Academic journal article Style

Anti-Edibles: Capitalism and Schizophrenia in Margaret Atwood's the Edible Woman

Academic journal article Style

Anti-Edibles: Capitalism and Schizophrenia in Margaret Atwood's the Edible Woman

Article excerpt

Typically, critics have read Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman as either an optimistic celebration of female "liberation" or a materialist-feminist protest. But Atwood's style--primarily her manipulation of a shifting narrative point of view and her use of an unbalanced, tripartite structure--reflects a more complex picture of capitalism and female subjectivity in the 1960s. By varying structural and narrative form within the novel and by using anorexia as a discursive technique, Atwood constructs states of paranoia, decomposition, and schizophrenia to emphasize the dynamic nature of the capitalist system--its exploitative disposition as well as its potential to release female desire from systemic constraint.

"[S]ee that she eat and drink as a good Christian should, comporting herself to her condition, and making the best of it."

--Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, Or The History of a Young Lady

Recent feminist critics of Margaret Atwood's 1969 novel The Edible Woman tend to be divided on the question of whether Marian, the novel's heroine, achieves "liberation" from the economic and power system of the early 1960s that scripts her subordination. The criticism of the novel generally turns on the meaning of the "edible-woman" (a cake shaped as a woman). Taking the cake as a consummate image for the novel, critics tend to read it as either a symbol of Marian's liberation from or as her reentry into the field of consumer capitalism. (1) To Glenys Stow, the cake "is of course, a deliberate symbol of the artificial womanhood which her world has tried to impose on her," and with the "crazy feast" at the novel's conclusion "Marian breaks out of the expected social pattern" (90). Sharon Wilson concedes that Marian "returns to [the] society" that has oppressed her, but maintains there is symbolic agency in Marian's return: "By baking, decorating, serving, and consuming the cake-woman image she has been condit ioned to project, Marian announces, to herself and others, that she is not food" (96). (2) Meanwhile, critics like Gayle Green affirm that even though "The cake lady [...] is a powerful symbol, a gesture of resistance to a system that would devour her [,...] it is difficult to see how this symbol will translate into action [...]. Marian evolves--in the terms of the novel--from prey to predator" (96, 111).

But as Robert Lecker and Darlene Kelley have pointed out, the novel's final chapter does not provide comfortable closure, for it raises more questions than it answers. (3) When readers complete the novel, when the edible woman is finally digested by Duncan and Marian, the question that seeps beyond the text is, "what now?," and the answer does seem to be one of two options--that Marian continue her career by returning to her position at Seymour Surveys or finding a similarly dead-end job (she tells Duncan that she is looking for another job) or that she get married and become a mother. These are her choices within the system. In "A Note from the Author," Margaret Atwood herself has said that the novel's "self-indulgent grotesqueries [... derive [...] from the society by which she found herself surrounded. [...] It's noteworthy that my heroine's choices remain much the same at the end of the book as they are at the beginning: a career going nowhere, or marriage as an exit from it. But these were the options fo r a young woman, even a young educated woman, in Canada in the early sixties" (312-13). For this reason, I would argue that the way to solve the impasse in criticism of The Edible Woman is not to focus on the novel's final chapter, not to seek closure and stable interpretation, but to listen to the silences of a conclusion that returns readers again to the place where the heroine's troubles began. Thus, we should resist imposing final, stable meaning onto the "edible-woman" cake, and rather seek the space where the silences abound, where Marian loses the ability to speak for herself in the first person, where her body speaks through anorexia--in short, the space where she becomes not only most marginalized from dominant culture but also at the same time one of its most penetrating critics. …

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