Meeting expectations in a Changing Society. Definition and Importance of Gender Roles in "The Edible Woman"

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2012

20 Seiten, Note: 2,7


Table of Content


An Inverted Romance

Different Expectations in The Edible Woman

A Necessary Charade

(Not) Only a Feminist Novel

Male Role Models

Indecision in a Decisive World - Searching for Your Place



When Margaret Atwood wrote The Edible Woman, she wrote a novel which dealt with a topic that would gain great importance in the future. However, the real fascination concerning this novel is the dynamic it contains. As the narration changes throughout the novel, it creates on the one hand a huge breeziness, as well as a fitting mood for the respective situation. The mood is totally calm at the beginning of the novel, suiting Marian’s life at that moment. Throughout the novel, almost until the end, the unrest increases and with it changes the level of narration. At the same time the pressure on the heroine seems to increase, which causes her more and more to lose control over her mind and body, and therefore also the situation she is caught in. As our life proceeds and bonds between people grow deeper, pressure and expectations seem to rise. I purposely used the expression seem to rise, as not only existing expectations influence our mind, but also expectations we are responsible for ourselves, while we overthink or create false images. There can be several kinds of expectations, which directly influence our way of thinking and also our behavior. Traditional values are mostly taught by parents. The level of expectation in this case therefore depends on the parenting. On the other hand are the expectations of the society we live in, which vary therefore concerning the society you live in, the people you are surrounded by and the degree to which you are influenced by other people’s minds or society in general. Modern society is strongly influenced by the mind of a mainstream generation, which results in unusual or even abnormal behavior concerning your own character. This unusual behavior then influences individualism, and even tends to develop into a certain universalism. The Edible Woman excessively deals with expectations and displays their effects on the characters in the novel in every detail. Ultimately these expectations create gender roles, which then even suppress individualism and promote universalism.

An inverted Romance

Grotesque novels or novels containing grotesque elements define themselves as being irregular, or rather abnormal, which means that these novels try to present an obscure story in such a way that people start to wonder or even remain in shock throughout the reading process. Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman can be defined as such a novel. It starts out pretty normal telling the tale of a more or less normal woman who lives a normal, not spectacular, life, however, the situation of the protagonist and with it the style of narration changes throughout the novel. Both is pretty regular at first, but it becomes more and more tense and neurotic throughout the novel until it finally collapses almost at the end of the novel and everything becomes more peaceful once again.

Johanna Lahikainen describes this kind of narration through the words of Kathrin VanSpanckeren: “Kathryn VanSpanckeren sees the novel as “an inverted Cinderella story in which the poor working girl flees from the wealthy prince charming; or an inverted Sleeping Beauty, who wakes up when the prince is at safe distance” (VanSpanckeren 1987, 4) (55).” Kathryn VanSpanckeren has a point. The Edible Woman really seems to be an inverted story, as the protagonists condition gets worse as she gets closer to Prince Charming. However, she does not search for something she wants, or something that would make especially her happy. Marian rather evolves according to the expectations of society, or to a life defined as normal by most people. It is a kind of appropriate life consisting of appropriate behavior, as well as a certain status. Even Peter’s proposal to Marian seems rather obligatory and cold. It lacks any kind of emotional outburst and creativity, which tells us that they are not getting married because they are in love, but because society “demands” them to. “I couldn’t tell now whether it was his body or my own that was shuddering; he tightened his arms around me. ‘How do you think we’d get on as … how do you think we’d be, married?’” (Atwood 98). Therefore Marian gets pushed towards a life she initially never wanted to life, just to satisfy the expectations of a society she does not really care about. One could even call this novel a grotesque tragedy, but with a less tragic ending for the protagonist and a loss for the regularity of society.

Different Expectations in The Edible Woman

It lies within the nature of a human being to have an individual mind, which deviates from the crowd due to individual needs. Therefore everyone first has to find out what he or she really wants, which would be the discovery of one’s own individual needs. Afterwards one has to strive after fulfilling these needs, which could be called the pursuit of happiness. However there are certain interferences complicating this “journey.” The most disturbing interference would be the already mentioned expectation of society. In Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, expectations of society strongly differ from the individual needs of the protagonist. After some struggle Marian decides to give in, and evolves according to a pattern never defined by her.

Lahikainen writes that “in the traditional 1800th and 1900th century romantic novel female and male characters fall in love and have to fight obstacles in order to get married and to get the approval of the community. This pattern is reversed in The Edible Woman” (56). It is in fact the case that Marian and Peter easily decide to get married, maybe even with the intention of just easing their conscience. Peter as well as Marian seem rather distant concerning their “love” towards each other. Also, the proposal, or rather their decision to get married, lacks any romantic gesture and seems more like an obligatory duty they have to get over with. In fact, the novel lacks any kind of romance. Concerning this reversed pattern, Marian and Peter do not have to fight any obstacles. Moreover they are expected to get married, as they are reaching a certain age in which one should be married and settle down according to expectations of society. Lahikainen also remarks that “Marian’s reasons for marrying Peter have nothing to do with love or the desire to be a wife. She tries to justify the engagement and marriage by prejudices and traditions” (62). Therefore, not only current expectations are relevant for the existence of such a pattern, but also traditions, which account to past expectations. However, one could also argue that these elements from the past were forwarded to the present or at least affected the present mind. Parenting may also play a role here, as either parents cause great pressure due to expectations, or they taught their children they could only live a fulfilled, successful life if they behave according to expectations. Traditions may be important, but they are also determining and restricting.

A Necessary Charade

As soon as Peter and Marian decide to get married, Marian’s struggle begins. Lahikainen remarks that “The Edible Woman begins like a retrospective illness memory work: “I know I was all right on Friday when I got up” (EW, 11). Narrator Marian is retracing the tracks that led her to her engagement. This implies that the engagement has been a powerful force in her life, something that has changed everything, and this argument continues throughout the novel” (58). From this point on up to the wedding, or eventually the breakup, Marian has to fight harder every day to suppress her actual interests and preferences. To amplify the difficulty of this struggle Atwood uses elements like an eating disorder, which haunts Marian as a side effect of the upcoming marriage. This disorder starts out with the denial of just some sorts of food and ends with Marian being merely able to eat anything.

Lahikainen describes Marian’s eating disorder as follows:

Her hunger, symbolic and concrete, is excessive in a restrictive society. The motif is coloured by the protagonist’s desire to be more than her limited feminine role options allow. The effort to fit in and its impossibility are present in Marian’s problems with eating, which has been called anorexia nervosa. When Marian feels hunted and faced with too large and impossible choices about her life, it affects her view of the world outside of her: everybody is a hunter or hunted, gorger or starving. (57)

The more Marian struggles to fit in a pattern she never wanted to be in, the more her body is affected by the eating disorder. Society splits people into two categories, which include the hunter and the hunted. The pattern prescribes that Marian, as a woman, is supposed to be the prey, while Peter, as a man, should be the hunter, which also is perfectly illustrated by Atwood through the hunting stories Peter tells and his constant need to photograph his prey Marian at the party. Mouda argues about this scenario in such a way that “Peter with his camera episode in the novel serves as a turning point in the private life of Marian for it gives a clear picture of Peter, a “homicidal maniac with a lethal weapon in his hands” (246)” (6). While Peter is a hunter, or “gorger”, Marian is the hunted and therefore also the “starving.”


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Meeting expectations in a Changing Society. Definition and Importance of Gender Roles in "The Edible Woman"
Universität Stuttgart
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
455 KB
meeting, changing, society, definition, importance, gender, roles, edible, woman
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Volker Hartmann (Autor:in), 2012, Meeting expectations in a Changing Society. Definition and Importance of Gender Roles in "The Edible Woman", München, GRIN Verlag,


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