Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

Identities fractured by time and space by Dr Jennifer Minter

In Margaret Atwood’s novel, Cat’s Eye, the protagonist and renowned artist, Elaine Risley, stages a retrospective exhibition. This provides her with an opportunity to revisit her past and reassess her life stories. However, this search is problematic owing to the trauma surrounding her childhood years in Toronto and her desire to escape from the persecution she suffered with her “friends”. As a result, Elaine seems to be in perpetual flight, unable to find a sense of contentment or wellbeing. Significantly, her paintings become important mirrors to the past and in many ways symbolize Elaine’s ambivalent and often contradictory relationships that lead to infinite displacement, rather than fulfilment. Elaine comes to realize that “identity” cannot be grasped as a whole; rather it is fractured in multiple personalities that are all aspects of her troubled self.

Stephen’s message, “time is not a line”, is critical to her sense of self evaluation. In this regard, a fluid sense of time and space pervades the novel and  the narrator juxtaposes past and present events like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Her childhood and adult memories are sometimes continuous but often disjointed; some memories are elongated, while others are buried. As a result, Elaine often sees herself as two personas who interact in complementary and contradictory ways.

A self in the making: the socialization process

Much of Elaine’s trauma seems to stem from her school experiences in Toronto where the family eventually settled when she was eight years old. Initially, Elaine positions herself as submissive and weak; perhaps one reason for this is her difference and the difficulties she encounters conforming to feminine stereotypes. Her previous unconventional upbringing and nomadic lifestyle, influenced by her naturalist father, her brother, Steven, and carefree mother, who is neither fond of cooking nor housework, did nothing to prepare her for the shock of socialisation.

Until she starts school in Toronto, Elaine is unaware of what being “feminine” is. She confesses, “I’m not used to girls, or familiar with their customs. I feel awkward around them. I don’t know what to say. I know the unspoken rules of boys, but with girls I sense that I am always on the verge of some unforeseen, calamitous blunder.” With the help of her three new friends, Grace, Carol and Cordelia, Elaine learns the rules: the girls’ line is different than the boys; she is not able to follow her brother, Stephen, as she used to. She learns self effacement — that girls have to hide their achievements. They are meant to be passive and follow the norm, and agree with others. She learns to say that her scrapbook pages are “awful”. “It’s the thing you have to say, so I begin to say it too.” (62) She begins to have feminine cravings: “I begin to want things I’ve never wanted before: braids, a dressing-gown, a purse of my own. Something is unfolding, being revealed to me. I see that there’s a whole world of girls and their doings that has been unknown to me, and that I can be part of it without making any effort at all.” (62)

Elaine often associates her worst fears with her troubled relationship with Cordelia, who appears as a threatening and oppressive figure. She also becomes a symbol of the devastating consequences of socialisation. Cordelia is harshly judgemental like her own father. She constantly censures Elaine and seeks to “improve” her: “Wipe that smirk off your face”. However, she also figures as a projection of Elaine’s own super ego as she fails to conform to traditional, “normal” social patterns. She represents the “shame, the sick feeling in my body”. She is the “knowledge of my wrongness, awkwardness, weakness” (495).

Forever anxious, Elaine tries to please her friends and follow Cordelia’s contemptuous taunts and instructions. She fears being “cast out forever”. “I’m terrified of losing them”. However, she also introjects their scorn and feels worthless and inferior. Elaine constantly fears Cordelia to the point where she wishes to become invisible. Her “chewed skin” and fainting bouts become psychosomatic signs of her anxiety and, coupled with her increasing detachment from her mother, she descends into a dark abyss.

The indefinite burial in the hole represents the height of Elaine’s subservience and darkness. Acting like Mary Queen of Scots, the three girls bury her for an interminably long time leading to a sense of betrayal and terror. She remembers a “black square filled with nothing” but in which “nothing goes away”. It signifies her complete impotence to the point of self-effacement. It is the “point at which I lost power”. (126).

Cordelia: who is she?

Throughout the novel, Elaine has an ambiguous and destructive relationship with Cordelia wherein both are scarred. Cordelia is not only friend and foe, but also the super ego in the socialization process. She helps Elaine discover her dark moments and darker impulses, whilst simultaneously compounding them. During their teenage years at high school, Elaine has a glimpse of Cordelia’s face dissolving into a nine-year-old face”. Suddenly the face reveals life “in all its clarity and detail”. There is that glimpse, during which I can see.” (299)

A power struggle is clearly at the heart of their relationship. Initially the unequal mirroring of positions is evident through Elaine’s fear and Cordelia’s defiance which has a direct impact upon Elaine’s confidence and sense of worthlessness.

Cordelia appears as a self-assured and manipulative girl from a middle-class background. She takes her name from Shakespeare’s King Lear and much is expected of her. She suffers under her harsh father’s judgements and constantly disappoints. The father was unpredictable, often losing his temper and rarely happy with Cordelia (299). Over time, Cordelia reveals her own vulnerability and her “wish to be loved”.

Ironically, Cordelia eventually seeks love and comfort from the girl she alienates with her power games. As the tide turns in this fluid search for identity, Elaine realizes she turns into the dominant partner and Cordelia is the one losing her grip on reality (300-301). Soon, Cordelia fails academically (unlike Elaine, who succeeds in her studies); shoplifts and has a mental breakdown. She is placed in a sanatorium after attempting suicide and Elaine rejects her pleas for help.

Half a Face

In Half a Face, the only picture featuring Cordelia, the two “friends” change places; the exact time and place of this shift is indefinable. Behind Cordelia’s face lurks another face covered with a white cloth which becomes an emblem of their fluctuating power dynamics. The “half” effect derives from a theatrical mask; the white cloth conceals images of animals that are in part suggestive of the primordial instinctive childhood impulses that we possibly never completely understand or control.

On one level, Elaine is “afraid” of Cordelia who represents her childhood trauma and phobias. (“I am afraid of Cordelia”.) After all, Cordelia reminds her of her vulnerability and fragility; she torments Elaine by breaking plates when Elaine doesn’t adhere to commands; she makes her suffer in the dark hole; she throws Elaine’s hat into the forbidden ravine. However, when Elaine tried to paint her “defiant, almost belligerent stare of hers”, the eyes sabotaged her. They were “hesitant, reproachful, frightened”.

In Half a Face, the only picture that captures their close twin-like relationship, Elaine seeks to pinpoint the source of her greatest trauma — the 13-year old girl with a defiant and belligerent stare. (227) However, Elaine also has trouble fixing the relationship in time and space, because whilst Cordelia is a 13 year old tormentor she also reflects Elaine’s troubled state of mind which shifts and changes according to the ebb and flow of their relationship.

Fear swirls in this painting as Elaine morphs into the perpetrator. In a way, this reversal frightens Elaine more than Cordelia’s persecution. She is extremely fearful of “being” Cordelia. She experiences an acute sense of revulsion and flushes of “guilt and terror and cold disgust” of unknown origins of pain.

The ravine

Atwood consistently depicts Elaine as a troubled girl who is persecuted by a scornful and contemptuous “friend”. Both the hole and the bridge reflect the height of her vulnerability, her impotence and her fragility. She is servile to the point of self-effacing as she suffers under the full weight of Cordelia’s tyrannical commands. So fearful is she when Cordelia flings her hat into the ravine, that she realises Cordelia “is right … because this stupid looking hat is mine and deserving of ridicule” (222)

Elaine’s defiance at the “bridge” marks a pivotal moment in their relationship which has important implications for the “reality” of Cordelia’s presence and the lingering effects of her trauma. The ravine overtakes the symbolism of the hole as emblematic of her deepest and darkest fears. She is warned not to go down to the ravine; they are encouraged to fear men in strange places. “There might be men down there”; it’s “forbidden and dangerous’. (Later these fears could be seen to have a basis in reality as a girl was murdered in the vicinity, 285.)

Ironically, it is at the height of her self-effacement, that she imagines her figurative role model: the Virgin Mary who becomes a critical symbol of courage as she seeks to reclaim her buried and traumatised self.

However, the appearance of her personal Virgin Mary, an alternative religious mythical figure, gives her inner strength to confront her demons. At a critical moment, she clearly hears the voice, but later reveals that the voice was a figment of her imagination. “There was no voice”.

In Falling Women (315) Elaine foregrounds the bridge as an object that prompts reflection about the nature of “falling” and “fallen” women. Three women, presumably her childhood friends (Grace, Carol and Cordelia), fall off the bridge and on top of the men who are lying, concealed, down below. They are the bogey men from the depths of darkness who protect and disrupt at the same time.

Not only is Elaine reevaluating the concept of falling with regards to the three friends; but the bogey men-protectors are also a source of anger and frustration as Elaine tries to navigate tumultuous relationships with partners in her adult life. The fact that these are associated in this painting with her childhood traumas and tormentors is significant. Elaine paints “sharp, slippery rocks with jiggered edges” knowing ‘if you slip you can hurt yourself’. During a moment of intense frustration, she threw a TV set at Jon and thought she could “murder’ him. Although he was not to blame, he ‘drove’ her to suicide. She later forgives him as an unfair scapegoat, but perhaps only because now she feels ‘safe’ from him.

The image of the falling girls becomes Elaine’s ultimate act of revenge, but the imagery also represents Elaine letting go of her trauma. The girls bully but they were all victims. As in her relationships with men, there is no one clearly to blame.

After her desolate experience in the ravine, Elaine comes to a turning point in her relationship with Cordelia. She no longer feels under her powerful spell. She admits that she is “still fearful”. (228), but she realizes that she does not have to do “what she says. I can do what I like”. She realizes that Cordelia’s intimidating and powerful manner is not instinctive. It is “an impersonation of someone much older. It’s a game.” It’s also the game of socialisation and Elaine gains the confidence to carve her own individual path with the help of art.

Elaine’s personal saviour

Elaine is also saved or solaced by her personal vision of the Virgin Mary. At her absolute weakest moment, physically and psychologically, the vision provides a turning point. From this moment, Elaine has the courage to withstand the scorn of her friends. In this sense, Elaine sets up an alternative religious figure who guides her through her trauma and provides solace and comfort in the absence of traditional religious figures and dogma. She “wrapped me in warmth” and “didn’t want” her to freeze.

Elaine’s personal saviour contrasts with her earlier encounter with Mrs Smeath’s traditional but frightening version of a similar figure. As a religious person, Mrs Smeath had an influential impact on Elaine, which is evident through Elaine’s large range of artworks dedicated to deprecating Mrs Smeath. It is through Mrs Smeath that Elaine is introduced to religion, but in a negative and soul-destroying way. Just when she searches for maternal comfort from the maternal pallbearer for religion, Mrs Smeath rejects and betrays her. By doing nothing to curb the persecution, she becomes complicit. She even implies “it serves (her) right”. “Mrs. Smeath has God all sewed up, she knows what things are his punishments.” Mrs Smeath interprets Elaine’s exclusion as an indication of “God’s punishment”.

Elaine’s alienating experience with the masculine Christ reinforces a need for a greater focus on and appreciation for a supportive Virgin Mary — a feminine idol, not a traditionally masculine prop. Elaine’s painting “Our Lady of Perpetual Help” aims to rebalance the relationship between the two spiritual idols, whereby the Virgin Mary, with the head of a lioness, is portrayed as “fierce” and “alert to danger”. Elaine poses the question: “If Christ is a lion, why shouldn’t Virgin Mary be a lioness?” The artist bestows upon females a strength that is not usually evident in the submissive females of her society. Moreover “Baby Jesus” laying in her lap in the form of a cub, glorifies the Virgin Mary as both caring and protective at the same time.

As the power dynamics and the hierarchy of this relationship fluctuates, so too does Elaine’s relationship with her troubled past. Ultimately, the spectre of Cordelia fades, but this is because she has come to terms with the contradictory and shifting persona that is also an unpredictable part of herself. She is not haunted by the bridge (the phobia of the bridge recedes) and she does not rely on the support of the Virgin Mary. (“The bridge is only a bridge, the river a river”).

When she returns to the bridge that “is just a bridge”, Elaine imagines the woman in her purview, as Cordelia, with the same “lopsided” mouth and defiant face. There is the “wrongness, awkwardness, weakness; the same wish to be loved; the same loneliness; the same fear.” But critically, she is now able to externalise these emotions; they are not projections of her worst fears. At some stage, she has become the dominant one. “I am the older one now.” I’m the stronger”. “These are not my own emotions any more. They are Cordelia’s; as they always were.”

Ironically at the height of her vulnerability, Elaine finds the power to resist and increasingly reflects Cordelia’s defiance as she gains the strength to revisit her demons. She gradually transforms from a self effacing impotent girl as she relies on her own Virgin Mary for strength and solace. Finally, though, through her art, her retrospective and introspective soul searching, Elaine is able to overcome her anxieties associated with the socialisation process, her friendships and the symbols of darkness: the bridge and the ravine.

By Dr Jennifer Minter, Cat’s Eye: identities fractured by time and space (VCE Studies Notes: English Works)  www.englishworks.com.au

See also our VCE workbook for students: The Language of Persuasion: an essay-writing guide.

Please click here to download a PDF version of the Exercises in the Language of Persuasion: an essay writing guide for immediate use. By using these exercises, you will be able to follow our support material on each exercise (See “turn to exercise”). Each “turn to exercise” includes key strategies, suggested responses, students’ samples and assessors’ marks and comments.


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  English Works (2014). Please attribute quotes.  Disclaimer: These notes are designed as teaching aids only to be used in conjunction with workshops conducted by English Works.

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