Author Background

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian poet and novelist who has won many awards for her work. A recurring theme in her work is the oppression of women in a patriarchal society. But she has stopped short of calling herself a feminist writer as she did not confine herself to feminist concerns. Atwood also wrote speculative fiction that has sometimes been called science fiction, a label that she says does not fit her writing. Cat’s Eye has autobiographical elements. Like the protagonist’s father, Atwood’s father too was an entomologist who resided in forests for long periods. But the author has not commented on these elements in any of her interviews.

Relevance of the Title

The cat’s eye marble that Risley owned as a child is the central symbol in the novel. She considers it too precious for playing, preferring to keep it safe in her purse. The marble is not like a real cat’s eye but has a blue flower at the center of clear glass. She believes that the marble keeps her safe; she wants to be like the cat’s eye, only able to see with all other senses turned off.  The centre of the cat’s eye marble looks frozen; that is the state of her mind following the trauma that she has been suffering. The cat’s eye is a central motif that appears repeatedly in her paintings.

Main Themes

Identity and Memory

When Risley comes back to Toronto, she is fifty years old and a painter of some renown. Nevertheless, she has no self-worth and very little will, to get on with life. On bad mornings, all she can remember is Cordelia’s cutting words that lacerated her sensibilities, making her feel worthless. She has been going through life, reliving the relentless abuse. Many of the memories are repressed but she suffers under their weight. The only way to discover herself and let herself free is to acknowledge what had happened to her. But there are gaps in her memory with whole chunks missing. Sometimes, her memory is distorted like wet glass.

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Coming of Age

There are two coming-of-age themes in the novel. One is when Risley enters adolescence. As a young adult, she discovers her talent for painting, has her first affair and finds her feet in the open world. But when Riosley returns to Toronto a second time, it is a different Risley we encounter. She is still haunted by her childhood that was scarred by the abuse she suffered at the hands of her ‘friends’ and she is being pursued by approaching old age. She is not comfortable at the idea of growing old. She wants to postpone it and is ready to try potions and creams that promise youthful looks.

Characters

Elaine Risley

Elaine is a fifty year-old painter who comes back to Toronto where she had spent her childhood, to attend a retrospective of her paintings. Till she was eight, she and her parents had lived in woods due to her father’s job as an forest entomologist. When the family moved to Toronto, she joins school and has friends for the first time. But the friends torment her pointing out her imaginary deficiencies and taunting her till she becomes a mass of nerves. Cordelia is the worst of the gang of three. Elaine considers the loss of her friends to be a disaster so puts up with them though they are not good for her. It is some time before she summons the courage to reject them but the harm they have done to her psyche go very deep.

When Elaine is in high school, she begins resembling Cordelia in her behavior. She is waspish and takes joy in hurting others. Boys are attracted to her but she does not spare them either. She finds her vocation and decides to be painter. While in art college, she has her first affair. When becomes pregnant, she hurriedly marries her boyfriend knowing that they are not suited. Depressed, she moves to Vancouver but that does not solve problems. She attempts suicide. In the aftermath, she meets and later marries Ben. She has another daughter.

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It is only after she comes back to Toronto that she tries to confront her repressed memories. She realizes that most of her problems are rooted in her traumatized childhood. Though still prickly as a person, she feels that she can change and be pleasant with people.

Cordelia

Cordelia is the leader of the group of three girls who profess to be friends with Elaine but torment her with their jibes and taunts. Cordelia comes from a rich family and considers herself superior to Elaine. Cordelia claims that the girls are actually trying to make Elaine improve herself but there is no explanation why that should include a ritual burial. There is also an incident where she throws Elaine’s hat into the freezing river and watches as Elaine plunges into the water to retrieve it. Then she leaves the half frozen girl to find her way back home.

Elaine gets into trouble with school authorities for insubordination and is expelled. When she joins another school, Elaine is already there, more confident than she has ever been before. Cordelia finds that her earlier barbs don’t find their mark on the new Elaine. In fact, Elaine is now capable of delivering pain to others. More and more, Elaine resembles Cordelia. Cordelia does not know what she wants from life. She drifts while Elaine has a clear goal. Cordelia ends up in a facility for the mentally ill.

Summary

Elaine Risley comes back to the town of Toronto to attend a retrospective of her paintings. This is the town in which she has spent her childhood. Until the age of eight, she had lived in the wild with her family as her father was an entomologist. While wandering about the city, she remembers how her life had been scarred by the bullying by a group of girls she called ‘friends’. Cordelia who was the leader of the gang was a little older than her and from a rich background. Elaine is always perplexed by their behavior as they claimed that they were trying to improve her. Later, however, she finds the strength of mind to move away. When she meets Cordelia again, she is in another school and and has found her goal in life, to be a painter. But she carries within her deep scars. She is prickly by nature and hurts people including Cordelia knowingly. She is mixed up in her relationships with men. In the few days that she spends in Toronto as a fifty year old, she finds several answers and finally forgives Cordelia in her mind. She finally finds a measure of closure.