Okay, so for regular visitors to the blog, you will know that I have recently embarked on a project to read all of Margaret Atwood’s fiction in chronological order. I want to write about each book in some depth but these will never be “reviews” of the books. Many of the books that I am approaching have been read and re-read for many years – many are lauded as some of the best fiction to sit on bookshelves – you don’t need me to tell you to read them.
I want to explore Atwood as a writer, how her books communicate to me and what I enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy) about each one. I want each part of this challenge to be something unique on the blog – something that stands out from the reviews that usually populate the virtual pages.
So, I started with The Edible Woman which was originally published in 1969 and explores both gender stereotyping and society’s typical expectations. Atwood writes The Edible Woman with such a vast amount of wit that the book is, at times, brilliantly sharp and funny. While I thought this may soften the edges of any metaphor, I was relieved to walk away thinking heavily about what transpired throughout.
We follow the character of Marian McAlpin as she lives her life in a mundane job. She works, sees her boyfriend on weekends and plods through her life perfectly normal life. Marian has no worries in the opening of the novel, she has everything she needs. However, as soon as her boyfriend, Peter, proposes to her she begins to collapse both figuratively and literally.
What is incredibly interesting is the way in which Atwood tells the story. The book is split into three parts with the first and third sections being told in a first person perspective, while the middle is told from a third person. Having finished reading the book I dwelled on this aspect quite a lot. The middle section in which Marian begins to unravel seems almost schizophrenic. It’s clear that this is still Marian talking but it is as if she has drifted out of her body and can no longer control what is happening.
Her “madness” begins with her sudden inability to consume meat. She no longer wants to eat anything that once lived and breathed. As the novel progresses this affliction is transposed to other foods such as the rice inside a rice pudding. Marian begins to see the grains as small eggs which could contain life so decides (against her own will) not to eat them. Throughout the novel Marian concentrates on commercial imagery on both food and images of women and her “aversion” to eating crops up when she begins to ponder how she “should” look for her husband. At an office party she looks at the older (married) women and thinks “You were green and then you ripened: became mature. Dresses for the mature figure. In other words, fat.”
One has to see Marian as becoming scared or paranoid at what her life could become. She fears a loss of control, possibly and uses this alternate Marian to deal with the situation. Marian begins to alienate herself from her boyfriend by pursuing a relationship with a student called Duncan. He expects nothing of her; she puts on no façade and soon becomes utterly comfortable with him. The silences which are strained with her Peter become almost a comfort with Duncan.
It is thought that the schizophrenic narration explains Marian’s loss of identity. Marian believes that she will be oppressed by Peter by his outlandish personality and the control he wields over his life. His surroundings are often pristine, organised and expensive. Whereas her times with Duncan are spent in sleazy hotel rooms, dorm rooms littered with paper and rubbish… they are carefree.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of the novel is how Atwood studies genre stereotyping. This is particularly apparent in Duncan’s roommates whom he refers to as his Mom and Dad figures and also Marian’s landlady.
The landlady is the ultimate female stereotype and is often pestering Marian and her roommate, Ainsley, about their drinking – however casual – as well as their behaviour in the bathroom, the way they act in front of her child and with men around the house. She is an oppressive force and only heightens Marian’s template of what she “should” be. The landlady seems to believe that all women should be seen and not heard. They are there to be married and procreate, with as little impact on the world as possible.
Atwood explores the situation further with Fish and Trevor, Duncan’s roommates. In one scene Marian is invited back to their dorm room for dinner as they want to meet the woman who is “seeing” Duncan. Trevor takes the part of Mom, Fish becomes Dad and Marian almost plays the role of an awkward boyfriend. Soon we have Marian afraid to offend or put a foot wrong, Fish is discussing highbrow literature and Trevor is showing off his cooking skills and china set which was handed down through his family.
I loved how Atwood reversed the roles so radically while not only making the scene believable but also relatable to the audience. It’s in these twists that the humour comes through and while Atwood is in fact dealing with many topics via metaphor she still leaves you entertained.
Every character in the novel deals with each topic differently. In Ainsley we see a woman who wants to fall pregnant with anyone she can because she believes it’s her right to have a child. She longs to be a mother and soon entraps a man for the job. Her morals are scandalous but also paint a picture of what was expected from women at the time. On the flipside we have Marian’s friend Clara who dropped her normal life to marry and have three children. She is the epitome of what Marian could become and, again, heightens the fear. Marian describes Clara as saying “Her metaphors for her children included barnacles encrusting a ship and limpets clinging to a rock.” One can see how Marian would find fear in such a statement.
This “need” for matrimonial attachment is again found in the “office virgins” with whom Marian works and they are seen as being desperate for a man, any man, to sweep them out of the office and into the bedroom… then kitchen.
Atwood describes the book as protofeminist because when she wrote the book (1965) she was anticipating what feminism would become. The book carries an interesting message that is actually as relevant today as it was in the 60’s. Despite the brilliance of the writing of the cast, you can hear Atwood’s voice throughout. This is no bad thing, it shows that with her debut novel Margaret was confident in herself, her views and her writing and I love her for it.
Although I want to delve into the ending and how Marian deals with her problems, I want to urge everyone to read it and hence don’t want to spoil the finale – which is both clever and slyly funny. This was my first proper experience of a Margaret Atwood novel and I utterly enjoyed it. I can’t wait to see how she grows both in writing and voice throughout the rest of the project.
*It’s worth noting that everything above is my own perception of the metaphor and plot, and is of course very basic (I am no expert in any field and am just an everyday reader). If you want to read more about the book and ideas within then please check out the following essays and links*