You Are What You Eat: The Politics of Eating in the Novels of Margaret Atwood
Parker, Emma, Twentieth Century Literature
While literature is suffused with scenes of men eating, there is a conspicuous absence of images of women engaged in the same activity. Margaret Atwood displays a sensitive awareness of how images of women eating have been suppressed and erased. She remarks, "I think I first connected literature with eating when I was twelve and reading Ivanhoe: there was Rebecca, shut up romantically in a tower, but what did she have to eat?" (CanLit Introduction). Atwood probes the prohibitions on the public display of female appetite and the social taboos which surround women and food in terms of the politics of eating. For her, eating is unequivocally political. Atwood defines "politics" as "who is entitled to do what to whom with impunity; who profits by it; and who therefore eats what" (Second 394). Women are rarely depicted eating in literature because, as Atwood's comment implies, consumption embodies coded expressions of power.
Atwood displays a profound preoccupation with eating in her writing; she has even edited a cook book. In her novels eating is employed as a metaphor for power and is used as an extremely subtle means of examining the relationship between women and men. The powerful are characterized by their eating and the powerless by their non-eating. Eating is not the only, or the most predominant, metaphor for power; indeed, images of consumption seem so ordinary as to be insignificant. Nevertheless, they reappear persistently throughout the novels and, examined in totality, assume a potent significance. The domestic, the feminine, the inconsequential is, Atwood suggests, highly important. While The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle have been analyzed extensively in terms of food, particularly in terms of feminist theories of eating disorders, critics have failed to note the significance of the food theme in the rest of Atwood's fiction. An analysis of the politics of eating in all the novels provides a new way of reading Atwood and a new understanding of women's relationship to food.
All Atwood's heroines initially appear as victims, and they demonstrate their powerlessness through their relationship with food. In The Edible Woman, as Marion's wedding approaches and she subconsciously feels herself being absorbed by Peter, she stops eating. As she loses her identity and autonomy, so she loses her ability to eat. Her non-eating is a physical expression of her powerlessness and, at the same time, a protest against that powerlessness. Significantly, Peter's power is demonstrated by his ability to directly control what Marion eats. He chooses her order in the restaurant, and this is the moment from which Marion can no longer tolerate food. Duncan recognizes Marion's food refusal as a form of protest before she understands it herself. He tells her, "You're probably representative of modern youth, rebelling against the system; though it isn't considered orthodox to begin with the digestive system. But why not?" (192). When Marion finally realizes what is happening to her, she bakes Peter a cake in the shape of a woman and offers it to him to symbolize how he has tried to consume her. Immediately after she ends her relationship with Peter, she regains her sense of self hood and her ability to eat.
In Surfacing the narrator's sense of victimization by the father of her aborted child is symbolized by the way she imagines he controlled what she ate during her pregnancy. Anna's appetite is also controlled and repressed. She is a stereotypical woman who possesses all the traditionally feminine characteristics imposed by the process of socialization, and "isn't allowed to eat or shit or cry or give birth, nothing goes in, nothing comes out" (159). The killing of the heron, in particular, highlights the relationship between eating and power. The way that killing is linked to eating and slavery suggests that eating, like killing and enslavement, is an expression of power:
Why had they strung it up like a lynch victim, why didn't they just throw it away like trash? …