The Edible Woman

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The cultural attitudes of 1960s North America towards gender roles and marriage are typified in the characters of the ‘office virgins’ Marian works with at Seymour Surveys. They are all, as their nickname implies, virgins, who believe that sex belongs only in marriage. Lucie fears what people would say, while Emmy, the “office hypochondriac” (16), thinks it would make her sick. Their life plans are all similar: to travel, get married, settle down and quit their jobs. As Rebecca Goldblatt explains in her essay "Reconstructing Margaret Atwood's Protagonists," these women are typical of the time period in which The Edible Woman was written and can be assumed to take place. They are "young women blissfully building their trousseaus and imagining a paradise of silver bells and picket fences" (275). Goldblatt continues, "these women search for a male figure, imagining a refuge. Caught up in the romantic stereotypes that assign and perpetuate gender roles, each girl does not doubt that a man is the solution to her problems” (276). The other women in the novel also experience these patriarchy-influenced attitudes towards the institution of marriage, although they deal with them in different ways. Marian, in particular, experiences significant difficulties in her encounter with her boyfriend Peter.

The exchanges that occur between the Marian and Peter reveal a great deal about the imbalance of power associated with male and female gender roles in the novel. Atwood creates associations between femininity and victimization in Marian’s mind, as becomes apparent via Peter’s discourse at the bar of the Park Place hotel involving a hunting story told to Len. Peter recounts the tale, telling how he “let her off and Wham. One shot, right through...

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...o avoid becoming a victim. On a symbolic level, Marian’s eating disorder can be seen as an attempt to detach herself from this cycle in order to avoid being processed or digested by society. In her mind, if she does not take in the raw materials, she cannot be consumed by society and turned into something she doesn’t want to become.

Marian’s creation of the cake-woman, the inspiration behind the book’s title, symbolically unites the various elements of her struggle. Firstly, it makes explicit the connections between femininity and victimization. The cake-woman is the ultimate victim; she is literally consumable. And secondly, it serves as a definitive statement of her rebellion against societal pressures to conform to patriarchy-influenced gender roles. Marian ices the cake with a red dress, much the same as the red dress that signaled her surrender to Peter.
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