Representation of Food: A Study of Margaret Atwood's "The Edible Woman" and Anita Desai's "Fasting, Feasting"

Doctoral Thesis / Dissertation, 2006

66 Pages, Grade: NONE





The novels of Margaret Atwood and Anita Desai have a profound impact on the readers. The main aspect of their writing is to present/depict the condition of women in the patriarchal society. However Atwood’s The Edible Woman and Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting have innumerable images of food. In Atwood’s case food becomes the source of power politics. This project aims to highlight how these writers have represented food and how it plays a major role in the life of an individual. The purpose of this dissertation is to expose how these two writers have given different meaning in their novels- The Edible Woman and Fasting, Feasting.

CHAPTER I: The first chapter, Introduction gives a general outline of the literatures of India and Canada and women’s writing in 1960s. It gives a brief idea of cultural studies, and reflects on the use of food at different levels such as biological, sociological, psychological etc.

CHAPTER II: The second chapter focuses on Margaret Atwood’s novel The Edible Woman. The chapter starts with a brief summary of the novel. It goes to review how food is used in the novel. It tries to explain how the protagonist in the novel reveals herself as a consumable and a consumed entity.

CHAPTER III: The third chapter begins with a brief summary of Anita Desai’s novel Fasting, Feasting. It presents the utilization of food in the novel. Then it focuses on the interconnection of food and woman in the novel. The depiction of two different cultures of India and America is presented in the later half of the chapter.

CHAPTER IV: Conclusion highlights the important points of the previous chapter and sums up the analysis presented much of the novels The Edible Woman and Fasting, Feasting by Margaret Atwood and Anita Desai, respectively.


Documentation has been done as per the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, Sixth Edition. References to the pages of the selected quotations are given parenthetically with the abbreviations TEW (The Edible Woman) and FF (Fasting, Feasting) respectively. References to selected quotations from secondary sources are also given parenthetically.



The Indian English novel saw its birth only during the latter half of the nineteenth century. This was a result of the western impact on India. Indians sought English as a medium for communicating with the world outside India. In Srinivasa Iyengar’s words “Indians have written and are writing in English for communicating with one another and with outside world, for achieving self expression to artistically use English, necessarily in an Indian way” (Iyengar.4).

Indians sought inspiration deeply from the British, but after India got independence from England, novelists were influenced not only by the British but also by American, Russian and other Oriental countries. Indian English novels were dominated by the male writers during the early pre-independent and post-independent periods. The major novelists were Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore, Mulk Raj Anand, R.K.Narayan and Raja Rao. In the early stages of the Indian English novel, novelists were interested in themes such as the East-West Encounter, the social structure of the caste system, the political scenario, the struggle against the colonialists, the exploitation of lower and middle class people, dreams and aspirations of post independent India, influence of Mahathma Gandhi’s teachings and principles, progressing towards modernity in India and industrial development.

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, one of the pioneer novelists of India modeled his works after the British novelists belonging to the eighteenth and nineteenth century. His novel Rajmohan’s Wife (1864) started the phase of the Indian English novel. Most of his works were based on man’s social concerns and the ethics of his time. Indian English fiction saw its richest sign during the reign of India’s famous trio-Mulk Raj Anand, R.K.Narayan and Raja Rao. They chose to present through their works the pathos and the cruelty existing in society. They also reflected the lives that were affected by Gandhian philosophy and by freedom.

Mulk Raj Anand gave importance to the outcasts of society, the ordinary, simple working class people. For example his novels, Untouchable (1935), Coolie (1936) and The Two Leaves in a Bud (1937) project the picture of India during nineteen twenties and thirties. He ventured into a territory which was ignored by earlier novelists like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Tagore and Premchand, whose works lacked a realistic or naturalistic touch. Mulk Raj Anand gave no importance to romance and instead presented the harsh realities of life, the atrocities perpetuated by man on man.

R.K.Narayan’s contribution to Indian English novel is outstanding. He has created ‘Malgudi’ for his own novels like Hardy’s ‘Wessex’ and Laurence’s ‘Manawaka’. Through his illusionary world he pictured a free India, where the inhabitants are in constant contact with the developments around them, how they fall prey and retrieve themselves and turn back to tradition, religion and custom. With his mastery over the English language, he presents a strong sense of Indianness in his novels. Typical Indian features such as Bharathanatyam, sadhus, superstitions, relationships between man and God, are dealt with special concern in his novels. His novels are generally optimistic presenting a ray of hope that is required to sustain life in the modern frantic world.

Raja Rao also focuses on the Indian consciousness. The role of marriage and religion, the impact of Gandhiji’s teaching and changing phase of Indian rural life were dealt within his novels. His novels were also spiritual and psychological. One good illustration of the same is The Serpent and the Rope. Whatever may be the subjects, these three novelists, Mulk Raj Anand, R.K.Narayan, and Raja Rao used an Indian locale and captured Indian sensitivity in all its colour. Their contribution to Indian English fiction is very significant. Later novelists like Manohar Malgonkar and Kushwant Singh engaged themselves in a different angle. They have seized upon India's freedom and its accompanying horrors as a dominant motif to produce works of literary excellence. Their endeavour is to trace man’s place in the massive violence, slaughter, rapes, abductions and mutilations that shook the Indian subcontinent at the time of India’s partition.

The late sixties and seventies saw a turn in the usual representation of India by the Indian novelists writing in English. Novelists and poets like Arun Joshi, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Jayanta Mahapatra, K.N.Daruvalla, A.K. Ramanujan, and R. Parthasarathy had a vision of their own. These writers have presented India in its true colour. They appeased the Indian relationship and did not satisfy the wants of western imagination.

The post-Independent period saw the rise of women novelists who began explaining and enriching the Indian experiencing through their novels. Writers like Kamala Markandaya, Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, Anita Desai, Santha Rama Rau, Nayantara Sehgal, Uma Vasudev, Bharathi Mukerjee, Meena Alexander, Shashi Despande, Kamala Das, Gita Metha, Shoba De, Arundathi Roy and Jumpha Lahiri have made a significant contribution. With the rise of many woman writers, the scope of Indian English fiction has cherished greater richness and depth. The women writers have taken fiction as a form to achieve their aims of representing women’s lives. After their arrival, there was a strong change in themes as well as in narrative techniques of the Indian English novels. They have shown how women novelists are different or in some cases counter to the male writers in their portrayal of characters, delineation of plot, and their critique of Indian societies. Both male and female writers have shared a common feature like the quest motif. Either it is a quest for identity, for power, for freedom, for self-recognition, self-realization, or to find some meaning in life. Man’s quest for identity has remained a dominant motif in most novels. They try to explore man’s interest and purpose in life.

Many of the women novelists used fiction as a medium to bring to light the experiences of a woman. The feeling of suppression, dejection, alienation, loneliness, neglect and frustration are exemplified in their works. In the works of some women novelists, the archetypal Indian woman is presented that is an Indian woman who is submissive, compassionate, forgiving, selfless, motherly, etc. Apart from dealing with the consciousness of a woman, they presented, like their male counterparts, themes such as the social structure of the society around them (Deshpande’s That Long Silence) the importance of religion/ community(Rama Mehta’s Inside the Heartes, and Esther David’s Walled City) and the East-West encounters (Jumpha Lahiri’s Namesake, and Anita Desai’s Bye Bye Blackbird) In almost all the novels written by women writers are the problem of adjustment at the marital homes is the most commonly treated theme/ subject.

There are eminent women writers who have devoted themselves to discuss various aspects of the human psyche. This subject has been treated by writers like Anita Desai, Bharati Mukerjee and Arundathi Roy. These novelists have moved deep into the inner parts of the mind and complexities of an individual’s existence and his/ her relationship with fellow human beings. Unlike the heroines of Kamala Markandaya and Ruth Prawer Jhabwala’s novels, the heroines in the novels of Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande, Bharati Mukerjee and Arundathi Roy are characters who desire to live for themselves. They differ from the stereotypical heroines who allow themselves to be exploited, who surrender themselves, who are loaded with compassion, forgiveness, motherliness, etc. If the earlier protagonists accepted the role thrust on them by society, the later day protagonists of Anita Desai and Shashi Deshpande seek to know their ownselves.

Although all women novelists deal with the experiences of women, the presentations are different and are unique in characterisation. Anita Desai’s heroines are inspite of their strong sense of individuality, dedicated to the family’s well being. Similarly in the novels of Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, the women characters are subjected to man’s supremacy and social law. Nayantara Seghal tried to portray the plight of Indian women in politics and, how they get trapped in social taboos and household roles. Seghal was interested more in political happenings than in presenting the psychological perspectives of her characters.

After the publication of Anita Desai’s first novel Cry, the Peacock (1963), she became famous and got recognized by the society, so her readership increased gradually. A reading of her novels shows that she is not an ordinary writer. Her novels reach deep into the psyche of her characters. This kind of writing demarcates her from other Indian woman novelists, who are chiefly interested in social themes like impact of the west who struggle to cope up with India’s developments and the political set up. She has deviated from the traditional mode of writing fiction.

Anita Desai made a choice in the new style of writing. She has begun to encapsulate the sensations, the emotions and feelings of her characters within her writings. She has established her own way of influencing her younger contemporaries like Shashi Deshpande and others. She has stimulated the growth of feminist oriented writing in India. Anita Desai with her different style and tactics characterizes her protagonists in an unconventional way. Her heroines are not ordinary women; they are sensitive beings who want emotional attention. They want their lives to be a glorious vacation. She focuses her attention on the psychic life of her characters. She is very keen on presenting the inner world of her characters rather than the outer world of action. Her novels are based on family relationship; how life of one character has enormous influence on the lives of others. Her style of writing can be considered to be influenced to a certain extent by Virginia Woolf.

Anita Desai’s concerns are very different from that of Western women writers. Western writers gave importance to various forms of feminism but Anita Desai’s portrayal is more a humanist feminist kind. The most recurrent theme in Anita Desai’s novels is man-woman relationships in the Indian situation, the founding and nurturing of individuality and the establishing of individualism of her characters. In her novels, she has presented the dilemma of the modern woman effectively. Her novels reveal that her real concern is with the exploration of human psyche.

Anita Desai is interested in projecting female protagonists, living in separate, closed, sequestered worlds of existential problems and passion, loves and hates. She portrays each of her individuals as an unsolved mystery. As she gives more importance to character delineation she tries to depict the inner turmoil and anguish of the female mind. According to her story, action and drama arise from characters and therefore she writes about their dreams, wills and actions. Whatever action there is in her novels is a part of “the integral whole composed of the human psyche, the human situation, outer and inner rhythms” (Dhawan, 17).


Canadian writing in English has been recognized as an important literary field in recent years. The 1970s saw the rise of the novel. The most significant form in Canada today is the novel form. Canadian literature may be divided into two linguistic categories, namely the francophone and the Anglophone writings. Yet the ethos of both these writings is purely Canadian. Most of Canadian literature reflects three main issues, namely nature, frontier life and survival.

From 1 July 1867 only, Canada was recognized as an official country and therefore there are arguments to the Canadianness of the writings. For example citizens living away from England and France, have written in English about Canada. Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Trail are the English sisters who had adopted Canada as their own land, who moved from England to Canada in 1832. They recorded their pioneer experiences through their works. Moreover, their writings often dealt with survival and the tough Canadian environment – these themes reappear later in other Canadian works such as Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, Robert Kriotsch’s Badlandds, Laurence’s Diviners, etc.

Among the first few Canadian writers another significant writer is Thomas Chandler Halliburton, who died just two years before the official birth of Canada. He is known for the creation of comic characters like Sam Slick in The Clockmaker (1836). Some of his note worthy sketches are such as Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia (1829), The Attaché; or, Sam Slick in England (1843-44) and Sam Slick's Wise Saws and Modern Instances (1853). Before 1960, the tradition of the Canadian novel had tended to conflate identity with place, as in Stephen Leacock’s satirical portrait of Ontario. Similarly, the new nationalism shaped a generation of novelists committed to explore/ exploring their “ancestral roots”. Robertson Davies first came to be known as a playwright and satirist. His novels were usually set in a small town called Ontario and his works reflects the influence of Leacock. Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, Rohinton Mistry, Mordecai Richler, Carol Shields, Margaret Laurence and Michael Ondaatje are some of the eminent writers of Canadian writing in English. Arguably, the best internationally renowned/ known living Canadian writer is Margaret Atwood.

Canadian Nationalism coincided in the 1960s with the upsurge of feminism, and novels by women tended to explore women’s issues within a nationalist framework. Margaret Laurence was one of the major novelists of the 1960’s and 1970’s. She writes about women’s existences in a small town, Manawaka, which is a fictionalized version of her Manitoba birthplace. In 1971, Margaret Laurence suggested that what Canadian writers had done was “to come to terms with our ancestral past, to deal in this way with themes of survival and growth, and to record our mythology” (Dhawan, 118).

Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro were the first to elevate Canadian literature to the world stage. During the post-war decades only a handful of books of any literary merit would be published each year in Canada and Canadian literature was viewed as more important to British and American writing. Much of what was written dealt with extremely typical Canadian life such as the outdoors and animals or events on history. Most of what Canadians read was written in America and in England However, recurrent themes in Canadian literature are humour, satire and irony, nature, urban versus rural atmosphere, multiculturalisam and -anti Americanism. In the 1980’s Canadian literature began to be noticed around the world. By the 1990’s Canadian literature was viewed as some of the world’s best and Canadian authors began to accumulate international awards. For example, in 1992 Michael Ondaatje became the first Canadian writer to win the Booker for his novel, The English Patient, Margaret Atwood won the Booker prize in 2000 for her novel The Blind Assassin and Yann Martel won it in 2003 for The Life of Pi. A number of writers have also won the Governor’s General award. Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries won the 1995 Pulitzer award for fiction and in 1998 her novel Larry’s Party won the Orange Prize.

Margaret Atwood is not only the best known contemporary writer of Canada but also a novelist who portrays a strong feminist stance. Even though she is a poet and also a critic, from 1974 onwards, she has shifted her focus to prose. Her fiction combines a intelligent, witty, social satire with high seriousness. She is known for her metaphorical kind of writing. She writes stories that are structured politically, example Handmaid’s Tale; she also uses myth and allegory at a deeper level, example Lady Oracle, The Robber Bride, etc. The Edible Woman (1969), Surfacing (1972), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) are novels that criticize the society they depict through a central metaphor. Her works focused generally on Canadian national identity, Canada’s relations with other countries, human right issues, environmental issues, the Canadian wilderness, the social rights of femininity, representation of women’s bodies in art, women’s social and economical exploitation, as well as women’s relation with each other with men.

It is very interesting to question and critique Atwood’s as they are significantly underline societal stances. Her novels are generally, intellectually engaging and as the following note states, she believes in the writer being a social critic and artist: “Margaret Atwood always believed that the artist is a responsible labouring citizen and not a passive victim. She has based on her carrier on this premise her in the service of her own talent, and paying the price where necessary” (


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Representation of Food: A Study of Margaret Atwood's "The Edible Woman" and Anita Desai's "Fasting, Feasting"
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First and foremost, I would like to express my sincere thanks to my guide Dr. H. Kaplana, for her soft spoken guidance and patience. I am very much thankful for her sincere and her gentle way of guidance which made me to do an interesting and an important work. I also would like to thank Dr. N. Natarajan, the Head of the Department of English and other faculty members Dr. Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, Dr. S. Murali. I also would like to thank the Pondicherry University Library Staff and Computer Centre Staff and English Department Office Staff for their help.
representation, food, study, margaret, atwood, edible, woman, anita, desai, fasting, feasting
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Sathish Kumar Vellamuthu (Author), 2006, Representation of Food: A Study of Margaret Atwood's "The Edible Woman" and Anita Desai's "Fasting, Feasting", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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