Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Female Body in Margaret Atwood's the Edible Woman and Lady Oracle

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Female Body in Margaret Atwood's the Edible Woman and Lady Oracle

Article excerpt


This essay examines scholarly discourses about embodiment, and their increasing scholarly currency, in relation to two novels by the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. Like many of Atwood's other works, The Edible Woman (1969) and Lady Oracle (1976) zare explicitly concerned with the complexities of body image. More specifically, however, these novels usefully exemplify her attempt to demystify the female form. In the following pages, I investigate Atwood's treatment of the mind/body dualism and analyse the ways in which she responds to, and resists, its destructive effects. Using contemporary theory, moreover, I show how Atwood deals with the concept of female space, as well as the 'space' of the female body itself. I also consider Atwood's representation of the female appetite, taking into account its relationship to power and identity, and foregrounding the cultural meaning of eating disorders. Taken together, these subject matters demonstrate how the body 'feeds' identity and how a woman's corporeal experience directly influences her cultural experience. Through a close engagement with recent theories of embodiment, I analyse the extent to which Atwood's fiction might dismantle culturally-encoded concepts of femininity and propose a useful corrective to traditional readings of the female body in which the re-embodiment of the self is equated to a re-embodiment of culture.

Keywords: Feminism; embodiment; literature


In 1990, sociologist Arthur Frank declared: 'Bodies are in, in academia as well as in popular culture' (131). Three years later, David Morgan and Sue Scott in their study Body Matters: Essays on the Sociology of the Body reaffirm his statement: 'since we first began the process of editing this book there has been a veritable explosion of feminist work on "the body"' (3). Almost two decades have elapsed since 1990, but the continuing proliferation of scholarship based around issues relating to the body means that Frank's assertion still rings true today. While there are multiple explanations for what Kathy Davis has termed the 'body craze', it is ascribable, in no small way, to the work of feminism: 'feminism is held responsible for putting the body on the intellectual map' (1).

Relegated to the realms of biology, the body has, until recently, been a site of cultural debate largely ignored by sociologists. Lurking in the background of social science, this 'absent presence' was, and occasionally is, disparaged in favour of 'the mind'. (2) This mind/body dichotomy has pervaded western thought for centuries. Descartes' famous dictum, 'Cogito ergo sum', established dualism as a distinct philosophy; however, the tradition dates back much further and is deeply rooted in early Christian theology. (3) Cartesian dualism partitions human experience into two separate categories: the spiritual and the bodily. In this equation, the body is merely an external vessel for the rational, objective mind. Susan Bordo vividly captures this mind/body struggle in Unbearable Weight (2003):

   [W]hat remains the constant element ... is the construction of body
   as something apart from the true self (whether conceived as soul,
   mind, spirit, will, freedom ...) and as undermining the best
   efforts of that self. That which is not-body is the highest, the
   best, the noblest, the closest to God; that which is body is the
   albatross, the heavy drag on self-realization. (5)

This self/other dualism is likewise reflected in the constructed oppositions of culture and nature, and reason and emotion. If the mind is allied with culture and reason, then it follows that the body is associated with all that is 'other'. Historically, women have been defined by their 'biological potentiality', and the female reproductive system has worked to reduce women to the sum of their child-beating parts (Morgan and Scott: 11). If woman is inextricably associated with the body, and the body is regarded as being somehow inferior to the mind--the carnal flesh to which the elevated mind is shackled--then woman surely is inferior. …

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