The novel by Margaret Atwood revolves around a woman named Marian who has problems in her work and personal relationship because of her thoughts that a woman like her is being consumed by the world. Having grown up in the traditionally accepted behavior of a good girl, she struggles to do what she ought to do, but not what she desires. The problem with Marian is that she can't separate thinking from reality. She applies and imposes the issues of her friend’s life, Clara, on her own life. She is also lost in her place of work because she cannot find her identity in the place. She cannot also seem to make up her mind whether to get married to a perfect suitor Peter or not. According to Paulo Freire, the interests of the oppressed in society lie in changing their conscious, but not in the situation that oppresses them. This view is shared by Beauvoir. Freire further insisted that the oppressed are easily dominated by being encouraged to get used to the situation being oppressed. The oppressed are given the title of welfare recipients while the oppressors use education and a male domineering attitude in the society. According to Freire, the oppressed in the society are viewed as people who alienate themselves from the configuration of a good just and organized society. This paper analyzes the views of Freire with evidence from the novel The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood regarding self oppression of women, oppression of women due to her expected role in the society, and oppression due to her inability to express herself.
Women Oppression of Self
In the novel, Marian assumes the role of a consumable thing which is seen as adapting to a body without a mind role (Gupta 15, 2). From the first person narration in the novel, Marian asserts that she could not become one of the men upstairs or one of the machines below. She wanted an absolute identity of a woman. One wonders why she struggles to be a woman which she already is. Some critics argue that she was struggling to become somebody in a male dominated world. The fear she has is unfounded because she is educated and engage to a most suitable bachelor; yet, her fear projections in her thoughts lead her to rebellion. She oppresses herself in that she thinks that she merely exists, which can be said to not be true in her case.
She also battles with the inability to act. She keeps changing her thoughts which haunt her through out the novel. This keeps on changing her behavior because she cannot come to a decision on her own. Controlled by fear, she is alienated from the society because she has to conform to its expectations, yet that is not her desire (Gupta 16, 2). In her life she seeks to impress her parents because they would want her to be a good girl and get married to her fiancé Peter. She lives with the knowledge that any action concerning her personal life would affect her parents thus she wishes to measure up to their expectations.
Women can also be said to be their own oppressors because as evidenced in the novel, Marian does not tolerate single parenthood, which is the situation of one of her friends and colleague at work named Ainsley. Being a conformist to traditional roles of parenting, her disapproval is understandable (Gupta 16, 2). She does not like involving herself in social activities like visiting her parents unless she has something pleasing to tell them. This contributes further to her personal alienation from the real world.
Marian does not like the way Clara allows her body to go its own way. This is oppression of women by other women in the society. This is despite the fact that Clara is pregnant and cannot control her body, which is basically biological. Marian pities her and only accepts her as a human being when she delivers her child and goes back to being her normal self (Tolan 15, 2). Although child birth is inevitable in the society, Beauvoir does not agree because with modern technology, women can be freed form the responsibility accepting body changes due to pregnancy. Beauvoir asserts that the modern woman can reproduce on the same terms as men because she should take action and think about her life thus embracing masculinity values (Tolan 15, 3). Marian seems to conform to these thoughts because she derives her body of its essentials by refusing to eat, so that she does not look like Clara. Her actions can be interpreted as she was refusing to eat with the intention of becoming weak thus discouraging her body from becoming pregnant.
This is evidence that oppression is in the conscience of the oppressed, and only they can free themselves. It is indeed evident that Margaret supports the thoughts of Freire in that most of the oppression that happens to Marian is because of her thoughts that she projects as a reality.
Oppression of Women Due To Their Expected Role in Society
In the novel, Marian’s office is an all women office and is situated a floor below the men’s office and above the floor that houses the machines they use for work (Lilbum 9, 2). As a graduate, the office setting does not provide her with any visible achievements in her life. This is the expected place of women in the work place where male dominate the upper job positions and the jobs that according to Marian matter while women form the supportive staff bulk of the work force. The woman’s place in the work force is doing secretarial job thus being reduced into something that men use in their innovations and in realizing their goals.
Marian is uneasy about her place in the work force thus struggles to find her identity there (Lilbum 9, 2). This is despite the fact that some women in the company are doing well because Mrs. Grout is in the accounting department doing what is considered a man’s job. Marian, despite her struggle to attain the status of an independent woman, struggles with signing a document that is meant to give her assurance of income even in her old age. This can be interpreted as her desire to conform to the society’s expectations where a woman should not worry about her income if she is married. That is to say her provision is assured as long as she is married. Instead of working hard to realize her career potential and to earn a promotion, Marian arrives to work late; thus, she is forced to do an assignment not because she likes it, but because she wants to appease her supervisor because of her lateness.
Her fears are centered on her body because she was born as a female. She realizes that she cannot become a man above in her work place, but that she can regulate her body by not eating (Tolan 17, 3). The place of a woman in marriage is in being a subservient wife, and Marian conforms to this when she lets Peter make all the decision that are of important issues. This is her desire to become a subservient wife, but fear that Peter will control and limit her powers and her thinking. She eventually says no as a show of rebellion and offers Peter an alternative of her by giving him a cake in the shape of a woman. This seems to liberate her from the fear she harbors and she starts eating again. This is proof that fear and oppression were all in her mind and she freed herself by finding an alternative.
The women in society are defined by the social acceptance of their body by their male counterparts. In starving herself, Marian attains a state of her body that Peter finds absolutely marvelous. As explained on page 229 of the novel, Marian's body becomes fake, like soft pinkish white rubber or plastic boneless and flexible self (Tolan 17, 3). This can be explained to mean that women can be equated to artificial objects like rubber and plastic. The society seems to not mind the fact that Marian has earned that marvelous status through oppressing her body by denying it in food.
In her quest to no to be consumed by Peter, she bakes a cake that she offers him, but he refuses, and Duncan eats it together with Marian. This shows that a woman role in society can be changed. In liberating her thoughts, she does not change mush of her social life because at the end, she is till faced with the same choice as in the beginning. This means that the whole novel is based on her thoughts and not what she does about her position as a female in the society. Atwood herself asserts that it was important for the heroine to remain the same after her liberation because her behavior is derived from the society that surrounds her. Her choices remain returning to the same job or getting married and getting children (Hobgood 145, 1).
The society demands that a woman should get married and bear children within the marriage. Marian is, therefore, shocked by the decision taken by Ainsley to bear a child out of wedlock (Phelps 113, 5). Despite this, she goes ahead to refuse to get married to Peter. She does not condone the fact that Ainsley wishes to bring up her child as a single parent. Her parents also form the part of the society that expects a woman to follow certain norms as getting married, especially to a promising lawyer such as Peter. Their expectations are too high for Marian to the point that she avoids seeing them when she does not have anything pleasing to tell them. One would think that the role of Joe, husband of Clara, would lessen the conflict in Marian thoughts. This is because marriage does not always conform to the society’s expectations as Joe is the one who goes to hunt for the diaper of their son when he hides it. The contact with Clara and her husband Joe seems to fuel her intra-conflicts when she sees Clara within a body that is not hers.
Her fear is based on marriage and the expected role of a woman in it. Her choice of Peter to be her fiancé further shows that the environment and culture of people has extensive effects on behavior and social life. In the first chapter of the novel, Marian says that she chose Peter because he had the promise of becoming a major lawyer who will be capable of providing for their family. She also grew up with the thought of having a husband like Peter and getting children that she would raise just like her parents and her society taught her. She, however, comes to fear of marriage because she thinks it will form a gold circle around her that would limit her social life, which in reality she does not have plenty of.
Oppression of Women Due To Their Inability to Speak Up
According to critics, Marian loses her ability to tell her own story and the story is told in the third person from the fifth chapter (Kauder 40, 3). This is interpreted as losing her voice on matters sensitive to the feminine mind and biology and the ability to liberate oneself from the confusing web of marriage, relationships and work.
Marian suffers anorexic disorder because she lacks the ability to speak up on her fears about becoming like Clara. She lets her body speak for her by deriving it of essential food and nutrients. She is positive that people would see that she is suffering, but this does not happen. This is because Peter finds her anorexic state absolutely intriguing. He thinks she looks good because he thought that she was dieting out of her own will. This is true of women in society where they seek to express themselves though their bodies. They forget that people have different interpretations on the same. They end up being oppressed because they cannot say what hey feel as they let their bodies to speak for them.
Women are also oppressed in society due to their inability to speak for themselves. It is evidenced by the way Marian signed her name into a document which she later thought would go into a file and then to a cabinet where it would be locked in a vault somewhere (Hobgood 150, 2). These are the questions that she could have easily asked the accountant to her satisfaction. She could have easily asked her what happens to the documents she has signed, especially because she is a woman like her. Her inability to speak for herself in the workplace explains why she does not have any male friends or relationships in the workplace. All her associates and her fellow characters at the workplace are predominantly women, yet she is afraid of them.
She could also not express her thoughts to her friends, even to a close ones as her roommate Ainsley. On page 41 of the novel, Marian feels uneasy and goes to bed feeling funny because her friend had told her that every woman should have a child because a baby completes her femininity. Marian insists that she knew Ainsley was wrong; although, she sounded very rational. Her failure to speak up her mind makes her mind feel fuzzy and this contributes to her alienation from the society because of her thoughts. This is a subject that would have brought a discussion in normal lives of college educated women, but it does not because Marian refuses to contribute having being confused by the rationality behind Ainsley’s argument.
Marian’s relationship with Peter forms most of the part that Marian is unable to speak up her mind. She becomes the hunteein their relationship while Peter becomes the hunter (Hobgood 151, 3). When Peter looks on Marian, she sees herself small and in the shape of an oval like an egg. The next morning at the breakfast, she is unable to eat eggs because she thinks of herself as an egg as she had seen it in Peter’s eyes. She refuses to eat the eggs because in doing so she would be consuming herself. This starts a long list of the things she does not consume and leads to her anorexic state. This would have been solved by asking and engaging Peter in conversation that would make her understand what Peter feels about her, instead of inferring herself as an egg from the look in Peter’s eyes.
Marian idolizes Peter in their first encounter and her self-esteem is hinged on his approval of her character. Being reprimanded as being hysterical by Peter and showing attention to Ainsley who she thinks is immoral is devastating to Marian (Gupta 19, 2). This is to show that Marian acts only to please Peter and gain praise from him. He becomes the measure of her worth and the voice behind her each and every action. She is also seen running to others and wanting forgiveness from Peter when she asserts that she was filled with penitence, yet there was no outlet for it (Gupta 20, 2). This shows that she was unable to go up to Peter and tell him that she was sorry for her rude behavior in the Park Plaza. She instead goes to Duncan and flirts with him, a behavior that baffles Peter. Women are mostly unable to say they are sorry to fellow men because it is seen as being subservient to their power. This is intra-oppression because it does not allow women to gain any peace.
After being repressed for a long period of time and inability to speak, Marian finally finds her voice, but in doing so she drives Peter, her intended husband, away. This is through telling him that he has been trying to ruin her life(Tolan 33, 3). This cannot be termed as liberation from oppression of inability to speak because the thoughts she had repressed and nursed for a long time convinces her that Peter is not right for her. She is unable to adjust to the real world with Peter still in her life, so she ventures into making him leave her. Her loss of voice makes her to lose the man who loved her and proposed to marry her.
Marian is unable to act on her fears about her impending marriage and this forces her to retreat further into her madness. She resolves to accept the version of Peter about her as silly. This does not, however, solve the problem because it is not Peter or marriage to him that poses the problem, but her hysterical symptoms and projection of her thoughts into the real life. She is afraid of losing her shape or talking to people and crying where she would reveal all her thoughts; this crumbles her rationalism further. The choice of the person she speaks to is irrational because he is one of the men who does not want her marriage to Peter to succeed and, eventually, consumes the cake that was meant to liberate Marian from Peter. This shows that she does not gain her freedom through actions such as baking a cake and offering it to Peter because talking with him about her fears would have worked better. The perceived consumer of the edible woman does not do the actual eating, but the confidant (Duncan) who urges her to leave Peter.