The name of Margaret Atwood is widely known in her homeland in Canada, in the USA and in many European countries. As a poet, novelist and critic, she became known in the Canadian literary scene in the late 60’s, when published a short study on national identity of the Canadian literature, several collections of poetry and novels. In her works she touches the issue of leveling of the person in modern civilization, the impact on human consciousness of stereotypes of the popular culture, women’s role in society, the emergence of cultural identity of the Canadian nation and moral aspects of environmental crisis, America’s dominance in all spheres of life of Canada. But the central theme of the writer’s works may be called the theme of existential search of the modern man of “true being” adequate to the immanent needs of his personality. That topic is addressed as primarily theme in the first novel by Margaret Atwood “The Edible Woman ” (1969).
Immediately after the release of the work there was many-sided literary assessment about this novel. This trend is typical for most products, which are published by new and unknown authors. “The Edible Woman” was named by critics as unusual and bizarre work. But what exactly is its apparent strangeness, singularity? The answer to this question lies in the novel, the author’s vision and strategy of the narrative: vagueness in defining the center of the story, the main characters; focus on specific problems, rather than the unfolding events; feminist views, punctuated in the form of the narrative; unusual names. All this led to interest to “The Edible Woman” , and also to the mixed critical views about it. (Cooke, 1998)
For example, John Stedmond from the “Canadian Forum” was convinced that the characters “are not clearly drawn by Atwood, and narrative techniques are squeak”. Linda Rogers from the “Canadian Literature” remarked that one of the reasons that the “The Edible Woman” failed as a novel was “clumsy dialogue.” Yet, there were those who believed that the novel M. Atwood in one way or another has found success. (Cooke, 1998)
It is important to understand the originality of the novel of Atwood, starting with the deciphering of its strange name. The literal translation of the title of the novel “The Edible Woman» fits well the essence of the work, decodes its meaning, making clarifications to the image of the main character Marian McAlpin. This young unmarried girl has a suitor – Peter, but she is afraid to marry because she does not want to morally and socially be “eaten” by a man, does not want to obey him, guessing his every whim, does not wish to become a “victim” of that man. From this arises one of the key issues of our time: the problem of the social status of women, as well as the related problem of relations between men and women in contemporary society, a solution to which M. Atwood is trying to find in her novel.
The concept of “edible” is literally played in the novel: a young woman suffers from physiological problem of aversion to food, rejection of any of the other “ordinary” habits. Such close and unusual connection between figurative and literal themes brings originality and uniqueness to the novel. The process of food consumption, as well as its abandoning, acquires a symbolic meaning in the novel. It is important to note a cake made in the shape of a woman that bakes and eats the heroine, is a key issue and important symbol in the work, the culmination of the motives of hunger and eating.
It is interesting to point out the principle of the novel, which is divided into three parts, which can be viewed as three stages in the life of the heroine. All of them are closely connected with food and with the position of the narrator. The first chapter of the novel is narrated by the heroine. It begins with a description of her feelings of hunger, and gives the impression that the image of eating is given with the intent to delay the story about the events: “I had to skip the egg and wash down a glass of milk and a bowl of cold cereal which I knew would leave me hungry long before lunch time”. (Atwood, p.12)
The position of the narrator changes in the second chapter of the novel, when “I” is changed to “she”. This change is associated primarily with the internal contradictions in Marian. If the first part, they are spontaneous and arise in the soul of a young woman unknowingly (a sort of period of exclusion, expulsion). In the second part of the novel Marian tries to find her niche in society, to calm the heat of passions in her heart tearing her from the inside (redefining the integrity of the world), begins to understand the nature, and somehow get closer to her emotional recovery, which occurs in the third part of the book. But a feeling of physical aversion to food increases, passing in anorexia. The reasons for such a strange Marian refusal to eat can be found in the field of psychoses and neuroses, which are present in many novels of Margaret Atwood. From this we can conclude that the composition of the novel is a kind of scheme, which corresponds to the period of life of the heroine, described in the novel.
As in other works by Atwood, in novel “The edible woman” the main character is an ordinary woman Marian, who feels closed in a “strange” for her pragmatic urbanizing world. She has monotonous way of life: she was tired of working in the field of public services, meets with a man (Peter), whom she does not love. Marian is trying to break the cycle of mundane worries, both material and spiritual, to get away from the dependent position of women in “male” society. In the novel is shown a modern society where people are “predators” in relation to each other. Sensitive heroine is among the pragmatists, she feels a moral threat hanging over her inner world, and gradually coming to realize her most secret thoughts and feelings, which then tries to express. In the first novel by M. Atwood “The edible woman” we can also see the problem of adverse influence of civilized society on the individual, resulting in the loss of his individuality, as one of the most important topics that the writer revealed in her works.
And many of the works by Margaret Atwood, “The edible woman” is a novel about self-realization of man “in consumer-oriented Canadian urban environment”, an illustration of despair and disease of the modern civilized society, with its depersonalizing life standards, a society in which we live. Life as a show, like everyone else has, becomes the norm: for example, a hairstyle and dress of Marian at Peter’s party was the the most painful for Marian, as she hated to be fashion victim, though she wears it in order to be “normal”, “like everyone else.”
At first, Marian does not want to do something just because it is a common habit, so it is a must or necessity. For example she speaks about the need for contributions to the pension funds: “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 “(Atwood, p. 21).
Nevertheless, in the novel it is possible to notice the process of rethinking of the Marian’s own position, the birth of the decision to become a “normal”, “civilized” in the conventional sense, but she did not succeed. Duncan even called Marian “representative of modern youth, rebelling against all conventional.” A contrast to civilized urban socium becomes nature. Duncan reminisces about the hometown: “The thing I like in the place I came from, it’s a mining town, there isn’t much of anything in it but at least it has no vegetation. A lot of people wouldn’t like it. It’s the smelting plants that do it, tall smokestacks reaching up into the sky and the smoke glows red at night, and the chemical fumes have burnt the trees for miles around, it’s barren, nothing but the barren rock, even grass won’t grow on most of it, and there are the slag-heaps too; where the water collects on the rock it’s a yellowish-brown from chemicals. Nothing would grow there even if you planted it…” (Atwood, p.144)
It shows that nobody notices the true emotional experiences of the heroine. Gradually, Margaret Atwood introduced in the novel a theme of loneliness, of separation of people of spiritual abandonment, which got further developed in the novels of the early 80’s.
When reading “The edible woman” the reader can see that it is two-planned novel, in which the metaphorical and literal themes come in parallel to each other, but their relationship is defined. There is the climax of their connection, when Marian bakes a cake in the form of a woman, symbolizing herself (“a women made of cake” ( p. 272), and proposes to taste it to Peter. The heroine sees no possibility to continue to live as before, so she in such a figurative way gives Peter a chance to be her rightful owner, to acquire the overriding social status. He leaves, and then Marian herself begins to eat her culinary creation. Atwood herself says in the preface to the novel: “Wedding cakes with sugar brides and grooms were at that time of peculiar interest to me” (Atwood, p. 7).
Therefore, there is no doubt that the process of eating food, as well as refusal to eat it, have symbolic meaning in the novel. The name itself brings to the interpretation of the meaning of key image: a cake in the shape of a woman which bakes Marian, and then eats it – this is really a key point of the novel.
The novel is a story about a particular life stage of Marian McAlpin. It is clearly felt the presence of the author and her opinion of people and time, and the main character. Margaret Atwood pays particular attention to how difficult is the life of man in society, in which live the heroine of her novels, because the author herself is a woman too. The main issues affecting Marian, and hence M. Atwood, were gender relations, women’s social status, loss of individuality, the negative impact of civilization on nature and man, etc.
The image of Marian McAlpin causes many questions in the reader: “Who is Marian? Is she a future wife and mother? Is she a traveler? Or a fighter for women’s rights?” Sometimes she can be considered as a model of mental clarity, and sometimes Marian hides inside uncontrollable anxiety. In fact Marian comes to realize that she is not like the people around her, that she is fundamentally different from them. She is aware of the discrepancy of life that she has, the standard of living. She suffers from misunderstanding and plenty of questions that she could not get answers. That is why she considers herself “abnormal.” Let us remember, for example, Marian party at work: “For an instant she felt them, their identities, almost their substance, pass over her head like a wave. At some time she would be – or no, already she was like that too; she was one of them, her body the same, identical, merged with that other flesh that choked the air in the flowered room with its sweet organic scent; she felt suffocated by this thick Sargasso-sea of femininity. She drew a deep breath, clenching her body and her mind back into herself like some tactile sea-creature withdrawing its tentacles; she wanted something solid,..” (Atwood, р.167)
Marian even asked her friend Ainsley, which she rents an apartment with, whether she is normal. Ainsley says her: “Normal isn’t the same as average…Nobody is normal” (Atwood, p.104)
Marian is constantly analyzing herself, her actions, state of mind. She agrees to marry Peter, but in that decision can be seen a desire, on the one hand, to come to a firm choice to live like everyone else in the society; but on the other hand, Marian begins to feel herself as a victim of her emotional cannibalism. And yet, sacrifice is another motif, which is characteristic of all the works of Margaret Atwood. The heroine of the novel is both the winner, and the victim. Awareness of this situation takes the form of symbolic neurosis: her body begins to refuse food. At first, Marian could not eat meat because it associates with dead animals, then vegetables, whose agony she vividly depicts in her imagination, and then even vitamins. In the end, trying to get rid of her marriage, she realizes that running away again she once again becomes a victim of social relations.
Many critics consider the novel in the context of feminism, and do not hesitate about membership of M. Atwood to this direction, which was reflected in the literature of Canada in 1960-70 years. Another opinion is about the presence of feminist ideas in the works of Margaret Atwood, which are seen in the conflict between men and women in addressing the problem of marriage and love. According to the point of view of this researcher, it can also be argued about the connection between feminism and anorexia in this novel. These two concepts reflect the specific “protested of the young woman against the generally accepted role of women, in which she is expected to have when marrying Peter.” (Howwels, 2006)
When Marian’s relationship with her fiance Peter becomes more serious, we see her reaction in these words: ” drew back from him. A tremendous blue flash, very near, illuminated the inside of the car. As we stared at each other in that brief light I could see myself, small and oval, mirrored in his eyes.” (Atwood, p.84)
That’s one of those moments of interaction of the two plans of narration, which at some point reach a climax. Marian compares herself with an egg, as reflected in the eyes of Peter, and on the same day she has a problem with eating eggs, and with it comes the period of anorexia. Refusal to eat means that Marian sees itself as an egg, which is going to be eaten.
A talk about the wedding makes the reader understand how Marian loses her independence and free will: “I’d rather have you decide that. I’d rather leave the big decisions up to you. I was astonished at myself. I’d never said anything remotely like that to him before. The funny thing was that I really meant it.” (Atwood, p. 95)
As a result, Marian voluntarily loses her freedom, and gives up her independent personality. Comparing herself with an egg, she seems to dissociate herself from the world with symbolic “shell”, all relying on a future husband.
The characters in the novel “The edible woman”, as well as in other works of Atwood, are normal, ordinary man with their confused thoughts, mixed feelings. However, the author’s attention is drawn primarily to the main character – a young woman Marian, whose image appears brighter and more expressive on the background of the secondary characters of the novel. They themselves are depicted by the author in less detail, and Atwood identifies in them only those features, that contribute to a better understanding of the main character of Marian. This is especially true of two male figures, which are closely linked with the main character throughout the novel: Marian’s boyfriend Peter, and her lover and friend Duncan. Margaret Atwood not accidentally brought into the narrative of the novel those two male images. The author sought to show the dissimilarity of both, not only external difference between them, but also different attitudes to life, different life principles and ideals that they have. And Marian, while between them, is seeking to find her own way in life. For example, Peter is the embodiment of conformity, adaptation to the laws of the society, he takes the stereotypes and fits them. Duncan is his opposite, anti-stereotype, as he denies all the canons of life established by the society. Being among them, communicating with both, Marian tries to find her own path in life, knowing what she can’t choose one of the two models of her future life, because neither of the two fits her.
“The edible woman” is M. Atwood’s novel about Canada, about the Canadian reality of society, which “eats” every individual. The novel is the first work of Atwood with noticeable characteristic features of her creative style in general: in the center is a female perspective on contemporary problems, among which the most important and interesting for the writer was the problem of the relationship of nature and civilization, a detrimental effect of civilization on human and his life in the society, the problem of relations between men and women, the motif of sacrifice and many others. However, in this novel the most noticeable are features of the influence of feminist ideas of the writer. “The edible woman” is the first, but one of the best novels of M. Atwood. (Howwels, 2006)
Atwood M. The edible woman. Doubleday Canada, 1998
Cooke, N. Margaret Atwood: A Critical Companion. Toronto: ECW, 1998.
Howwels Coral A. The Cambridge companion to Margaret Atwood. Cambridge University Press, 2006
Holcombe, G. “Margaret Atwood”. Contemporary Writers. London: British Arts Council, 2005. Web. Available from: http://www.contemporarywriters.com
Lilburn Jeffrey M. Margaret Atwood’s “The edible woman”. Research & Education Assoc., 1999