“The Edible Woman” by Margaret Atwood
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The main theme in the novel entitled The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood is consumerism. To consume, as defined by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is “To take in as food; eat or drink up. To expend; use up. To purchase (goods or services) for direct use or ownership. To waste; squander. To destroy totally; ravage. To absorb; engross.” Consumerism is demonstrated throughout the novel in a variety of ways, some more subtle than others. One of the more subtle, yet most common ways Atwood displays this theme is through predator and prey imagery. Marian subconsciously sees Peter, her fiancé, as well as certain other people that surround her as predators of various types, and often sees herself as the prey. She also has an outsider’s view of her roommate, Ainsley, preying on Leonard Slank in a strategic scheme to produce a child.
The most obvious of the predators who have their sights set on Marian is her boyfriend/fiancé, Peter. While dining with Marian, Len and Ainsley, Peter tells a story about hunting vermin and how he killed and gutted a rabbit. Marian creates an image in her head of Peter gathered “with a group of friends, those friends whom [she] had never met…their faces clearly visible in the sunlight that fell in shafts down through the anonymous trees, splashed with blood, the mouths wrenched with laughter. [She] couldn’t see the rabbit” (The Edible Woman p. 75). She finds herself crying and goes to the bathroom. Locked in the cubicle, she describes the toilet paper as “crouched in there with [her], helpless and white and furry, waiting passively for the end” (p. 75). She identifies with the rabbit in the story, and could not see it in her mind because, subconsciously, she is the rabbit.
Later on the same evening, Peter proposes to Marian. Looking at him, she sees “his face strangely shadowed, his eyes gleaming like an animal’s in the beam from a car headlight. His stare was intent, faintly ominous” (p. 89). She sees him, subconsciously, as a predator waiting to pounce on her, but she doesn’t actually make the connection between how she is seeing him at this moment and how he really treats her. Marian also sees doctors and nurses as predators. She associates Peter with a doctor at times when they’re in bed together. She lets Peter “run his hand gently over her skin…almost clinically…. It was when she would begin feeling that she was on a doctor’s examination table that she would take hold of his hand to make him stop” (p. 165). She allows him to go on until she can’t stand it anymore. When they go out for a steak dinner, she watches him “operating” (p. 167) on his steak. She envisions the cow, alive, with the diagram of cuts drawn onto it. She then begins to see her own steak “as a hunk of muscle. Blood red” (p. 167).
As Peter finishes his steak, she subconsciously relates to the cow being devoured by Peter. She is unhappy at his finishing the steak, but she doesn’t actually know why. The last straw for Marian is at their engagement party. Peter asks her to “stand over there by the guns” (p.257) so that he can take her picture. The scenario creates an image of a hunter photographing his kill like a trophy. She feels, now more consciously, that if he takes the picture, she’ll be frozen there, in that moment, forever. He doesn’t get the chance to take the picture, but later gathers the crowd together for a group photo. She acts like an animal fleeing from its predator. “She could not let him catch her this time. Once he pulled the trigger she would be stopped, fixed indissolubly in that gesture, that single stance, unable to move or change” (p. 272). She associates the taking of the picture with the pulling of a trigger and being caught, killing her real self and being left with the image of the woman that Peter wants. She also realizes that she won’t be able to escape the image that Peter projects onto her after the marriage, so she decides to escape it right away.
Marian also falls prey to others in this novel. She allows herself to be used without even realizing it. At work, Marian is the one everyone goes to first to pick up the undesirable tasks. As soon as she walks into the office, Mrs. Withers, the dietician, asks Marian to taste-test the canned rice puddings because “none of the other ladies seem very hungry this morning” (p. 17). When Mrs. Bogue, the head of the department, asks her to fill in for another interviewer because “it is a long weekend and [they] don’t like to ask her” (p. 25), she hardly gives any protest. Minutes later, Lucy, a co-worker, asks her to write a letter of apology to an unsatisfied customer for her. Not only does Marian do it, she writes three versions. Marian is also used by Duncan, someone she met while doing the survey about Moose beer for Mrs. Bogue. He is unashamed of it and doesn’t try to hide it. She enters his apartment and asks where they might sit for the interview. He offers the options of the floor, kitchen or bedroom. She immediately says no to the bedroom, but they end up there anyways.
Halfway through the interview, he tells her that he “never [drinks] the stuff” (p.57), but he actually does and just didn’t want to finish the survey. All he wanted was her company. Further on in the novel, he calls her at work. She thinks that “perhaps he [needs] her. [Needs] to talk to her” (p. 147), so she postpones her dinner plans with Peter in order to go and give Duncan some laundry to do. Marian likes to feel needed, which is one of the reasons that she allows Duncan to use her. Later on in the novel, after Marian escapes from her engagement party, she goes to the laundromat to find him. She suggests that “tonight’s the night” (p. 274) and they go to a cheap motel. She was under the impression that she was the first one he’d been with, but when she asks him the next morning how it was, he replies “just as good as usual” (p. 293) He does, however, repay her in his own self-centered way. He refuses to help her confront Peter, which allows her to take control and decide who she really is.
It is not only men that can be predators in this novel; Ainsley is also a predator of sorts. She has this idea of being a single mother and wants to find just the right man to be the father. She begins gathering information on Leonard Slank, an old friend of Marian’s that she thinks might be a potential candidate for the father. She hears that he likes younger women, so she goes to the bar/restaurant dressed in a “cotton summer creation [Marian had] never seen before, a pink and light-blue gingham check on white with a ruffle around the neck. Her hair was tied behind her head with a pink bow and on one of her wrists she had a tinkly silver charm-bracelet. Her makeup was understated, her eyes carefully but not noticeably shadowed to make them twice as large and round and blue, and she had sacrificed her long oval fingernails, biting them nearly to the quick so that they had a jagged schoolgirlish quality” (p.72-73).
It is obvious the amount of careful planning that went into this meeting. She pretends that Marian invited her, but Marian knows perfectly well that she has come to inspect Len, to see if he is good enough to be the father of her child. The next day, when asked what she was doing, Ainsley tells Marian that she’s “figuring out her strategy” (p. 92). She has decided that Len is the one, analyses his personality and plans her attack accordingly. Marian describes her as “[bearing] a chilling resemblance to a general plotting a major campaign” (p. 92). Ainsley plans to have it “seem accidental. A moment of passion. [Her] resistance overcome, swept off [her] feet and so forth” (p. 92). The whole thing is very planned and structured; she even plots it on the calendar.
Two months later, Ainsley tells Marian that “it has to be tonight” because “if it isn’t tonight…[she’ll] have to get another one” (p. 130). It is obvious that there is no love in this relationship at all, Ainsley has just come across the perfect specimen and wants a child. Marian agrees to go out and see a movie while Ainsley seduces Len and when she returns, “a tie with green and blue stripes [is] hanging victoriously on the closed door of her own bedroom” (p. 140), a sign that Ainsley had promised to leave if they ended up in her room. Ainsley’s plan has worked, and she just has to wait and see if it will all be worth it.
Most of the predator and prey imagery is in Marian’s subconscious. She sees clearly what Ainsley is doing to Len, but doesn’t realize that the same thing is happening to her. This imagery is a very effective way of unifying the novel. Each character is in some way, a predator or prey. The true personality of each character is also revealed through the role they play. Marian starts out weak, then realizes that she must stand up for herself, Peter ends up without Marian because he took advantage of her too much, and Ainsley ends up being pregnant, the goal of her scheme. This imagery underlines the major theme of consumerism because each character is somehow consumed by another unless they break free, as did Marian.
Atwood, M. The Edible Woman. Toronto: The Canadian Publishers, 1969.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000