The Edible Woman Essay, Research Paper
The Self of women, of Marian Mc Alpin s time the 1960 s, is reduced to purchasable goods. The beauty of women is celebrated in terms of the riches that are comparable to her: her eyes are blue sapphires; her brow is ivory; and her lips are ruby. She is not only available for sale, but also for consumption: her skin is white as milk; her lips are sweet as honey. This consumer emphasis in the novel peaks when Marian transmutes into the truest feminine stereotype by donning a flashy red dress and painting her face with many layers of cosmetics. She has done this at her fianc , Peter s request to dress better than usual at his party that night. Marian begins to fear that this new guise is a change that Peter wants to make permanent. Women in the sixties were only just emerging from their self-accepted role in the house, and men had not yet realised that women were their equals. This party is the breaking point for Marian. She rebels against what she believes to be Peter s image of the female stereotype with a cleansing ritual in which she portrays herself as edible. Marian s impression is that Peter would delight in her being edible because destroying and consuming her would be faster and easier for him. Marian Mc Alpin s experience is an example of what women have to fight against and deal with in a male-dominated society that women perpetuate by continuing to submit to the female stereotype. The novel concentrates mainly on consumerism, feminism, stereotyping and rebellion. Marian may seem at first to be an extraordinary woman, a rare case, but in fact, she exemplifies the majority of women in that time.
Margaret Atwood s introduction to Marian s world is filled with metaphors and images of food. Marian loves to eat and describes her meals and love of eating with great relish. She takes us passionately through her breakfast and describes her meals in great detail. Images of food prevail: the fan in her office is like a spoon stirring soup ; people s voices remind her of cold oatmeal porridge (48); pregnant woman look like recently fed boa constrictors; and so on. She works in an establishment that deals with finding out consumer s opinions on food and drink. It seems as if food is a very big part of Marian s life, and it is. The many references to food and Marian s enjoyment of it show the reader that she is an eager consumer in a capitalistic society where food is the victim. Through part one of the novel, Marian speaks in the first person as she is in control of her life and independent. However, in part two, we see a sharp change from the first person voice to that of the third person. This change is simultaneous with her engagement to Peter. Marian ceases to be the independent woman we were introduced to and throws herself into the role of wife-to-be. When Peter asks her what date she wants to be married by, she replies -
But instead (of my usual flippant answer) I heard a soft flannelly voice I barely recognised, saying, I d rather leave the big decisions up to you. I was astounded at myself. I d never said anything like that to him before. The funny thing was I really meant it. (98)
Marian has surrendered her control over her life to Peter, who is the embodiment of society s traditional prejudices towards women. She begins to fashion her character after the accepted stereotype of a woman. As she loses her self worth, the images of food are also lost. Their replacement is a dark series of references to doctors and nurses treating submissive patients and images of animals who prey on and fall prey to each other. At the hairdresser s, she sees herself as a passive patient at the hands of capable and all knowing doctors. Her friend s account of the men she has conquered brings an image of a trophy room with stuffed heads to her mind. Marian has fallen from her place as a consumer in society and become prey. This new role which she has assumed prevents her from eating for she begins to see her food as living entities. The food is a victim in consumer society, and she cannot consume it for she now also a victim.
Marian thinks of herself and Peter s upcoming marriage as more of a business contract than one of love. She thinks of Peter as being nicely packaged (162).
So much of it (marriage) is a matter of elemental mechanical detail, such as furniture and meals and keeping things in order. But Peter and I should be able to set up a very reasonable arrangement. (111)
Peter also sees the engagement as a purchase. He sounded as though he had just bought a shiny new car. (96) Marian plays to Peter s notion, she says, I gave him a tender chrome-plated smile; that is, I meant the smile to express tenderness, but my mouth felt stiff and dry and somehow expensive. (96) As Marian proceeds more and more with this charade, the less she can consume. Finally, at the end of the novel after Peter s final party, she cannot eat anything at all. Marian has reached the point where she must do something about her condition. She realises that her aversion to food was because of her victimisation and she blames Peter for this. However, though she believes that Peter had been trying to assimilate her, she also is guilty of trying to absorb him. She had said I could feel the stirrings of the proprietary instinct. So this object, then, belonged to me. (97) Marian forgot that she had made a willing entrance into a society of male sovereignty. Her body s refusal to eat was a direct result of her rejection of the role as a consumer first as a consumer of food, then as a member of consumer society.
Whenever Marian tries to disengage herself from her role as a fianc e and wife-to-be, she is told by someone that she is rejecting her femininity. There are many different concepts of feminism and femininity in the novel. Indeed, it seems as if every person we meet has their own idea. Ainsley, Marian s irrelevant roommate, has twisted notions of feminine strength. She believes that exploiting men is an expression of being liberated because she is reversing previous roles. She sees men s chauvinistic behaviour as uterus envy . Joe, on the other hand, sees educated women as unfortunate souls.
I think it s harder for any woman who has been to university. She gets the idea that she has a mind, her professors pay attention to what she has to say, they treat her like a thinking human being; when she gets married, her core gets invaded .Her core, her image of herself. Her feminine role and her core are really in opposition, her feminine role demands passivity from her so she allows her core to get taken over by the husband. And when the kids come, she wakes up one morning and discovers she doesn t have anything left inside, she s hollow, she doesn t know who she is anymore it would be futile to warn them though. (261)
Peter thinks of the feminine woman as one who is seen and not heard. He tells Marian after an outburst of hers, Ainsley behaved herself properly, why couldn t you? (87) Females are seen by Len as possessing an inherent insolence and as all being clawed scaly predatory whoring fucking bitches . There is a multitude of beliefs of what the woman is like, but whether she is innocent and na ve; hollow and devoid of intellect; abusive and exploiting; or an ugly predator, she is always oppressed and in captivity. She can never be free to be her own person, she must always be a person as relating to someone else.
In part one and two of the novel, Marian conducts herself in the manner that is socially acceptable. She is abnormally normal. However, the more that Marian tries to mould herself into the stereotype of the perfect woman, the less she is able to consume. The new role that was offered to her with her engagement fits her no better than the red dress and the borrowed jewellery she had worn at Peter s party. After her engagement, Marian alienates herself at work, at her home and even to herself. This detachment is amplified by the switch in voice to the third-person. She begins to think of her own body as an it , a separate existence from herself. This is understandable because Marian consciously wants and longs to eat, but her body does not allow her to. She says mournfully to herself that, Whatever it was that had been making these decisions, not her mind certainly, rejected anything that had an indication of bone or tendon or fibre. Her detachment at work is noted with favour by her superiors and co-workers because her lack of involvement gives her a level head. Thank- goodness for Marian, they d say. She never lets herself get out of control. (119)
After spending the night with Duncan, Marian later comes to believe that Peter was trying to destroy her. She concocts a cake that is shaped and decorated like a woman. She tells the cake. You look delicious. Very appetising. And that s what will happen to you; that s what you get for being food. (300) Marian may have been admitting at this point that Peter s consumption of her had only been at her invitation. That, if she had become a victim in a consumer society, she could only expect to be eaten. However, if this is true, she does not remain objective for long. She brings the cake outside, and kneeling in front of Peter she says,
You ve been trying to destroy me haven t you. You ve been trying to assimilate me. But, I ve made you a substitute, something you ll like much better. This is what you really wanted all along, isn t it? I ll get you a fork. (301)
Peter represents a patriarchal society. His shock and fear of Marian s gesture are therefore expected. If women were to all refuse to be the victim in society, our society would be greatly dismayed. Marian has once again embraced her role as a consumer. She is now free of the oppressive stereotype she had been submitting to. Her body rejoices in this freedom by allowing her to eat the edible woman. Marian is so emancipated that she pays no heed to Ainsley s horrified shouts of Marian! You are rejecting your femininity! (302) when Ainsley discovers Marian devouring the cake. Marian has finally discovered that femininity does not have to be what society deems it to be, and she responds to Ainsley s outcry at the symbolism by saying Nonsense, it s only cake. (303)
Margaret Atwood has given us an analysis of the struggle for recognition of equality for women in the 1960 s. However, she has also pointed out that part of the struggle is the fault of women. Due to the women s inane acceptance of prescribed inferior roles, they only entrapped themselves further. Atwood suggested that there were many forms of rebellion open to women if only they would choose to take them instead of passively submitting to a traditional male sovereign. This novel was written in 1969, just a few years after the last baby boomers were born. Marian had decided, as a matter of course, to resign from her job when she was married. In 1967, dual income couples were only at 35% . Marian s decision would be a normal one. However, by 1997, the figure was 74%. Marian should have decided to fight against the prejudice that married women could not work. In the mid 1960 s, women comprised only 25% of all workers, by the early 1990 s, the figure was 45%. These vast improvements are due to women refusing to accept that they were not equal to men. Marian let herself be made into a victim. It was not Peter s fault that she rejected her role as a consumer, the fault was her own.