BOOKS: Margaret Atwood – ‘The Edible Woman’

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

This curious tale was read as a set text for my Gender & Sexuality module at uni; hence my well-loved, pre-owned £3 copy! I read up a lot of Goodreads reviews after I finished the book and the overwhelming consensus was “strange”. Maybe it was the fact that I had a good idea of what was coming, or that I found protagonist Marian actually startlingly relatable, but I didn’t think that about it at any time during the reading process. I found this novel incredibly easy to swallow. (-Not sorry for that great pun)

From the beginning, I admired Atwood’s unrivalled observation skills and her ease of putting it to paper. I read in passing that The Edible Woman was her first novel, and that she wrote it aged 23; which I’m sure is thoroughly impressive to everyone who has read it. Her astute analogies and quaint ways of noticing and describing minor details are really charming and kept me interested for the duration of the text.

The undercurrent of feminism (or protofeminism as Atwood described it; as it was written prior to the 1970s first wave feminist movement) contributing to Marian’s condition here maybe wouldn’t be so apparent if I hadn’t studied it academically. The story follows Marian, a young woman in her 20s, who upon becoming engaged finds that the loss of her identity in pleasing her fiance and conforming to societal expectations of a betrothed woman causes her to lose her appetite almost entirely. Marian’s observations of her friend Clara and her landlady who lives downstairs instil in her a panic and crisis of what she will be expected to become once she is married and has children, which dominates her mind and manifests itself in a rejection of food which some compare to anorexia nervosa, though is never addressed as such. Blatant sexist situations occur throughout, such as Marian’s dismissal from her job prior to her wedding, and a conversation with Clara’s husband in which he muses that women should not be allowed to go to university so that they don’t feel their studies are wasted after marriage, that clearly situate the text in the protofeminist era that Atwood identifies as ahead of its time. Marian’s physical repulsion in response to her oppression is a powerful analogy of the illness that sexism causes to women, men and society; and is not uncommon. It echoes the late 1800-early 1900 epidemic of female hysteria, of which women were diagnosed when they exhibited loss of appetite and eating disorder, depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness that now are associated with oppression and women’s lack of freedom and control of their own lives. Brought forward to the 1960s, such diagnosis is still easily applied, and hardly obscene to relate to the 2000s anorexia and bulimia epidemics as a result of highly sexualised media culture.

A flawless read for anyone wanting an insight into the pre-feminist 1960s era, beautifully articulated and certainly food for thought. (Hehe)

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