The Edible Woman Essay, Research Paper
Achieving Personal Identity in Atwood?s The Edible Woman
In the novel, The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood, the principal character Marian McAlpine establishes a well-integrated and balanced personality by rejecting the domination of social conventions, and conquering her own passivity. Through this process to self-awareness, Atwood uses imagery and symbolism to effectively parallel Marian?s journey and caricatures to portray the roles of the ?consuming? society.
As Marian stands at a pivotal point in her life, she examines and rejects the roles presented to her by society in order to achieve self-knowledge. She is 26 years old with her education behind her. She has her first job as well as, her boyfriend Peter Wollander, who is the last bachelor of his friends. Thus, Marian begins to contemplate her future and the type of woman she will become. Working at Seymour Surveys for four months, she is eligible and obliged to contribute a Pension Plan. Marian is forced to inspect her future at the company. Atwood uses the image of an ice cream sandwich to represent the structure of the company and it?s exploitation of women. Only men get the ?upper crust? positions on the top floor of the office building; machines and their operators form a kind of modern slave labour on the bottom floor. ?The gooey layer in the middle?(p.12) is almost entirely made up of women who are housewives working for low pay in their spare time. Marian can only hope to become the head or assistant of her department like Mrs. Bogue, leading to a future as a retired spinster. This role is the first she rejects.
Another option is presented in the three ?office virgins?, a trio of dyed blondes who represent society?s stereotype of a young woman. They intend to stay virgins till marriage and travel before settling down. They dress femininely and wear artful make-up which Atwood compares to a baited lure for ?ravenous as pike? businessmen. Marian is uncomfortable with the look of these women and the stereotype they represent.
Marian also explores the image of herself as a wife and mother, through her pregnant friend Clara. Atwood compares Clara to ? a boa-constrictor who swallowed a water-melon?(p.25). Clara?s body represents the way in which a woman?s body can get out of control, if she allows nature to take its course. Clara, as Marian sees, is littering the world with children for no specific purpose. Consequently, Clara becomes a vegetable unable to think for herself or to concentrate. Marian rejects Clara?s version of a woman?s role because she thinks it is irresponsible and precarious.
A fourth alternative is her roommate, Ainsley, who represents the predatory female. Atwood characterises her as a combination of military general and inert vegetable growth. Ainsley plots to impregnate her self through Len Shank and raise the child alone, then later tries to force him into marriage. To Marian, Ainsley is far to dominating and immoral.
In rejection of these roles, Marian is left in an empty state and succumbs to irrational behaviour due to her lack of self-knowledge. Marian?s engagement to Peter intensifies her anxieties about the future. Prior to his proposal, Marian hears a hunting story of Peter?s; he describes killing and gutting a rabbit. Irrationally, Marian feels a panic as in tense as a hunted animal as she identifies with the rabbit. She runs from Peter, an action she does not understand. Atwood illustrates that she is afraid of becoming a victim of Peter?s, like the rabbit. Later that evening, she hides under the sofa bed in Len?s apartment. Atwood presents this irrational gesture of escape with overtones of a rabbit burrowing or the desire to return to an uncomplicated life of the womb. Marian?s instinctive mechanisms of escape are conquered by Peter?s urge as a predator. Marian allows herself to be conquered, thus following society?s expectations of a woman. Accordingly, she accepts Peter proposal and says, ?I?d rather leave all the big decisions up to you?(p.87) to the wedding plans.
Marian?s engagement identifies her main impediment to an integrated personality: her excessive passivity. At work, she does things that are not part of her job. At home, she lets Ainsley and the landlady intimidate her. She even cleans the tub for Ainsley so the landlady will not get mad. She lets Peter tell what to do and when to do it. For example; she agrees to make love in the tub even through she finds it uncomfortable. Once Marian accepts Peter?s proposal, her personality splits; a division, which Atwood shows through Marian?s switch from first person to third person.
As Marian?s personality dissolves, so does her appetite. Her passive and irrational behaviour leads her to start rejecting certain foods starting with meat, then eggs and finally vegetables. Marian begins to have a pre-occupation with the action of eating. As Marian notices the way Peter is cutting his meat she observes:
She watched the capable hands holding the knife and fork, slicing precisely with an exact adjustment of pressures. Watching him operate on the steak like that, carving a straight slice then dividing it into neat cubes, made her think of the diagram of the planned cow at the front of one of her cookbooks: the cow with lines on it and labels to show you from which part of the cow all the different cuts were taken. She looked down at her own half-eaten steak and suddenly saw it as a hunk of muscle. Blood red. Part of a cow that had once moved and ate and was killed. She set down her knife and fork. ‘God,’ she thought to herself, ‘I hope this isn’t permanent; I’ll starve to death!’ (p.152)
Her engagement to Peter makes her identify with the things being consumed, an identification, which draws her to a secret relationship with the gaunt Ducan. This relationship further splits her personality. Atwood symbolises her personality split with two dolls from Marian?s childhood. One half of her is represented by a blond-rubber doll that is pulled towards society and image of a pretty wife for Peter. An older dark haired doll represents the other half of her, which is drawn away from society?s ideal towards the amoeba like Ducan. Marian tries to live out each life, playing the ?Florence Nightingale? on call comforter for Ducan and donning a sequinned red dress and elaborate hair-do for Peter?s party.
Her life in the two roles is ended when she discovers the reality of the two men, and successively she discovers the truth about herself. At the party, she discovers Peter?s hidden self, as ?a homicidal maniac with lethal weapon in his hands?(p.255). She flees to Ducan where she discovers that he too, is part of the victim \ predator game. Ducan tricks Marian into sleeping with him by appearing helpless. Marian realises he was not corrupted by her, but acting innocent so she would give motherly attention. Once again, she passively allowed a person to manipulate her.
As a result, Marian comes to the realisation that Peter is trying to destroy her and Ducan is just looking for attention. She decides to act and no longer be acted upon. She asserts herself by baking a sponge cake in the likeness of the ?ideal? woman. She serves it to Peter who considers her crazy and runs off. Marian?s appetite returns and she eats the cake destroying the commercial image of society and becoming a whole person. Atwood shows her integration by resuming the text in first person. She is back to where she began before her engagement to Peter. She is capable of thinking for herself and making choices accordingly. She has becomes self-aware.
Marian achieves self-knowledge by asserting against her passivity and rejecting Atwood?s caricatures of the roles of the underpaid worker, the ideal of femininity, the mother \ wife oppressed by her reproductive function, the over-aggressive predator, the lover alienated by her emotions and the manipulated caregiver. With her future now on her plate, her journey has come full circle back to her ?so-called reality? where she can carve her own destiny.
Atwood, Margaret, The Edible Woman, Seal Books \ McClelland-Bantam, Inc., 1978, p12, 25, 87, 152, 255.