By Clara Mundy
“‘The Surface on Which You Work’: Self-Alienation and the Culture of Narcissism in The Edible Woman,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 63.3 (2021): 276-98.
Many people are first exposed to Margaret Atwood (1939- ) through the classroom, either in high school or university. When were you introduced to her work? And what was your first impression?
I read a little of Atwood’s poetry as a teenager, but I was introduced to her prose when I read The Handmaid’s Tale for an undergraduate course called Feminist Writing. Of all the horrors in that book, I was most disturbed by the closing “Historical Notes” and the idea of academics making bawdy jokes about Offred at a conference. I’d also just read Kristeva’s Powers of Horror for the first time, and my final paper compared the themes of abjection and exploitation in The Handmaid’s Tale to those in Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet. The conclusion was extremely critical of academia, and I remember feeling both terribly mature and, when I recalled the stack of grad school applications on my desk, more than a bit hypocritical.
Atwood has had such a long and prolific career, producing over 40 works of fiction, criticism, and poetry. What are your top 5 Atwood works, beginning with your favorite?
The Edible Woman, of course, Alias Grace, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Robber Bride, and The Blind Assassin.
What has made this your favorite piece?
Many drafts ago, my article on The Edible Woman was my Master’s thesis. During the defense, a member of my committee asked why I chose The Edible Woman since it’s lesser known, tremendously strange, and so complex you feel like you’re just scratching at the surface. But that’s why I like it! It resists simple explanations, appropriately so.
The Edible Woman was published in 1969, when it was much less common for a frank depiction of womanhood, consumerism, and eating disorders. Has your view of the novel changed from the first time you read it? If so, how?
The first time I read The Edible Woman, I was mainly interested in the connections Atwood draws between food and power. On the second read, I grew more curious about Atwood’s representation of aging women. I’m not sure I would say my view of the novel has changed drastically, but that it has become more nuanced, and I am less inclined to give a single-sentence answer to the question, “What’s The Edible Woman about?”
What artists — of all media, not just literature — do you view as influences to Atwood’s work?
Wyndham, Ray Bradbury, and Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m not sure if she would agree, but I see flickers of Angela Carter in her work. And Doris Lessing. Perhaps this is cheating, but I would love to hear Atwood’s response to Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods.
What influence do you think the culture she grew up in has had upon her work?
As I discuss in my article, Atwood’s understanding of Canadian identity critically informs her understanding of post-war consumerism. More than that, I think Atwood’s environmentalist writing implicitly critiques the effects of settler colonialism in Canada.
The Edible Woman deals with topics that would eventually become mainstays of Atwood’s work, such as feminism and animal rights. How do you view the development of her thoughts on these topics over the past 50 years?
Though I am not sure I can adequately describe Atwood’s development as a writer, it has been interesting as a reader to see the ways her work has increasingly focused on the environment. Perhaps in the future we will not be asking whether Atwood is a feminist writer, but if she is an ecofeminist writer.
Are there still insights to be drawn from this novel in 2021?
Absolutely! Though The Edible Woman understandably does not offer an easy solution or escape from late capitalism, Marian demonstrates how one might begin to critique their positionality and modes of consumption.
If you were to lead a book club in which you pair The Edible Woman with its thematic and stylistic opposite, what novel would you choose?
Taking the question to its extreme, my first thought was Atlas Shrugged—it would certainly lead to an interesting conversation about competitive individualism! More seriously, it would be fascinating to juxtapose the neat, reserved prose of The Edible Woman to the excess of Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s comics.
Alternately, if you were able to buddy-read any novel with Atwood, what would it be and why?
One obvious answer—and you see this in the literature quite a bit—is Lady Oracle, because it deals with many of the same sort of questions about power, body image, and eating. If I could step outside the novel form, though, I’d like to put The Edible Woman in conversation with Marvel’s miniseries WandaVision, to think about what it means to cope with trauma by forcing yourself to conform to a normative family structure. WandaVision’s themes, of course, are further complicated by Marvel’s relationship to its parent company Disney and its representations of the U.S. military, which could pair interestingly with Marian’s conflicting roles as a critic and agent of capitalism.
How do you think The Edible Woman’s commentary on consumerism fits into the influencer-filled society of 2021, where the platforms meant to connect us are now being simultaneously used to advertise to us?
On one hand, it is hard to imagine a middle-class Canadian woman in 2021 believing she could easily opt out of consumerism. On the other hand, isn’t that what countless advertising campaigns promise? If you buy our product, you’re a responsible consumer who cares about sustainable consumption (and just don’t think about the fact that we exploit the imprisoned for cheap labor). Like Duncan in The Edible Woman, it’s a form of commodified non-conformity.
Atwood has never shied away from including politics in her work, yet she’s also been hesitant to label her work as strictly “feminist.” How do you think Atwood set herself apart from 2nd-wave feminism, and do you think that this separation has altered readers’ response to her novels?
From my understanding, Atwood’s unwillingness to label her work “feminist” is due in part to the term’s ambiguity. “Feminist” is often used as a catch-all word for anyone who generally believes in women’s equality, though as Atwood has highlighted, there is no single, stable definition of what “feminist” means or what constitutes feminist politics. My personal definition of feminism is informed by queer politics and is inextricably tied to antiracism and trans rights. The Edible Woman shows many possible forms of and responses to second-wave feminism—Joe’s monologue about women’s cores, for example, reads like a paternalistic response to The Feminine Mystique, while Ainsley’s homophobia satirizes the ways Friedan and others excluded and further marginalized lesbian feminists. While I cannot confidently say this is the case, I hope that Atwood’s separation from second-wave feminism has encouraged readers to interrogate the work behind the word “feminist.”
How have perceptions of Atwood’s work, especially her first novel, changed over time? Has that change been identical among students and literary critics?
I taught a class last spring on The Handmaid’s Tale, and it seems that since I was first introduced to Atwood’s work, students are more immediately critical, and rightfully so, of the ways Atwood circumvents any significant discussion of race. As for The Edible Woman, I’ve noticed that critics writing in the 2000s respond differently to Marian’s eating habits, often engaging with them as an extended metaphor rather than as something that requires medical diagnosis.
There’s no doubt that Margaret Atwood has had a lasting impact on both literature and politics. How do you foresee the next generation of writers building on Atwood’s contribution?
I hope to see many more Indigenous ecofeminist writers receive offers from mainstream publishers. Right now, there’s a gap, not because that writing doesn’t exist, but because it has not received the same level of attention and financial assistance.