Since the beginning, women have been expected to fulfill the role of a housewife and mother and be compliant. However, in Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Edible Woman, different perspectives on female roles are given. Clara is an example of a character who unknowingly accepts female roles. Ainsley is an individual who at first rejects social ideals, but changes her views out of fear later on. The office virgins are depicted as characters who willingly conform to the roles assigned to them by society. In a powerful statement exposing the assimilation, oppression and hardships that accompany female roles, Margaret Atwood depicts her female characters who bring greater significance to social ideals.
Clara is an example of a character who unknowingly accepts female roles. She is lured into the “fairy-tale life” and therefore, leads society to destroy her individual self. She is a paradigm for the “ideal” outlined for women. Yet, her role in the novel is to reveal the negative aspects of marriage and fertility. After all, marriage is not all what it is set out to be. Clara compromises her mind and education for her marriage and kids. This is critical because it reveals another social ideal; women cannot fulfill the role of mother and wife while being educated at the same time. Society frowns upon an educated housewife because they should only be confined to one role. It is either one or the other. When Marian and Ainsley come to visit, Clara asks them to hold her daughter for her. Prying her daughter away from her body, Clara says, “Come on, you little leech. I sometimes think she’s all covered with suckers, like an octopus” (Atwood 32). Clara’s metaphors for her children have a meaning to it. Like leeches, Clara’s children suck the life out of her as well as her identity. In addition, Clara represents the group of women in society who do not keep their identity intact during marriage and will instead, let it drift apart. Marian looks at and evaluates Clara’s life. She thinks to herself, “I looked at her, feeling a wave of embarrassed pity sweep over me, what could I do? Perhaps I could offer to come over some day and clean up the house” (38). Atwood uses symbolism to also convey that Clara’s family life reflects the appearance of her home. There are decapitated dolls, toys thrown on the floor and chairs that do not match. Marian is aware of the disorganization and chaos and how Clara is unable to cope with it all. She has difficulty controlling her life because of the rigid social expectations. Clara remains the same throughout the novel, vacant, unhappy and lost. Based on this textual evidence this is how Clara brings greater significance to female roles.
Ainsley is an individual who at first rejects social ideals, but changes her views out of fear later on. In the beginning of the novel, Ainsley is portrayed as an independent, opinionated, and unconventional woman who likes her femininity. After visiting Clara’s house, she realizes her longing for motherhood and makes the decision to have a baby. Upon hearing Ainsley’s plan, Marian automatically assumes she is going to get married. Ainsley explains:
No, I’m not going to get married. That’s what’s wrong with most children, they have too many parents. You can’t say the sort of household Clara and Joe are running is an ideal situation for a child. Think of how confused their mother-image and father-image will be; they’re riddled with complexes already. And it’s mostly because of the father. (41)
Ainsley’s view on marriage and the whole family ideal is very aggressive and harsh. However, her views change dramatically and this is properly labeled as reversal convention. When Ainsley learns from a psychologist at her prenatal class that without a father figure, her baby might be gay, she is terrified. Desperate to find a solution, Ainsley begs Len to marry her. He refuses and insists on paying for an abortion.