[Spoilers for The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood]
“I realized Peter was trying to destroy me.”
Marian starts the novel passive: she is in a relationship with Peter, it seems, simply because she doesn’t have anything better to do. The relationship itself seems fragile. Marian references how to talk, what to talk about, how to let Peter feel a sense of control over her, because he’s volatile: he could get upset, he could dump her at any minute. Yet one gets the sense that she wouldn’t be worse for the wear should the relationship break apart. It’s a passive relationship in all ways: Marian seems to not really care about the dull and/or comfortingly conventional Peter, and Peter in the end proposes to her after his last single friend gets married, seemingly assimilating to married life once his single life becomes empty.
After the engagement, Marian starts to have problems with food, escalating until she can’t eat anything. Peter hosts a party, she runs away from it to be with Duncan, a self-absorbed grad student who treats her with alternating affection and cruelty, and ultimately uses her as he needs, thinking never of her needs. But he isn’t dull, and he isn’t conventional. Contrasting with the many scenes of Peter devouring meals, meats in particular, Duncan is deathly thin, and his sickly physique and young appearance are referenced frequently. But although he’s not seen eating steaks with pleasure, he does eat constantly, in an almost birdlike manner. He eats chocolate bars and seeds, saying he uses them to stop smoking. After the night he spends with Marian, he devours voraciously his eggs and ham. And one of his roommates cooks well, taking care of him. If Peter wants to consume Marian, Duncan wants to be healed by her. He states he doesn’t want to be “rescued” by her, but in her mind she thinks of herself as nurse-like with him. He is controlling in a different way than Peter. Peter is controlling like your stereotypical 1950s husband who expects you to serve him and be an ornament for him. Duncan is controlling like a sick baby who needs your attention, draining your energy.
By the end of the book, Marian bakes a cake shaped like a woman, and serves it to Peter, expecting him to consume her: this is her cake substitute that he can eat instead of consuming the real Marian. But Peter is shocked and leaves quickly. Marian eats the cake herself. Detached from Peter she is able to eat again and consumes her own self, becoming herself once again rather than the detached figure of Peter’s fiancée or Peter’s wife. She is Marian’s Marian.
After Peter leaves, Duncan calls Marian, distraught. One of his two roommates (whom he considers as parents who take care of him) has married Marian’s roommate and left. Duncan is now in a “broken home” as though his parents have divorced. He needs Marian. She invites him over, and displays the same indifference to his problems as he showed for her problems earlier, something that disturbs him. She tries to care, but is disinterested, thinking of other things and people. She then offers him the remainder of the cake, which he accepts and eats.
Peter, who was trying to assimilate Marian into himself and his conventional life, attempting to consume her, refused to consume her cake-self and left. Her protest of his consuming her, and actualization of it, is too shocking for him and he cannot accept it. Duncan, however, eats the cake. Without any noticeable pleasure, quickly and concentratedly; in other words, his eating the cake is self-contained, perhaps even self-absorbed: there is no performative aspect to show Marian that he enjoys her cake or the labour that went into making it, it is pure consumption for his own needs. Though Duncan, to Marian, was an escape from Peter, he is essentially no different. He also wants to consume her. But where Peter balked at the accusation, Duncan doesn’t notice or care: he knows he is consuming her in his way (being a manchild who doesn’t care for her but demands her to be at his beck and call), and he doesn’t care who else knows this. He is completely content with his consumption of her. And so Duncan represents simply a different kind of man in the world of heterosexual relations. Peter is more well know: the conventional husband who demands an obedient wife. Duncan, the grad student, the English major, the museum-goer, quirky and interesting, especially in Marian’s dull, conventional life, seems miles away from Peter. But really, they’re all men, consuming women in one way or another.