Margaret Atwood‘s first novel, The Edible Woman, was considered a landmark novel when it was published in 1969. Although Atwood later described her work as protofeminist rather than feminist, her themes of gender stereotyping and objectification of women, reflected some of the central concerns of the burgeoning women’s movement.
Her protagonist is Marian McAlpin, a young single woman on the verge of marriage who feels torn between the role that society expects her to enact and her desire to be her self. Her body’s rejection of food becomes the manifestation of her rejection of the female normative behaviour. First she discovers that meat – anything with “bone or tendon or fiber” – revolts her, then the same thing happens with eggs, carrots and rice pudding. By the end of the book she seems to exist on little more than a few salad leaves.
Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. At one point she hides from her fiance under a sofa bed; in another science she runs away from him, triggering a bizarre night-time car chase through the streets of a snowbound Canadian city. As the wedding date gets closer, her sense of her individuality have declined to the point where she no longer recognises herself. Looking into the mirror all she sees is a “tiny, two-dimensional small figure in a red dress, posed like a paper woman in a mail order catalogue turning and smiling, fluttering.”
Will she or won’t she wed is a question that gets resolved in a truly imaginative way right in the final pages. It’s about the only part of the book that I enjoyed. The rest was a plod to the extent I wouldn’t have bothered reading beyond about page 70 if this hadn’t been the monthly book club choice. Accepting that the issues with which it deals have moved on significantly since the late 60s so didn’t have as much resonance as it did for contemporary readers, my main issues were that I didn’t feel any empathy with Marian – in fact I found her passivity tiresome – and I was lacking the sparkle that I’ve experienced in Atwood’s other works.
Here is a woman who knows that her fiance Peter treats her with little respect, almost like a child. He constantly tells her what to wear and how to act, and she is uncomfortable that his love-making gives her the feeling “she was on doctor’s examination table” or that he regularly rests his ashtray on her back as though she were a a table. Yet she doesn’t say anything or do anything to change the situation, just drifts along with the status quo.
The other characters are even less likeable; actually I found them distasteful. There’s her flatmate, Ainsley, who decides she wants to have a baby without having a husband because she thinks they ruin families. So she seduces someone, gets pregnant by him, doesn’t understand why he should be so angry about being used by her and simply tells him she wants nothing more to do with him But when she reads that children raised without fathers are liable to be homosexual, she changes her mind and begins insisting he marries her.
Another friend is married to someone who thinks the answer to the problem that educated women lose their sense of individual personality when they get married, is for her to produce lots of babies and attend the occasional evening class.
The Edible Woman launched Margaret Atwood’s as a prose writer of major significance. I’m so glad that it wasn’t the first I read by her because I would have been highly unlikely to read another. And that would have meant I missed out on gems like The Handmaiden’s Tale and Blind Assassin.