Cat's Eye

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Cat's Eye
Margaret Atwood

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Reading


Cat's Eye was published in Toronto in 1988 and was the ninth novel by Margaret Atwood, one of Canada's most acclaimed writers of fiction and poetry. It is about a successful painter, Elaine Risley, who returns to Toronto, the city where she grew up, for a retrospective of her work at a gallery named Sub-Versions. Risley is trying to come to terms with being fifty. She must also grapple with disturbing memories from her childhood, and much of the novel consists of Risley's narration of this period in her life. At the core of Risley's story is the cruelty she suffered as a young girl at the hands of her three best friends, particularly a girl named Cordelia. This teasing shatters Risley's self-esteem and leads her to adopt neurotic habits, such as peeling her skin, biting her nails, and chewing her hair. She also develops fainting fits and has suicidal impulses.

In exploring the world of childhood female friendships, Atwood broke new ground. Never before had the world of eight-to twelve-year-old girls been examined so thoroughly and with such unflinching insight.

The novel also explores the nature of memory and identity, since Risley is aware of how unreliable memory can be, and how our experience of the present is colored by past events. The nature of artistic creativity is another theme, as Risley discovers her vocation as a painter. Finally, the novel provides a vivid picture of Toronto in the 1940s and 1950s, and shows how dramatically the city had changed by the 1980s.

Author Biography

Margaret Eleanor Atwood was born on November 18, 1939, in Ottawa, Canada. Her father, Carl Edmund Atwood, was a forest entomologist; her mother, Margaret Dorothy (Killam) was a graduate in home economics from the University of Toronto.

Atwood spent her earliest years in Ottawa during the winters and the rest of the year in northern Quebec and Ontario. In 1946, her father took up a position as professor at the University of Toronto, and the family moved to Toronto.

In 1957, Atwood became a student of English at Victoria College, University of Toronto. In 1961, after graduation, she studied English at Radcliffe College, Harvard University, and was awarded a master's degree in 1962. She then went on to doctoral studies at Harvard until 1963. The following year she taught English literature at the University of British Columbia. Her first collection of poetry, The Circle Game (1966), won the Governor General's Award.

Since then, Atwood has published poetry, novels, short stories, children's literature, and nonfiction and has taught in many Canadian and Ameri-can universities. Her poetry includes The Animals in That Country (1968), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), You Are Happy (1975), Two-Headed Poems (1978), Interlunar (1984), and Morning in the Burned House (1995). Her novels are The Edible Woman (1969); Surfacing (1972); Lady Oracle (1976); Life before Man (1979); Bodily Harm (1981); Encounters with the Element Man (1982); Unearthing Suite (1983); The Handmaid's Tale (1985), which was a bestseller and won the Governor General's Award, the Los Angeles Times Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke science fiction award; Cat's Eye (1988); The Robber Bride (1993), which won the Canadian Authors Association Novel of the Year Award; Alias Grace (1996), which won the Giller Prize; and The Blind Assassin (2000). Atwood's short story collections include Dancing Girls and Other Stories (1977) and Bluebeard's Egg and Other Stories (1983); her nonfiction includes Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972).

Atwood has worked and traveled extensively in Europe, and she has received honorary degrees from many institutions, including Trent University, Smith College, and the University of Toronto. She was president of the Writers Union of Canada from 1982 to 1983, and president of P.E.N. International's Anglo-Canadian branch from 1984 to 1985.

Atwood married James Polk, a novelist, in 1967. They divorced in 1973. Atwood now lives with Canadian writer Graeme Gibson. They have a daughter, Jess, who was born in 1977.

Plot Summary

Part One: Iron Lung

Cat's Eye begins with an observation about the nature of time, attributed by Elaine Risley, the narrator, to her brother Stephen. This leads her to announce that nothing in life is ever lost; it is just a matter of what one remembers at any given moment. She then flashes back to a memory of her childhood friend, Cordelia, when they were teenagers. Risley is haunted by the memory of Cordelia, whom she has not seen for many years.

Part Two: Silver Paper

Risley reflects on how much Toronto has changed, and how much the city has meant to her. She reveals that she is married with two daughters, and is a successful painter. She is returning to Toronto for a retrospective of her work at a gallery called Sub-Versions. Her memories of her childhood take up the remainder of this part. Her father was a field entomologist, which meant that the family traveled a lot. But when she was eight, her father became a university professor and they moved to Toronto.

Part Three: Empire Bloomers

After a chapter in which present-day Risley shops in Toronto for a new dress for the gallery opening, the narrative returns to her childhood. She describes the school she attended. The school has a heavily British atmosphere, and Risley learns from her intimidating teacher, Miss Lumley, about the British Empire. Risley makes friends with three girls, Carol Campbell, Grace Smeath, and Cordelia, all of whom come from families more affluent than Risley's.

Part Four: Deadly Nightshade

Present-day Risley, full of anxiety about the retrospective, reaches the gallery and meets Charna, who is organizing the show. Risley is interviewed by Andrea, a reporter, and is uncooperative. The narrative returns to eight-year-old Risley and the developing friendships between the four girls. One November day when Risley is nearly nine, Cordelia, Grace, and Carol play a game that involves burying Risley in a hole in Cordelia's backyard. They put boards on top of the hole and shovel dirt on, then go away, leaving Risley buried. After a while, they return and get her out.

Part Five: Wringer

Risley enters Simpsons, a department store, observing all the changes since she was last there many years ago. The narrative returns to her childhood, to a period when Risley was victimized by her friends, especially Cordelia. They criticize her frequently and arrange various punishments, telling her she has done something wrong. Risley lives in fear of offending them and develops nervous habits. She only gains relief when the family leaves Toronto for summer vacation.

Part Six: Cat's Eye

In Simpsons, Risley drinks a cappuccino and thinks back over her past. She helps a drunken woman in the street. Then, the story returns to her childhood. Risley is in fifth grade and has a new teacher, Miss Stuart, whom she likes. But Cordelia's malicious treatment of Risley gets worse. Risley, desperate, does not know what to do. Her mother notices something is wrong and tells Risley she must stand up for herself. In response to her troubles, Risley discovers that by fainting she can remove herself from unpleasant situations.

Part Seven: Our Lady of Perpetual Help

Risley leaves the department store, goes back to the studio, and looks up her old friends in a telephone directory. She finds no one she knows. Back as a child, Risley overhears a conversation in which Mrs. Smeath is denigrating (denying the importance of) her, and even labeling her a heathen. She begins to hate the woman. One March day, Cordelia throws Risley's hat into a ravine; Risley tries to retrieve it from the icy creek. She gets soaked, and then lies beside the creek, numb from the cold, until a vision of the Virgin Mary frees her. Risley finds the strength to reject her friends and find new ones.

Part Eight: Half a Face

The adult Risley recalls how on a trip to Mexico she was deeply affected by a statue of the Virgin Mary; then the story once more returns to Risley's childhood. Risley is in sixth grade with Carol, but Cordelia and Grace have skipped a grade. Cordelia and Grace graduate from middle school, and eventually Carol moves away, too. When Risley enters high school, Cordelia returns. She has been expelled from her private high school, and has taken to stealing. Risley is younger than the other girls, who have entered puberty and are more interested in boys. The two girls resume their friendship, but now they are on a more equal footing.

Part Nine: Leprosy

Risley reads an article about herself and the upcoming exhibit opening in the Toronto newspaper; the narrative then returns to her life in the tenth grade. She has gotten her period, and her body has started to develop. She now feels like she is "among the knowing," no longer separate from the other girls. She and Cordelia spend time together, exchanging what they think are witty remarks, and they mock their former friend Grace, although Risley has repressed many of her negative memories from that time in her life. Risley teases Cordelia, and gets a feeling of power from it; Risley is now the stronger of the two. In eleventh grade, Risley becomes known for her sharp tongue, and she uses it most frequently on Cordelia. Risley also starts to go out with boys. Risley and Cordelia take a zoology class, and Risley finds she loves dissecting animals. Soon she starts to avoid Cordelia; Cordelia's family moves, and Cordelia attends a different school. Risley takes her grade thirteen final exams and suddenly realizes that she is going to be a painter, not a biologist as she thought. Risley visits Cordelia and finds that she has dropped out of school and has no purpose in life.

Part Ten: Life Drawing

Risley has lunch with Jon, her former husband. In the continuation of the story of her earlier life, Risley takes a Life Drawing course taught by Josef Hrbik, a refugee from Eastern Europe. She also wins a scholarship to the University of Toronto and studies Art and Archeology. At the drawing class she meets fellow student Jon; she also has an affair with Hrbik, who is concurrently having an affair with Susie, another one of his students. Risley meets Cordelia again, who now works at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and has found a purpose in her life. Risley and Jon become lovers.

Part Eleven: Falling Women

Risley walks around her old Toronto haunts, reflecting on her past. Her earlier story resumes with Risley having two lovers, Jon and Josef. She discovers Susie bleeding from an abortion she performed on herself, and this leads Risley to end her affair with Josef. She graduates and gets a job in an advertising agency, then designs book covers for a publisher. She attends a lecture where her brother speaks about the beginning of the universe. After she becomes pregnant, she and Jon marry, but they soon quarrel. Risley continues painting and exhibits her art in a feminist group show, where one irate woman throws ink over one of Risley's paintings. Risley visits Cordelia, who is in a private home for the mentally ill because she tried to commit suicide.

Part Twelve: One Wing

Risley continues to walk around Toronto, reliving her memories. In the evening, she has dinner with Jon. They go back to his studio and make love. The narrative returns to her disintegrating marriage to Jon, many years earlier. Risley tries to kill herself by slitting her wrist with an Exacto knife, but Jon finds her and takes her to the hospital. Risley leaves him, taking her daughter Sarah with her to Vancouver. She acquires a reputation as a painter, and marries her second husband, Ben.

Part Thirteen: Picoseconds

After more of Risley's walking around Toronto, the narrative flashes back five years, and Risley describes how her brother was killed by hijackers on an airplane. She also recalls her parents' deaths, especially her mother's final illness, during which her mother brought up Risley's past with Cordelia. The narrative then returns to the present, as she discovers that her old school has been pulled down and a new one stands in its place. Her memories of herself as a child almost overwhelm her.

Part Fourteen: Unified Field Theory

Risley arrives at the gallery an hour before the exhibition opens, and walks around, looking at her paintings and remembering what inspired her to paint each one. She describes her own paintings, ironically juxtaposing her own explanations with those written in high-flown language in the catalog. The exhibition opens to the public; Risley half-expects Cordelia to appear.

Part Fifteen: Bridge

Late the next afternoon, Risley goes back to the bridge from where Cordelia threw her hat into the ravine. She thinks she sees Cordelia there and prepares to forgive her for the injuries the older girl inflicted on her. But the woman she sees is not Cordelia. The novel ends as Risley flies back home from Toronto, observing two old women chatting easily together in the plane, and regretting that she and Cordelia will never be able to do that together.



Andrea is a young newspaper reporter in her twenties who interviews Risley about the painter's retrospective.

Mr. Banerji

Mr. Banerji is an Indian student of Risley's father. He comes to Christmas dinner with the family when Risley is a child. Later, he marries and becomes a professor at the University of Toronto.


Ben is Risley's second husband. He is practical and efficient, the opposite of Risley's first husband, Jon. He has a son by a previous marriage, and he runs a travel agency specializing in Mexican destinations.

Carol Campbell

Carol Campbell is one of Risley's childhood friends. She comes from a wealthier family than Risley and enjoys showing Risley all her possessions. Her parents are strict, and Carol regularly receives corporal (physical) punishment. She is more delicate than Risley, who regards Carol as a sissy. Although she is not the ringleader, Carol joins with Grace and Cordelia in tormenting Risley. Because she and Risley are in the same class, she takes on the responsibility of reporting all of Risley's faults and failings to Grace and Cordelia, who are older and in a different class.


Charna is the woman who organizes Risley's retrospective at the Sub-Versions gallery in Toronto. She writes a catalogue that uses scholarly and trendy language to interpret the paintings, and her analyses sometimes conflict with Risley's own descriptions.


Cordelia is one of Risley's school friends. Cordelia is a year older than Risley; she is the tallest of the group of four friends, which also includes Grace and Carol. Cordelia has a dominant personality, and the others tend to follow her lead. She is the ringleader in the girls' abusive behavior towards Risley, but Cordelia claims that she does this out of friendship; she says the only reason she criticizes Risley is so that Risley can improve herself.

It is Cordelia's idea to play a game in which the girls bury Risley in a big hole she has dug in her back garden. It is also Cordelia who throws Risley's hat into the ravine and, with the others, abandons her, wet and cold, in the snow. After this incident, Risley rejects Cordelia, Grace, and Carol and finds new friends.

Cordelia attends a private school but is expelled for making an obscene drawing. She becomes friends again with Risley in high school, although this time it is Risley who has the power. Cordelia pays little attention to her schoolwork and takes to shoplifting small items, such as tubes of lipstick, from stores. She does not have as much success with the boys as Risley does, lacking the self-confidence to behave naturally.

Cordelia changes schools again but soon drops out. She has no aim or purpose in life. She recovers for a while, finding a job as a bit-part player at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Canada, but then she loses direction again. The last time she appears in the novel is when Risley visits her in a home for the mentally ill. Cordelia is under heavy medication.

Although this is the last time Risley sees Cordelia, memories of Cordelia haunt Risley well into adulthood. It is only at the end of the novel, when the middle-aged Risley returns to Toronto for her retrospective, that she is finally able to forgive Cordelia for her abusive treatment.

Josef Hrbik

Josef Hrbik is Risley's teacher in her Life Drawing class. Josef is a refugee from Eastern Europe, in his mid-thirties, with dark curly hair. He has a melancholy, serious manner and he is authoritarian in his opinions. The male students make fun of him, calling him Uncle Joe. Josef has affairs with two of his students, Risley and Susie, simultaneously. Risley eventually decides that she can never make him happy and feels inadequate because of her failure. She ends the relationship.


Jon is Risley's first husband, a fellow student of art in Toronto. As a young man, Jon cultivates a Bohemian lifestyle. His apartment is always messy, and Risley never knows whom she may find staying there. Jon is immature but fun to be with. He and Risley have violent quarrels soon after they marry. They divorce and Jon remarries. Risley meets him again when she returns to Toronto, and they make love once more. He makes a living by creating special effects for movies.

Miss Lumley

Miss Lumley is Risley's schoolteacher when Risley is eight. She is elderly and strict and rules the class by fear. She uses a rubber strap to inflict punishment.

Elaine Risley

Elaine Risley is a successful, fifty-year-old painter, and the narrator of the story. Growing up in a family that moves frequently because of her father's work, Risley is an inquisitive and observant child. She is happy up to the age of eight, when the family moves to Toronto and she has to get used to living permanently in a city. She makes friends with three girls, Carol Campbell, Grace Smeath, and Cordelia. Unfortunately, Risley is different from them, in the sense that she comes from a less affluent and privileged background, and they soon begin to pick on her.

Led by Cordelia, the girls criticize her for her behavior and her appearance. The criticisms are usually presented as friendly attempts to help Risley improve, so that she can stop doing and saying the wrong things. But most of the time Risley has no idea of what she has done wrong. The abuse is devastating to her self-esteem, and causes her to develop a number of neurotic habits, such as peeling the skin from her feet and biting her fingers. Although she eventually finds the strength to reject her friends, she does not easily recover from the emotional wounds they inflicted.

In high school, Risley becomes known for her caustic tongue, and she enjoys making remarks to other girls that she knows will hurt. When she is in college, she has an affair with her drawing instructor, Josef Hrbik, and then marries Jon in haste when she finds she is pregnant. Neither she nor Jon has the maturity to make the marriage work. Risley becomes depressed and attempts suicide. She leaves Toronto with her child, Sarah, and moves to Vancouver, where some years later she meets and marries Ben. She has another daughter, Anne.

Risley succeeds as a painter, becoming well-known for her feminist themes. Her flourishing career brings her back to Toronto at the age of fifty, for a retrospective. She has by then developed a prickly personality. When she is interviewed by a reporter who asks questions she thinks are silly, she gives unhelpful answers tinged with hostility. She still has times when she thinks her life is worthless. But as a former victim, she is willing to help others who are in bad situations, as when she assists a drunken woman in the streets of Toronto. But she is under no illusions that this makes her a good person, telling herself: "I know myself to be vengeful, greedy, secretive and sly."

Mr. Risley

Mr. Risley is Elaine's father. He is an entomologist, and when Elaine is very young, he travels around a lot with his family, carrying out field research on forest insects. Mr. Risley is a self-made, practical man. He grew up on a farm in Nova Scotia without running water or electricity. After taking all his high school courses by correspondence, he put himself through university by doing menial jobs. When Elaine is eight, her father becomes a professor at the University of Toronto. He has a pessimistic view of the future of humanity and often gives impromptu lectures at the family dinner table about the environmental horrors that will soon afflict the world. Some of these views are expressed only half-seriously; Mr. Risley is a man who likes to follow chains of thought to their logical conclusions.

Mrs. Risley

Mrs. Risley is Elaine's mother. Like most women in the 1940s and 1950s, she does not work outside the home. She is unlike the conventional housewife, however, and Elaine notices as a child that her mother is different from the mothers of her friends. Mrs. Risley does not like housework, and prefers to do things like going out skating, or walking on her own in the ravine. She also dresses informally, wearing slacks when others might wear skirts or dresses. Her favorite hobby is gardening. As a mother she is not strict, and she does not know what to do when she discovers that Elaine's friends torment her. When Elaine is ten, Mrs. Risley suffers a miscarriage.

Stephen Risley

Stephen is Risley's older brother. He is a prodigy, and as a child, he develops an interest in physics and astronomy. As a teenager, he attends a private school for the gifted and tells Risley about the problems of two-dimensional universes and the nature of time. He finishes his undergraduate degree in two years rather than four and takes a graduate degree in astrophysics in California. Soon he becomes well-known in his field, and Risley attends one of his lectures in Toronto. His speculations on unified field theory intrigue her. Stephen dies in his forties when the airplane on which he is traveling to Frankfurt for a conference is hijacked by terrorists and he is shot. His memory lives on with Elaine, however, and she commemorates him and his ideas through two paintings, "One Wing," and "Unified Field Theory."

Grace Smeath

Grace Smeath is one of Risley's friends as a child. A year older than Risley, she has pale skin and wears glasses. Grace is bossy and likes to have her own way. If Risley and Carol try to play anything she does not like, Grace says she has a headache and goes home. When the girls play school, Grace is the teacher, the others are the students. Risley and Carol put up with this because they like to be with Grace—Risley worships her. When Cordelia becomes part of their group, Grace follows Cordelia's lead and criticizes Risley, reporting on Risley's failings at the Sunday school they both attend.

Mrs. Smeath

Mrs. Smeath is the mother of Grace Smeath. She is ill, with a heart condition, and rests on the sofa every afternoon. Mrs. Smeath is pious, dislikes vulgarity, and is snobbish. She believes that the church she and her family attend is better than other churches because everyone there wears hats. She despises Risley's family because they do not go to church. Mrs. Smeath is aware of the fact that the other girls are tormenting Risley but she says it is God's punishment and Risley deserves it. Risley overhears this and develops a hatred for Mrs. Smeath, which she later expresses by painting Mrs. Smeath "naked, exposed and desecrated" in a number of her paintings.

Miss Stuart

Miss Stuart is Risley's teacher in grade five. She is Scottish, and the opposite of Miss Lumley. She is popular with the children, loves art, and knows how to keep discipline in a firm but fair way.


Susie is a student in Mr. Hrbik's Life Drawing class. She wears tight jeans and heavy makeup; Risley thinks of her as silly and unintelligent. Susie has an affair with Hrbik, becomes pregnant, and tries to abort the baby herself. Risley discovers her unconscious and bleeding from the botched abortion, and she is rushed to the hospital.


Memory and Identity

Although she is a successful middle-aged painter, Risley does not have a secure sense of identity or self-worth. In Jon's studio in Toronto, she confesses that sometimes it is all she can do to drag herself out of bed in the morning. On such occasions she feels worthless, and this reminds her of how Cordelia's relentless criticisms used to make her feel as if she was nothing. Only the previous day, Risley saw a poster advertising her retrospective, with a picture of herself on it, and this gave her some satisfaction that she had at least achieved a "public face." But what of the private one? Risley's private self is buried under the weight of repressed memories, and yet memory is the only tool she has to reconstruct who she is and how she came to be that way.

But memory, as she continually reminds the reader, is unreliable. Although the past extends its hold over the present—Risley's relationship with Cordelia still haunts her—who can accurately remember the past? Risley draws attention to the fact that there are gaps in her memory. When she tries to recall her ninth birthday party, for example:

I close my eyes, wait for pictures. I need to fill in the black square of time, go back to see what's in it. It's as if I vanish at that moment and reappear later, but different, not knowing why I have been changed.

At one point, Risley speculates on what future diseases of the memory may affect her; there are so many different ways of losing and reclaiming the past. And it is not only as an adult that memory is fragile. Even as a child, Risley sometimes cannot recall events, even though she knows they happened. She has even forgotten that she has forgotten things. In particular, she forgets the bad things that have happened to her, sometimes only a few months after they have occurred. She has a gift for burying the past.

By the time she reaches her twenties she does not even want to remember, and she finds that "The past has become discontinuous, like stones skipped across water, like postcards: I catch an image of myself, a dark blank, an image, a blank."

Later, when she is in her forties, Risley does not even remember the traumatic incident when she nearly froze to death in the ravine: "My memory is tremulous, like water breathed on." The image is suggestive. Still, calm water reflects the face of the observer; water disturbed presents only a jagged, distorted image, like a broken mirror. Somehow Risley must try to connect all the fragments to create a self that is whole.

Coming of Age

Because there are two distinct narrative threads in the novel, there are also two coming-of-age themes. One is when young Risley enters adolescence and early adulthood. She attends college, discovers her talent for painting, has her first lover, and establishes her place in adult society. However, Atwood treats this part of Risley's story in much less detail than her childhood world, which is the main focus of interest. The main coming-of-age story is of Risley as a fifty-year-old painter trying to come to terms with being middle-aged. This is an almost constant theme in the present-day narrative sections. Risley draws attention to the fact that she is aging: she should get bifocals, but thinks they would make her look old; she walks but does not jog because jogging is bad for the knees; she searches for a dress in the department store that will transform her, but notes that this is less possible with the advancing years. She surveys the range of wares in the cosmetics section and is not put off by the strangeness of some of the ingredients: "I'd use anything if it worked—slug juice, toad spit, eye of newt, anything at all to mummify myself, stop the drip-drip of time, stay more or less the way I am."

Topics for Further Study

  • To what extent is Elaine Risley a feminist? How is she also critical of feminism? Do some research on the topic of feminism to support your conclusions.
  • Problems in adult life are often explained by reference to a difficult family environment or social conditions such as poverty. Atwood suggests that the cruelties small children inflict on each other may be an equal cause of adult dysfunction. Find cases that support each theory and report on how prevalent each is.
  • When Risley is asked to draw what she does after school, her drawing reveals her troubled state of mind. (It shows her lying in bed and is almost entirely colored black). If you were given a similar assignment, what would the drawing look like and how might it reflect your own mental condition or mood?
  • How are boys' relationships with each other described in the novel, and how do they differ from the relationships between girls? Are boys less cruel to each other than girls are, or are they cruel in different ways? Use examples from the novel to support your claims.
  • How does Risley's upbringing and family back-ground differ from those of her friends Grace and Cordelia? How do the roles played by their parents differ?

In addition to these concerns, Risley has little confidence that in middle age she has attained the kind of wisdom that would compensate for the discomforts of aging. Hence her mental restlessness and obsession with the figure of Cordelia from her past. And although her career is successful, that also reminds her of the fact that she is no longer young. She is concerned when she sees herself described in a newspaper article as "eminent": "the mausoleum word. I might as well climb onto the marble slab right now and pull the bedsheet over my head." She feels the same about having a retrospective: "first the retrospective, then the morgue."

Art and Science

In addition to being a coming-of-age novel, Cat's Eye is also a künstlerroman ("artist novel"), about the growth of an artist—her discovery of her vocation and development of mastery of her craft. The pivotal moment in this respect is when Risley first realizes that her destiny is to be an artist. This occurs during her grade thirteen biology exams (in certain places in Canada, students who are bound for university go through an extra grade). She knows already that she can draw anything, "the insides of crayfish ears, the human eye, frogs' genitalia, the blossom of the snapdragon … in cross section." This seems to be an innate ability. But at that moment she has a revelation, "like a sudden epileptic fit," and knows with absolute certainty that she is not going to be a biologist, but a painter.

Later passages describe Risley's artistic education: the Life Drawing class; the development of her taste through art history courses; her experiments in the technique of egg tempera; and then her emergence as a painter in her own right. A vital moment comes when she is in her twenties and makes a change in her artistic subjects: "Until now I've always painted things that were actually there, in front of me. Now I begin to paint things that aren't there." This helps her to develop a surreal, visionary quality in her work, and she also begins to emerge as a painter with a feminist sensibility, as when she paints the Virgin Mary as a fierce lioness, for example.

Risley's career as a painter is in contrast to the vocations of her father and brother, both of whom are scientists. As an entomologist, her father examines the world in microscopic, objective detail; her physicist brother is drawn to speculations, couched in the language of mathematics, about the origins of creation and the laws that govern it. His interest is in the search for a unified field theory—a single theory that would explain all the diverse laws of physics and how they manifest in the physical world. Although Risley's art is personal and subjective, concerned with her inner world of feelings rather than the objective world of things, she and Stephen do have something in common, in that she, too, searches for a "unified field theory" (the title of one of her paintings). For Risley, this is away of creating wholeness, understanding, and healing through art.


Point of View and Organization

The novel is told in the first person by the narrator, Elaine Risley. All of the events in the novel are told from her point of view, although the perspective within that point of view shifts considerably—from the young child just discovering the world, to the young woman coming of age, to the middle-aged painter coming to terms with being fifty.

Each of the novel's fifteen parts is named after one of Risley's paintings. The title of the painting is a clue to what happens in the section named after it. In the section entitled "Wringer," for example, which takes its name from Risley's observations of the wringer washing machine in her childhood home, Risley experiences the cruelty of her friends for the first time. She is metaphorically "put through the wringer." The section "Cat's Eye" covers the period when Risley retreats from the painful feelings caused by Cordelia's cruelty and tries to become as cold and unfeeling as her cat's eye marble. The section "Our Lady of Perpetual Help" refers to the pivotal moment when Risley believes she has been helped out of the ravine by the Virgin Mary.

The story is not chronological in organization. Each section begins with Risley in the present, revisiting Toronto, and then switches to long, very detailed flashbacks to her childhood. There are also sections in the present-day narrative when Risley recalls memories from the past. Past and present are thus closely interwoven, and the entire novel is told in the present tense, which has the effect of emphasizing that the past remains very much alive with Risley.

Symbol and Metaphor

A central symbol is the cat's eye marble that Risley keeps as a child. She treasures it, putting it in her purse for safekeeping, not risking losing it in a game. The marble is clear glass with a bloom of blue petals in the center. It resembles not cats' eyes but "something that isn't known but exists anyway," and she compares it to the eyes of aliens from outer space. She feels it protects her, and she longs to see like the cat's eye. In other words, to be an eye only—to experience the world only through her vision, with all other senses and feelings switched off. Then she will not experience any pain. This fantasy is her defense against the abusive treatment she is receiving from her friends.

Although Risley feels that the cat's eye protects her, the image also has a negative connotation. The crystal sphere in the marble is so blue and so pure it looks like "something frozen in the ice." Being frozen in ice is a metaphor for Risley's emotional condition after the trauma inflicted by Cordelia and the other little girls. Risley walls off a place inside herself where she thinks she can be safe, but the result is that she cannot go through normal emotional development. Like the cat's eye, she is "frozen."


Atwood's style is marked by striking figurative language, including much use of the simile. A simile is an explicit comparison between two distinctly different things. Risley shows her ability to make these kinds of comparisons early in her life. When traveling in the back seat of the family car, she observes the backs of her parents' ears. Her father's are "like the ears of gnomes, or those of the flesh-colored, doglike minor characters in Mickey Mouse comic books." Her mother's are narrow and fragile, "like the handles of china cups," and her brother's are round, "like dried apricots." It is easy to see how Risley would become an artist, since the ability to see relationships between disparate things is part of the artist's sensibilities, whether the artist is a painter, like Risley, or a writer, like Atwood.

Similes recur frequently in Atwood's atmospheric descriptions. The evening air coagulates "like a custard thickening"; the warm, humid air is "like invisible mist"; in a Toronto August, "Haze hangs over the city like wet smoke."

Perhaps the most memorable simile in the entire novel is this one, as Risley and Cordelia listen to Frank Sinatra records in the 1950s: "A disembodied voice, sliding around on the tune like someone slipping on a muddy sidewalk. He slithers up to a note, flails, recovers, oozes in the direction of another note."


The novel is set in Toronto. It gives a vivid and detailed portrait of the city during the 1940s and 1950s, during Risley's childhood and youth, and in the 1980s, when she returns and observes how drastically the city has changed. A typical example is when Risley walks through the side street where her art teacher, Josef Hbrik, used to live. In those days the street was sordid and broken-down, but now it has been renovated and is lined with a double row of expensive boutiques. Transformations like this have changed Toronto from a place renowned for its provincial dullness to its status in the 1980s as a "world class" city—"New York without the garbage and the muggings." Risley mentions this, however, in a mocking tone. Her picture of Toronto is colored by her dislike of it.

Risley's chronicle of her early years gives a series of snapshots illustrating what day-to-day life was like for young girls during this period. Risley and her friends amuse themselves by playing with movie star coloring books featuring 1940s stars such as Veronica Lake; they spend their allowances on "penny gumballs, red licorice whips, orange Popsicles." Little by little, the adult world creeps into their awareness: Risley hears the square dance music that plays on the radio; the girls discover the gusseted corsets, known as foundation garments, in the pages of the Eaton's Catalogues that are strewn around the Smeath home. And at school they learn to observe some of the rituals of the fading British Empire, such as wearing poppies on Remembrance Day and waving Union Jack flags when Princess Elizabeth visits the city.

Historical Context


Although she resists attempts to fit her into a narrow definition of the term, Atwood is known as a feminist writer. Her formative years in Toronto in the late 1950s and 1960s coincided with the emergence of what is often referred to as the "second wave" of modern feminism. This was marked, among other things, by the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963, a book that Atwood acknowledges had a large influence on her own thinking. During the 1960s, women in North America began to challenge stereotypical definitions of how women should behave, and to question the traditional roles assigned to them. A political movement emerged, spearheaded in the United States by the National Organization of Women (NOW), demanding equal employment opportunities and equal pay for women, as well as an end to sexual harassment and the exploitation of women in pornography.

In Canada, the Voice of Women was founded in 1960 to lobby the provincial and federal governments concerning women's rights. Many grass-roots women's groups sprang up, with the goal of changing women's attitudes about themselves and their relations with men.

A glimpse of the early feminist movement in Toronto can be found in Cat's Eye. In the 1960s, Elaine Risley attends "consciousness raising" meetings of women, in which issues are raised that Risley has never consciously thought about before: "Things are being overthrown. Why, for instance, do we shave our legs? Wear lipstick? Dress up in slinky clothing? Alter our shapes? What is wrong with us the way we are?"

The purpose of the meeting is to empower women, and there is a lot of anger expressed against men. (Risley feels ambivalent about the meeting, however; she is more comfortable with men than with women.) Later, Risley exhibits her work in an all-female group show, at which most of the art has a radical feminist slant more extreme than anything Risley paints.

The Canadian women's movement bore fruit in 1967, when a Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada was created. Its final report, issued in 1970, contained 167 recommendations. This Commission has been described as the single most important event in advancing the status of women in Canada at that time.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1950s: Atwood decides to be a writer. While Canadian literature is domestically robust, international appreciation is sporadic.

    1980s: Canadian writers such as Atwood and Alice Munro are internationally renowned figures. Canadian literature is studied extensively in Canadian and American universities.

    Today: The bibliography of international literature issued by the Modern Language Association lists more than seven hundred books and articles by and about Canadian authors written in 1998 alone.
  • 1950s: Only a limited number of occupations, such as nurse, teacher, secretary, or airline stewardess, are open to women, who are encouraged to be happy in their traditional roles as wives and mothers.

    1970s: In Canada in 1971, nearly 40 percent of women aged 15 and older are part of the labor force. They account for almost one-third of the total labor force. However, average annual earnings of women working full-time is only 59.7 percent of those of men. Women attend university in greater numbers (accounting for 37 percent of all university students in 1971), and professions formerly dominated by men, such as medicine and law, gradually become more open to women.

    Today: In Canada in 1999, 58.9 percent of women aged 15 years and older are part of the labor force, representing 45.8 percent of the total workforce. However, the average wage of a woman working full-time is still equivalent to only 72.5 percent of a man's wages. In education, women's participation continues to rise. In 1997–1998, women represent 55.7 percent of the student population at the university undergraduate level.

Abortion Rights

Another social issue relevant to the novel is abortion rights. Susie, the art student, performs an abortion on herself, botches the job and has to be taken to the hospital. At the time of this incident, in the 1960s, abortion in Canada, as well as the United States, was illegal. Incidents such as that involving Susie were not uncommon. Risley says, "Everyone my age knows about it. Nobody discusses it. Rumors are down there, kitchen tables, money exchanged in secret; evil old women; illegal doctors, disgrace and butchery."

But pressure to legalize abortion was mounting in North America, partly due to activism by women's groups. Canada's abortion laws were first liberalized in 1969. In Canada in 1970, feminist groups from all over the country organized two days of protests. Thirty-five women chained themselves to the parliamentary gallery in the House of Commons, closing Parliament for the first time in Canadian history. The Canadian Alliance to Repeal the Abortion Law formed in 1974. In 1988, the Canadian Supreme Court declared Canada's abortion law unconstitutional. This meant that Canadian women could legally have abortions. Interestingly, when Risley, the emerging feminist painter, unexpectedly becomes pregnant, she refuses to seek an abortion, nor does she wish to become a single mother. She and Jon take the more socially acceptable, as well as traditional, route and marry.

Critical Overview

Cat's Eye was received with enthusiasm by reviewers, many of whom considered it to be Atwood's finest work to date. Alice McDermott, in the New York Times Book Review, praised the novel's "precise and devastating detail, the sense of the ordinary transformed into nightmare," and also commented that "It is a novel of images, nightmarish, evocative, heartbreaking and mundane … Atwood's most emotionally engaging fiction thus far."

Stefan Kanfer, in Time, commented on Atwood's understanding that the humiliations of childhood have deeper effects than anything that happens in adulthood: "The cruelties done to the narrator become sources of a melancholia that affects the rest of her days…. Risley's emotional life is effectively over at puberty."

Like a number of reviewers, Hermoine Lee in New Republic noted the parallels between Cat's Eye and Atwood's own life, referring to the novel as "fictive autobiography." Lee found the most gripping part of the novel to be the sections where young Risley suffers at the hands of her friends: "Atwood's account of this torture is horrifyingly brilliant, and will strike home to anyone who was ever involved in childhood gang warfare, whether as bullier or bullied."

In the 1990s, critics found plenty of themes in the novel to discuss, and its reputation remains high in the canon of Atwood's work. For example, in 1995, Coral Ann Howells, in Margaret Atwood, examined the novel from the point of view of the "crucial importance of retrospective art in the female protagonist's construction of her self." In 1999, Karen F. Stein, in Margaret Atwood Revisited, noted that the novel introduces "typical Atwood motifs of mirrors, twinning, and doubling." She also observed that the note of forgiveness and compassion on which the novel ends is ambiguous. Howells again, in a later essay, "Transgressing Genre: A Generic Approach to Margaret Atwood's Novels," described Cat's Eye as a künstlerroman, concerned with the construction of the subject's identity, but one that resists more precise classification. This resistance is a "distinctive characteristic of life-writing in the feminine."


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, he considers the role played by the figure of the Virgin Mary in the life and art of the painter Elaine Risley.

An important motif in Cat's Eye is the figure of the Virgin Mary. As a child, Risley first encounters the visual representation of the Virgin, and the Virgin enters her imagination and plays a role in her tormented childhood, her development as an artist, and her later search for release from haunting memories. As a mature artist, Risley transforms Catholic iconography and theology into a personal vision of wholeness and redemption.

Because Risley is not raised in a religious home, she must discover the symbolic and healing power of the Virgin for herself. Her father is against religion. He believes it is a form of brainwashing that has been responsible for wars, massacres, bigotry, and intolerance. Risley's mother also has a negative view of religion. For these reasons the family does not attend church, something Risley does for the first time when she accompanies the Smeath family to their Sunday worship at a Protestant church. From the Smeath family she hears only negative appraisals of Catholics. One of their complaints is that Catholics worship the Virgin Mary.

Risley becomes familiar with depictions of the Virgin from the Sunday school that she attends with Grace. But these are Protestant representations that show the Virgin subordinate to Jesus. Only when Risley happens to pick up a piece of paper in the street—printed by the local Catholic school—does she discover traditional Catholic iconography of the Virgin. In this picture the Virgin wears a dark blue robe and a crown and has a halo. Her red heart is shown outside her chest, with seven arrows (to Risley they look like spears) piercing it. These arrows represent the Seven Sorrows of Mary, and in Catholic thought they refer to trials that Mary endured in her earthly life, including Christ lost on the way to Jerusalem, the betrayal of Christ, the Crucifixion, and the Entombment.

Risley stores all these details in her acute visual memory. The picture acts as a seed for her artistic imagination to grow. Later, the exposed heart of the Virgin becomes part of the inspiration behind Risley's series of satirical paintings, "White Gift," where it reappears as the bad heart of Mrs. Smeath.

Nine-year-old Risley is so affected by the portrait of the Virgin that not long afterwards she begins praying to her. Risley sees this as an act of rebellion, since she understands that normally a person should pray to God. This incident might be seen as the earliest moment when Risley's feminist sensibility begins to form, since she is implicitly rejecting the patriarchal version of God in favor of a female icon.

Shortly after this incident Risley has what she believes is a direct encounter with the Virgin. When she is lying freezing in the snow, abandoned by her friends, a lady with rays shooting from her head comes to her, walking as if on air. She is wearing a dark hood, and inside her cloak Risley sees a glimpse of red. She assumes this is the red heart of the Virgin, glowing like a coal outside her chest. The Virgin tells Risley, "You can go home now … It will be all right. Go home." This gives Risley the strength she needs to haul herself out of the ravine. It is a pivotal moment, important both for Risley's mature art and for her later adult quest to lay to sleep the ghost of her childhood memories associated with Cordelia.

Risley's next encounter with the Virgin comes when she is in her twenties, but the fact that it is recalled in the section that immediately follows Risley's childhood rescue by the Virgin suggests its thematic importance. This time Risley sees a statue of the Virgin in a church in Mexico. It is the only statue of the Virgin she has seen that attracts her. The statue has a number of small items pinned to it by believers who were grateful to the Virgin for having saved something of theirs. Risley realizes the statue represents the Virgin in her role as Our Lady of Lost Things. In other words, the Virgin restores what has been lost. At the time, Risley has repressed so much from her childhood that she does not consciously know what she has lost, and so she does not know what to pray to the Virgin for.

Only later, on her return to Toronto in middle age, does her quest become urgent. The wounds she suffered in childhood still deeply affect her responses to life, and she must resolve in her mind why those things happened and find a way of reconciling with Cordelia.

The image of the Virgin as Our Lady of Lost Things links closely with another recurring metaphor in Cat's Eye, drawn not from the world of religion but from the discoveries of quantum physics. In the opening paragraph of the novel Risley recalls her physicist brother once telling her that:

Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backward in time and exist in two places at once.

Risley interprets this to mean that time is like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. A person looks down through time, like water, not back into it, and time is a layered vessel that still contains everything that has happened in the past. As Risley puts it, "Nothing goes away"; everything that appears to have been forgotten or buried waits to be rediscovered and reclaimed, whether one delves deeply into the quantum fields of creation or prays to Our Lady of Lost Things. Later, Risley will paint "Unified Field Theory," a painting that brilliantly synthesizes these two per-spectives, one from the objective world of matter as revealed through physics, the other from the subjective realm of religion.

But before she can produce "Unified Field Theory," Risley has a lot of artistic development to do. Several years after she observes the statue Our Lady of Lost Things, she paints her own version of the Virgin Mary. Risley paints a witty, down-to-earth feminist revision of the Catholic icon. Risley's Virgin is nothing like the traditionally meek, Catholic Mother of God. The painter gives her the head of a lioness and an expression designed to startle the observer: "My Virgin Mary is fierce, alert to danger, wild. She stares levelly out at the viewer with her yellow lion's eyes. A gnawed bone lies at her feet."This Virgin resembles the fierce Indian goddess Kali, a dark figure often depicted dancing on skulls, more than anything in the Western Catholic tradition.

The remainder of Risley's painting is satirical. "Our Lady of Perpetual Help" is shown in a winter coat with a purse over her shoulder, carrying grocery bags and looking tired. She is more like an overworked Everywoman, a suburban 1950s housewife—being perpetually helpful is wearing her out—than the divine Virgin who is the object of veneration.

Risley cleverly subverts some traditional iconography in this painting. In Christian art the Virgin is sometimes shown with an apple, to emphasize her status as the second Eve. (In the book of Genesis, Eve brought trouble into the world by eating the forbidden apple; in contrast, Mary, although she may hold an apple, is never shown eating it.) In Risley's painting, the apple becomes just a mundane item, something that might well fall from an overstuffed grocery bag.

Elaine also makes another interesting twist on tradition when she paints an egg—another item that has fallen from the grocery bag. In Christian art, an egg is a symbol of fertility; it is not associated with the Virgin, who represents chastity. Fertility is associated with the many pagan fertility goddesses that Christianity rejected.

Elaine's visual meditations on the Virgin reach their fullness in "Unified Field Theory," which is the final painting in her retrospective. It is at once a highly personal and an all-encompassing cosmic vision. The title is taken from a lecture given by Risley's brother Stephen that Risley attended. Stephen speculated about the quest for a unified field theory that would encompass all the diverse laws of matter and explain how creation came about. Speaking of creation, he says:

But what of the moment beyond the first moment? Or does it even make sense to use the word before, since time cannot exist without space and space-time without events and events without matter-energy? But there is something that must have existed before. That something is the theoretical framework, the parameters within which the laws of energy must operate.

Stephen concludes that the language of this unified field from which everything emerges must be the universal language of mathematics.

In her painting, Risley, who knows nothing of mathematics, recasts this theory in terms of a visual image of the Virgin as a unified field of compassion, a feminine deity who is the font of all things and a divine help in time of need.

Risley's Virgin hovers over a bridge, on either side of which are the tops of snow-covered trees. This is clearly the bridge where little Risley, freezing in the snow in the ravine, saw a vision of the Virgin and was saved by her. In place of the red heart that had so impressed the young Risley, this Virgin holds at the level of her heart an outsized cat's eye marble. This is a very personal symbol for Risley since it was the cat's eye that acted as her talisman, protecting her when she was a child. When she rediscovered it in middle age as she was sorting through her belongings with her dying mother, it triggered a moment of revelation in which all her forgotten past became clear to her. This explains why Risley's Virgin of Lost Things holds a cat's eye marble.

Behind the Virgin, the sun (a masculine symbol) has set, and the moon, symbol of the feminine, is rising. The pinpoints of light on the Virgin's dress suggest the stars against a night sky, and also the light that makes the stars possible. This Virgin seems to give rise to the entire space-time universe, while not being bound by it (she hovers over, but does not touch, the bridge, which is also symbolically the point of manifestation through which the timeless streams into time). Risley's Virgin of Lost Things is the home of everything that has been scattered and lost throughout the universe—the same universe that in the painting is depicted, as seen through a telescope, swirling around below the Virgin. Thus the Virgin is Risley's attempt to create through art a vision of wholeness that would leave nothing out, present, past, or future, and would also embody the universal, compassionate heart.

In light of the important role the Virgin has played in Risley's life and art, it is not surprising that she should also play a part in a crucial moment at the end of the novel. This is after Risley has looked at the painting of "Unified Field Theory" at the gallery, at a time when her need to put the past to rest becomes critical. Risley returns to the bridge and the ravine where Cordelia's cruelty reached its climax and the Virgin saved her. This time, however, although she can recall every detail of the vision she had of the Virgin, Risley convinces herself that the vision never really happened.

Be that as it may, the Virgin remains embedded in Risley's imagination. When she sees a woman whom she believes to be Cordelia approaching (just as the Virgin approached her all those years ago), she reaches out to her childhood nemesis and says, "It's all right … You can go home now." These simple words of forgiveness and reassurance are exactly the words spoken by the Virgin to liberate Risley as a child. At the vital moment, the adult Risley manages to transcend the revenge fantasies that she has harbored, even as an adult, against Cordelia. Risley has long realized that all the faults Cordelia found in her, and which so drastically affected her self-esteem, were actually projections of Cordelia's own feelings of inadequacy. She knows that she and Cordelia are like twins; it is hard to know where one begins and the other ends. Both need healing, and in that one moment of forgiveness—whatever new regrets may later arise—Risley has raised herself to the level of the divine figure that has resonated in her artistic imagination since she was a child. She has herself become, just for that moment, just for Cordelia, Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Cat's Eye, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Earl G. Ingersoll

In the following essay, Ingersoll explores the growth and transformation of Elaine in Cat's Eye.

Although one finds evidence of postmodernism in the manipulation of popular forms such as the Gothic in Lady Oracle and science fiction in The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye is Margaret Atwood's first full-fledged "postmodern" work. Always the wily evader of critics' pigeonholes, Atwood, in a recent interview, has denied the classification of her work as "postmodern." She expresses her own amused disdain towards the critical-academic world for its attraction to "isms" in the discourse of Cat's Eye when Elaine Risley visits the gallery where her retrospective show is to be mounted. Risley dismisses the paintings still on display: "I don't give a glance to what's still on the walls, I hate those neo-expressionist dirty greens and putrid oranges, post this, post that. Everything is post these days, as if we're just a footnote to something earlier that was real enough to have a name of its own." At the same time, this novel is clearly Atwood's most postmodern in its play with form—the fictional autobiography—and in its continual self-referentiality as a text.

At the centre of this postmodern text is Atwood's complex use of her own past. Few writers have spoken out so vehemently against readings of their work as autobiography. As her interviews indicate, she is very aware that her audience is bent upon biographical readings of her fiction. With obvious amusement she tells how in question-and-answer sessions following her public readings she has often just finished disclaiming autobiographical roots for her characters when someone in her audience asks if she was overweight as a child like Joan in Lady Oracle or anorexic as a young woman like the unnamed narrator of The Edible Woman. For Atwood, there are clearly gender implications here since, as she has argued, women have traditionally been thought so imaginatively impoverished that all they could write about was themselves.

At the same time, although there is no Atwood biography—and she would be one of the last writers to authorize one—she is among the most interviewed contemporary writers. Thus, as she herself must know, serious readers of her work are familiar enough with the outlines of her family and her early life to be enticed into seeing the painter Elaine Risley—that stereotyped persona of modernist fiction—as at least partly her own reflection. Obviously she is not; and yet she is, despite the curious warning on the copyright page which reads in part as follows:

This is a work of fiction. Although its form is that of an autobiography, it is not one … with the exception of public figures, any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. The opinions expressed are those of the characters and should not be confused with the author's.

It is easy enough to see that Atwood is attempting to protect herself from potential legal action generated by former friends or associates who might choose to see themselves as models for the less appealing characters in Cat's Eye. However, the attempt to deny any connection with Elaine Risley must encourage the reader to suspect that the lady doth protest too much. In this way, part of the enjoyment of this text involves a shifting back and forth between invention and the facts of the inventor's past.

Atwood has provided her audience with so many of those facts of her early life that it is next to impossible for the informed reader to dismiss as coincidental the roots of Elaine's childhood in Atwood's. She has told her interviewers, for example, about the summers she spent as a child living in tents and motels while the family accompanied her father, an entomologist, doing research in the Canadian north. On more than one occasion she has described to her interviewers how she and her brother would help their father collect insects he shook from trees. In this context, given the writer's having gone on record as frustrated with her audience's misguided autobiographical readings of her earlier work, it is difficult not to conclude that Cat's Eye is, among many things, a highly sophisticated expression of play with her audience's expectations. Atwood may plead ignorance of contemporary critical theory, but she is undercutting the conventional notion that autobiography privileges an autobiographical fiction as more truthful than other forms of fiction. She shows us in Elaine Risley, a painter/writer who may seem in a conventional sense to be exploring the truth of her past but who in a truer sense is creating, or writing, a past as she chooses now to see it, rather than as it might have once existed.

The novel begins with a definition of time, justified perhaps by Risley's having returned to Toronto, her home, for a retrospective exhibition of her art. She dismisses linear time in favor of "time as having a shape …, like a series of liquid transparencies … You don't look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away." In the story she tells of her youth, Elaine offers a retrospective of the woman she has been and the women who have been important to her as she now sees herself and them. That past is very much seen through the cat's eye marble into which Elaine looked at eight and saw her future as an artist. The image of the cat's eye is central, since it represents a world into which she has been allowed access; at the same time, it is a world of inevitably distorted vision. Thus, the truth is not an entity to which we struggle to gain access so much as a way of looking and, in the process, creating the text of that truth.

Elaine Risley's retrospective allows her to review the people and relationships that have been important to the first fifty years of her life. In reconstructing her past—or the critical years from age eight to young womanhood—Elaine Risley is in large part deconstructing that past. The conse-quences of that deconstruction—what turns out to be the novel itself—is a complicated series of transformations through which the persona discovers that the past is only what we continue to reconstruct for the purposes of the present. And perhaps beyond that, Elaine Risley discovers that of all her relationships—with the opposite sex and with her own—the most important may have been the strange friendship with her tormentor/double Cordelia. By the end of the narrative, the persona will have finally exorcised the spirit of an alter ego who was perhaps primarily that, another self whom she no longer needs to fear, hate, or even love.

The focus of the early chapters is the very young Elaine Risley's struggle to find models in the two women who are crucial to her formative years. She begins her retrospective with her eighth birthday, a not surprising age for the onset of consciousness. For Risley, like Atwood, this was the time of her move to Toronto, and for Risley at least the end of happiness. Through the move to Toronto, a backwater of civilization in the 1940s, but still civilization, Elaine as a child is suddenly forced to confront "femininity." Having lived in tents and motels, she and her mother must don the costumes and the roles appropriate to their gender and put away their unfeminine clothes and ungendered roles until the warm weather when they return to the North. Overnight Elaine feels like an alien from another planet. The future of painful socialization is represented by the doorway in her new school marked "GIRLS," the doorway which makes her wonder what the other one marked "BOYS" has behind it from which she has been shut out.

We might expect Elaine to cherish the memory of a paradise lost of relatively ungendered life as a child in nature. Instead, she feels guilty for being unprepared to operate in a world of mothers who are housekeepers preoccupied with clothes and labour-saving devices. Although the mature Elaine mutes the resentment, the child Elaine suspects that her mother has failed her as the role model needed to help her find her way in a world of "twin sets" and wearing hats to church. The young Elaine's inability to fault the mother she loves forces her to internalize as guilt her sense of inadequacy. If she is suffering the pain of being out of place, it must be something that is wrong with her; certainly it cannot be anything wrong with the definition of womanhood embodied in the mothers of her friends, Cordelia, Carol, but especially Grace Smeath.

Clearly Mrs. Smeath is the Bad Mother that Elaine suspects her own mother of being for not having prepared her for socialization. In the Smeath household, Elaine and her friends are involved in that socialization; they study to be future housewives by cutting out pictures of "frying pans and washing machines" to paste into scrapbooks for their "ladies." A more important aspect of that socialization is represented by regular attendance at church. When the Smeaths invite Elaine to join them for the first of what eventually seems an endless series of Sundays, Atwood describes the interior of the church through the eyes of the young Elaine who might as well be a creature from Mars. One feature that becomes crucially important to Elaine are the inscriptions under the stained-glass pictures of Jesus—"SUFFER·THE·LITTLE·CHIL-DREN"—and of Mary—"THE·GREATEST·OF·THESE·IS·CHARITY."

Because she feels radically incapable of fitting into the world outside her home, Elaine becomes the victim of Cordelia's sadistic punishments for her incompetence as a student of womanhood. These punishments, which range from reprimands and shunnings to being buried alive, culminate in the scene of Elaine's almost freezing to death in a nearby ravine where Cordelia has thrown her hat. This is a ravine where "men" lurk to molest careless little girls. It is Elaine's victimization at the hands of other little girls, not those mysteriously dangerous men, which leads her to the nervous reaction of peeling the skin off her feet and hands, almost as though she is studying to become a child martyr by flaying herself alive. She is saved, she convinces herself, not so much by her own mother as by the apparition of the ultimate Good Mother, the Virgin Mary.

Mrs. Risley and Mrs. Smeath function then as variants of the Good Mother and the Bad Mother. Elaine's mother suspects that Cordelia and the other girls are tormenting her daughter, but she assumes that Elaine can tell her the truth and she never notices the marks of Elaine's flaying herself. Mrs. Smeath, on the other hand, knows that Elaine is being tormented but does nothing. In fact, Mrs. Smeath even knows that Elaine has overheard her saying that Elaine deserves to be punished for being at heart a graceless heathen. It is not until Elaine almost dies that Mrs. Risley acts. Somewhere down in the pool of the past lurks the monster of resentment against this Good Mother who should have known and acted sooner. Mrs. Risley becomes the representation, like her husband, of the well-intentioned, virtuous, but not terribly effective liberal humanists who sense that evil exists but refuse to acknowledge it, since a knowledge of evil would force them to find a place for it in their world.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Atwood's bestselling novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985) is set in a future in which reproductive ability has dwindled to the point where only a small minority are capable of having children. In a repressive, male-dominated oligarchy, women are divided into classes, the lowest of which, the handmaids, are used solely for procreation.
  • The autobiographical novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), by James Joyce, is a classic künstlerroman. It shows the intellectual and emotional growth of the character Stephen Dedalus, and how the development of his artistic awareness involves a rejection of the values of the society in which he was raised.
  • Alice Munro is one of Canada's leading writers. Her novel Lives of Girls and Women (1971), set in a small town in southwest Ontario in the 1950s and 1960s, is a künstlerroman about the coming of age of a writer.
  • The Diviners (1974), by Margaret Laurence, is a künstlerroman set in various locations in Canada. With the use of many flashbacks to childhood, it tells the life story of Morag Gunn, a middle-aged female novelist.
  • Annie Dillard's An American Childhood (1987) is an autobiography that explores the development of Dillard's artistic, spiritual, and naturalist interests up to the end of her high school years.
  • In Differencing the Canon: Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art's Histories (1999), art historian Griselda Pollock discusses feminist approaches to art history, rereads artists such as Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Manet from a feminist perspective, and assesses the work of feminist painters such as Artemisia Gentileschi and Mary Cassatt.
  • Stephen W. Hawking's bestselling A Brief History of Time (1988), which Atwood acknowledges as an influence for Cat's Eye, provides a fascinating overview of the quest for a unified field theory.

Mrs. Smeath, on the other hand, is much easier for Elaine to deal with. Even as a child, Elaine can clearly see Mrs. Smeath's evil in the transparent world of that cat's eye which will be the emblem of her insight as an artist. She comes to see the crucial difference within Mrs. Smeath as a woman who professes to being a Christian—"SUFFER·THE·LITTLE·CHILDREN" and "THE·GREATEST·OF·THESE·IS·CHARITY"—yet believes that the greatest charity to little children who happen to be "heathens" is to make them indeed suffer. And, it is very much to the point that the individual who functions as Elaine's Muse is Mrs. Smeath, not Mrs. Risley. This variety of the Bad Mother, more in line with Freud's reality principle, generates a whole series of paintings through which Elaine vents her anger, hatred, and malice. Mrs. Smeath as the bad mother may very well represent much of what she finds most despicable in the conventional notion of Woman. At the same time, it is an evil which generates art and it is that art which liberates her from a self enslaved in anger towards and hatred of that image of "Woman."

That same indeterminacy is evident in Elaine's bizarre relationship with Cordelia. When she declares her independence, following Cordelia's move to another school, Elaine becomes powerful, assertive, verbally aggressive, and Cordelia fades into powerlessness, into the kind of silence which was Elaine's position early on in this power struggle veiled as a friendship. Elaine's enjoyment of a new facility with words, as though her tongue has been empowered by her earlier victimization, makes it clear how important the element of the retrospective is in this text. Told in a traditionally chronological fashion, Elaine's empowerment through language would have led the reader to anticipate that she would become a writer, rather than a painter.

In this symbiotic relationship, Elaine's friend/persecutor is given the name Cordelia. Most readers sense the irony in Atwood's borrowing the name of one of Shakespeare's innocent tragic heroines, but there are also implications of a transfer being transacted here. In the years following the Second World War, King Lear became one of our most attractive cultural myths in part because Cordelia reminds us how the innocent are swept up in the destruction of war and civil disorder and perhaps also that the innocent embody the redemptive power of love. At the same time, it is the refusal of Lear's single faithful daughter to speak, just as much as her sisters' hypocritical flattery, which sets in motion the machinery of conflict and destruction by which she and her family are overwhelmed. In this sense, Elaine, perhaps following her mother's example, is somewhat like Cordelia, choosing silence and martyrdom rather than risk the anxiety and guilt of self-assertion. Eventually, anger and resentment find their sublimated or socialized modes of expression, first in her verbal assaults on the imperfections of others and finally in her art, so often a visualization of her anguish at the hands of her tormentors.

More than anyone else, Cordelia is the one from whom she must free herself by acknowledging not only difference but kinship. Cordelia is a "secret sharer." Like her readers, Elaine keeps expecting her former tormentor to show up at the gallery, the most appropriate ghost to appear in this retrospective. Cordelia, however, does not need to appear: Elaine has already exorcized much of the guilt, hatred, and anger generated in her relationships with Mrs. Smeath and Cordelia through her art, conveniently brought together so that the artist, like her audience, can read this retrospective as a testimony to the transformative power of art. When Elaine returns to the bridge, the power of her creative consciousness calls up an apparition of Cordelia from the deeps of that pool of time with which we began. She tells us:

I know she's looking at me, the lopsided mouth smiling a little, the face closed and defiant. There is the same shame, the sick feeling in my body, the same knowledge of my own wrongness, awkwardness, weakness; the same wish to be loved; the same loneliness; the same fear. But these are not my own emotions any more. They are Cordelia's; as they always were.

I am the older now, I'm the stronger. If she stays here any longer she will freeze to death; she will be left behind, in the wrong time. It's almost too late.

I reach out my arms to her, bend down, hands open to show I have no weapon. It's all right, I say to her. You can go home now.

In a strange and unexpected sense, Cordelia has become her name. Just as Elaine earlier was rescued from physical death in the icy stream below this bridge, this time she acknowledges another variety of rescue. She confirms what this retrospective has been moving toward all along—the recognition that her art has rescued her from the spiritual death of a lifetime wasted in anger and resentment. Having recognized the power of Cordelia within herself, Elaine can at last release the Cordelia she has made to appear in the final hours before she prepares to leave home again. Perhaps she recognizes also that she and Cordelia had identities less distinct from each other than it seemed in childhood, that each had been fashioning the other in the image of a self she could not otherwise confront. Now Elaine herself can be a variety of the "Good Mother" and simply send Cordelia home before she freezes to death in "the wrong time."

In the end, Cat's Eye is postmodern in several interrelated ways. Atwood offers the informed reader the lure of a few well-known features of her own childhood and then proceeds to invent an autobiography which is the experience of Elaine Risley, a character who may bear only the most superficial similarities. Autobiography, even when intended, is obviously enough only another form of fiction. By offering us, in the words of the novel's preliminary note, a work of fiction whose form is that of an autobiography, she gives us a text which confirms that truth by showing how Elaine Risley has invented herself, constructed an autobiography, through her art. Elaine is even allowed to be amused by her critics' (mis)readings of her painting, one of whom writes of Risley's "disconcerting deconstruction of perceived gender and its re-lationship to perceived power, especially in respect to numinous imagery."

In addition, this text raises questions about the representation of women, about writing as a woman, about autobiography, and about mothers and daughters. As Barbara Johnson has argued, autobiography and its reflection in autobiographical fiction are a supplanting of the mother, a kind of giving birth to oneself through the creation of the text. Using the classic text of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Johnson argues that what a woman writer (the very term "woman writer" has traditionally been conceived of as a "freak of nature") creates has conventionally seemed a "monster." Johnson asks: "Is autobiography somehow always in the process of symbolically killing the mother off by telling her the lie that we have given birth to ourselves?". In telling us the story of her life, Elaine Risley foregrounds Cordelia as a monster only to show how she freed herself from Cordelia to become as a young woman monstrous in her own way, and appropriately through language, with her "mean mouth." She offers us in Mrs. Smeath, the Bad Mother, whom she subsumes psychologically in her art, a kind of monstrosity which exorcizes the monstrous complicity of Mrs. Smeath in her persecution by Cordelia and the other girls. And she offers us in Mrs. Risley, the Good Mother, a failed guide to the intricacies of femininity in the outside world and, therefore, a mother who must be killed off before Elaine can achieve selfhood at fifty.

Why, we might ask, has it taken Elaine so long to give birth to herself, the sort of act managed by the Paul Morels and the Stephen Dedaluses of modernist fiction by their twenty-fifth birthdays? Part of the answer is obvious in the question. Elaine Risley is a female rather than a male character. In this context, a good analogue is Virginia Woolf who was well aware that she could not begin work on To the Lighthouse, dealing in part with the loss of her mother, until she was in her forties. As we have learned from sociologists like Nancy Chodorow, women must struggle to achieve a sense of self separate from others, in part because they are "mothered" or nurtured primarily by women. In this vein, Chodorow argues, mothers see themselves as continuous with their daughters:

Because they are the same gender as their daughters and have been girls, mothers of daughters tend not to experience these infant daughters as separate from them in the same way as mothers of infant sons. In both cases, a mother is likely to experience a sense of oneness and continuity with her infant. However, this sense is stronger, and lasts longer, vis-à-vis daughters.

In these ways, the retrospective of her art is partly an invention to allow Elaine to achieve a sense of self, distinct from both Mrs. Risley and Mrs. Smeath. It is also a belated recognition of her mothering herself as the child and the young woman Elaine as well as her mothering of Cordelia whom she now can release from her hatred and her love. Having completed this retrospective of her life and given birth to herself, Elaine can acknowledge the separateness of her "daughters"—both the girl she was and Cordelia as her "other." At the risk of increasing Atwood's anxiety with yet another autobiographical reading of her fiction, it might be recalled that Cat's Eye is the revision and completion of a manuscript she began in her mid-twenties and finished as she approached her fiftieth birthday. Despite Margaret Atwood's disclaimer that the novel is not autobiographical, it is a text performing itself as a text, a text of the author's own struggle to achieve selfhood as a woman and as an artist.

Source: Earl G. Ingersoll, "Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye: Re-Viewing Women in a Postmodern World," in ARIEL, Vol. 22, No. 6, October 1991, pp. 17-27.


Howells, Coral Ann, Margaret Atwood, St. Martin's, 1995, pp. 148-60.

―――――――, "Transgressing Genre," in Margaret Atwood, Works and Impact, edited by Reingard M. Nischik, Camden House, 2000, pp. 143-47.

Kanfer, Stefan, Review, in Time, Vol. 133, No. 6, February 6, 1989, p. 70.

Lee, Hermoine, Review, in New Republic, Vol. 200, No. 15, April 10, 1989, p. 38.

McDermott, Alice, "What Little Girls Are Really Made Of," in New York Times Book Review, February 5, 1989, p. 1.

Stein, Karen F., Margaret Atwood Revisited, Twayne, 1999, pp. 87-95.

For Further Reading

Bloom, Harold, ed., Margaret Atwood, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House, 2000.

This is a collection of some of the best recent criticism on Atwood's work.

Bouson, J. Brooks, Brutal Choreographies: Oppositional Strategies and Narrative Design in the Novels of Margaret Atwood, University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.

An examination of Atwood's first seven novels from the perspective of feminist and psychoanalytic theory.

Cooke, Nathalie, Margaret Atwood: A Biography, E. C. W. Press, 1998.

This biography follows the details of Atwood's personal life and also shows how she emerged as such a significant figure in Canadian literature and culture and an internationally renowned writer.

Ingersoll, Earl G., ed., Margaret Atwood: Conversations, Ontario Review Press, 1990.

This is a collection of twenty-one interviews with Atwood, conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, in which Atwood talks extensively about her work and her views.

Sullivan, Rosemary, The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out, HarperCollins Canada, 1998.

This is a well-researched, engaging biography of Atwood's early life, covering the period from the 1940s to the 1970s.