Classics Challenge: Edible Woman Discussion

August 5, 2011 at 3:52 pm 1 comment

Hey, Challengers! Sorry this is up a little late, but here’s the discussion post for The Edible Woman. Chime in with your own answers below!

What woman does the title refer to? How are the women in the book being “eaten” or consumed in different ways? Is that consumption always negative?

The title of the book probably does not refer to a specific woman, but to women as a species. For example, I think it would be too obvious to assume Marion is the woman referred to in the title, as clearly there are other women being consumed throughout the novel.

Marion seems to be trying to decide what she wants to be, whom she wants to be consumed by, and if she wants to do the consuming. With two gentlemen ready to go, it’s really a matter of who she wants to become part of – Duncan or Peter.

Clara is a little bit less obvious, though I believe she is having the life sucked out of her by her children. She is so thin apart from her pregnancy that it almost appears as if her baby is a parasite, who is drawing life from her in order to succeed itself. All of her children and even her husband draw off of whatever energy she has, leaving her wan and exhausted to the point of transparency.

Ainsley is perhaps the most interesting. She’s the polar opposite of Clara. She seems to be drawing strength from others, from the father of her child and from her child itself. She is an eating woman, even pretending to offer herself up as an innocent morsel to be devoured by the lecherous Len. She takes what she needs from him, metaphorically ingesting a part of him – and growing fat as a result, you’ll notice.

 

What do you make of the cake? What is Marian saying by making it and then not eating any of it herself?

Apart from the fact that this is typical of anorexia – making elaborate or rich food that is fed to others and not consumed by the anorectic – Marion is offering herself up, as she has been throughout the novel.

She carefully creates an image, just as she has carefully dressed herself for the party with Peter, and offers it to him only to be rejected. It’s clear throughout the book that Peter does not really want the main character, at least not all of her, and she could not be happy as the woman Peter needs her to be.

Duncan, on the other hand, is a better candidate. Whether or not this is positive depends on your point of view, but as the heroine is so willing to constantly offer herself up for consumption, she might as well give herself to someone who actually appreciates it. And, in a way, Duncan seems to need her – he’s so thin, he’s so empty, that he needs someone to fill that void, and the heroine is the obvious candidate.

 

What is the role of Marian’s eating disorder? Can you call it that, and why or why not? How does Atwood use this disorder and its physical symptoms to reflect an emotional state?

I don’t know that it’s technically a disorder, but it certainly is disordered. I am always fascinated by women and eating or not eating, and while I want very badly to believe that Marian is refusing to eat in hopes that she will become frail and delicate and Victorian, there is something more going on here.

Marian’s squeamishness does not stem from body image, so far as I can tell. Rather it stems from a sense of violence, a feeling that she is killing whatever she is eating.  She cannot eat eggs, meat, eventually even vegetables or anything but rice pudding without feeling awful toward it in some way.

Whether she feels like she doesn’t deserve to kill something in order to eat is unclear. Peter has no trouble cutting into a steak, and neither does Duncan have a problem with eating the meat Marion rejects.

If it’s a matter of not deserving, she probably does have some sort of disorder that is a reflection of her low self-esteem and feeling that she isn’t worth anything if she isn’t married – i.e., being consumed and subsumed into this man’s life.

But I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s simply a statement of the cliché, “Eat or be eaten.” The more “eaten” Marian becomes, the less she can eat.

The message here seems to be that in today’s world, women cannot want things of their own – they cannot have lives of their own, fed by outside friends or jobs or interests, but have to be happy with making sure their men are happy and fed and fulfilled.

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Entry filed under: LT Classics Challenge.

Classics Challenge: ‘Belinda’ Questions Ten Things About ‘One Day’ by David Nicholls

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Eva  |  August 12, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    I’m a week late, because my new fibro medicine made my brain wonky so I couldn’t read something as heavy as Atwood. Anyway, I loved this one, despite several commenters on my blog warning me that it wasn’t Atwood’s best! I’ve read several books from the 60s lately, so maybe that’s part of it, or maybe it’s that I could identify with Marian and her friends as young, post-college women trying to figure things out with limited life choices (in my case, due to my illness rather than living in a pre-feminist society, although I definitely don’t think I live in a ‘post-feminist’ era.), or maybe it’s because I always love tongue-in-cheek digs at academia (being a nerd myself). Based on the summary and title, I was expecting the food stuff to be much more ‘front and center,’ so I was pleasantly surprised to see so much other richness woven in (although, given my past experiences with Atwood, I shouldn’t have been! I consciously tried to lower my expectations since this was her debut, but in the end I think it stands up to her later stuff, even if it does have a ‘younger’ ‘rawer’ feel to it). But on to your questions! (First I’m going to answer w/o looking at your answers, and then I’ll add my replies to your thoughts.)

    What woman does the title refer to? How are the women in the book being “eaten” or consumed in different ways? Is that consumption always negative?

    I didn’t think the title was referring to one particular character. And while they all had different experiences, I think each woman in the book was consumed by patriarchal society, its mores and expectations. Of course, the men were as well, and I think one of the novel’s great strengths is that Atwood presents such a wide variety of people from both genders: it rises far above a clear-cut evil man/victimised woman dichotomy.

    What do you make of the cake? What is Marian saying by making it and then not eating any of it herself?

    I loved the cake, but I think that’s because I just loved the way Atwood portrayed all of Marian’s neuroses. She really nailed how actions that look completely irrational/illogical/crazy from the outside can seem perfectly sensible inside of the brain, and how thought processes can run away with themselves. I think my favourite moment for that was in the first part, when Marian suddenly decides to go under the bed and then when she realises she doesn’t really like it there, and that it was an odd thing to do, she’s stuck because she doesn’t want to look ridiculous. Writing it out like that, it seems to foreshadow her later engagement! Anyway, as for the cake itself, I thought she did eat it! From page 300:
    “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.” And then when she offers it to Duncan, on page 307, it says: “I had half the torso and the head left over.” So I saw it as a kind of wake-up call to herself; once she had gotten out of her messy engagement, she needed a concrete way to re-enter her own life/world, and so her body began craving cake. She seems to have baked it by instinct rather than by a recipe, and without a concern for anything other than pleasing herself. All goods things, imo!

    What is the role of Marian’s eating disorder? Can you call it that, and why or why not? How does Atwood use this disorder and its physical symptoms to reflect an emotional state?

    I don’t have the kind of academic background to decide if it should be called an ‘eating disorder.’ But it seems like a good way for her to ‘deflect’: she starts to closely examine/imagine food when really she should be closely examining/imagining her relationship with Peter and future life. Also, I know with anorexia it’s often a control thing…perhaps Marian’s ‘subconscious’ was taking control over the only area it felt it could assert itself in. But mainly, I think it was a literary device; Atwood references various psychological theories that were in vogue in the 60s frequently throughout the book, so it seemed a slightly self-conscious play on that.

    Ok, now I’m going to read your answers! I loved your thoughts, which were far more in-depth than my own. I think I was more inspired by the non-food stuff, so I didn’t pay as much attention to those areas! I especially liked your conclusion:
    The message here seems to be that in today’s world, women cannot want things of their own – they cannot have lives of their own, fed by outside friends or jobs or interests, but have to be happy with making sure their men are happy and fed and fulfilled.

    I’d love to discuss it more if you’d like to! But I understand if you’re too busy. :) Either way, thanks for inspiring me to pick this up: a wonderful, thought-provoking read. And I’ve already read Belinda, so I’m off for that post!

    Reply

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