Cat's Eye (novel)
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Cat's Eye is a 1988 novel by Margaret Atwood. In it, controversial painter Elaine Risley vividly reflects on her childhood and teenage years. Her strongest memories are of Cordelia, who was the leader of a trio of girls who were both very cruel and very kind to young Elaine, in ways that tint Elaine's perceptions of relationships and her world—not to mention her art—into the character's middle years. The novel unfolds in Canada of the mid-20th century, from World War II to the late 1980s, and includes a look at many of the cultural elements of that time period, including feminism and various modern art movements. This book was a finalist for the 1988 Governor General's Award and for the 1989 Booker Prize.
Explanation of the title
Elaine and her brother play marbles as children; Elaine keeps a prized possession, a cat eye marble in her red purse. The cat's eye later appears as a common motif in Elaine's paintings, linked with those she perceived to be an ally, although she does not remember why it is associated with those feelings. Elaine rediscovers the red purse years later, and as she looks through it, she regains all the memories she had lost: "her life entire".
After being called back to her childhood home of Toronto for a retrospective show of her art, Elaine reminisces about her childhood. At the age of eight she becomes friends with Carol and Grace, and, through their eyes, realises that her atypical background of constant travel with her entomologist father and independent mother has left her ill-equipped for conventional expectations of femininity. When Cordelia joins the group, Elaine is bullied by the three girls, her "best friends". The bullying escalates that winter, when the girls abandon Elaine in a ravine; half-frozen, she sees a vision of the Virgin Mary who guides her to safety. Afterward, realising she had allowed herself to be a victim, Elaine makes new friends.
The narrative then follows Elaine through her teenage years and her early adulthood as an art student and a Feminist artist. However, throughout this time, she is haunted by her childhood and has difficulties forming relationships with other women.
Towards the end of the novel, owing to her retrospective exhibition and her return to Toronto, she eventually faces her past and gets closure.
Cat's Eye explores the construction of identity; it is written mostly as flashbacks, as Elaine reflects on the forgotten events of her childhood that shaped her personality and struggles to integrate lost aspects of her self. In Elaine's self portrait, a pier glass reflects three little girls who are not in the painting demonstrating their simultaneous absence from Elaine's past and their presence in who she has become.
Allusions and references to other works
Allusions to Atwood's life
Atwood began Cat's Eye in 1964, but put away the novel until the late 1980s. By that time, her daughter was a teenager, and Atwood would have had the opportunity to observe the social dynamics of a group of young girls.
The book is sometimes seen as containing autobiographical elements. For example, like Risley, Atwood is the daughter of an entomologist. However, Atwood has rarely, if ever, commented on the similarities directly.