Literary Hub

On Hunger, Women’s Bodies, and Margaret Atwood’s First Novel

food

The Edible Woman was Margaret Atwood’s first novel, published 50 years ago in 1969 and recently optioned for television. It was the first Margaret Atwood novel I picked up after reading The Handmaid’s Tale at school. I didn’t read it until my early twenties, a little while after I had finished university. My memories of reading it are all on buses humid from the Manchester rain, traveling to and from my job at a hotel website where I wrote descriptions of hotels I’d never visited, a job I did for just over three years. I think I was expecting something as vivid and unambiguous as The Handmaid’s Tale, but The Edible Woman is not really an unequivocal book: it is quieter, more reflective, slippery and enigmatic.

The novel concerns a young woman called Marian who works as a market researcher, where she gathers consumer opinions on things like toothbrushes, laxatives, and rice pudding. She is in a relationship with a lawyer called Peter and he is kind, ambitious, handsome—the embodiment of an appropriate match—but then she meets Duncan, an eccentric and slightly unhinged man, and they begin an affair. Peter proposes to her after dinner one evening, a dinner during which he relays a grisly anecdote detailing how he hunted and killed a rabbit, and she passively accepts. Sometime after they become engaged, two things happen: Marian begins feeling increasingly dissociated from her body and identifying with food to the point she is unable to eat, and the novel switches from a first person to a third person narration.

Food is ever present throughout the novel: it opens as Marian tears through a bowl of cereal before work; she drinks tall and bloody glasses of tomato juice; there seem to be a lot of descriptions of eggs. Food is sometimes dismissed as banal or extraneous detail in fiction, but in women’s writing it is not often a neutral terrain. This is something I wanted to explore when writing Supper Club: women’s joys, anxieties, complications, and complexities when it comes to food and eating.

In The Edible Woman the first time Marian is unable to eat comes a little while after the story about the rabbit (“I whipped out my knife, good knife, German steel, and slit the belly”), beginning with a steak that she suddenly recognizes as muscle, not meat—an animal which had been hunted—before she rules out all meat products. Later, she is unable to eat an egg, believing it too is alive and staring at her, and finally she rejects the one thing she was still finding palatable, rice pudding, seeing it as a collection of cocoons with “miniature living creatures inside.” She watches Peter eat and thinks of him consuming his food as he might consume her. She sees an image of a cow in a cookbook and identifies with it: an animal blind to its own unpleasant fate. It feels significant that it is meat she rejects, and that she imbues other food with meat or animal-like qualities.

The writer and activist Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, compares carnivorous eating to the ways in which sexist language describes women as objects to be consumed. Those connections are everywhere, from repeat variations of the phrase regarding women being treated like a “piece of meat,” the hyper-feminine articulation and sexualization of animated female animals, Playboy Bunnies, Pamela Anderson’s PETA advertisements, and the vast majority of other PETA advertisements. Adams became vegetarian while grieving for her horse after it was shot; she writes, “I bit into a hamburger and stopped in mid bite. I was thinking about one dead animal yet eating another dead animal.” She adds that reading The Edible Woman alongside Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s Herland and Marge Piercy’s Small Changes prompted her to connect vegetarianism and feminism, forming the basis for much of her body of work. When carnivorousness is intrinsic to hegemonic masculinity, she writes, vegetarianism is often cast as feminine: asserting you care about something enough not to eat it is seen as vulnerable, pallid, and over-sensitive.

In The Edible Woman, it is sometimes unclear as to whether Marian is rejecting a subservient mode of womanhood in refusing to eat, or whether her body is rejecting a type of womanhood being foisted upon her. Certainly, Marian sees marriage as a devouring of her personhood and agency, evidenced by the switch to the third-person voice (who is in charge?). Peter tells her what to wear and how to behave. After sex, he asks how it was for her. “Marvelous,” she replies, wondering how he might react if she told him the truth: that it was bad. She talks about feeling “homeless” and “dispossessed,” a state to which she robotically acquiesces after Peter proposes: “‘I’d rather have you decide that. I’d rather leave the big decisions up to you.’ I was astonished at myself. I’d never said anything remotely like that to him before. The funny thing was that I really meant it.”

When carnivorousness is intrinsic to hegemonic masculinity, she writes, vegetarianism is often cast as feminine.

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian explored similar terrain, focusing in on a character called Yeong-hye, who refuses meat (and later, all animal products) after having a violent dream involving the slaughter of animals. This outrages her husband, Mr. Cheong, who talks of his wife’s “selfishness” in negating to eat meat, stating, “meat eating is a fundamental human instinct, which means vegetarianism goes against human nature, right?” (There is also more of a nuanced cultural dimension regarding the provenance of meat in South Korea, where Kang is from and where the novel takes place.)

Her vegetarianism becomes a symbolic gesture of her refusal to behave “normally,” echoing Peter’s repeated pleas to Marian that she act more appropriately. Yeong-hye’s husband, and later her brother, display various levels of entitlement to her body while instructing her how she should behave. In the final section of the novel, we find her in a psychiatric institute, diagnosed with anorexia and schizophrenia. There is an argument that Marian develops anorexia in The Edible Woman, and there are shades of it; ultimately, though, that feels a reductive reading, as does Yeong-hye’s diagnosis.

Perhaps one of the most comprehensive recent explorations of identity and eating comes from Roxane Gay’s stunning Hunger, in which Gay describes her relationship to appetite, fatness, trauma, food as a source of comfort, and the ways in which her large body has made her feel both safe and invisible. (Previously, she wrote about conscious self-deprivation for her short story “Girls With Eating Disorders,” a story so perfect I want to stand up and cheer every time I read it.)

Food and eating is consistently loaded, symbolic of power and servitude, of possibilities and identities.

Hunger has been criticized for its “repetition,” but the repetition seems intentional, active: the memoir is written elliptically, in fragments, layers upon layers building towards a more complicated whole, mirroring Gay’s discussion of seizing control (and later losing control) of her body: “The past is written on my body… It is a very heavy burden.” Hunger feels the more radical book to me: it is more permissible for women to talk about shrinking and refusing than eating and growing.

M.F.K. Fisher’s food writing also leans toward excess, as she writes about food with a greedy, almost leering gaze: “those big white beans, the kind Italians peel and eat with salt when they are fresh and tender”; “the cauliflowers were very small and succulent.” She languishes often in the purely sensory experience of eating good food, acknowledging that an indulgence in food might be a substitute for other desires (“gastronomy serves as a kind of surrogate, to ease our longings”) and talks about sometimes feeling ashamed of her gluttony. And while M.F.K. Fisher writes best on eating as sensory excess, Nora Ephron’s meditative and methodical food writing celebrates eating and cooking as comfort. In Heartburn, a novel which depicts the disintegration of a food writer’s marriage, food is many things: nourishment, distraction, memory, warmth.

Across many of Atwood’s novels, food and eating is consistently loaded, symbolic of power and servitude, of possibilities and identities: from pats of butter stolen by Handmaids so that they can shave their legs in The Handmaid’s Tale through to the huntedly devoured fast food in The Heart Goes Last. And while The Edible Woman is mostly about the self-denial of food, it ends on a moment of gluttonous and transgressive eating. Marian realizes why she felt so detached from herself: because Peter has been devouring her, and she isn’t sure who she is any longer. She bakes him a pink sponge cake in the shape of a woman, telling him this is what her really wants, a woman he can literally consume, imploring him to eat it: “This is what you’ve wanted all along, isn’t it? I’ll get you a fork.”

He leaves, disturbed, and suddenly ravenous, she eats most of it in one go: “She plunged her fork into the carcass, neatly severing the body from the head.” Her lover Duncan shows up, needling her about her assertion that Peter was trying to destroy her; he says perhaps he’s there for the same reason, and that perhaps they are trying to destroy each other. She offers him some cake and he finishes it off. “‘Thank you,’ he said, licking his lips. ‘It was delicious.’”

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Supper Club by Lara Williams is available now from G.P. Putnam’s and Sons.

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