The Edible Woman (1969) is the Canadian author Margaret Atwood's debut novel. It follows the story of Marian MacAlpin, a young woman who develops an eating disorder that makes food inedible for her. Through this character, Atwood cleverly shows that the pressures put on women by the society can have severely adverse effects on their bodies and psyches. Despite being written in the late 60s, it is still considered a classic today due to its nuanced approach in terms of composition style and intricate portrayal of the protagonist and her mental taxation.
In the novel, Marian lives with Ainsley Tewce, her roommate and a sort of “intellectual” woman who has interests in learning about the human mind and its developmental progress. Through her predicaments, the novel captures the true essence of psychological deterioration, sexual dissatisfaction and also identity crisis. Their landlady, here, happens to be a prying woman who keeps on attempting to confine the concerned lodgers within boundaries. She has a ridiculous excuse—the teenager who is under her care will be influenced wrongly through her tenants' 'immoral' activities. In addition, Marian is portrayed as a jobholder at a food sampling company who gets engaged to her boyfriend, Peter Wollander, a young businessperson. One defining preoccupation of her schedule revolves around visiting her perpetually pregnant friend, Clara Bates, who got married to Joe and therefore, had to drop out of high school. The antagonistic rendezvous of Clara's fate, in a parallel connection makes Marian feel constantly frustrated and underwhelmed.
Marian's actual deterioration, however, begins after the engagement as she feels that her would-be husband wishes to control her, and manipulate her into becoming someone else. At the same time, she is troubled when Ainsley traps her womanising friend, Len Slank into a futile relationship for a baby born out of lovelessness. She feels further distressed and restless, being coerced one way or another to be in an emotionally imbalanced and dissatisfying relationship. Later in the novel, she meets an emaciated, self-absorbed graduate student named Duncan but withdraws herself from her brief affair with this classic narcissist rather wisely.
Marian's eating disorder begins at a dinner with Peter, when she visualizes the steak as "knocked on the head,”standing in a queue like “someone waiting for a streetcar." She feels that eating meat is equal to cannibalism. As far as a thematic exploration of the novel is concerned, this particular tendency of self-inflicted starvation serves as a way for her to distance herself from unreasonable societal expectations. She feels constantly pressured to conform to things she does not admire and this affects her ability to eat food, putting her own life at risk. Marian knows this is unhealthy and she does consciously attempt to follow a hygienic routine again and again. However, she fails to identify why she is so reluctant to live a life in the first place. She is not interested in dieting, nor is she interested to be the ideal image of a woman.
Here, the title is a clear pun on how the mass mind tends to 'feed on' women both literally and metaphorically, by their pathetic sexism and misogynic mind-frames. Marian cannot confide in either Ainsley, Clara, Peter or even Duncan and is faced with a perennial disappointment. She also notices that Peter judges her for the most mundane of things imaginable, taking advantage of her being a passive spectator. And even though she does not always have a clear response, when she is ready to have one towards the end, it is shocking, visceral and almost a spectacle to behold.
Towards the end, Marian gets liberty when she is willing to accept that she does not have to be defined by the stereotypical standard 'x'. She does not have to understand, nor does she need to participate in things she has no feelings for. She forgoes also her reliance on Duncan as an option B for love, leaves Ainsley and Len to their own devices and stops worrying about the landlady. She even desires a better career without feeling inadequate, unwomanly or guilty as charged.
The novel is still relevant today because of its consummate representation of significant socio-cultural issues, such as, sexism, male privileges and also idealisation of female bodies and gender roles. Marian realises Duncan can act aloof and eccentric because he is a young man who is not held responsible for anything. She also realises that Peter is wrapped up with himself and his personal problems precisely because that is how society expects him to be. Ainsley's preoccupation with motherhood and Clara's own are almost two sides of the same coin. One is for research purposes and the other is for attaining some false sense of unity. Both are destined to fail when the women in question deny that they, too, need attention, care and mostly, respect for themselves.
The novel is a good read for young adults and mature audiences likewise, as it talks of issues that we consciously tend to avoid: nervous breakdowns, eating disorders and the sense of identity dissociation that comes with mental illness. A book of its time, Edible Woman still echoes today, loudly and clearly for the relevancy of the affairs it successfully depicted.
Zarin Rafiuddin lives in Dhaka and is interested in different kinds of writing.