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Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Edible Woman, is centralized around a character named Marian McAlpin who loses her sense of identity because of her relationship with a man. During the course of her mental deterioration she develops an eating disorder and food becomes the only thing that she seems to have any sort of control over. Marian therefore develops the inability to eat, beginning with only some things such as red meat, but progressing on to eggs, then vegetables, and eventually on to everything else. Subconsciously, Marian quits eating because food is the one thing left that she has control over when her world has, in her perception, become completely chaotic.
The eating disorder that Marian develops is none other than anorexia. One explanation of anorexia says,
Eating disorders often start out as just a diet, a way to try to regain some self-esteem and control. Control is an important factor when it comes to ED's and this is especially true of anorexia. The sufferer may feel as though their life is, or has been, out of control and that this control can somehow be rediscovered by regulating their food and weight. (http://www.pale-reflections.com/anorexia.asp)
Marian’s character at the beginning of the novel is a strong willed, independent woman with a rather mediocre job at a company called Seymore Surveys. Marian works primarily with other women and realizes that she is in a rut with the company, asking, “What, then, could I expect to turn into at Seymore Survey’s?” (Atwood 14). Even though Marian is somewhat unhappy with her career, her downfall actually begins when she accepts her boyfriend, Peter’s, marriage proposal. It is at this point that Marian feels she is losing power. This loss of control is not only because she will be sharing her life with someone else and moving out of her apartment with Ainsley, but also because she will inevitably lose her stagnant job. The company that Marian works for historically does not employ women who are married, and Marian knows (and is correct) that once it is found out that she is engaged she will be asked to resign.
At the beginning of the novel Marian comments, “I expect that’s why I can never take a second drink without a mental image of a warning sign printed in coloured crayons and connected with the taste of tepid communion grape juice. This puts me at a disadvantage with Peter; he likes me to try to keep up with him” (9). The fact the Marian immediately acknowledges that Peter has certain expectations of her lends to the fact that she is beginning to feel the need to be someone that Peter wants her to be as opposed to living according to her own expectations and beliefs.
Marian’s perception of marriage from the very beginning of the novel is negative. For instance, when Peter’s best friend announces his marriage, Marian explains,
Trigger was one of Peter’s old friends; in fact, he had been the last of Peter’s group of oldest friends still left unmarried. It had been like an epidemic. Just before I’d met him two had succumbed, and in the four months since that another two had gone under without much warning. (Atwood 22)
The fact that Marian refers to marriage first of all as an epidemic makes it obvious that she finds the idea of marriage disconcerting. She thinks of the sudden boom in marriage around her as something of a spreading disease. Also, Marian says that two of Peter’s friends had “succumbed.” In other words, two of his friends had finally given in to marriage, again proving a rather negative connotation. She explains further that two other friends of Peter had “gone under” and gotten married as well. “Gone under” also has a negative connotation, implying that they were somehow forced into the inevitable act. Of course, Marian is not the only character in the novel with a negative view of marriage, instead, this perception is a prevailing theme throughout the novel. Ainsley, for instance, has the idea that she wants to have a baby but raise it alone because she does not want the interference of a man. Duncan also sees marriage as something of a burden. In one conversation Marian reminds him that she is getting married very soon. To this Duncan replies simply, “That’s your problem” (206).
A major indication that Marian is enduring some psychological dysfunction is the change in point of view after part one of the novel. The novel begins in first person, indicating the strength of Marian’s character. In part two, however, the novel abruptly switches to third person point of view. As Peel states,
“The answer seems to life in the female protagonists’ uneasy view of themselves as both subject and object, both self and other. First person point of view presents the protagonist as subject (at least of narration); and sharp alternation between the two vividly presents her unease” (Peel 108).
The switch occurs when Marian first feels that she is losing her identity by accepting Peter’s marriage proposal. This is the point at which she begins to mentally break down, and her eating habits start to change.
The first time Marian begins to act abnormally is after a small gathering of Peter, Len, Ainsley, and herself. She has been uncomfortable the entire night, and realizes that her relationship with Peter is more serious than she knows how to handle. She explains when they leave the bar, “I took Peter’s arm and we walked on ahead. Ainsley had cut Len out from the herd and was allowing him to keep her safely behind. On the street the air was cooler; there was a slight breeze. I let go of Peter’s arm and began to run” (Atwood 73). It seems odd that Marian, who previously could have been perceived as quite level headed, takes off running the way she does. Her running symbolizes her need to get away from Peter and from her relationship with him. At this point, she is losing control of her actions because of Peter. Running away from him is not only her first mental breakdown, but also an attempt to salvage some sort of control. She runs partly to get away, but partly to make Peter, Ainsley, and Len chase after her. This is proven when she says, “I was out of breath already, but I had a good head start on them. I could afford to slow down. Each lamp post as I passed it became a distance-marker on my course; it seemed an achievement, and accomplishment of some kind to put them on by one behind me” (75). Her accomplishment of getting further and further away from Peter and her friends is not only a feat because she is forcing distance between Peter and herself, but also because she is asserting control over all of them.
It is in part two, when the narration switches to third person, that Marian begins to develop an eating disorder. It is at this point that “Marian is now defined as other and object. Expressed by her loss of narrative authority, Marian’s escalating loss of self is accompanied by increasing loss of appetite” (Bromberg 279). Marian’s anorexia is caused by her threatened sense of identity and her loss of control. Once she makes the decision to marry Peter, she begins to feel that she is no longer in charge of her life. As Bromberg reiterates, “Atwood’s parodic subversion of the marriage plot becomes obvious in the novel’s long second section, as Marian step by step loses her identity as an independent, active self and drifts passively toward her fatal metamorphosis into Peter’s wife” (Bromberg 279). Food becomes the only thing that Marian can maintain control over, so she subconsciously begins to limit what she can and cannot eat.
One of the first moments when Marian notices a problem with her eating habits is during her lunch with her coworkers. The narrator explains, “Marian was surprised at herself. She had been dying to go for lunch, she had been starving, and now she wasn’t even hungry. She had a cheese sandwich” (Atwood 119). Although Marian really is hungry, she can make the choice not to eat. She is learning to control her hunger, her food choices, and her body. Later in the novel, the narrator comments of Marian, “She had never been a picky eater, she had been brought up to eat whatever was on her plate; she hadn’t even balked at such things as olives and asparagus and clams, that people say you have to learn to like” (223). At this point in her life, however, Marian can choose not to eat everything on her plate, whether it is a food she would enjoy eating or not. Instead of acting the way in which she was raised, Marian subconsciously asserts control over her eating habits.
Along with her eating disorder, Marian’s self-image changes drastically. She begins to feel that her soul and her body have been separated, and that she no longer has an identity of her own. For instance, in one scene the narrator describes Marian in the bathtub, saying, “Looking down, she became aware of the water, …and of the body that was sitting in it, somehow no longer quite her own. All at once she was afraid that she was dissolving” (240). Marian is seeing herself more and more as and object as less as a person. Later in the novel the narrator asks the question, “and who was that tiny two-dimensional small figure in a red dress, posed like a paper woman in a mail order catalogue, turning and smiling, fluttering in the white empty space…. This couldn’t be it; there had to be something more” (Atwood 268).
Marian also regains her control with food. Towards the end of the novel, she bakes a cake that resembles herself. It is in the shape of a woman, and she decorates the cake to make that woman look extremely feminine. This, she feels, is the way in which Peter wishes she would be. She presents the cake to Peter for him to eat, waiting for him to devour it as he has already attempted to “devour” her. Marian says to Peter upon presenting him with the cake, “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” (Atwood 299). After this incident, Peter leaves. Marian succeeds in ending the relationship and regaining her independence.
After this experience, Marian experiences a significant breakthrough. The third person narrator explains,
Suddenly she was hungry. Extremely hungry. The cake after all was only a cake. She picked up the platter, carried it to the kitchen table and located a fork. ‘I’ll start with the feet,’ she decided. She considered the first mouthful. It seemed odd but most pleasant to be actually tasting and chewing and swallowing again. Not bad, she thought critically; needs a touch more lemon though. (Atwood 300)
It is in this moment that Marian regains control over herself. She has ended her relationship with Peter and can therefore start eating again. Marian’s eating the cake is another symbol in itself. It symbolizes Marian devouring an old self, a self that she was rather unhappy with and was not in control over. She consumes this less desirable version of herself, and can finally be independent again. Only pages later, the novel reverts back to Marian’s first person narration. The narration change signifies that Marian has regained her identity as well as her sense of control over the world. As narrator she even remarks, “Now that I was thinking of myself in the first person singular again I found my own situation much more interesting than his” (306). Obviously, Marian realizes that she is regaining control over her life and is recovering her self-esteem.
Atwood’s, The Edible Woman basically ends full-circle. As Ellen Peel explains, “The ending of The Edible Woman has often been interpreted as positive, and indeed Marian has escaped her stultifying engagement to Peter” (Peel 112). Marian McAlpin is strong and mostly in control of her life at the beginning of the novel, though she comes out even more in control in the end. Her eating disorder is an attempt to maintain some sort of control in a world in which the men rule, and in her case, a world in which Peter rules. It is not clear why Marian accepts Peter’s proposal, but it can certainly be inferred that it has something to do with societal expectations of women during this time period. Marian eventually escapes these constructs, and regains complete control over her life.