Literary Essay–Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman


I first picked up Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman at an airport in Toronto (December 1986). Then I laughed my head off while I was on the plane heading to Vancouver. The Chinese man sitting next to me seemed nervous by my hysterics and sputtering. Later in my twenties, as I reread the novel, I noticed the darker themes, especially during my Saturn Return (age 28 -32) when I endured the Candida Diet. I too saw my world shrinking uncontrollably.

For those of you who have never read this Canadian classic first published in 1969, it centers around the character Marian McAlpin and her impending marriage to Peter, the quintessential man’s man. The closer Marian comes to her wedding date, the fewer foods her body will allow her to consume. Meanwhile, the proto-feminist message is that the society around her is consuming her!

Even though Atwood wrote this book at the tail-end of the tumultuous 1960s, we can interpret the messages of the books to fit contemporary times. For instance, every time someone rattles off a list of all the foods they can’t consume (due to allergies or other health reasons), I’m reminded of Miss McAlpin’s dilemma. In fact, specific scenes in Atwood’s novel including, the dinner scene with Duncan, Trevor, and Fischer where Marian sits through an uncomfortable meal where she has to discretely eliminate food from her plate and the dinner scene with Peter, Clara, and Joe where she hides meat under lettuce leaves, come to mind when dealing with people with food allergies.

Of course, Atwood wasn’t messaging us about food, but about a consumer culture that robs us of our liberties. At the beginning of the story, we already see the noose tightening around Marian’s neck when she has to sign up for a pension plan. She tells the accountant that she prefers not to sign the pension plan, but the accountant tells her it’s obligatory. Then we meet Peter with his guns, cameras, and conservative politics, not to mention sexual politics, that gives the reader a sense of suffocation. I’m sure this was Atwood’s intention too.

While the book harbors disturbing themes, it’s delightfully and wickedly funny. Not that someone with a limited food diet would find it funny. On page 166 of the novel, Marian faces what would be seen by food-sensitive folks as a common theme.

“For the protein variety she had been eating omelets and peanuts and quantities of cheese. The quiet fear, that came nearer to the surface now as she scanned the pages–she was in the ‘Salads’ section–was that this thing, this refusal of her mouth to eat, was malignant; that it would spread that slowly the circle now dividing the non-devourable from the devourable would become smaller and smaller…”

Then we see the treatment of “modern” women on page 222 when Peter uses Marian’s back as furniture. He places his ashtray in the hollow of Marian’s back; after they made love. Meanwhile, Marian’s mind worries about her diminishing food choices. Just that morning she was unable to eat rice pudding (the one mentioned at the beginning of the novel that was part of a marketing survey).

As the story progresses, the circle of allowable foods diminishes until Marian sits in a diner with Duncan and her body refuses every food choice on the menu. This is when the character takes matters into her own hands and stops acting like a passenger and sits in the driver’s seat, metaphorically-speaking. She makes a trip to the grocery store, buys ingredients for a cake. Then she makes a cake in the shape of a lady which she consumes in a weird sort of ritual.

She invites Peter over to consume the cake and when he refuses to get involved with the ritual, Marian breaks off their engagement. Meanwhile, Duncan (the strange man) consumes the cake lady leaving Marian feeling satisfied. On pages 309 and 310 , Marian watches Duncan consume the remainder of the cake (she had consumed most of the lady earlier). Atwood ends her classic debut novel with, “He scraped the last chocolate curl up with his fork and pushed away the plate. ‘Thank you,’ he said, licking his lips. ‘It was delicious.’

It has been years since I picked up this novel. And each decade that I read it, I find new themes. Part of my interpretation now revolves around both the consumer culture that I abhor and my own limited food list as my own body refuses certain foods, but for reasons different than the ones given in the novel.

I wonder what Atwood would say about gluten, GMO foods as well as, organic versus chemically-sprayed foods. What would she tell me about food phobias, and food Nazis and all the marketing in the form of articles that cause us to fear even more foods we once took for granted? We lived in a strange world in 1969 when the novel debuted, and we live in a much stranger world in 2016. And I have always found Atwood to possess a gift of prophecy.

The question remains as who is the consumer? Are we the consumer of food or is food consuming us? Are we the consumer of goods (to keep economies rolling along) or are the goods consuming us? I’m reminded of a line from the movie, French Kiss, where the younger sister of Kate’s fiancee says, “You’ll never buy a house. The house will end up consuming you. One night someone forgets to put out a cigarette and the house burns to the ground.” (Approximate quote).

Book quotes from Margaret Atwoods, The Edible Woman, Anchor Books, 1998, NY



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