Fundamental to the Classical Canadian novels The Wars by Timothy Findley and The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood, is the long and eye-opening journey for an individual and their identity. In both books, protagonists Robert Ross and Marian McAplain experience a trigger that catapults them on a journey to search for their identity, which, in turn causes them to have a sudden realization, and they transform into a new being based on the experiences they have gained throughout their journey . Both protagonists start the novel in a stage of their life that can be referred to as planting and planning, which is where they are supposed to either know or be on the journey of finding out who they are. At the end of their pilgrimage of finding themselves, they end up a renewed and self-assured character.
First, the experiences that caused a trigger accelerating them on this path of self- discovery. In Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, the female protagonist Marian McAplain is starting to conform and change her identity to meet the traditional roles of her gender. One of those views that she believes is necessary to follow is the idea of marriage. Marian feels a lot of pressure from her surroundings to get wedded and settle down with her boyfriend, and later fiance Peter Wollander. In the beginning, her relationship with Peter seems very mundane, uninteresting and he didn’t want to get married. As time passes on Peter decides that he does, in fact, want to get married but Marian hesitantly accepts his proposal. After having accepted Peter’s marriage proposal, Marian makes several attempts to conform to society’s ideal of a perfect wife.
Before the engagement to Peter Wollander, she does not make a particular effort to conform to the ideal of the single woman. Even her clothes are chosen “Ainsley says I choose clothes as though they’re a camouflage or a protective coloration, though I can’t see anything wrong with that.”(12) meaning that she does not want to stand out much and she wishes to remain just a part of the crowd. Most of the changes that Marian undergoes, in the beginning, are so minor that they might not be noticed by the public. However, even though they are small, they do display the effort she invests in an attempt to fulfill society’s, as well as Peter’s, expectations of the female role, which results as a trigger and a transitional change from her normal self-identity to an expectation. It is also important to note that even though Marian undergoes these changes, Peter does so as well. It is seen before their engagement, they both never called each other nicknames or pet names such as “darling”, but shortly after their engagement, they start calling each other names like “darling” (50).
An indicator of her beginning to conform to society’s standards for a woman occurs when she begins to rationalize Peter’s wrongdoings. Peter also starts calling her more frequently while she is at work, in order to discuss personal matters, such as his plans for the evening (26). When Peter calls to cancel their dinner date the conversation begins to get heated. This conversation leaves Marian with an uneasy feeling, especially since her colleagues at work were eavesdropping on their conversation. After having finished talking to Peter, she reminds herself that she should be much more gentle to him because he has a demanding job. This is an example of Marian’s determination to be a good wife to Peter by treating him in a kind manner. Even beyond that, the fact of being eavesdropped on puts some additional pressure on her and illustrates that she does not only try to satisfy Peter’s expectations but society’s expectations as well at this moment. This desire to satisfy social standards is strongly exhibited when she allows Peter to choose the date of their wedding because she rather “leave the big decisions up to [him]”, which can be seen as a gesture of submission by Marian towards Peter. She suggests that, from now on, it should be him making all the important decisions. Thus, she does perfectly act in coherence to the ideal of the society’s view of the American housewife, one that is only concerned and interested in domestic matters that later leaves all the other decisions up to her husband. This is the start of Marian McAplain’s transition of losing herself to begin a path of finding her true self.
In Timothy Findley’s Canadian classic, The Wars, the protagonist Robert who is a tragic hero who dares to challenge his fate also must overcome and defeat the oppressive expectations of gender roles from society and those around him at the start of his journey to lead him on his path to self-discovery.
One of the first experiences that Robert Ross undergoes that is an example of oppressive expectations of gender roles is the view that the society he lives in has developed with the idea of being the ‘protector’ and not being vulnerable, which was considered masculine. This develops a sudden change for Robert. During this time the expectations for men to be tough, protective, private and providers. Even though Robert was a very quiet and secluded person an ongoing example of this would be his relationship with the older sister Rowena, who was suffering hydrocephalic–water on the brain. In this quote, we realize he follows this with his sister Rowena, “Later when he came to realize she couldn’t walk and never left the chair, he became her guardian. It was for her, he learns to run”. (12) When she died, he felt guilt and remorse for not being there to prevent her death. She cared for over ten rabbits that were slaughtered after her death, under no consent of Robert.
Another trigger that sent Robert Ross on a path to self-discovery was the feeling of not having a purpose or meaning in life. When Rowena Ross died it was evident that he had felt like he was empty. In The Wars, it expresses that Robert feels this way by saying “(It was then, perhaps, the first inkling that it was time for Robert to join the army.) All he knew was that his hands felt empty. In his mind, they kept reaching out for the back of Rowena’s chair.” The metaphor for his hands feeling “empty” was comparing it to how he always had his hands full with taking care of his sister and always being able to guard her in her wheelchair. This was what he felt was his purpose, this what he felt his calling was at the beginning of his journey.
Throughout The Edible Woman Margaret Atwood’s Marian McAplain is presented with an expedition to find herself. While she was going through a change of character she was faced with the problem of losing her identity through food, for reasons she doesn’t consider. In the beginning Marian believes that her dissatisfaction for food only comprises of meat, vegetables, her daily hard-boiled eggs but soon turns into desserts as well, soon enough she is unable to consume anything at all. In The Edible Woman the book has three sections. In part one she speaks in first person; then in the second part of the book Marian then speaks in third person but is still herself but influenced by food and in the last part of all three sections Marian’s perspective transitions back to first person again. We know this because Marian says: Now that I was thinking of myself in the first person singular again I found my own situation much more interesting than his [Duncan’s].1
As she continues through her change she starts to lose herself and her appetite as she starts to identify with food like her daily hard-boiled eggs, vegetables, rabbits, and finally desserts but cake in particular. A big example of when she identified with food was when she made a cake in the shape of a woman (herself) and offered it to the men in her life- Peter and Duncan. Marian gives the cake a red dress with sequins,and brown curly hair, to represent the way she dressed up for the engagement party she had with Peter the previous night. This is the ending of her journey of change and she finds herself and finally ends all of her conformity to gender expectations put on her by society and those surrounding her when she bakes a cake in the shape of a woman and tries to offer it and herself to Peter but he refuses and leaves. Marian adjusting and eating the cake herself represents the rejection of her confirmed/past self and is showing her newfound ability to connect and identify her inner feelings. The cake that Marian bakes for Peter in the form and shape of a woman is the symbol and final action of her rebelling against society’s expectations of the female role.
In Timothy Findley’s The Wars Robert Ross goes through a change of character as well. Findley shows us through the character a loss of youth, innocence and purity can drastically change one’s self. As Robert Ross proceeds through his journey he is introduced to the world of war and has to grow up according to the circumstances he is now in. Since he joined the fight of World War I, he now has to become a “man”. Many in society thought of going to war as a glorious transition and coming of age moment like Clifford. “Ord said hoarsely that since he was going to do a boy’s work he must read the “ stuff of which boys are made” and smiled. Clifford didn’t appreciate the humor. To him, the war was a deadly serious and heaven-sent choice to become a man”. This was the mindset of the glorification of war and as a result of this many who were drafted into the war would develop their characters by getting rid of characteristics that were considered “soft” like being kind and sensitive to become “tough”. As Robert had experienced the war for his own self Timothy Findley makes sure the reader sees the change of morality within the character. An example of an incident where it is clear that Robert Ross has gone through a change of maturity and morality in war is when he shoots Captain Leather. “He got out the Webley, meaning to shoot the animals not yet dead, but he paused for the barest moment looking at the whole scene laid out before him and his anger rose to such a pitch he feared he was going to go over into madness. He stood where the gate had been and he thought: “if an animal had done this-we would call it mad and shoot it”, and at that precise moment Captain Leather rose to his knees and began to struggle to his feet. Robert shot him between the eyes” this is a big change within Robert Ross’s journey because before and as he entered World War I, he would never dear or even try to hurt or even kill a living thing. As a matter of fact Robert Ross would try to save any living creature.
The Canadian novels The Wars by Timothy Findley and The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood present their protagonist in a stagnant state in the beginning of their novels. Both Marian McAplain and Robert Ross experience something to provoke them on an adventure of difference and development, which leads them to evolve into an awareness, and they transform into a new being based on the experiences they have gained throughout this. At the end of their journey each character truly understand their identity and authentic self.
- Blogger, CanLitFare. “It’s Not Me, It’s the Food: The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood .” Canadian Literary Fare, 5 May 2015, canadianliteraryfare.org/2015/04/14/its-not-me-its-the-food%E2%80%A8/.
- Findley, Timothy. The Wars. Penguin, 2017.
- GradeSaver. “Themes: The Edible Woman Wikipedia.” GradeSaver, www.gradesaver.com/the-edible-woman/wikipedia/themes.
- Patterson, jayne. “View of The Taming of Externals: A Linguistic Study Of Character Transformation in Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman: Studies in Canadian Literature / Études En Littérature Canadienne.” View of The Taming of Externals: A Linguistic Study Of Character Transformation in Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman | Studies in Canadian Literature / Études En Littérature Canadienne, journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/scl/article/view/7981/9038.
- Rigney, Barbara Hill. Margaret Atwood. Barnes & Noble, 1987.
- “The Theme Of Wars.” The Wars, 3 Mar. 2013, thewarseng11b.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/the-theme-of-wars/.