The Edible Woman and Feminist Elements: Margaret Atwood Ideas

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Feminist Elements and Ideas of Margaret Atwood in The Edible Woman

by – Ms Gur Kiran Toor (introduction at the end of the paper), Vol. III, Issue. XXVIII, May 2017



The purpose of this project is to identify Feminist Elements and Ideas of Margaret Atwood. The goal is to explore Margaret Atwood’s first novel, The Edible Woman. This has been done by reading the textbook. The Edible Woman highlights Cannibalism, suppression, Obligation to behave in a determined way and the quest to find oneself through the life of Marian, the Protagonist. Though the novel was written in 1960’s, not much has changed, it still reflects the face of our woman. Atwood reveals her concerns with feminist issues and women’s problems, such as women’s limited work opportunities, their expected goals of marriage and pregnancy, as well as the other social stereotypes and their reactions.

Keywords: Feminism, suppression, domination, cannibalism, patriarchy, self-actualization.


Feminism is both an intellectual commitment and a political movement that search for justice for woman and the termination of sexism in all forms. It is the principle that woman should be treated equal to man. And also, it is any acts or deeds, especially organised, that encourage women’s rights to move towards equality with men.

Margaret Eleanor Atwood is a renowned and honoured Canadian female novelist who is known as a feminist critic and social activist. Though Margaret Atwood denies to be a Feminist, she believes that women are oppressed in Western society

Margaret Atwood wrote The Edible Woman in 1965 and was finally brought into light in 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 a product of the movement.

The Edible Woman, is more self-indulgent grotesqueries are perhaps attributable to the youth of the author, though I would prefer to think that they derive instead from the society by which she found herself surrounded.

The Edible Woman was written by Margaret Atwood when the society was overshadowed by men. During those days, Post-war feminist movements were trying to win against patriarchal model of family and femininity. Customary gender roles such as mother, housekeeper, wife or lover were unfit for modern women. They looked for alternatives, but the only one which was offered by the social system was a position of a worker trapped in a dead-end job. Due to the paucity of any realistic possibilities to change their status in the society, women pronounced their objections, frailty and anxiety by means of their vision towards food, as a result, through their bodies. this position led to frustration, outburst and dissatisfaction among feminist.

Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman is in relation to woman and their connections to men, to society, and to food and eating. It is through the medium of food and eating that Atwood discusses a young woman’s revolt against a modern, male-dominated world. The female protagonist, Marian McAlpin, has imposed upon her and her personal definition of self; and food becomes the symbol of that struggle and her eventual rebellion. . Margaret Atwood makes use of an eating disorder as a metaphor of a revolt and protest.

Marian MacAlpin is the main protagonist of the novel, a young, victorious woman, working in market research. She was leading an idealistic life with a decent job, private life, and social relations, but when she finds out his boyfriend’s consumer nature during a talk in the restaurant, she could not eat. Marian’s initial lack of desire for food finally leads to an eating disorder, very similar to anorexia nervosa, which is her body’s response to the society’s effort of imposing its policy on the heroine. Moreover, the three parts of the novel propose the course of this eating disorder. Background causes are shown in part one, Part Two indicates the mind/body split and Part Three reflects the spontaneous declaration of the problem.

In the first part of the novel we are told that Marian is in relationship with Peter, who is good looking, attractive and ambitious. Marian thinks, ”Peter is an ideal choice. He’s attractive and he’s bound to be successful”. (chapter-10) Peter is portrayed as ” ordinariness raised to perfection”(61) whereas, Peter thinks Marian is suitable as a wife. She is undemanding and non-aggressive unlike other women. ” A girl who won’t take over his life”.(61)

The first time when Marian realizes that there is something wrong with her, is when she went out with peter to meet Len. There she finds herself crying. ” 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.”( chapter-8) . Then she hides herself under the bed so that she can ignore everyone around and live some time alone. she has no clue about what she is doing and why?

After some struggle in their relationship, Peter proposes Marian and suggest her that they should get married. Marian replies his proposal with a ”Yes”. when he asks her about the date they can get married, Marian replies,” I’d rather have you decide that. I’d rather leave the big decisions up to you.”(chapter-10) This is the point where Marian starts losing her control over her life. She starts leaning on Peter for every minor to major decisions.

As the second Part of the novel begins we notice a change in tone. That is, from first person’s perspective, ”I” to third person perspective. This suggest Marian has no control on her own

life anymore.

The second part of the novel covers the major part of the story. This is where the story reaches it’s climax point. The second part of the novel brings into focus Marian’s main problem. That is, her growing denial for food and eating that results in a disorder similar to Anorexia nervosa. For Marian food becomes a metaphor of her own body. She builds a belief that Peter is consuming her body like the way she consumes food. The idea of cannibalism makes her reject food.

After accepting the marriage proposal, Marian begins to doubt if she made the right choice or not. She began to question herself, if she was really ready to marry Peter. As at times she gets disturbed by Peter’s general behaviour and casual attitude towards sex. Sometime she feels that ”He was treating her as a stage-prop; silent but solid, a two-dimensional outline.”(71)

One after other events followed where Marian refuses to eat. The first time, when

she goes out with her colleagues, though she was starving she finds it difficult to eat. She was amazed at her own behaviour. The next time she goes out with Peter for dinner, she could not eat staeak because she feels it as a hunk of muscle. one after the other struck out of her list of eatables. Marian sees herself as week and powerless. At the end Marian starts taking vitamin pills and stops eating any food. Marian thinks of Herself as ‘weak’ because she is a woman, she could not stand and fight rather she subconsciously chooses to escape, hide and run away from the situation. Marian’s anorexic behaviour was her body reaction to the male-dominated society as she could not represent her rebellion to accept the male domination.

Marian rebellion reaches a peak point when Peter asks her to dress differently for the party. She dress herself in Red, short dress which she doubts is her.

In the third part of the novel where Marian’s problem begins to settle down. Marian no longer bounds herself. She runs away from the party to meet Duncan and make love with him in a gloomy hotel room. Marian once again starts eating. She bakes a cake and gives it a shape of a woman that symbolises the edible Woman. The ‘woman-shaped-cake’ works as a symbol of ideal woman that Peter wants Marian to be. She asks Peter to eat the cake instead he becomes furious at Marian unusual behaviour. The very moment Peter leaves, Marian feels extreme hunger and starts eating the cake. By eating that cake Marian shows her refusal to be the kind of woman others expect her to be. It is her way of saying no to the patriarchal system. She would rather consume herself than letting anyone else to consume her. Marian is satisfied with her decisions and is feeling content with her renewed personality.

And once again the point of view shifts from third person’s perspective to first person’s perspective. This suggests Marian’s regain of control over her life. She is once again self-reliant and free. She does not need to rely on Peter’s decisions.

Finally Duncan shares the cake with her. For Duncan the cake was just an edible object and nothing more than that. In the closing line of the novel, he marks it as ‘Delicious’.

The Edible Woman highlights various ideas of cannibalism, suppression, obligation to behave in a determined way and the quest to find oneself. Bringing into light various true pictures in which our society lacks behind and urge for change. Throughout the Novel we come across various encounters where we see that how a woman’s character is decided by paltry things like how they dress up, virginity, their pregnancy is considered as an act of disloyalty and how marriage is considered as a big concern. we perceive that how woman is dominated by a man in a relationship and the lack of control on her own life.

Cannibalism :

The most dominating element throughout the novel is cannibalism. Marian conceives that she is being consumed by her boyfriend as she consumes food. When sex becomes the medium of consumption, she feels caught in a sex role trap and wants to break out of or else she would lose her identity and self- respect. Through this, Atwood depicts how Women are always treated as objects for someone’s pleasure.

Workplace environment for women :

Earlier women were not provided equal job opportunities when compared to men. They had a limited scope for working. They had to work under/below men, this represents suppression. There were differences in their wage rate. Women were discriminated against in the work environment. Regardless of their capabilities to work, their knowledge and willingness to flourish they were never encouraged. Stepping up was next to impossible. Women were subject to various rules.

 The very first problem that Marian has to face was at her work place, Seymour Surveys Company. The company has three-tier system, she couldn’t work at the upper floor as only men works there neither she could work at the lower floor as only wives and old ladies works there. She finds herself trapped at the middle point of the office structure.

“I couldn’t become one of the men upstairs; I couldn’t become a machine person or one of the questionnaire-making 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.” (Chapter-2)

Pregnancy As a Compulsion

At first pregnancy is exhibited as an act of disloyalty to the company because earlier there were no rights for working women. The woman had to quit her job if she gets pregnant. “Mrs.Bogue frowned slightly: she regards pregnancy as an act of disloyalty to the company.” (chapter-3)

 Secondly, pregnancy is exhibited as a source of satisfying one’s ”deepest femininity”. According to Ainsley, ”Every woman should have at least one baby.”( chapter-5) Though Ainsley is against marriage, she does not deny motherhood. To fulfil her Dream she somehow manages to seduce Len and gets pregnant. But soon she realised that it would be difficult for her to bring up her child alone in the patriarchal society. she changes her mind, and to provide the child a father she gets married accordingly. Marian has to agree with Ainsley that ” Power of woman declines as the number of children grows.”( chapter-5)


Marriage is a woman’s destiny

Marriage is considered as a big concern. Every woman is expected to get married in a certain age and have babies. Married life is considered as an ideal life for a woman. Unmarried Woman is not supposed to have a baby else, the baby is considered as an illegitimate child. As Ainsley is against marriage and decides to have a baby, Marian” hopes this is just a whim she could get over” (chapter-5)

“I’ve never been silly about marriage the way Ainsley is. She’s against it on Principle, and life isn’t by Principles but by adjustments.” (chapter-11)

While conducting market research survey, Marian meets a man for taking his interview, she is enraged by his comment- ” you ought to be at home with some big strong man to take care of you” ( chapter-6).


women’s worth limited to their appearance

‘By reducing woman’s worth down to her appearance, we slyly diminishing her role and her value as a contributor to society’, writes Kate O’Connell.

The company where Marian works at expects their women staff to wear high heels. Moreover, at the time of Peter and Marian’s Marriage, Peter asks Marian to dress differently than the usual and suggests her to do something with her hair, so that she looks beautiful. Despite of being uncomfortable with bringing a change in her personality, she dress herself in a red gown and puts on makeup for the party just for Peter’s interest. This showed Marian’s suppression on her feelings and desires. She tries to adjust herself in the role of an ideal woman. In this episode, female space is not a place for women to accomplish their own desires, but a space created for women to fulfil the desires of men.



Introduction to the Author:

Ms Gur Kiran Toor is a research scholar at Lovely Professional University and she is continuing her research work under the supervision of Dr. Sanjay Prasad Pandey, assistant professor in the English Department.




Atwood, Margaret. The Edible Woman. Virago Press, 2009. Print.

Royanian, Shamsoddin. Metaphor of Body in Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman.

The Criterion:An International Journal In English. 2011.

Upadhyay, Mukti. Feminist Approach with reference of Margaret Atwood’s Novel. International Journal of Recent Research and Review, vol.1, March 2012.

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