The Edible Woman offers a look at the conventionalized aspects of society that result in a version of cultural violence which is gender-oppressive. In kaleidoscopic fashion, the protagonist undergoes a series of transformations that are fundamental to her self-identity, her current and future places in society, and her rediscovery of mediating levers to overturn the cultural violence boulder that has come to rest on her shoulders.
The Warping of Marian's Self-Identity
The Marian the reader first meets is a liberated young woman with the clear-headed ability to assess the society in which she lives. She appears to have rejected the role that society has described for women her age. Her relationship with a young lawyer is relaxed by the standards of the day -- a time before hard-line feminism had been articulated -- and her job is meaningful and situated beyond a supporting-position context. If marriage is on Marian's mind, it certainly has not taken a front and center role. In fact, she appears to regard the behavior of her more traditional friend, Clara, with a degree of circumspection. Too, the prescient position of her roommate Ainsley -- who is determined to get pregnant but not married -- seems to flummox Marian and set off an emotional reaction that she neither anticipated nor understands. It is at this point -- when Marian has retreated to the dark and quiet space under a bed -- that Peter, Marian's boyfriend decides to propose marriage to Marian. The time is right for him to settle down, he explains to Marian. But the time is not right for Marian, and the ensuing events propel Marian into a sort of fugue state. While Marian still functions as Marian-the-former, she has become Marian-the-promised -- and she has lost both her voice and her identity. A woman's place awaits Marian, but instinctively she rejects it and the food that is a manifestation of the ubiquitous consumerism, with which she is expected to be occupied -- just like everyone else. Just like every other woman.
The Occupation of Marian's Place
For a time, Marian occupies the place that society has saved for her. She becomes engaged and begins the struggle to redefine who she is in light of this transformation. To create a deeper sense of otherworldliness, Atwood uses intertextual dialogue in The Edible Woman by allowing a descent into the rabbit hole where everything is not as it seems or as it should be. The lengthy discussion of Alice in Wonderland by Duncan's graduate school friend named Fish further underscores the deviant path that Marian subconsciously entertains. The looking glass that Marian has passed through is one of convention. While she stood on the other side of the looking glass, Marian could perceive herself or at least a reflection of herself that was congruent with her emerging beliefs about women and their place in society. Having passed through the looking glass, and listening to Duncan's pedantic narrative, Marian can't help but consider that she did perhaps enjoy her own figurative romp with Mock Turtle and that the indifference she felt toward her proper place in society was a preferred state. Yet, Wonderland must be resisted if one is to mature as an adult, and so Marian -- like Alice -- become preoccupied with what she has eaten or what she is about to eat. If Marian is to occupy the place to which she is now relegated, she must modify her expectations and recalibrate her compass. The way out of the rabbit hole is into the harsh light of day, and Marian will emerge a changed, decomposed woman. Her subconscious attempts to deal with her eroding identity in a dream:
The alarm clock startled me out of a dream in which I had looked down and seen my feet beginning to dissolve, like melting jelly, and had put on a pair of rubber boots just in time only to find that the ends of my fingers were turning transparent. I had started towards the mirror to see what was happening to my face, but at that point I woke up" (Atwood, 1980: 42).
Cultural Violence in Marian's Backyard
Duncan points out to Marian that she is back to reality and once more a consumer. Two events seem to have broken the spell: Breaking up with Peter and baking the edible-woman-cake. As Marian shops, "Her image was taking shape. Eggs. Flour. Lemons for the flavor. Sugar, icing-sugar, vanilla, salt, food-colouring. She wanted every new. She didn't want to use anything already in the house. Chocolate -- no cocoa, that would be better. A glass tube full of round silver decorations. Three nesting plastic bowls, teaspoons, aluminum cake-decorator and a cake tin. Luckily, she thought, they sell almost everything in supermarkets these days" (Atwood 1980: 295). The image of Marian as a lulled consumer contrasts markedly with her visit to a grocery store in Part II, during which she confessed that, "She resented the music because she knew why it was there: It was supposed to lull you into a euphoric trance, lower your sales resistance to the point at which all things are desirable" (Atwood 1980: 187). Marian has come full circle, squeezed back into the culturally acceptable roles of consumer as woman and woman as consumer. Duncan has perhaps taken Peter's place as the man who will consume Marian, for "a woman's place in the sixties [was really] no place at all" (Kelly 1995: 331). Duncan, having eaten the edible-woman-cake, assumes the patriarchal role at the head of the table.
The key to Marian's retransformation is her adaptation to the situation from which she cannot completely escape, at least while remaining mentally functional (Mouda 2011). Marian is once again marginalized by the structural and cultural violence that permeates her society. Though she takes a position in which she does deviate -- by remaining unmarried -- from the general configuration of what is accepted by society, she does this at her peril (Mouda 2011).
"Since patriarchal times women have in general been forced to occupy a secondary place in the world in relation to men…This secondary standing is not imposed of necessity by natural 'feminine' characteristics, but rather by strong environmental forces of educational and social traditions under the purposeful control of men… This has resulted in the general failure of women to take a place of human dignity as free and independent existents associated with men on a plane of intellectual and professional equality, a condition that not only has limited their achievements in many a field but also has given rise to pervasive social evils" (Beauvoir 1946).
The Adaptation of the Oppressed
Paolo Freire's educational and social concept of conscientization -- conscientizacao in Portuguese -- or realizing one's own consciousness, entails a deep and objective understanding of the way things work in the world. Learning and adopting this critical consciousness allows an individual to perceive the political, social, and economic contradictions of the context in which they live. It is necessary to the construct of critical consciousness to take action based on the perceptions that become fully developed and illuminated through the exercise of this way of thinking and seeing. Critical consciousness targets the oppressive elements in people's lives in order to make positive changes that alter the oppressive contradictions.
From the base of conscientization, it is apparent that a dulling of the consciousness of the oppressed -- or a shifting to an alternate viewpoint that accepts the major premises supporting the structural and cultural violence that undergirds the oppression -- will stabilize the constraints that restrict the freedom of the oppressed people. The Marian McAlpin the reader meets in Part I of the story is not a meek repository for the "social story" her culture would have her accept as her own. Early in the story, Marian demonstrates a degree of critical consciousness through her wry forensic examination of her friend Clara's traditional domestic and fecund life. But Marian's liberation seems more an artifact of her lack of direction than a deliberate detachment from the social mores of the day. Marian is described as "someone who does not know what she wants to do with life" and she could be described as someone who does not yet know what she does not want to do with her life. Marian's feminism is inchoate.
Although Atwood tends to use first person narrative voices, in the Edible Woman, she deliberately shifts the protagonist to third person in Part II of the story. Marian McAlpin's engagement to Peter is the pivotal point for the change in perspective. In Part I of the story, Marian communicates using her own voice and signaling her sense of self and her intention to have a measure of control over her life. In Part III, Marian again expresses herself in the first person, returning to a self-deterministic consciousness. By not marrying her fiance, Marian escapes the restrictive social controls that her psychological lurches, plunges, and…