Published in 1969, The Edible Woman is Margaret Atwood’s first novel.
As a vegan, I was curious to read this book because it features a protagonist, Marian, who discovers one day that she can no longer eat meat. While at a fancy restaurant with her fiancé…
She looked down at her own half-eaten steak and suddenly saw it as a hunk of muscle. Blood red. Part of a real cow that once moved and was killed, knocked on the head as it stood in a queue like someone waiting for a streetcar. Of course everyone knew that. But most of the time you never thought about it.
Unfortunately for Marian, she could not stop thinking of animals every time she looked down at her plate. Beef soon gave way to pork and then to chicken.
“I’m turning into a vegetarian,” she was thinking sadly, “one of those cranks; I’ll have to start eating lunch at Health Bars.”
As one might guess from the title, consumption is the dominant theme of this novel, not just consumption of animals but the many products that define modern society. Marian works for a market research firm, creating and administering surveys on behalf of consumer brands. She is both a consumer and observer of those who consume (and one who is consumed by a male-dominated culture).
Everything we might construe to be normal about society in the late 1960s, Atwood is questioning and ridiculing, and for good reason. Consider a work lunch with her colleagues when Marian gazes around the restaurant to take in a scene that is both dated and, in our mad rush of modern society, still quite relevant:
…stolid, breadfaced businessmen most of them, gobbling their food and swilling a few drinks to get the interruption of lunch over with as soon and as numbly as possible so they could get back to the office and make some money and get that over with as soon as possible and get back through the rush-hour traffic to their homes and wives and dinners and to get those over with as soon as possible too.
In the late 1960s (as is today), to consume animals is to be a normal member of society. Once you stop eating animals, you find yourself standing off somewhere on the outside of society looking in.
But Marian, despite her best efforts otherwise, remains an outsider. She views clothing as “costumes” and children as “its,” and a trip to the beauty parlor is compared, hilariously so, to undergoing a surgical operation (without anesthesia).
There are so many fascinating aspects of this novel, like the switching from first person to third and then back again. And Marian’s roommate, who is trying to trick a man into impregnating her so she can be a single parent. And the graduate students who provide momentary escapes from adult society.
For Atwood, feminism and food are so finely woven together that it takes a magnifying glass to see the many ways that animals and women have suffered in a patriarchal society.
How does Marian rectify this desire to both fit in and not remain fully in? By taking a degree of control over consumption. By creating that thing that is consumed, by her friend Duncan, who says after eating, “It was delicious.”
This is not some dystopian future, it is our dystopian past. A past that remains all too present.
The Edible Woman