[...] I heard a soft flannelly voice I barely recognized, saying, "I'd rather have you decide that. I'd rather leave the big decisions up to you." I was astounded at myself. I'd never said anything remotely like that to him before. The funny thing was I really meant it.
Margaret Atwood is a bit of a favourite here at Alexandria; since this blog was launched, in February of last year, we have discussed three of her books (more than any other author). For me, it's the combination of strong thematic resonances, playful use of language, page-turning plotting and a certain streak of mordant humour that makes her so compelling as a novelist. The Edible Woman (1969) was her first published novel. In an introduction written in 1979, she labels it "proto-feminist" (since it was written some years before the rise of the women's movement); we might also read it as proto-Atwood, in the sense that many of the qualities I've mentioned may be glimpsed here, unfolding.
The Edible Woman focuses on Marian, a level-headed young university graduate working in market research, and her rather desultory relationship with her rather desultory boyfriend, Peter. Marian and Peter eventually get engaged, largely because they both see it as the thing to do - the thing everyone is doing - despite the fact that what is between them seems less like affection than habit and convenience. Peter sees marriage as a trap, a sad but inevitable end to the freedom of youth (a view that is far from unique among the novel's characters):
"Trigger" - his voice choked - "Trigger's getting married."
"Oh," I said. I thought of saying "That's too bad," but it didn't seem adequate. There was no use in sympathizing as though for a minor mishap when it was really a national disaster. [...]
Trigger was one of Peter's oldest 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.
The engagement underway, however, Marian begins, in her quiet and measured way, to panic. Her attack of cold feet manifests in two ways: firstly, the narrative voices switches from first- to third-person (emphasising her dislocation and lack of control, though the viewpoint is still hers), and secondly she finds herself unable to eat.
"[T]his thing, this refusal of her mouth to eat" is not simply a loss of appetite brought on by bridal nerves, although it is undoubtedly based on that. Day by day, she 'loses' more and more of the foods she once loved. Whenever she thinks of the contents of her plate as more than just generic food - whenever she begins, helplessly, to empathise with a foodstuff as a once-living thing that has been reduced to a commodity to be passively consumed - her stomach rebels and she cannot eat it thereafter.
The parallels with other areas of her life - of all the female characters' lives - are loud and clear. (Not least, the fact that Marian works in an industry - market research - that is ostensibly geared in large part towards women's tastes, and whose footsoldiers are mostly women, but which is controlled and directed at its highest levels by men, and which is ultimately about exploiting and commodifying).
Habit and convenience are the watchwords for most of the characters. For the women, marriage means stability, security and normality. Marian's new status is greeted with the termination of her employment by her superiors (since a married woman has, presumably, no need for the independence of her own income, and a whole host of new duties at home...), and with envy by her unmarried female colleagues, who are constantly on the lookout for eligible bachelors who might end the uncertainty of their singleton lives. They are also, Atwood tells us with an early showing of her sardonic humour,
all virgins - Millie from a solid girl-guide practicality ("I think in the long run it's better to wait until you're married, don't you? Less bother."), Lucy from social quailing ("What would people _say_?"), which seems to be rooted in a conviction that all bedrooms are wired for sound, with society gathered at the other end tuning its earphones.
To be single and autonomous is to be unanchored, and unfeminine. The reaction of Marian's parents when she informs them of her engagement is telling:
less elated glee than a quiet, rather smug satisfaction, as though their fears about the effects of her university education, never stated but always apparent, had been calmed at last. They had probably been worried she would turn into a high-school teacher or a maiden aunt or a dope addict or a female executive.
For the men in the novel, marriage also means trading in freedom for stability - although in their cases, stability apparently means the permanent installation of a decorative helpmeet, cook and cleaner and mother (to both their children and themselves), who serves in exchange for being protected.
From early on in their relationship, Marian automatically accepts these roles. It is always she who prepares the food for them both when they have dinner together, and who organises things when he throws a party; it is always she who adjusts to fit his moods, for all the world as if she were the indulgent mother and he the petulant son (when he criticises her cooking, she smarts at his rudeness and reflects, "I was about to make a sharp comment, but repressed it. Peter after all was suffering." - over Trigger's marriage, the poor dear...). When he doesn't get along with her friends, she immediately dismisses their importance to her, further shaping herself to fit him:
It didn't really matter anyway: Clara and Joe were from her past, and Peter shouldn't be expected to adjust to her past; it was the future that mattered.
Most strikingly, we are told that seriousness of a relationship rests in how much the woman suppresses her own voice and wishes in favour of her partner's. In a bar with Peter, her flaky flatmate Ainsley and an old friend named Len one evening, Marian notes:
[Peter] was treating me like a stage-prop; silent but solid, a two-dimensional outline. [...] And Len had looked at me that way because he thought I was being self-effacing on purpose, and that if so the relationship was more serious than I had said it was. Len never wished matrimony on anyone, especially anyone he liked.
When Marian's repressed frustration at this treatment bursts free, sending her storming out of the bar and on a wild dash across the city (with Peter in hot pursuit), she is chastised for her rebellious self-expression, inappropriate in a woman:
"Ainsley behaved herself properly, why couldn't you? The trouble with you is," [Peter] said savagely, "you're just rejecting your femininity."
On this particular evening, however, Ainsley is not so much 'behaving herself' as deliberately acting young and dumb to attract Len, whom she has lit upon as the perfect father for the child she has decided will complete her life. Purely for the child's conception, that is; she intends to do the rearing alone, preferably without the hapless father's knowledge. Characteristically, rational-to-a-fault Marian greets Ainsley's scheme with low-key bafflement:
The worst of it was that she would probably do it. She can go about getting what she wants with a great deal of efficiency, though in my opinion some of the things she wants - and this was a case in point - are unreasonable.
Ainsley has spotted that Len prefers women he believes to be pure and naive (until he seduces them, at which point they become disappointments for having given in to him... there's no logic here), and duly plays him, expertly. It's a callous, callow scheme, but one that becomes almost forgivable in light of Len's nauseatingly hypocritical reaction:
"What a moron I was to think you were sweet and innocent, when it turns out you were actually college-educated the whole time! Oh, they're all the same. You weren't interested in me at all. The only thing you wanted from me was my body!"
"What did you want," Ainsley said sweetly, "from me?"
Marian has an affair with a student named Duncan, a champion procrastinator much given to spontaneity and bizarre self-indulgence. For example, he tells Marian on one of their meetings:
"Last week I set fire to the apartment, partly on purpose. I think I wanted to see what they would do. Maybe I wanted to see what I would do. Mostly though I just got interested in seeing a few flames and some smoke, for a change. But they just put it out, and then they ran around in frenzied figure-eights like a couple of armadilloes."
Initially, it seems liberating - and initially, it is - but ultimately the fling proves to be just as much predicated on her self-effacement. After a second escape across the city, this time from her engagement party and in Duncan's company, Marian returns to her self, her independence, and her appetite. She breaks up with Peter, bakes a big cake in the shape of a woman, and eats it with relish:
"Marian!" [Ainsley] exclaimed at last, with horror. "You're rejecting your femininity!"
Marian stopped chewing and stared at Ainsley. [...] How did she manage it, that stricken attitude, that high seriousness?
Marian looked back the platter. The woman lay there, still smiling glassily, her legs gone. "Nonsense," she said. "It's only a cake." She plunged her fork into the carcass, neatly severing the body from the head.
In rejecting the symbolism, Marian is perhaps rejecting not femininity but an image of it, the role that she has been trying - against her nature - to fulfil. As soon as she does so, the book leaves the third person narration - as Marian herself notes ("Now that I was thinking of myself in the first person singular again I found my own situation much more interesting than his.") This interest in narrative technique, a character's preoccupation with the words used to build their world and express their lives, is characteristic of Atwood, and is present elsewhere:
"Darling, you look absolutely marvellous," [Peter] had said as soon as he had come up through the stairwell. [...] She turned the phrase over in her mind: it had no specific shape or flavour. What should it feel like?
The novel ends, then, on a hopeful note - one, indeed, that was signalled much earlier. Even before Marian returns to first-person selfhood, she sees that there might be a way out, that becoming trapped by a repressive or unsatisfying role need not be the end of the matter. Selfhood endures, and can be found again. Here she is in conversation with Joe, husband of her friend Clara, who is sinking under the weight (literal and emotional) of too-frequent pregnancies:
"I worry a lot about her, you know," Joe continued. "I think it's a lot harder for her than for most women; I think it's harder for any woman who's been to university. She gets the idea she has a mind, her professors pay attention to what she has to say, they treat her like a thinking human being; when she gets married, her core gets invaded..."
"Her what?" Marian asked.
"Her core. The centre of her personality, the thing she's built up; her image of herself, if you like. [...] Her feminine role and her core are really in opposition, her feminine role demands passivity from her..."
Marian looked up at Joe with an affection the precise flavour of which was blurred by the drinks she had had. [...] She wanted to reach out and touch him, reassure him, tell him Clara's core hadn't really been destroyed and everything would be all right.