventional woman, who is depicted as passive and dependant woman. Accepting Peter’s proposal for marriage, Marian gives up her position as an independent self. In the novel, Marian’s loss of appetite explains an attempt to obtain control over her life which, seems to be out of her possession.
After accepting Peter’s proposal of engagement, Marian feels a sense of estrangement and otherness as she loses control over herself. She feels that her identity is taken by Peter and she is no longer herself. This feeling is reinforced when Peter asks her to choose a date for their wedding: “My first impulse was to answer … what about Groundhog Day? But instead I heard a soft flannelly voice I barely recognized, saying, ‘I’d rather have you decide that I’d rather leave the big decisions up to you” … The funny thing was I really meant it” (TEW 94). Recognizing the symbolic meaning of the act, Marian shows a total passivity and dependence on Peter after her engagement. She wants Peter to choose a date and decide for both of them. In fact, Marian’s engagement symbolizes a transformation in her personality. This reflects Marian’s willed submission that empowers Peter’s authority over her. In her novel, Atwood demonstrates that female consent to social norms is resulted from women’s anxiety of being socially unaccepted.
1.2 Role Models Femininity during the Sixties:
Women suffer from an unfair gender role in the patriarchal society. Atwood’s female protagonist is split between the expectations of the patriarchy that requires women’s blind consent to the conventional norms, and self-realization that demands transgressing restrictive androcentric boundaries. Marian position at work leads her to find an alternative in her life as she feels completely out of place. She recognizes that she is totally pre-shaped “somewhere in front of me a self was waiting, pre-formed” (TEW 15). Therefore, Marian tries to find a substitution in her life by closely scrutinizing female roles in society. Her roommate Ainsley, her former classmate Clara and her colleagues Lucy, Emmie and Millie are the availabe options to examine.
The protagonist’s first option is her flat mate Ainsley. The latter “has a job as a tester of defective electric toothbrushes for an electric toothbrush company” (TEW 4). Ainsley appears as a rebellious and free spirited character. She is represented as a woman, who is in a complete control of her private life. Ainsley seems to be the opposite of Marian. They have different attitudes towards marriage and motherhood. While Ainsley detests housewife role, she yearns for motherhood. Importantly, while Ainsley stands against marriage she wants to be a single mother. She comments: “The thing that ruins families these days is the husbands” (TEW 38), she occupies in searching of a “good-looking” father for her planned future kid (TEW 40). In the view of Ainsley, motherhood is very significant as she comments: “Every woman should have at least one baby … It’s more important than sex. It fulfills your deepest femininity” (TEW 39). Ainsley insists that children fulfill the very existence of every woman. Thus, Ainsley’s radical choice is not considered by Marian as an awful choice that surely will ruin her life.
Obviously, Marian’s attitude reflects her inherited conventional personality by strictly refusing the idea of having a child outside of marriage. During a meeting with Marian, Peter and Len, Ainsley plays the conventional female role in order to seduce Len Slank, Marian’s former university colleague. She talks when she is questioned by “giving short, shy answers” (TEW 69). She shows a profound respect during Peter and Len’s conversation, she never tries to interfere or give an opinion. She also puts her eyes on ground to show timidity. Ironically, Atwood sarcastically presents Ainsley’s character to critic the fake femininity set by the patriarchy.
It is essential to note that Marian’s observation of the female characters surrounding her causes a big anxious inside her of the idea of marriage. For example, the image of motherhood and pregnancy she sees in her “seven months pregnant” friend Clara makes her frightened of a similar future (TEW 35). Clara is an example of what Marian can become after marriage, she is “every one’s ideal of translucent perfume advertisement femininity” (TEW 33). She is married to “an Instructor in Philosophy” Joe Bates and mother of two children (TEW 32). Clara dropped out of university to devote all her time to take care of her kids, husband and her house. Marian perceives Clara as a powerless woman, she turns to be a child bearing machine, a housewife who does not take care of herself and in total dependence on her husband. Marian is aware that female powerlessness is reinforced by marriage, pregnancy and motherhood that steal Clara’s whole time and energy. Therefore, Clara model as wife and mother is extremely rejected by Marian.
In literature, the representation of mother and maternal role are controversial. They are depicted in terms of slaves of nurturing and in terms of powerful suppliers of food. Marian’s friend Clara, as a pregnant and a mother of two children, is an example of female life after marriage. Marian describes her biggest fear and rejection of Clara’s life. Notably, Marian considers Clara’s situation after marriage as completely messy: “The babies had been unplanned: Clara greeted her first pregnancy with astonishment that such a thing could happen to her, and second with dismay; now, during her third, she had subsided into a grim but inert fatalism” (TEW 33). Clara depicts her motherhood and successive pregnancies as unplanned. It is essential to note that through Clara’s character, Atwood insists on the significance of family planning and birth control. Interestingly, Joe, Clara’s husband, describes the bitter destiny of the graduated woman after marriage in the sixties in the following lines:
I think it’s harder for any woman who’s been to university. She gets the idea she has a mind, her professors pay attention to what she has to say, they treat her like a thinking human being; when she gets married, her core gets invaded … The center of her personality, the thing she’s built up; her image of herself … Her feminine role and her core are really in opposition, her feminine role demands passivity from her … So she allows her core to get taken by the husband when the kids come, she wakes up one morning and discovers she doesn’t have anything left inside, she’s hollow, she doesn’t know who she is anymore; her core has been destroyed. (TEW 259-60)
It is essential to highlight Atwood’s significant political message directed towards her female readers, she calls them to keep away from a trapped destiny within domesticity and passivity. Falling in such fate deprives women of living the way they choose. The Edible Woman shows the way female submission and passivity in accepting the domestic role would never lead to self-empowerment but rather self-victimization. Joe believes that all women’s destiny is similar, restricted within the house walls, and out of the intellectual realm which is limited only for men. In fact, he considers marriage a mental deadly fate for women and concludes that “all unmarried girls as easily victimized and needing protection” (TEW 32). Women are seen as incomplete human being always dependent on men, who are supposed to be their safe destiny.
Significantly, Clara seems to be unable to fulfill the role of the housekeeper and mother. As a housewife, Clara has totally failed in running this responsibility as everything in the house seems to be messy. As a mother, she uses inappropriate words to call her children with and questions: “how anyone can love their children till they start to be human beings?” (TEW 30). She is unsuccessful mother and housekeeper. Although Clara does not speak about her discomfort, it is clear that she is exhausted with her situation mainly due to her excessive pregnancies.
In her visit to Clara’s house, Marian remarks a lot of “empty bottles of all kinds, beer bottles, milk bottles, wine and scotch bottles, and baby bottles” (TEW 27). This signifies that Clara is the one who drinks alcohool because when Joe suggests if anyone wants beer before dinner, Clara requested one for her. It is obvious that Clara drinks alcohool as an illusion from her dissatisfaction of her life and her inability to perform well her roles. She does not even care about the negative effects of alcohool on her health and her unborn kid. This shows her deep indifference resulted from her tired life.
Besides, Marian’s colleagues Lucy, Millie and Emmie represent another model of femininity. Evidently, “They are all artificial blondes,” whose objective in life is “to get married and settle down” (TEW 16). They are mere victims of male hegemonic world. According to Christine Gomez:
Marian’s spinster colleagues, Lucy, Emmie and Millie nicknamed as “the office virgins” occupy the first position of being unaware of being victims in a patriarchal society. They unquestioningly accept society’s definition of woman as a role-occupant to fulfill the function of a wife. Their sole aim in life seems to be getting a husband. (76-7)
“The three office virgins” appear to be passive victims of the patriarchal male oriented world. For instance, for the sake of seducing any single man, Lucy wore an elegant dress looking in an attractive physical appearance and went to different prestigious restaurants during lunch time for this target. In Peter’s party, Emmie and Millie tried to seduce Len Slank and Lucy tried to seduce Peter claiming: “you are even handsomer than you sound on the phone” (TEW 262). She also helped him to look for Marian when she escaped from the party. Marian refuses all these choices, as they embody victimization and powerlessness.
Marian is not certain of her future destiny with Peter. Her examination of female characters surrounding her makes her reject all of them as alternatives to her identity crisis. She rejects Ainsley’s radical feminist attitudes, “the three office virgins” as victims of patriarchy and Clara’s powerlessness and passivity as she turned to be a mere machine. Marian is aware that these women permit themselves to be manipulated as commodities of male desire since they willingly choose an unpleasant future. Marian seems afraid of becoming as one of these female examples.
Significantly, Marian’s friend Clara seems to be the one who had the biggest impression on Marian. Her situation is the closest to her future, Marian will marry Peter and she will surely be pregnant one day and maybe she will have more than one child. Notably, Clara’s way of describing her pregnancies and motherhood along with Peter’s voice of parental attitude as he “had begun to make remarks with paternal undertones” (TEW 139), made Marian anxious of the idea of motherhood. During her dinner with Peter at the restaurant, Marian becomes more conscious of her relation with him and her physical reaction towards an imposed situation:
Peter talked theoretically, about children as a category, carefully avoiding any application. But she knew perfectly well that it was their own future they were really discussing: that was why it was so important. Peter thought that all children ought to be punished for breaches of discipline; even physically. Marian was afraid of wrapping their emotions. (TEW 159)
Marian seems to be lost while allowing Peter to control and make decisions on every single aspect of her life. She cannot do anything instead: “she never knew what she wanted to have” unlike Peter, who is well aware of what he is doing (TEW 159). Significantly, when Marian disagrees with him in violently instructing the children, she realizes that Peter does not really give importance to what she says and ironically blames her for her ignorance: “Darling, you don’t understand these things, you’ve led a sheltered life” (TEW 159). Recognizing the symbolic meaning of the act, Marian becomes aware of her future with Peter as a violent father over their future children and a dominant husband over her. That is why she gradually realizes a total loss of autonomy over her own life. This image of Peter superiority shows Marian’s fear of being a wife and then a mother, which will surely result in a powerless dependent woman.
Most importantly, Clara’s experiences with pregnancy and motherhood makes Marian afraid of being pregnant and being later a mother burdened by babies. Marian’s description of Clara’s pregnancy is associated with expressions like “Boa-constrictor that has swallowed a watermelon” (TEW 28). Additionally, while describing Clara, Marian always brings food in her description: “She lay back in her chair and closed her eyes, looking like a strange vegetable growth, a bulbous tuber that had sent out four thin white roots and a tiny pale-yellow flower” (TEW 28). Marian goes further to comment on Clara’s dress and associated to the vegetation process: “the stylized petals and tendrils moved with her breathing, as though they were coming alive” (TEW 34). Evidently, Marian’s comparison of Clara to food and vegetation is meaningful. It is a metaphor for Clara as being consumed, powerless and extremely in dependency. Marian refers to Clara’s body as being out of her own control: “somehow beyond her, going its own way without reference to any directions of her” (TEW 34). All these images of Clara’s situation make Marian’s fear worse than before thinking that once marrying Peter and fall pregnant, she will be in an identical position. This nightmare makes her hesitant to visit Clara once more. As a result, Marian recognizes male powerfulness and female powerlessness.
Moreover, at the office Christmas, Marian observes femininity as exposed as food, her colleagues turn to be examples of food. Ironically, Marian depicts them as similar to objects:
She examined the women’s bodies with interest, critically, as though she had never seen them before. And in a way she hadn’t, they had just been there like everything else, desks, telephones, chairs, in the space of the office: objects viewed as outline and surface only. But now she could see the roll of fat pushed up across Mrs. Gunridge’s back by the top of her corset, the ham-like bulge of thigh, the creases round the neck, the large porous cheeks; the blotch of varicose veins glimpsed at the back of one plump crossed leg, the way her jowls jellied when she chewed, her sweater a woolly teacosy over those rounded shoulders. (TEW 181)
Marian peels away the fake femininity and what lasts is a shattered commodity without self like Mrs. Gunridge, who is described in terms of fragmented body parts. Therefore, femininity is a mere threatening artificiality to deviate women from their true identity through objectification and then consumption. That is to say, food and femininity is linked to each other as both of them are edible objects. Thus, Marian turns to be unable to distinguish between what is edible and what is inedible as all women at the party are observed in terms of abjection, they are:
Similar in structure but with varying proportions and textures of bumpy permanents and dune-like contours of breast and waist and hip; their fluidity sustained somewhere within by bones, without by a carapace of clothing and makeup. What peculiar matures they were; and the continual flux between the outside and the inside, taking things in, giving them out, chewing, words, potato-chips, burps, grease, hair, babies, milk, excrement, cookies, vomit, coffee, tomato juice, blood, tea, sweat, liquor, tears, and garbage. (TEW 181)
By loathing all female body’s artificiality during the Christmas party, Marian is longing for a new, true and different identity. So, in examining the different female models epitomized in the female characters in the novel, Marian becomes more confused. The first option is to be like Ainsley who plans a pregnancy without getting married. The second option is her friend Clara, who symbolizes another model of North American women during the sixties. She puts marriage a priority instead of finishing her study and runs a miserable life. She is depicted as a completely unsuccessful woman, mother and housekeeper. Finally, the most unpleasant category is represented by her work colleagues “the three office virgins.” Therefore, Marian refuses all the female models she has examined.
Most importantly, Marian meets Duncan, an English graduate student, during an interview she did about people opinions concerning Moose Beer product. Later, they have a sudden encounter at the laundromat, during which they finished their conversation with a kiss. Their meeting seems to be ambiguous. His presence in Marian’s life can be seen as a representation of the subtle side of herself. Unlike other characters, he carries his own beliefs and does not adopt the masculine role that society imposed on him. Duncan has a pivotal role, he represents a different masculinity unlike other male characters in the novel.
Notably, Duncan is “a sort of mentor, giving Marian permission to transgress and ultimately reject the unwritten rules of the Peter pathway” (Sceats 97). Accordingly, unlike Peter, Duncan does not take care of clothes and appearance, an act that symbolizes his rejection of the artificiality that characterizes the capitalist society. In fact, he shows a complete dissatisfaction with and opposition to consumer culture as he resists all social conventions, he observes: “The human mind was the last thing to be commercialized but they’re doing a good job of it now” (TEW 155). Duncan informs Marian that he wants to become an eternal, boundless and shapeless creature, an amoeba, since “they are immortal and sort of sharp less and flexible, being a person is getting too complicated” (TEW 220). Notably, Duncan shows a complex character that has a profound role in Marian’s search of her identity.
Consumption and the Representation of Food
2.1 The Metaphor of Food and Eating:
In literature, the metaphor of food has broadly been developed across the centuries and has obtained a profound focus by many theorists and critics in recent period. This concern about food has recently made food studies a thrilling domain of serious investigation. Food and eating metaphors reflect powerful meanings that have long been present in literature. Food is a pivotal necessity for human survival and existence. Eating is a basic activity that all humans share. In fact, the representation of food has deeply been related to many psychological issues mainly eating disorders. Many literary critics revealed that the use of food in literary works facilitates readers’ understanding of the intricate relationship surrounding the body, gender, sexual politics, social structures and mainly consumption. It also links between characters, plot and the themes. Food critics are helping develop food studies as crucial references in understanding literary narratives. Overall, what individuals eat is a strong symbol of who they are. Food and eating unveil a code of messages about identities, status, gender, religion and race.
In her book Food, the Body, and the Self, Deborah Lupton points out that: “Food and eating are central to our subjectivity, our sense of self, and our experience of embodiment, or the ways that we live in and through our bodies, which is itself inextricably linked with subjectivity” (1). Lupton raises consciousness about the significance of food practices in achieving and promoting identities. Food connects people in various profound forms. It connects humans and all living creatures that share this mutual need for food. Food and eating are used as symbols that convey deep messages. Food is a substantial element for human survival and everybody has his own relationship with and attitude towards food. Lupton states in this context: “the meanings, discourses and practices around food and eating are worthy of detailed cultural analysis and interpretation” (3). Hence, food is more than an alimentary thing.
In the novel, the metaphor of food and eating reveal a lot about the characters’ life and their true identity. They are skillfully used by Margaret Atwood and linked to the theme of women’s identity. She employs them to raise questions of sexual politics, gender and women’s position in Canadian culture during the sixties. Interestingly, Atwood highlights the theme of female search of her identity. In fact, food along with the body seem to be metaphorically used, as they both represent different attitudes of the protagonist in her way to self-determination. Clearly, Marian’s rejection of food in the novel is basically a symbolic act of the rejection of her embodied social construction of femininity. In an interview, Atwood defines food as:
It’s a human activity that has all kinds of symbolic connotations depending on the society and the level of society. In other words, what you eat varies from place to place, how we feel about what we eat varies from place to place, how we feel about what we eat varies from individual as well as from place to place. If you think of food as coming in various categories: sacred food, ceremonial food, everyday food and things that are not to be eaten, forbidden food, dirty food, if you like for the anorexic, all food is dirty food. (Lyons 228)
Atwood puts Marian in search of an independent self in patriarchal world. Marian is struggling for her identity construction in a patriarchal society, where social conventions and norms are prior to individuals. It is worth noting that Atwood puts link between the submissive position of women, patriarchal masculine authority and consumption. After her engagement, Marian acts as a doll in Peter’s hands, even structurally, she is no longer able to narrate her own story. Similar to her loss of voice, Marian also loses her ability to eat. Consequently, her reaction to Peter’s domination and control is her passive silence. Atwood associates Marian’s non-eating behavior with her position of powerlessness. In fact, food is closely linked to control and power. It is also a symbol for the superior status of men, especially in the usage of meat metaphor.
Interestingly, the body becomes a site of consuming and being consumed and that food abstinence is a metaphor for verbal communication abstinence. More specifically, food is crucial in revealing the character’s gendered and sexual identity. For instance, meat seems to be men’s preferred food and a sign of power and control. In The Edible Woman, meat seems to be very significant to both Marian and Peter’s behaviors and attitudes. It also reinforces the connection between meat and manhood as embodied in Peter’s passion towards meat, he claims: “I sure was glad to get that steak inside. A good meal always makes you feel a little more human” (TEW 164). Meat is a profound symbol in showing that men’s position is situated at the peak of the social hierarchy of domination. Eating meat is explained as a metaphor to reflect position of domination, control and supremacy.
Clearly, food and eating characterize the characters and tell a lot about them, who hunts, who captures, who suffers, who gains, who eats whom and who’s finally consumed. Characters’ way of eating and their attitudes towards food shape the theme of the novel. Besides, the act of hunting is metaphorically used throughout the novel; characters hunt each other for various goals. For example, Peter hunts Marian for sex and marriage, Ainsley hunts Len for pregnancy and motherhood and Duncan hunts Marian for sexual intercourse. Obviously, hunting is symbolically used for personal consumption. These metaphors of food, eating and hunting are interconnected. Atwood uses food as a tool for portraying what is silent and powerless. Overall, non-eating is a way for destroying gender power structure and constructing a true female identity.
Significantly, Atwood’s protagonist Marian represents all women who are subjugated within male patriarchal culture and highlights issues of power and gender politics. In her novel, Atwood shows the deep connection between food and eating along with social pressure on women. She equally demonstrates women’s combination of food and body in identity voicing. In fact, female body’s image has historically been used and exploited in the Media to promote the sale of everything in the market. Hence, women are treated as mere objects for male sexual desire to promote sales’ profits. Notably, Marian’s encounter with different male and female characters allows her to discover several male methods of female exploitation that result in women’s subjugation. When Marian discovers the brutal side of her fiancé’s consuming nature, she loses her appetite and identifies herself with everything that is edible and consumable. Marian’s rejection of food can be interpreted as a rejection of consumerism. Thus, Atwood’s harshly criticizes the extensive objectification of women in society under the capitalist system.
The novel asserts that female body can be either a means of transformation or a means of conformity to social norms of femininity. In “Body and Reproduction of femininity,” Susan Bordo observes that the “bodies of disordered women … offer themselves as an aggressively graphic text for the interpreter at text that insists, actually demands, it be read as a cultural statement, a statement about gender” (16). By refusing to eat, women’s body can be seen “as a surface on which conventional constructions of femininity are exposed starkly to view” (20). Bordo suggests that food rejection is a body language that expresses a rejection of the imposed social norms of femininity in patriarchal society.
Women are burdened by gender inequality of the patriarchy; they are treated as slaves under male sovereignty. Therefore, in an attempt to reveal how restricted are the options presented to women by the patriarchal world, Atwood profoundly employs food metaphors. For instance, at the restaurant with Peter, the metaphor of the menu reveals the limited listed choices for women: “it got rid of her vacillation she had found herself displaying when confronted with a menu: she never knew what she wanted to have” (TEW 159). By showing her inability to choose, Peter decides what she will eat in her place. This image illustrates that Marian is restricted by the few choices offered to her in life by society. According to Atwood, women can define their existence out of male confined rules and norms. Either to be an edible choice is the menu or to be a human sitting at the table trying to make a choice. In the novel, Atwood uses a symbolic body language of resistance. Through eating disorder, women’s body is demonstrating power and fighting powerlessness. This corporal resistance is gradually developed after getting awareness of her passivity and submission that will surely lead to her identity loss. Thus, Marian’s body becomes a scene of power and challenge against assimilation for a new self out of victimization.
2.2 Male Consumer Nature: Symbolic Hunting, Trapping and Capturing
During his conversation with Len, Peter talked about his experience in hunting, killing and photography. For the first time, Marian discovers another side of the person who is supposed to be her future husband, someone she is not familiar with. The way Peter tells the story of rabbit hunting shocked Marian as she recognizes his consumer nature. Peter depicts his aggressive hunting episode as a victory in these lines:
One shot, right through the heart. The rest of them got away. I picked it up and Trigger said, ‘You know how to gut them, you just slit her down the belly and give her a good hard shake and all the guts’ll fall out.’ So I whipped out the knife, good knife, German steel, and slit the belly and took her by the hind legs and gave her one hell of a crack, like a whip you see, and the next thing you know there was blood and guts all over the place. All over me, what a mess, rabbit guts dangling from the trees, god the trees were red for yards … We got some good shots of the whole mess. (TEW 70-1)
This bloody scene reflects the dark side of Peter’s character, his enthusiasm and pleasure in narrating the story creates a horrible feeling inside Marian: “After a while I noticed with mild curiosity that a large drop of something wet had materialized on the table near my hand. I poked it with my finger and smudged it around a little before I realized with horror that it was a tear. I must be crying then!” (TEW 71). This violent episode increases Marian uneasiness and fear. She recognizes her willing to cry but she imperatively tries to calm herself and ignores her discomfort. Evidently, Marian feels threatened by Peter because of the aggressive images in his story. It awakened her of another unknown side of her fiancé’s personality.
The anthropologist Nick Fiddes links male pleasure in hunting and meat eating to “environmental control” (45). Gaining meat has historically been associated with those “who liked the notion of power over nature that it embodies” (45). This power reinforced by the treatment of the animal after being under male control. Being in a similar situation, Marian identifies herself with the rabbit as she perceives herself as men’s victim of objectification. Significantly, while narrating his hunting story, Peter refers to the rabbit by “her”. So, Peter puts both animal and woman at the same level. The identification of Marian with the suffering of the rabbit can be referred to her fright from male power and dominant ideologies represented in Peter’s consumer nature. Obviously, women’s objectification is comparable to animals’ mainly to their object status and hunted position as prey. Male desire for meat is strongly linked to male desire for power and control. Marian foresees herself a slice of meat soon to be consumed. Certainly, man is associated with power, oppression and dominance.
Clearly, Marian’s rejection of food is meaningful; it indicates her struggle for true self and her resistance against social illness which restricts her. In fact, Marian’s revulsion of meat reflects her identification with the rabbit. Within the patriarchal culture, men represent the hunter while women represent the hunted. Certainly, Marian’s inability to eat is explained by her inability to eat another being hunted, killed and consumed. At the restaurant, Marian views her steak as a “hunk of muscle. Blood red. Part of a real cow that once moved and ate and was killed” (TEW 164). Marian puts herself in the same situation of the animal as she is undergoing the same process as soon to be consumed. In this context, Marian reminds a “frenzied armadillo” that is:
Going around in figure-eights, just around and around in the same path. 1 can still remember the funny metallic sound its feet made on the bottom of the cage. They say that all caged animals get that way when they’re caged, it’s a form of psychosis, and even if you set the animals free after they go like that they’ll just run around in the same pattern. (TEW 101)
The situation of this animal is so similar to that of Marian. The cage signifies social standard and male power over powerless creatures. It is a reference to male dominance over nature in its worst shape. The armadillo’s freedom is caged and controlled which is very close to Marian’s position after her engagement to Peter. Therefore, the development of self-identity becomes one of the body’s functions by rejecting food. As a result, Marian’s anxiety of Peter’s hunting story results in an inner fear of losing control over herself the reason that makes her flee from Peter, she said: “I let go of Peter’s arm and began to run … I was running along the sidewalk.” It is an act of fleeing from the brutal male features, which are associated with aggression and violence. Recognizing the symbolic meaning of the scene, Marian’s escape seems to be unwillingly because it was her body that initiates this deed: “After the first minute I was surprised to find my feet moving, wondering how they had begun, but I didn’t stop” (TEW 73-4). This body reaction is a response to the social pressure over Marian and her fear of self-loss.
According to John Lauber, this episode: “indicates an alarming dissociation both of Marian from her society and, internally, of her mind from her body, her intellect from her emotions, her conscious from her unconscious” (25). Evidently, Peter’s story of hunting made her in a state of confusion. It indicates an inner desire to gain power and to obtain control over herself. However, Marian’s escape soon collides with a “private property” that prevents her to complete what she begins. She observes:
In the darkness at the side of the house I paused to consider. Behind me was Len; on one side was the house, and on the other two sides I could see something that was more solid than the darkness blocking my way. It was the brick wall attached to the iron gate at the front; it seemed to go all the way around the house. (TEW 76)
Apparently, the house thus represents an obstacle in front of Marian to cross boundaries. Marian turns to be like the rabbit, she tries to escape male hegemony that attempts to catch and then assimilate her. Eventually, Marian finds no other option but to give up her escape: “I felt myself caught, set down and shaken. It was Peter who must have stalked me … The relief of being stopped and of hearing Peter’s normal voice again and knowing he was real” (TEW 81). Marian longs for the normal, since the other choices prevent her from similar social entitlements. She reaches a situation where she is no longer able to recognize herself. According to Marian, the “private property,” “the brick wall,” and “the iron gate” are profound symbols of her being under total male control (TEW 76). Therefore, Marian’s attempt to flee makes her aware of her powerlessness compared to men. It is a way to express her discomfort of being under male hegemony and control. In other words, Marian’s body becomes a voice and a “physical” language of her rebellion
2.3 Anorexia Nervosa: The Body’s Response to Socialized-Self
In The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood uses an eating-disorder as a metaphor of rebellion and resistance. Through food, Marian resists male dominant culture that excludes women and makes them feel as incomplete human being. She interprets social powers in terms of food and deals with her life through it. After recognizing Peter’s aggressive nature, Marian becomes unable to eat. Her non-eating ultimately results in an eating disorder similar to anorexia nervosa. In short, Marian’s anorexia is resulted from her anxiety and dissatisfaction of the kind of the unpleasant future the patriarchal society offers to women in the sixties. Interestingly, when Marian tells Duncan about her gradual inability to eat, he comments: “you’re probably representative of modern youth, rebelling against the system” (TEW 208). Duncan interprets Marian’s rejection of food as a type of eating disorder nourished from an internal revolt against the oppressive patriarchal environment. Unlike Peter who foreshadows Marian’s submission and dependency on him, Duncan urges her to question her existence.
Significantly, it is important to link Marian’s inability to eat to her shift from “I” to “She,” similar to her transformation from self to object. The second part of the novel: “seems to be told in the objective voice of an uninvolved narrator” (Nodelman 74). This shift in narration is used by Atwood “as if to indicate that during this period Marian has no self, no ‘subjectivity,’ and thus cannot tell her story” (Lyons 182). Interestingly, Marian’s object position permits her reader to perceive her the way she perceives herself. In this context, Pamela. S. Bromberg comments:
Throughout part first Marian is hungry and eating. But in part second she begins to identify herself with the objects previously ingested and consumed. As she turns from subject to object, consumer to consumed, she loses her capacity to eat, to take the world into herself. This anorexia also reflects the division of her body. (15)
Marian is aware of her actual status as an object to be consumed after her engagement. She has transformed from an independent self towards a dependent Other. Hence, Peter’s presence in Marian’s life leads her to reject food and lose her appetite. In her essay “Figuring Anorexia: Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman,” Tracy Brain points out that “Atwood uses anorexia in The Edible Woman to explore women’s strategies for developing alternative languages … It is an expression of a women’s perception of herself as consumer and victim and a means of resisting such roles” (299). Hence, anorexia is a body language that voices rejection of female roles in male oriented world. In the beginning of the novel, Marian is represented in terms of consumption; she consumed different types of food before lunch time:
I chewed through a piece of bread … I was beginning to feel hungry already … We reached the subway station, where I bought a package of peanuts … I reminded myself that my stomach could use extra breakfast … I sampled the Vanilla … I set down the Caramel and tried the Orange.” (TEW 4-12)
Obviously, Marian is deeply linked to food and consumption as she feels all the time hungry. However, when Peter asked her hand for marriage, her attitude towards food has changed. Accordingly, Marian seems dissatisfied with her fiancé and the socialized self of the patriarchy. In other words, Marian’s gradual uneasiness explains her need to run away from Peter who represents the patriarchy along with her fear of marriage, pregnancy and motherhood. In this sense, Marian’s discomfort takes many shapes, yet the most problematic one is food rejection. Her first eating refusal is a reply to her forced marriage idea. More to the point, she is transformed from a hungry person to a starving object. For example: “She had been dying to go for lunch, she had been starving, and now she wasn’t even hungry” (TEW 119). Marian’s anorexia is obviously involuntarily because she feels hungry all the time but when she tends to eat she finds herself unable to do so. In this context, Emma Parker interprets:
Food functions as a form of female self-expression. Eating and non-eating illustrate resistance to the system of oppression. Atwood’s protagonists are unendingly oppressed by parents, partners, peers or by society as a whole. They try to protect their selfhoods by psychic distancing of their selves from their bodies. (11)
Notably, Marian longs for a true identity out of objectification and powerlessness. Her rejection of food is an indication of her rejection of the brutal treatment of women by the patriarchy. After her engagement, Marian notes: “my mind was at first as empty as though someone had scooped out the inside of my skull like a cantalogue and left” (TEW 86). Evidently, her engagement to Peter makes her a mere body unable to think or make decisions; she is in a total state of loss.
At the restaurant, Peter’s way of cutting the steak by “dividing it into neat cubesy,” is seen by Marian as an extremely violent and awful act (TEW 162). Symbolically, Marian is viewing herself as being fragmented and consumed by Peter in the same way of dealing with the steak. More specifically, Marian’s eating problems continues when she starts perceiving people’s true identity in their eating way, she thus gradually quits eating. Clearly, Marian’s body first rejects meat, eggs, vegetables, and then all kinds of food. Indeed, Atwood’s novel is an awakening piece of writing that raises female consciousness about their position in a male oriented culture and the negative effects of their submission and passivity in this culture.
Interestingly, Marian’s inability to eat is caused from her position as a subjugated woman in all spheres. She is extremely anxious of becoming like Clara after marriage. Sceats argues that “she becomes unable to swallow, or stomach, the facts and implications of her situation” (96). In fact, Marian’s gradual consciousness of her situation results in her gradual food rejection. It is mostly significant that Marian’s resistance is led by her body. Sceats states that her “body is given its own, subversive, voice” (95). Therefore, Atwood’s goal behind Marian’s anorexia is to symbolically demonstrate female long silence, which will be voiced from women’s need to be equally treated as men.
Marian and Peter discuss about “the proper education of children” (TEW 147). Through this talking, they seem to have different viewpoints about the topic, while Peter insists on child beating, Marian views it as a violent act reinforced by his patriarchal traits. Although she is starving, Marian cannot eat her steak, she remains watching the way Peter cut and eat his steak. Peter is consuming Marian’s destiny in the shape of a steak. After their talk, she views him in terms of the violent husband, the oppressor father and the aggressive consumer. Marian perceives the steak as a divided cow and a victim in Peter’s hands:
Watching him operating on the steak like that, carving a straight slice and then dividing it into neat cubes … Part of a real cow that once moved and ate and was killed … In the supermarket they had it all pre-packaged in cellophane … and even when you went into a butcher shop they wapped it up so efficiently and quickly that it was made clean, official. But now it was suddenly there in front of her with no intervening paper, it was flesh and blood, rare and she had been devouring it. Gorging herself on it.” (TEW 163-4)
Marian identifies herself with the steak, to be cut, devoured and consumed. Marian perceives the steak in her dish in the form of a clean picture of a brutal act. She is aware of the fact that men are associated with power, control and violence. As a soon to be married, Marian is also soon to be “ruled and measured” (TEW 164). She is convinced that masculinity reflects aggression, and since Marian is a woman she cannot be other than male victim, Peter’s prey. Marian makes a similar comparison between the violent act of killing the animal and the peaceful way, which Peter employs in slicing, eating, and swallowing the steak: “How skillfully he did it: no tearing, no ragged edges. And yet it was a violent action, cutting; and violence in connection with Peter seemed incongruous to her” (TEW 162). Violence and aggression seem to be fixed features in Peter. As a result, her fear is intensified. After finishing his steak, Peter said: “A good meal always makes you feel a little more human” (TEW 164). While Marian feels less human, Peter feels more human. Marian associates men with brutality and aggression that are absolutely embodied in Peter. She cannot eat anymore. Alternatively, Peter eats her steak. This is an extremely indicative act that proves his greedy nature for power and consumption.
In the following day, Marian could not consume eggs: “When she opened her soft-boiled egg and saw the yolk looking up at her with its one significant and accusing yellow eye, she found her mouth closing together like a frightened sea-anemone. It’s living; it’s alive, the muscles in her throat said, and tightened” (TEW 174). Importantly, eggs which are, according to Sceats, “an obvious symbol of reproduction, but here they are also associated with Marian’s embryonic identity” (97). Her rejection of eggs is reinforced by Len’s narration of his childhood story when his mother forced him to eat an egg that “there was a little chicken inside it” (TEW 173). Evidently, food becomes a victimized living being in Marian’s eyes, similar to her situation.
In addition, Marian’s list of inedible items has increased. She starts rejecting every product she views in the shape of human body. In other words, Marian perceives them in terms of her body as soon to be consumed once married. For example, Marian becomes unable to eat chicken as it resembles to “an arm with goose bumps” (TEW 166). It seems that food becomes a reflection of her body, her edible self. To add, after accepting Peter’s proposal of marriage, Marian tries to convince herself that marriage is really a nice idea and Peter is the suitable man to be her partner: “Now I’ve had time to think about it I realize it is actually a very good step to take … life isn’t run by principles but by adjustments” (TEW 108). Notably, the idea of marriage is not a result of love between Marian and Peter but rather an adjustment to what society asks her to fulfill. However, Marian’s behavior and attitude seem to be confused. She shows a big fear of Peter’s violent nature, she views him as a threat, and has a mysterious relationship with Duncan.
In addition, while preparing food, Marian looks at a carrot as if it is a suffering living being: “She was watching her own hands and the peeler and the curl of crisp orange skin. She became aware of the carrot … it even makes a sound, a scream too low for us to hear, but it doesn’t die right away, it keeps on living, right now it’s still alive” (TEW 194). This voiceless vegetable becomes an alive suffering and screaming in an unheard voice, in a similar position as Marian who lost her voice by narrating her story in third person pronoun. It reflects her revolting stomach, which strikes to be heard. Marian anorexia is a desire for power and a need to find her identity. It is a journey for self-identity, a conflict between the mind and the body.
Worthnoting, anorexia nervosa is defined as a kind of eating disorder in which the individual, mainly woman, is hysterically starving and may die. It is a loss of appetite defined to be an appearance driven to look thin and physically attractive. Developing anorexia means that a person does not reach the physical perfection he is looking for. However, Marian, the protagonist of the novel, by her non eating attitude, is in a strong need and hunger for complete mental nourishment and a true self. It can be said that Marian’s anorexia “is not appearance-driven, for she is not interested in looking thin” (Sceats 98) but rather a response to the female position in the patriarchal world. The more Marian refuses food, the more she is aware of male oppression and control over her. For N. Rama Devi, Marian is: “Identifying herself lower forms of life, she refuses to eat, which she equates with preying upon-first steak and all meats, then eggs, then carrots. She reaches a stage when she is unable to destroy the lower forms of life. Interestingly, Waugh points out that “female protest can only be through the body itself” (180), he argues that Marian’s revolt is corporally led by increasingly rejecting food” (113). More to the point, Marian’s identification with food is a symbol of her powerless position in a world governed by male subversive forces over women and nature.
In the novel, Marian is extensively afraid about not looking normal. Being normal is supposed to be Marian’s target and a need for becoming Peter’s bride. In the process of assimilation, Marian loses her ability to eat due to her desire in possessing a different role in life. She seems to be against pregnancy, motherhood and their effects on women’s body. This makes her afraid of becoming like other women she had earlier examined. The image of Clara’s pregnancy reminds Marian of overeating. Hence, Marian’s anorexia can be connected to her rejection of marriage and domesticity. During the fifties and sixties, North American women are suffering from housewife’s role and mental passivity. Marian’s gradual discomfort is a sign of her quest for a way out of the patriarchy. Corall Ann Howells explains: “Marian’s anxiety … is externalized first in images of metamorphosis where she becomes identified with animal victims and then even more overtly by her body’s panic protest in its refusal to ingest food or drink. The social system makes her sick” (42). Clearly, Marian unwillingly develops anorexia until she can overcome her identity crisis. She perceives marriage as an inescapable destiny, Peter as hunter and herself as soon to be consumed. So, eating abstinence reflects her anxiety of being eaten.
Moreover, the protagonist views herself food for consumption. Atwood demonstrates the nature of the relationship between people in capitalist society under the duality of consumer and consumed. In the context of consumption, men are the consumer, who represent power while women are the consumed who represent passivity by consuming what society set for them. Thus, anorexia is a sign of Marian’s rejection of the patriarchal culture and capitalist system. Marian’s body is struggling to gain power by rebelling against a system that has long subjugated women.
Importantly, Marian’s anorexia makes her in a state of loss as she is unable to define and recognize why she is rejecting food. The novel’s structure of the narrative reinforces Marian’s self-division. She moved from first person narrator to the third person narrator, which reflects her estrangement from herself. Joyce Hart explains that “with this structural change, Atwood distances the reader from Marian, just as Marian’s body distances itself from her mind, just as Marian distances herself from her mind” (3). By moving from first to third person narrator, Marian situated herself in the position of the threatened character. She is in a gradual fright of Peter and in an increasing loss of appetite. Marian’s position as a powerless woman reflects her feeling of objectification, loss and soon to be edible by Peter. Atwood’s use of the adjective ‘edible’ shows that women are objects to be consumed. Mills proves how women have historically been depicted as edible:
The Dictionary of Historical Slang lists several phrases colloquially popular since the C15th, some still in use, which evoke an image of woman as dead flesh, bloodily carved up, hacked at, minced by a butcher or cook, and eventually served up for male consumption. A bit of meat meant firstly sexual intercourse (from the male standpoint) and later a prostitute. Fresh meat was a prostitute new to the trade … In the C20th the expression a cut or slice off the joint is a UK slang term used by men meaning to have intercourse with a woman. (155)
Accordingly, Atwood’s shifting narration from “I” to “She” reflects an intricate image of capitalism and female objectification as edible products. In The Edible Woman, Atwood uses food and eating as metaphors of power, where the powerful eats and the powerless is unable to eat. Food is used to unveil sexual inequalities. Notably, Marian’s loss of her voice is replaced by her body’s voice through rejecting food as a resistance to social constraints. Her gradual rejection of food goes hand in hand with her gradual awareness of herself as being controlled and powerless. Thus, Marian’s journey to self-fulfillment is guided by her body through non-eating.
Marian’s anorexia does not affect her body weight. However, Duncan’s body is depicted as “cadaverously thin,” even his ribs “stuck out like those of an emaciated figure in a medieval woodcut” (TEW 47). He once informed Marian that he is “not human at all,” who “comes from the underground” (TEW 152). Moreover, he interprets his breaking of the mirror of his bathroom saying that: “I got tired of being afraid I’d walk in there some morning and wouldn’t be able to see my own reflection in it … It was a perfectly understandable symbolic narsistic gesture” (TEW 150). While kissing him, Marian has the “impression of thinness and dryness” as if his body was “really made of tissue paper or parchment stretched on a frame of wire coat-hangers” (TEW 106). Throughout the novel, Duncan appears to be the inner side of Marian, who shows her that social norms are nothing but limits in front of the true self.
Apparently, Duncan is a very complex and ambiguous character; it seems very hard to interpret his actions, words and reactions. His presence in the novel is important as he urges the protagonist towards her rebellion against the patriarchal system. Marian comments that “when she was with Duncan she was caught in an eddy of present time: they had virtually no past and certainly no future” (TEW 200). It is worth noting that Marian does not imagine any relationship of love to be developed with Duncan as soon to be married with Peter. He reflects her instant situation and problematic position in society. His function seems to raise her consciousness. In the coffee, however, he suggests: “I think it might be a good idea if we went to bed” because “maybe I’m a latent homosexual … Or maybe I am a latent heterosexual. Anyway I’m pretty latent. I don’t know why, really.” In response to what he suggested Marian “felt she ought to do something helpful and clinical” to him (TEW 206-7). The suggestion does not bother her as she is engaged and she does not seem conventional. As they are not married, they will not be allowed to stay in any hotel. As an alternative solution, Duncan has suggested her to “go to the kind of hotel where you don’t have to be married” (TEW 221). Clearly, Duncan wants to have sex with Marian regardless of her situation as an engaged woman and in a dirty place she never went to.
2.4 Sexual Consumption: Women as Desirable and Edible Commodities
Throughout the novel, Atwood reveals how Canadian women are reduced to mere consumable objects for sale in the sixties. In the context of capitalism, women are products, machines and desirable commodities provided in the market for different objectives; sex, marriage, manipulation and so on. They are appreciated only through their bodies. According to patriarchal culture, women have to take care of their physical appearance which promotes their identity. They are deeply objectified by consumerism. In her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol J. Adams gives a clear definition of the concept of objectification as it:
Permits an oppressor to view another being as an object. The oppressor then violates this being by object-like treatment: e.g., the rape of women that denies women freedom to say no, or the butchering of animals that converts animals from living breathing things into dead objects. This process allows fragmentation, or brutal dismemberment, and finally consumption. (47)
Marian is gradually being reshaped into a male produced commodity and is ultimately to be among male possessed materials. So, by acting submissively, Marian is allowing Peter to perceive her as a consumable object to be owned and added to his collection of objects. Throughout the novel, Marian thinks that conformity to conventional norms is something inescapable. During the sixties, women had to follow social constraints and meet social expectations as they were choiceless but equally responsible for their own commodification. Thus, silence and submission are seen as women’s first choice, which make them willing participants in their own consumption. Marian’s relationship with Peter reflects an extensive male domination. In other words, he is represented in the image of the dictator. He valorizes her only in terms of physical appearance to meet his sexual desires. Thus, Marian’s identity is to be robbed by Peter and completely reshaped. In fact, her awareness that her life is guided by Peter and no longer by her own causes her gradual feeling of objectification. By stressing female submission, Atwood raises female consciousness about their complicity with men in their commodification.
In his book Ways of Seeing, John Berger claims that “to be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space into the keeping of men” (46). Women’s body is a confining space. While women make their foremost concerns reaching a body perfection to attract men, their identity will be objectified by them. Therefore, social conventions and feminine ideal appear as man-made realm characterized by patriarchal oppression, where women are coerced, excluded and commodified. Obviously, women’s role is restricted in obtaining men’s satisfaction and recognition. In this context, John Berger points that female identity is physically determined by men:
From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another. (46)
Therefore, women’s identity is pre-shaped and determined by men from the moment of birth. They learn to be normal by following social conventions and by behaving appropriately in the conventional context. In this way, women succeed to satisfy men who represent the society that controls her. Interestingly, Marian’s inability to assimilate to the social constraints make her unable to accept the: “everyday bodily requirements and vulnerabilities of femininity” (Bordo 186), that are significant for every woman’s survival. Susan Bordo depicts exaggerated feminine physical care in the following lines:
Sit down in a straight chair. Cross your legs at the ankles and keep your knees pressed together. Try to do this while you’re having a conversation with someone, but pay attention at all times to keeping your knees pressed tightly together … Walk down a city street. Pay a lot of attention to your clothing: make sure your pants are zipped, shirt tucked in, buttons done. Look straight ahead. Every time a man walks past you, avert your eyes and make your face expressionless. Most women learn to go through this act each time we leave our houses. It’s a way to avoid at least some of the encounters we’ve all had with strange men who decided we looked available. (186)
Women’s major responsibility in society is to fascinate men and attract their attention. Their responsibility, certainly, is important to their existence within the patriarchal realm. Female survival is linked to male defined femininity which turns them worthless and fake. This feminine artificiality is embodied in Marian’s colleague Lucy who: “has a face and shape that almost demands the artificial: nail polish and makeup and elaborate arrangements of hair blends into her, become part of her” (TEW 229). Unfortunately, the unawareness of the effects of what they unquestionably follow make them cheap games in male hegemonic system.
In the similar manner that a consumer commodifies a slice of meat, women, by a set of feminine aesthetic habits, objectify their bodY. Therefore, women objectify themselves and in the context of patriarchy this objectification is reinforced. Atwood’s novel reasserts the above said. She aims at highlighting the nature of the consumer culture. Marian, in the process of consent to male sexual appetite, looks like a consumable product. In Peter’s last bachelor party, Marian wears a “short, red, and sequined dress,” goes to the hairdresser and exceptionally puts make up to please Peter (TEW 228). She appears to be a commodity to satisfy her consumer or a doll to be played by her manipulator. This act reflects male exploitative power over female body. Atwood warns against female threatening position following masculine rules. The novel describes Marian’s metamorphosis into an edible commodity for Peter’s consumption.
It is essential to highlight Marian’s depiction of her physical preparation by the hairdresser in details: “she had felt as passive as though she was being admitted to a hospital to have an operation,” where she feels treated: “like a slab of flesh, an object … her head like a cake: something to be carefully iced and ornamented … her whole body felt curiously paralyzed” (TEW 229-30). She looks at herself as a “draped figure prisoned in the filigreed gold oval of the mirror” (TEW 229), where the other women are “installed under an identical whirring mushroom-shaped machines” (TEW 230). In fact, Marian expresses her dissatisfaction with this treatment that transforms her and other women into objects.
Atwood calls women to be aware of what Catherine Mackinnon depicts as the “thingification of women who have been papered and pacified into non-personhood” (520). Similarly, Marian feels as if she was dealt with as a slice of meat, a commodity. Marian knows that she represents nothing to Peter but a body rather than a complete person. Obviously, Marian’s new style has transformed her “into the Egyptian-lidded and outlined and thickly-finged eyes of a person she had never seen before” (TEW 244). By looking at herself in Peter’s mirror, instead of seeing herself as a complete person, Marian sees herself as pieces, she asks: what “lay beneath the surface these pieces were floating on, holding them all together?” (TEW 251). However, this physical artificiality attracts Peter’s attention and highly appreciated by him as it satisfies his sexual desire, he comments: “Darling, you look marvellous” (TEW 251). Surely, that look reflects what Peter likes in a woman, a physically attractive look.
However, Duncan is shocked by Marian’s new appearance, he asked her: “You didn’t tell me it was a masquerade … Who the hell are you supposed to be?” (TEW 263). It is worth noting that Atwood sensationalizes the concept of femininity in her novel, she defines as a fake artificiality created by men and welcomed by women. In doing so, women, as maintained by Luce Irigaray: “participate in man’s desire, but at the price of renouncing their own … they submit to the dominant economy of desire in an attempt to remain on the market in spite of everything” (133). Atwood pays attention to how Marian conforms to the fake femininity and follows artificiality. Within the capitalist societies, male definition of femininity ideal has the power to maintain control over women and directs them towards mere artificiality commercialized and consumed. While she has “always thought that on her own body these things looked extra, stuck to her surface like patches or posters” (TEW 229), Marian goes against her beliefs in order to satisfy her fiancé.
Furthermore, Peter’s admiration of Marian’s style inspires him to photograph her with his camera “just for the record” (TEW 253). However, this request “had made her unreasonably anxious” (TEW 254). Peter asks her to stand next to his collection of guns, knives and cameras. This scene is very indicative, Marian is considered by Peter as an object that completes his collection. Looking at the camera directed towards her, Marian perceives it as a gun and Peter as a killer aims at killing her: “That dark intent marksman with his aiming eye had been there all the time, hidden by the other layers, waiting for her at the dead center: a homicidal maniac with a lethal weapon in his hands” (TEW 270). Marian views herself as a prey to be caught then sexually consumed. In fact, the camera makes Marian in a high level of physical fear: “Her body had frozen, gone rigid. She couldn’t move, she couldn’t even move the muscles of her face as she stood and stared into the round glass lens pointing towards her, she wanted to tell him not to touch the shutter-release but she couldn’t move” (TEW 254). Marian reaches a horrible extent of fright as she sees Peter a serious threat.
It seems very clear that Marian’s anxiety has been in a gradual increase throughout the novel reaching its highest level when the marriage date becomes closer. Worth mentioning, Marian asked Peter if he really loves her: “She had asked him that before as a kind of joke, not doubting the answer. But this time she waited, not moving, to hear what he would say” (TEW 253). Marian gradually becomes in state of loss, fear and uncertainty. Hence, he replied her: “Of course I love you, don’t be silly, I’m going to marry you, aren’t I? And I love you especially in that red dress. You should wear red more often” (TEW 253). Peter considers marriage a reward for Marian and a proof of his love. While in reality he looks at her as a body much more attractive in red.
Obviously, the camera is so close to the gun as it has deep similarity. In The Edible Woman, Atwood highlights that the rifle is similar to the camera as they threaten women’s identity from a distance. At the restaurant, there is a newspaper cover story which attracts Marian’s attention; it is about a little boy that used a rifle to kill nine persons. Marian comments that:
He wasn’t the kind who would hit anyone with his fist or even use a knife. When he chose violence it was removed violence, a manipulation of specialized instruments, the finger guiding but never touching, he himself watching the explosion from a distance; the explosion of flesh and blood. It was a violence of the mind almost like magic: you thought it and it happened. (TEW 163)
Clearly, Marian compares the story of the boy in the newspaper with Peter’s rabbit hunting story. Both of them are using violent weapons with subversive effects, but they get out of it in a very “clean” image. Marian starts perceiving violence and aggression as the basic of every man’s traits but they seem to be hidden and unseen. Therefore, Peter’s camera scene appears to be the moment of a decisive change in Marian’s life for it reveals the real image of Peter as a danger. In this context, Bouson explains that: “the camera/gun is a signifier of the voyeuristic male gaze which fixates woman as sexual object, to be “shot” by the camera/gun is to undergo a terrifying loss of self” (28). More specifically, Peter’s camera along with his hunting eyes results in Marian complete loss of identity. Mulvey claims that women are passive sexual objects presented for male erotic voyeuristic pleasure. Mulvey argues that society is essentially patriarchal structured by chauvinistic ideologies. In other words, women are objects of gaze to be looked at by the male looker. Marian said: “I turned and saw him watching me, his face strangely shadowed, his eyes gleaming like an animal’s in the beam from a car headlight. His stare was intent, faintly ominous” (TEW 85). Marian represents what Bouson describes as: “the object of male desire, Marian is subjected to the male gaze that seeks to assimilate, and thus erase, the female self” (20). Marian, like any other woman, is a body to be enjoyed by men’s sight and then consumed.
Significantly, the power of gaze has historically been possessed by men. It is a “historically entrenched tradition of male artists that produced artwork for a primarily male clientele” (Linton 1-2). In the cinema, this male gaze is resulted in a high level of “voyeuristic pleasure,” where men are the audiences and women are the looked at. Bouson claims that, in her novel, “Atwood reveals the dangerous gender politics inherent in the traditional marriage economy and in romantic discourse, which encodes and naturalizes the essentialist constructions of feminine selflessness and masculine self-assertion and conquest” (21). Interestingly, Laura Mulvey asserts that gaze empowers patriarchal culture. Women’s interest in looking in a perfect body image makes them mere commodities. This leads to what Mulvey conceptualizes as “pleasurable voyeurism.” Furthermore, women make themselves recognized through the value which men highlight in them and, thus, they turn to be male manipulated products.
Female Emergence from Anorexia: Woman’s Self-Recognition
3.1 Reversal of the Traditional Romance Plot Closure
In the conventional eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, romantic novels were constituted round the issue of a heterosexual relationship of love in which lovers must engage in struggling barriers to overcome difficulties. They often end up as married couple and earn the social acceptance. However, Atwood stepped away from this conventional narration lines, she comments: “In traditional comedy, boy meets girl, there are complications, the complications are resolved and the couple is united … In my book the couple is not united and the wrong couple gets married. The complications are resolved, but not in a way that reaffirms the social order” (Sandler 13). The traditional model is inverted by Atwood. In The Edible Woman, characters who were against the idea of marriage ended up getting married (the case of Ainsley and Fisher) and characters who were preparing for their wedding separated (the case of Marian and Peter).
Along the same lines, Atwood’s narration is a subversion of male power. Len Slank, who appears to be “sort of a seducer of young girls” (TEW 30), is harshly penalized by the end of the novel. In this context, Bouson explains that Atwood uses satire “to provide a feminist-dialogic commentary on the traditional seduction plot” (30). While Ainsley looks like a “young and inexperienced” girl, she is “in reality a shemning superfemale carrying out a foul plot against him Len Slank, using him in effect as an inexpensive substitute for artificial insemination with a devastating lack of concern for his individuality” (TEW 130). Clearly, Atwood’s chief concern is subverting male dominant culture and demonstrating the inner strength of women.
In order to attract Len’s attention, Ainsley has a look of “one of the large plump dolls in the stores … with washable rubber-smooth skin and glassy eyes and gleaming artificial hair” (TEW 70). Obviously, she uses a trapped girlish look to deceive him. She makes him think that he seduces her while it is the way around, she manipulates him: “It’s all got to seem accidental. A moment of passion. My resistance overcome, swept off my feet and so forth” (TEW 89-90). Despite of her radical ideas and her strong personality, Ainsley successfully plays the role of the powerless and the innocent girl in order to reach her objective. She appears an easy trapped sexual object for him. She is well aware of male strategies of female exploitation.
Len who thinks of himself as a manipulator turns to be manipulated by Ainsley. By recognizing Ainsley’s pregnancy, Len appears to be completely mad. The act that makes Marian draws a similar comparison of his reaction to “a white grub suddenly unearthed from its burrow and exposed to the light of day. A repulsive blinded writhing” (TEW 174). Atwood inverts the traditional male dominant plot, when women are exploited by men. In this narrative, the image is reversed in which woman is manipulated on man. Ironically, Len represents nothing to Ainsley more than a sperm-provider who becomes worthless after unconsciously finishing his job. He comments: “All along you’ve only been using me … Oh, they’re all the same. You weren’t interested in me at all. The only thing you wanted from me was my body!” (TEW 172). In this context, Bouson explains that: “Atwood threatens men by laughing at them and by doing to them what they have long done to women” (9). In fact, Atwood’s depiction of Ainsley’s seduction demonstrates an ironic reversal of the conventional gender roles and reflects that female’s association with powerlessness has to be revised.
Surprisingly, despite showing an early attitude against marriage, Ainsley, by the end of the novel, changes her attitude and starts looking for a father to her unborn child because she recognizes that “scientifically” a kid “ought to grow up with a strong Father Image in the home” (TEW 197). This father is soon found in Duncan’s roommate Fisher Leonard, who never thought to be a husband or a father one day. He was against any serious relationship. Ironically, Ainsley’s rejection by Len is soon compensated by Fisher’s alternative.
Evidently, Atwood rejects literary standards of the popular romance fiction as a rejection of social conventions. At the beginning of the novel, Ainsley develops uncommon thoughts. She planned and realized her goal by having a child outside of the marriage. After an appointment with a psychologist, Ainsley decided to get married because he informed her that “if she has a child, he’s absolutely certain to turn into a homosexual” (TEW 197). Although she is initially presented as a rebellious woman against social constraints, she ultimately transformed into the woman her society expected her to be. Significantly, this character is used by Atwood to convey an important message. She asserts that resisting social restrictive rules is not an easy job to fulfill but rather hard path to follow. Women have to raise their voices and wisely struggle against them towards their emancipation. Apparently, Marian and Ainsley seem to be extremely in opposition. While Marian firstly shows a conservative character and lately develops a rebellious one, Ainsley initially appears to be a rebellious woman and ultimately becomes a conventional person.
Moreover, The Edible Woman is about Marian’s gradual awareness of her society as a male consumer culture during the sixties. Her anorexia is a struggle against what society sets as female identity deeply rooted in a system of controlling, exploiting and objectifying women. In this context, Bouson observes: “Because romantic love assigns her the male-defined feminine roles she wishes to escape and insists that she consent to femininity, her romantic affiliation with Peter leads not to heightened self-definition but to a frightening sense of self-diminishment” (23). Atwood’s novel represents a struggle to gain voice that women have historically been deprived of. Atwood skillfully employs her female protagonist in the novel to “rectify narrative by major attention to muted stories” as maintained by Rachel DuPlessis (122). According to Jayne Patterson “the split voice of Marian allows her to objectify her experience, to stand back from herself as it were, and it is through this distancing process that she is able to emancipate herself from her initial role as victim” (152). Thus, Marian’s gradual awareness of her position in the male dominated society allows her to discover that Peter perceives her an edible object.
Marian feels profoundly lost: “she was back in Peter’s living room with the people and the noise, leaning against the doorframe holding her drink. … This couldn’t be it; there has to be something more. She ran for the next door, yanked it open” (TEW 243). This passage clearly describes Marian’s deep lost, she becomes voiceless and alienated. She perceives Peter as a threatening existence in her life as he hides a secret, a horrible identity. Notably, Peter’s hunting story results in her anorexia and his camera along with his male gaze end up in her fleeing. Her escape signifies her rejection of Marian the imposed destiny of becoming a wife and a mother.
Obviously, her short red dress has been highly appreciated by Peter the act that allows her to feel as “a perfect target” for him (TEW 269). This turning point of escaping from an unpleasant life directed her towards Duncan to find rescue in him: “she opened the door and slid out … She ran as fast as she could down the hallway towards the stairs. She could not let him catch her this time … At first she had been running blindly; now however she knew exactly where she was going.” She tells herself: “You’ll be all right … if only you can make it as far as the laundromat” (TEW 269-70). Interestingly, Marian escapes from Peter and goes to laundromat to meet Duncan, where she had a sexual intercourse with him. By escaping from Peter and having sex with Duncan, Atwood employs “the conventional love triangle plot both as a weapon and as a device to rescue Marian from her relationship with Peter” as maintained by Brooks Bouson (29). Therefore, Marian rejects Peter as a husband, and housewife as a role. Ironically, marriage rejection by a woman is considered unconventional and socially unaccepted by the patriarchal world. So Marian goes against social expectation. Hence, Atwood “provides a postromantic critique of the conventional resolutions of the love story” (31). She distances herself from traditional fictional closure and creates her novel structure the way she observes more interesting and fair for women.
Although Duncan led Marian to question her existence and urges her to find a way out of a system that objectifies her, he asks her: “Maybe you want me to rescue you? What from?” (TEW 254). Duncan refuses to present his help. When she tells him that she does not like to return to Peter, he also seems helpless and completely indifferent, he comments: “It’s your own personal cul-de-sac, you invented it, you’ll have to think of your own way out” (TEW 291). Duncan is used by Atwood as a lightening character in Marian’s life to push her towards the true female identity.
However, Duncan appears to be vicious as he first told Marian that he is virgin, he had never had a sexual intercourse with a woman. After having sex, he tells her: “I like people participating in my fantasy life and I’m usually willing to participate in theirs, up to a point. It was fine first as good as usual” (TEW 290). Apparently, Marian is surely not the first woman to have a sexual encounter with him, she becomes a victim added to his list. It can be said that both Peter and Duncan used Marian each in his manner. While Peter aims at dominating her life within marriage framework, Duncan tends to instantly meet his sexual desire within “clinical” context.
Importantly, Marian discovers different strategies used by men in exploiting women through her experience. She eventually learned that passivity and submission to patriarchy lead to female edible position. Significantly, Peter and Duncan’s exploitation of Marian urges her eventual empowerment and rejection of the position of the victim. Christine Gomez observes: “Two events bring Marian’s subconscious rejection of the victim-wife role to the conscious level. One is Duncan’s brutality frank question: “you did not tell me it was a masquerade, who the hell are you supposed to be?” (265) and “The other is Peter’s attempt to photograph her in that guise. She finds this a threat to her real self, delimination and a dehumanization of herself into an image” (83). As a result, “When she runs away from Peter’s party and escapes, Marian move on to position three-rejection of the victim role. To a certain extent, Peter and Duncan serve as the catalytic agents who bring about this change in her” (83). Most importantly, Marian finally recognizes that her way out of her discomfort from a predefined identity has to nourish from her inner-self without any external support. Thus, neither Peter nor Duncan is going to finish her path to self-assertion and identity-formation.
3.2 The “Cake Woman” Symbolism: Female Rejection of the Edible Position
By the end of the novel, Marian completely loses her appetite: “Her body had cut itself off. The food circle had dwindled to a point, a black dot, closing everything outside” (TEW 283). Thus, Marian undergoes the possibility of “starving to death” (TEW 290). Duncan also informs Marian that she is “as near as possible to nothing” (TEW 290). Reaching a situation where she urgently has to make an action, Marian gets back home and designs a cake in the shape of a woman. It is a deeply indicative act. It is a miniature of herself, an object of consumption and freedom. Through constructing herself, Marian turns to be a powerful force in her therapy.
More to the point, the “cake” metaphor reflects male defined ideal of femininity, it has “a blank white body” with green silver eyes, “a smiling lushlipped pink mouth,” “pink shoes,” “five pink fingernails,” and “pink dress” (TEW 297-8). The cake is designed in pink and detailed in a way that metaphorically satisfies male gaze. Apparently, Marian begins to create and modify the cake lady by imitating the way she was reshaped at the coiffeuse when they treated her “head like a cake: something to be carefully iced and ornamented” (TEW 229). Thus, she cuts a piece of the cake and starts creating a head, also imitating the feeling she had when she gets engaged to Peter, with an empty head of its inside. When she finishes the “cake woman,” Marian presents it to Peter stating: “You’ve been trying to destroy me, haven’t you … You’ve been trying to assimilate me. But I’ve made you a substitute” (TEW 320). However, Peter rejects the cake and “stares from the cake to her face and back again … he seemed embarrassed and eager to leave” because “apparently he didn’t find her silly” (TEW 300). She seems well aware of what she is doing, no longer the passive and submissive one anymore. The way Peter flees “quite rapidly” the moment Marian offers him the cake and blames him for being a threat in her life is extremely indicative (TEW 300). In this context, Dale Bauer states:
When women step out of their traditional function as sign; when they refuse the imposition of the gaze; when they exchange their sign-status for that of manipulator of signs, they do so through dialogic polemics. And, at that moment of refusal, they become threatening to the disciplinary culture which appears naturalized. (3)
Marian’s anxiety is transmitted to Peter and their positions are exchanged. Marian is no longer a game to be manipulated or silenced. She starts making a voice, a choice and a decision. She resists the first threat in her life that is Peter. After leaving, Marian feels very hungry and starts eating. This act is indicative of women’s empowerment, Emma Parker explains in this context: “By demonstrating how consumptions related to power, Atwood subtly urges women to empower themselves by urging them to eat their way in to the world” (351). Marian’s understanding of the threat of assimilation allows her to find herself and return to be a part in the culture of consumption. Marian’s baking of cake and eating are signs of resistance to a culture that objectifies women. Bouson comments that Marian:
Recognizes the power of masculine discourse to silence the female voice, finds another way to communicate meaning. Through the cake-woman ‘text’, she signifies her own transformation into a consumable object. Asserting active mastery over passive suffering, Marian does to the cake-woman what was done to her. (34)
Interestingly, the “cake woman” signifies the oppressed picture of women in patriarchal culture. Marian frees herself from unpleasant female roles in her society by refusing marriage and edible position. She refuses being a passive manipulated woman, a voiceless obedient wife, a heavy reproductive mother, an oppressed underpaid employer and an obsessed appearance woman. Marian’s body is no longer revolting and anorexic. She eats the cake after Peter’s quit as she is not controlled but controlling her own life. Therefore, through eating the cake, Marian is symbolically rejecting the rooted femininity role offered to her by patriarchal society. She makes an end to her uneasiness as a consumed to be, she recognizes that passivity leads to an edible ending. Hence, Marian becomes self-assertive and controls her life again.
Most importantly, during Marian’s dinner with Duncan and his friend Fisher, Fisher talked about his theories on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and presented his analysis:
Of course everybody knows Alice is a sexual-identity-crisis book … what we have here, if you only look at it closely, this is the little girl descending into the very suggestive rabbit-burrow, becoming as it were pre-natal, trying to find her role … as a Woman … Patterns emerge. One sexual role after another is presented to her but she seems unable to accept any of them, I mean she’s really blocked. (TEW 212)
It is very interesting that Atwood drives her reader to make a comparison between her protagonist Marian and Carroll’s protagonist Alice. This passage gives an interpretive clue to Atwood’s novel showing that Marian is going through what can be read as a “sexual identity crisis” (TEW 212). It is indicative that at the novel’s closure, Atwood confuses her readers about the ending’s connotation. The “cake woman” episode is a sign of Marian’s empowerment that saves her from her instant troubles. After baking the “cake woman” and presenting it to Peter, the heroine is able to eat again, no longer engaged and she turns to speak “in the first person singular again” (TEW 306). However, the closure remains confusing. Similarly, Atwood’s discussion of her novel’s conclusion seems to be contradictory. In an optimistic diagnosis of the “cake woman” scene, Atwood suggests that her heroine is “acting, she’s doing and action. Up until that point she has been evading, avoiding, running away, retreating, withdrawing” (Gibson 25). In contrast, Atwood presents another pessimistic interpretation. She depicts the text as a “circle” claiming that the protagonist comes again to the same situation of the beginning (Sandler 14). Another interpretation is Fisher’s reading of the ending of Alice in Wonderlands: “you can’t say that by the end of the book she has reached anything that can be definitely called maturity” (TEW 212). Thus, the ending remains controversial.
Reflecting Atwood’s contradictory readings of the ending episode, critics have interpreted the novel’s closure differently. Critics like T. D. MacLulich, Sherrill Grace, Barbara Hill Rigney, Gayle Green, Pamela. S. Bromberg and Lecker Robert have read the ending as a confused one especially with Duncan’s consumption of the rest of the cake. However, other feminist critics like Sharon Rose Wilson, T. N. Dhar, Catherine McLay and Jayne Patterson offered an optimistic reading of the closure, where they perceive Marian as a whole self again and in complete control of her life.
In her essay “Atwood’s Adult Fairy Tale: Levi-Strauss, Bettelheim and The Edible Woman,” T.D. MacLulich views the novel as a “perplexing book” and claims that the heroine “is a whole person again” whereas her “fate is uncertain … She will face it squarely instead of trying to escape” (128). Likewise, Sherrill Grace states that the reader turns to be “enmeshed” by an “increasing improbability” of the novel and is totally “locked within” Marian’s cognizance (91-4). In the view of Bouson: “because the closure both tells and refuses to tell what it knows, readers are left with the uneasy sense that they have not mastered the text but rather the text has mastered them” (35). Similarly, Rigney is one of the critics who seems confused with Atwood’s ending, she points out that: “Perhaps there are as many interpretations of Marian’s symbolic cake and of the ending of The Edible Woman as there are readers” (33). Notably, Marian’s ambiguous situation has opened the door to boundless interpretations of the novel’s closure. The ending aims at thwarting literary critics, it highlights the symbolism of the cake woman and asserts that the latter is, in fact, “only a cake” (TEW 301).
When Duncan comes to Marian’s apartment to share coffee together, he remarks her eating again. Marian says: “It still was miraculous to me that I had attempted anything so daring and had succeeded” (TEW 309). Marian’s engagement cancellation is seen a victory; an act of her regaining appetite, control and power. For Marian, marriage was an attempt by Peter to destroy her life, self and autonomy. However, Duncan suggests that in reality it was the way around. He informs her that: “Peter wasn’t trying to destroy you. That’s just something you made up … What does it matter, you’re back to so-called reality, you’re a consumer” (TEW 309). Notably, Duncan’s words open so many interpretations by different literary critics especially by his consumption of the rest of the cake as offered to him by Marian.
In the view of MacLulich, “Duncan sheds more darkness than light on the significance of the cake, and on the meaning of the novel as a whole” (127). Robert Lecker comments that “Duncan’s words suggest that Marian’s plight is not resolved, and that the plot of The Edible Woman is metaphorically circular.” He suggests that by presenting the woman shaped cake to Peter and Duncan and by eating it herself, the heroine “re-enacts her female as food role” (179). According to Gayle Green, Duncan’s comments are also confusing, stating that despite “Marian’s Cake-woman image is a gesture of defiance, a way of saying ‘no’ to a system that defines women as commodities and devours them,” Green yet observes that it seems hard to depict Marian’s situation and predict her ambiguous future (111). Hence, Duncan words in the novel’s closure left the readers’ confused between whether Marian achieve self-fulfillment or self-destruction. For Pamela Bromberg, the act of the “cake woman” consumption reflects that Marian “is quite literally joining her subject and object selves … She has become active again, an agent, a subject, a consumer, rather than a consumable object of exchange traded on the marriage market” (18). However, Bromberg seems to be also confused by Duncan consuming the rest of the cake woman, she remarks: “Since Marian has not been able to put her understanding into words, the reader is left to wonder whether he will then devour her,” the heroine “is more self-assertive and healthy, but for how long?” (20). In the view of Sarah Sceats:
Marian has learned assertiveness, that sexual politics means ‘eat or be eaten’, but although her cake has the desired effects of frightening Peter away and returning Marian’s appetite, it does not address the conundrum of how she can live without either being consumed or becoming a predator. As with much of Atwood’s writing, there are no simple answers; the ending is open, the emphasis on possibility rather than solution. (99)
Therefore, many interpretations were raised in the significance of Duncan’s comments and his consumption of the rest of the “cake woman;” the reader has left with endless questions instead of getting any answer.
On the other scale, many critics offered optimistic readings of The Edible Woman’s ending. In the view of T.N. Dhar, “after baking a cake for Peter, Marian is restored to her physical and mental health. She speaks in the first person singular which is a new and confident voice of distant being” (272). Marian’s journey is collided with different kinds of male exploitation, but “after being battered in body and psyche, she finally passes into a state of “raised” consciousness” (269). According to Catherine McLay, “The cake “feast” signals the celebration of Marian’s new freedom and even rebirth. At the end, Marian has gained a sense of identity and a new knowledge of self” (32). According to Jayne Patterson, the heroine’s “fashioning and eating of the cake signifies her recognition and rejection of her former compliant self, culminating in her new ability to respond to her own inner feelings” (152). According to Sharon Rose Wilson, “By baking, decorating, serving and consuming the cake-woman image … Marian announces, to herself and others that she is not food, no more an edible commodity” (96). Briefly, numerous critics directed towards liberating Marian from her identity crisis. They interpreted her “cake woman” as a sign of her metamorphosis into an independent self out of defined male femininity. A successful process emerged from her anorexia towards freedom. As previously mentioned, while Atwood rejects to offer a conclusive deliverance in the end, she frees her protagonist from the classical literary love closure, which ends by marriage as a sign of women’s maturity.
In her book Brutal Choreograpies: Oppositional Strategies and Narrative Design in the Novels of Margaret Atwood, J Brooks Bouson perfectly reveals a nice interpretation of the ending plot of The Edible Woman. Atwood uses an oppositional strategy to the conventionally followed narration. She has challenged the traditional plot and destroys male oriented conceptualization of the idea of marriage by denying the conventional romance scene of the miserable commodification and denigration of women in capitalist system. In her novel, she aims at examining women and their passivity while demonstrating their inner power that can flourish from their will and readiness to resist and challenge social constraints. Marian learns that her self-assertion is worth fighting for, in the patriarchal society. In this context, Sara Mills explains that:
Feminist text analysis … can develop into a form of consciousness-raising, a ‘making aware’ of that which seems to be self-evidently normal or neutral, a ‘making strange’ of the ordinary, and forcing readers to re-examine the text in the light of a consideration of gender. (39)
The novel, thus, is a “consciousness-raising” piece of literary work that helps revealing the way a woman is exploited, manipulated and commercialized. The novelist urges women to struggle for a way out of exploitation, exclusion and consent in a gender unequal society. Atwood’s novels have always open closure, as a manner to encourage her readers to be optimist and believe in hope by constructing their own way to reach an equal position. Worth noting, Atwood calls both sexes to live in a free world, where discrimination and domination have no place on earth.
As mentioned in the introduction and well detailed throughout this study, The Edible Woman describes women as edible sexual objects in male dominated world and as extremely discriminated, alienated and exploited during the sixties. After the Second World War, marriage was considered the first target of every single girl. Female roles were set by men and pre-defined from early childhood. House work, preparing food, washing dishes, looking after children were the most important details to “win” husband’s satisfaction. Being the ideal housewife then is a reflection of female self-realization. Thus, Atwood’s novel is an attempt to reveal the nature of the patriarchal world by shedding light on women’s marginalization and discrimination through the choice of her character Marian McAlpin. In this context, Wayne Fraser states:
The Edible Woman, narrated by Marian McAlpin, a recent university graduate who is working for a market research firm, Seymour Surveys demonstrates the difficulties, for women of the 1960s, of living within conventional norms … It depicts the growing threat to a woman’s identity by a male controlled and increasingly consumer oriented society. (119)
The female protagonist looks for a true human identity out of marginalization that puts her in a similar value as consumable products. Through her protagonist, Atwood criticizes and refuses the unequal distribution of gender roles that oppresses women in a basic male-oriented society. Notably, The Edible Woman is a response to the unfair social environment offered to women in the sixties. Atwood challenges the gender power politics that shows a huge discrimination against women. Hence, the novel aims mainly at subverting gender politics and at subverting female awareness about male power in the patriarchal context. According to Salat:
Marian’s problematic of ‘becoming’ constitutes and expresses Atwood’s feminist polemics against restrictive gender roles imposed upon women in paternalist society … The hierarchical world Marian inhabits appropriates her identity and reduces her to being an in-between things and a mind-less body. (96)
Significantly, The Edible Woman is written to make women “critically conscious of their own roles in conventional social structures” (Howells 4). Atwood calls women to find their way out of male and self-victimization by resisting and rebelling against a system that has long exploited and oppressed them. Importantly, the protagonist recognizes that artificiality is an important characteristic for every woman who wants to marry and meet social male set demands. Women objectify themselves as products in marriage market to attract men’s attention. Evidently, women’s identity is physically determined by the patriarchal world.
It is necessary to read in between the lines to get a clue about Atwood’s goal behind writing this novel. In a scrutinized study of The Edible Woman, it is important to throw light on Atwood’s followed style of the tripartite structure. Notably, the novel is divided into three parts in which Atwood skillfully changes the narrative viewpoint in each part. More specifically, in the first part the protagonist speaks in the first person narrator. The following and longest part of the novel, the narrative shifts from first to third person narrator. In the final part, Marian returns to first person narrator claiming: “Now that I was thinking of myself in the first person singular again I found my own situation much more interesting than his Duncan’s” (TEW 306). This narrative style is of high significance in Marian’s journey to self-assertion.
Obviously, the whole narrative is told by the protagonist and can be read as a reflection of her psychological change. At the beginning of the novel, Marian runs a daily routine life between house, work and spending time with her boyfriend Peter. She told the story in her own voice as she has no issues to think about. In the second part of the novel, Marian loses her voice and tells the story employing “she” instead of “I.” This voice-loss can be explained by her engagement to Peter and her gradual awareness of her social position as an object both in work and in Peter’s hunting eyes. Her journey was a trip towards identity-construction in a male oriented world during which she discovers different strategies used by men to exploit women and maintain their status as inferior human being. She also comes to know that female submission and passivity lead to her static position and empower male hegemony over women. As she eventually rejects traditional norms and goes against social expectation, Marian regains her voice in first person narrator and imposes her female self as free human being with independent identity.
In addition to the shifting narration voice, Atwood’s novel is full of metaphors, images and symbolism which she masterly employed. Most importantly, Atwood uses eating and non-eating metaphors to reflect the characters’ true identities. Interestingly, food presence in the novel is deeply meaningful. In her article “Eating the Evidence: Women, Power and Food,” Sarah Sceats states: “Feeding is established psychologically as the locus of love, aggression, pleasure, anxiety, frustration and desire for control. In the novel, Atwood skillfully employs the metaphor of food to demonstrate female powerlessness and male power as naturalized by patriarchal system. In this context, Sceats explains:
Because of the close cultural association between women and food, or because of feminism’s politicization of the domestic, or because of the advance of material culture, the work of women writers in the latter half of the twentieth century is particularly fruitful for an examination of the relations between power and food. (117)
The representation of food takes a new powerful meaning in Atwood’s feminist text. It is a metaphor of Marian’s identity crisis and her anorexia is a corporal strategy of resistance to find a way out of the restricted environment offered to Canadian women in the sixties. She also uses the metaphor of the animal hunting and the symbolic image of Peter’s way in eating the steak to reflect his greedy nature for power and domination. Moreover, the focal metaphor of the novel is Marian’s hand-made cake in woman shape to offer to Peter. This image can be interpreted as a sign of Marian’s recognition of herself as an edible product in a consumer world represented by Peter. It is also a symbolic rejection of the objectified self as an edible woman and her metamorphosis to an independent assertive self. Thus, Atwood’s chief concern through food metaphor usage is to erase gender inequalities and challenge male hegemony and domination over women. Interestingly, Christine Gomez analysis Atwood’s novels both on the thematic and the structural forms in these following lines:
At the thematic level, Atwood’s novels examine themes related to the politics of gender, such as enforced alienation of women under patriarchy, the delimiting definition of women as a function, the patriarchal attempt to annihilate the selfhood of women, the gradual carving out of female space by women through various strategies and women’s quest for identity, self definition and autonomy. Structurally, Atwood is an innovator who experiments with various narrative forms in her attempt to adequately express the feminist themes handled by her. Not only at the thematic and structural levels, but also in the organization of women characters, Atwood’s novels are based on the politics of gender. (74)
Evidently, Atwood presents a valuable feminist work thematically and structurally to convey significant messages to her readers. In the first chapter of this study, I tried to demonstrate the way the sixties era was governed under patriarchal system ruled by men. This era was characterized by total alienation of women from public sphere, providing them instead with restricted domestic space or worthless lower kind of work. Indeed, women were seen as Others while men represent the whole humanity. More specifically, women were silent despite of their dissatisfaction and discomfort. Their submission and passivity empower male authority and promote their superiority over them. Capitalism and consumerism also strengthen male domination by representing women as consumable products. Moreover, the protagonist of the novel represents women of the sixties. Her work in a research company, a dissatisfying job, led her to examine feminine role models surrounding her and she ended up rejecting all of them. Her roommate Ainsley rejects marriage and valorizes motherhood, she intended to have a child as a single woman. She followed a well planned strategy to exploit Len Slank and achieved her desire of motherhood. Her colleagues “the three office virgins” reduce their whole life in obsessive physical appearance with the target of attracting men’s attention and find suitable men for marriage. Marian’s friend Clara is represented as an exhausted wife and mother because of her huge responsibilities. She is a failed housekeeper, housewife and mother. Atwood aims at conveying that woman is not a machine; being a perfect housewife in North America during the sixties is a hard and unfair task to fulfill. She also urges the government to provide solutions about family planning and birth control. Furthermore, Atwood planned a sudden meeting of Marian with Duncan, an English graduate student who led her to start questioning her existence and constructing her identity out of male hegemonic, consumer and extremely exploiting system.
In the second chapter, I profoundly addressed the way men perceive women as mere sexual objects for consumption. I first highlighted the metaphor of food and eating used by Atwood. She aims at conveying that the greedy male nature of the patriarchy led men to aggressively consume women. After hearing Peter’s story of the rabbit hunting in a messy blood image, Marian identified herself with the animal and later with the steak in his dish. Marian gradually got aware that becoming Peter’s wife is similar to the fate of the rabbit. Peter’s clean appearance and elegant clothes hide a terrible brutality, a clear image of capitalism. As a result, Marian stopped eating, her anorexia is a reflection of herself being an edible object and her attitudes about the non-swallowed social norms imposed on her. She started perceiving everything in terms of food. Marian adjusts to Peter’s wish to change her look; the act that inspires him to photograph her. Hence, Marian showed a big fear from the camera that increased her feeling of objection along with Peter’s male gaze.
In the last chapter, I focused on Atwood’s reversal of the ending of the conventional fictional plot. Ainsley gets married to Fisher, Duncan’s roommate and Marian runs away from Peter as a symbolic rejection of marriage. Peter’s camera increases Marian’s anxiety and leads her to escape from Peter’s party towards Duncan. Later, Marian had a sexual encounter with Duncan as an attempt to heal his sexual crisis. However, Duncan seems to be a tricker as he appeared to have previous sexual experiences. Marian gets aware of being manipulated by both Peter and Duncan. Thus, she gets consciousness that if woman does not be at the table as powerful subject she will surely end up on the menu as a delicious edible option presented for male consumption. When Marian reached a situation of starving, she makes an edible woman cake, operating on her the way she was manipulated as a reflection of her previous self. She represents it to Peter accusing him of attempting to consume her. As a reaction he leaves her and she returns to eat again. Her consumption of the cake signifies that she is no long an edible woman or an object for consumption. She also offers the rest of the cake to Duncan who deliciously consumes it.
Overall, by refusing Peter and feminine artificiality, Marian realizes her self-assertion. At the end, Marian recognizes that gaining control over her life as a woman is indeed an act of worth in this world. However, Duncan’s consuming of the cake woman reflects Atwood controversial closure. Notably, Atwood’s novel has an open ending which stresses a new way for the protagonist’s self-assertion and identity-formation, Atwood comments: “I never make Prince Charming endings because I don’t believe in them. But I do believe that people can change. Maybe not completely but some” (Twigg 225). She asserts that the will along with struggle result in open opportunities for women in society as human being equal to men.
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