Atwood, Margaret: Title Commentary

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Cat's Eye

Cat's Eye


SOURCE: Ingersoll, Earl G. "Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye: Re-Viewing Women in a Postmodern World." ARIEL 22, no. 4 (October 1991): 17-27.

In the following essay, Ingersoll explores the postmodern implications of the autobiographical elements 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,1 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"2 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" (90). 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.3 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 over-weight 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 life4 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" (3). 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 consequences 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 (49).

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" (54) 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" (71). 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•CHILDREN" (102)—and of Mary—"THE•GREATEST•OF•THESE•IS•CHARITY" (103).

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" (51) 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.

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" (443).

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 relationship to perceived power, especially in respect to numinous imagery" (406).

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?" (147). 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" (247). 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 (93). 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 (Hubbard 205) 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.5


  1. Unpublished interview with Deborah Weiner and Cristina Bacchilega, 1987.
  2. Atwood indicates her disdain of deconstruction: "What it also means is that the text is of no importance. What is of interest is what the critic makes of the text. Alas, alack, pretty soon we'll be getting to pure critical readings with no text at all" (Interview, Hancock 208).
  3. Atwood says: "I am very tired of people making autobiographical constructions about my novels, all of which until that time [Life before Man] had been first-person-singular novels. And I just get really tired of answering those questions: Are you the person in Surfacing? Are your parents dead? Did your father drown? Have you ever been anorexic? Have you ever been crazy? All those autobiographical questions" (Interview, Draine 376).
  4. Atwood tells Joyce Carol Oates the story of her family following her father into the Northern bush (Interview, Oates 70). She tells Elizabeth Meese about rebelling against her parents and going to church with her friends (Interview, Meese 182). In the Bonnie Lyons interview, she talks about the culture shock of moving to Toronto as a girl and suddenly being forced to wear dresses (Interview, Lyons 221).
  5. This article is based upon a paper presented in the Margaret Atwood Society session at the Modern Language Association Convention, Washington, D.C., December 1989.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Cat's Eye. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

——. Interview. With Betsy Draine. Interviews With Contemporary Writers: Second Series 1972-1982. Ed. L. S. Dembo. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1983. 366-81.

——. Interview. With Geoff Hancock. Ingersoll 191-220.

——. Interview. With Bonnie Lyons. Ingersoll 221-33.

——. Interview. With Elizabeth Meese. Ingersoll 177-90.

——. Interview. With Joyce Carol Oates. Ingersoll 69-73.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1978.

Hubbard, Kim. "Reflected in Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye." People Weekly 6 Mar. 1989: 205-06.

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

Johnson, Barbara. A World of Difference. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.


SOURCE: Osborne, Carol. "Constructing the Self through Memory: Cat's Eye as a Novel of Female Development." Frontiers 14, no. 3 (1994): 95-112.

In the following essay, Osborne analyzes Atwood's use of the circular return to past events to allow her protagonist in Cat's Eye develop and establish an identity.

The memory is a living thing—it too is in transit. But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives—the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.

Eudora Welty, One Writer's Beginnings, 114

But I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. 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.

—Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye, 3

It is against blockage between ourselves and others—those who are alive and those who are dead—that we must work. In blocking off what hurts us, we think we are walling ourselves off from pain. But in the long run the wall, which prevents growth, hurts us more than the pain, which, if we will only bear it, soon passes over us. Washes over us and is gone. Long will we remember pain, but the pain itself, as it was at that point of intensity that made us feel as if we must die of it, eventually vanishes. Our memory of it becomes its only trace. Walls remain. They grow moss. They are difficult barriers to cross, to get to others, to get to closed-down parts of ourselves.

Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar, 353

Recovering memories of the past leads Margaret Atwood's protagonist in Cat's Eye to her own recovery. In having Elaine create a complete sense of herself through art, dream, and memory, Atwood revises the structure of the traditional bildungsroman and kunstlerroman, privileging what feminist psychoanalytic theorists have posited as a feminine way of achieving self-knowledge. Instead of following a linear plot that emphasizes separation from the past as the mark of maturity, Atwood creates a circular structure emphasizing the protagonist's return to the scenes of her childhood and her reunion, if only in her imagination, with key figures from her past.

In her exploration of memory and the importance of the past for her protagonist, Atwood is part of a trend in contemporary fiction, represented particularly in the works of African-American women writers. Such a parallel is noteworthy, for Elaine identifies with members of minority groups in Canada as she faces the pressures of conforming to white, protestant, middle-class standards. Atwood's alternate plot structure, emphasis on memory, and attention to the pressures placed on minorities link her project in many ways with the concerns of such writers as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Gayl Jones.

The traditional bildungsroman traces the development of the male protagonist in a linear fashion to the end of adolescence when he declares himself free and independent. In Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for example, Stephen first appears as a young boy being initiated into language as his father tells him stories of the moo-cow and baby tuckoo. The plot progresses chronologically, with a wave-like pattern of epiphanies ending each chapter, until Stephen is able to turn his back on family, nation, and religion "to forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race."1 His gestures are of renunciation; he severs all ties so that he can "fly by those nets" of "nationality, language, religion"2 to become the independent artist who "remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent."3 Such a structure emphasizes the male's Oedipal phase in which the boy defines himself in contrast to the mother and in alliance with the father. Stephen rejects his mother and Ireland, "the old sow who eats her farrow," in favor of his symbolic father, Daedalus, the artificer he addresses in the last lines of the novel.4

In contrast to this model, many contemporary women writers are adopting structures of circular return.5 These plots, in emphasizing a woman's need to define herself relationally, reflect the differences in male and female identity formation noted by such feminist scholars as Nancy Chodorow, Carol Gilligan, and Margaret Homans.6

In structuring Cat's Eye, Atwood mimics the wave-like motion of Joyce's Portrait, but in a much more complex way. The book begins with Elaine's return to Toronto on the occasion of a retrospective art show. The return to her childhood home, along with the review of her art, causes her to reconstruct the past, assembling the fragments, as she has subconsciously assembled fragments of her past in her paintings, only this time making sense of them by confronting the memories directly and arranging them in some kind of order. In each section, the reader travels along the same path. Beginning each part of the book in the present tense with Elaine in Toronto, Atwood then switches to the past tense when the surroundings spark a particular memory of Elaine's childhood.



For all Atwoodian heroines the search for self-hood is symbolized by the search for something satisfying to eat. Initially, although Marion eats, she eats poorly. She lives on snack food, frozen meals, and TV dinners. Marion is hungry throughout The Edible Woman but cannot find anything to satiate her. Whatever she eats makes her sick. In Surfacing the narrator's search for physical sustenance in the natural world becomes symbolic of her lack of spiritual sustenance in the social world. At the end of Lady Oracle Joan has nothing to eat except some biscuits which are "hard as plaster and tasted of shelf" and "some cooked pasta, drying out already, and a yellowing bunch of parsley." She has failed to escape her old life and her old self, and the absence of proper, nourishing food indicates that, at the end of the novel, Joan is still trapped in the role of victim. In Bodily Harm Rennie seems to spend the entire novel searching for something decent to eat. All her food is awful. In hospital the food is "unbelievable. Green Jello salad and a choice of peas or peas"; on the plane the butter is rancid and the beef leaves a taste of rotting flesh in her mouth; in the hotel there is no choice and all the food is unappetizing and unnourishing… In prison, the guards put salt in the tea. Throughout Cat's Eye Elaine never eats substantial or nutritious food. The sections of the novel set in modern-day Toronto trace her search for something to eat. When she wakes up in Jon's flat she finds the kitchen devoid of food. She decides she needs "to go shopping and get some decent food, organize.… I will buy or anges, yogurt without jam. I will have a positive attitude, take care of myself, I'll feed myself enzymes and friendly bacteria." Her intention to eat health food signals her desire for a positive sense of self. Nevertheless, she is never able to provide herself with the food she knows she needs. She wanders around Toronto moving from one location of food to another without eating… She eats leftovers and eggs mashed up in teacups. She eats "haphazardly now, snack[s] on junk food and take-outs without worrying about balanced meals." Because of her poor self-image, she is unable to nourish herself. She abuses herself with a poor diet. When she arrives at the gallery or the opening of her exhibition nobody is there because they have gone out to eat. Elaine stands alone and unnourished. After the party, Charna invites her to dinner but she declines. By the close of the novel Elaine has not rediscovered Cordelia and so has not been able to redefine her relationship with her old tormentor by breaking the strong bond between victim and persecutor. It is possible to interpret the scene in which Elaine returns to the ravine and conjures up a vision of Cordelia as a child as the point of reconciliation, the point at which Elaine finally forgives her old foe and the interdependent positions of victim and victor are transcended. However, the moment of epiphany is equivocal, and at the end of the novel Elaine is still eating mashed-up eggs in teacups.

All the heroines interpret the world in terms of food and negotiate their way through life using food. For women, eating and non-eating articulate that which is ideologically unspeakable. Food functions as a muted form of female self-expression but, more than that, it also becomes a medium of experience. Food imagery saturates the novels and becomes the dominant metaphor the heroines use to describe people, landscape, and emotion. As Sally Cline has pointed out, women appropriate food as a language because traditionally they have always been associated with food. In addition, food is one of the few resources available to women. As a consumer surveyor, Marion is constantly submerged in a food environment, and the other heroines have the major responsibility for cooking and shopping. Women control food, Cline insists, because they cannot control their lives. Given the patriarchal nature of language and its inability to accommodate female experience, it is unsurprising that women choose an alternative, non-verbal form of communication. The failure of language, the inadequacy of words as a mode of communication, is a recurrent theme in Atwood's work.

Parker, Emma. Excerpt from "You Are What You Eat: The Politics of Eating in the Novels of Margaret Atwood." Twentieth Century Literature 41, no. 3 (fall 1995): 349-68.

Then the reader becomes completely submerged in the past event when Atwood begins narrating this episode in present tense. These moments from the past progress chronologically, following Elaine's development from age eight to the point of her mother's death a few years before the art show.

With this alternate structure, Atwood explores the nature of memory, showing that "nothing goes away"7 and that "there is never only one, of anyone."8 Unlike the male protagonists of bildungsromans who separate themselves from earlier experiences, Elaine finds her identity through consciously going back to and accepting her past and the people in it, and embracing herself as she was and is. In this way, Atwood privileges the relational needs of a female protagonist; although Elaine's childhood makes it difficult for her to form actual relationships with other women, her inner concerns reflect a desire for connection rather than separation from others.

Atwood also departs from the traditional structure of female bildungsromans such as Jane Eyre and The Awakening. By making her protagonist middle-aged, secure professionally as a minor artist, and already a wife and a mother, Atwood avoids the traditional pattern in which the point of maturation is marked by the heroine's marrying, giving birth, or finding a career. Her protagonist will not have to surrender her newly found sense of self at the end in exchange for security in marriage or society. The reader trained to expect a man to enter the plot, providing a fountain of wisdom through which the woman discovers herself, will be disappointed. No man in Cat's Eye is given such power; husbands, lovers, and even a male psychologist do not provide the insight that Elaine must achieve on her own. By making Elaine already secure in job and family, Atwood shows that these aspects of a woman's life do not necessarily lead her to a better understanding of herself. While Atwood does follow the female tradition in making Elaine's development internal, that withdrawal into the inner life is a healing one and does not lead to madness or death as was true with earlier protagonists.9

In an interview with Geoff Hancock in December of 1986, Atwood speaks of how intriguing it is for a writer to make changes in traditional forms. Once a writer understands a form and how it works, she says, she can "move beyond the conventions to include things not considered includable. [Therefore] the kind of material thought to be suitable for novels is constantly changing."10 In an interview conducted in November of 1989, she speaks specifically of Cat's Eye, saying that she is dealing with an area of life, the world of girls age eight through twelve, that is not "regarded as serious 'literary' material."11 Atwood becomes interested in stories because she notices a blank, an area that has not been written about, or because she thinks of a narrative form that could be approached from a different angle.

Because Atwood is consciously altering the traditional structure of the bildungsroman in Cat's Eye, she accentuates notions of male and female difference within the text. Elaine communicates with images, finds herself often without words, and is able to use language to her benefit only later in her development. On the other hand, her brother, Stephen, has the power to control the narrative when they play war and to write in the snow with his pee while she stands idly by. (Atwood here seems to be playing with Freud's association of penis and pen.) Stephen becomes more abstract and theoretical as he develops, moving "away from the imprecision of words"12 to a reliance on numbers, while she is grounded in concrete images.13 Even Elaine's art differs from the abstract paintings of her first husband, Jon, not serving to dismember, as his statues do, but to re-form, using memories from her past. Most importantly, Elaine, during her prepubescent period, shows the longing for relations, friendships, and mother-daughter bonds, that marks female development as different from male.

It is important to note what triggers Elaine's retrospection in terms of female development before tracing her maturation process. Elaine has reached middle age, her children have grown up, and she is having trouble accepting herself as being as old as the women that used to seem so foreign to her and Cordelia, her childhood friend. She reveals her discomfort with her mid-life status by saying that she feels everyone else her age is an adult and she is in disguise. When passing the cosmetics counter in Simpsons during her stay in Toronto, she wishes she could mummify herself, "stop the drip-drip of time, stay" the way she is, but she is forced to see herself through the eyes of the young saleslady as a middle-aged woman, and she thinks of Macbeth's lines, "My way of life / Is fall'n into the sere and yellow leaf."14

Her retrospective is a way for her to deal with this new stage of her life, a way of filling the void, overcoming the inertia, and allaying the threat of madness. As she has done earlier in her life, Elaine projects her own concerns onto the image of Cordelia. When she pictures Cordelia, it is as a woman who is fighting against the deterioration of the body or trapped in an iron lung, in a state of inertia. This projection mirrors the emptiness Elaine feels during her stay in Toronto, especially when she tries to call her husband, Ben, in British Columbia. He is not at home, and she hears her own disembodied voice on the answering machine. The nothingness that has threatened at two other key moments in her life seems to be approaching. At this time, Elaine does not walk away from the sources of her discomfort as she has in the past. Such movements toward separation fit the male model of maturation. Instead, she works to reintegrate, to re-member the various projections of herself so that she can feel that she has a full identity. She recognizes, through her picture on the art show poster, that she has reached a point where she has an identity, a face that can be defaced, but internally she must realize this identity by filling the void with memories she has blocked out earlier in her life.

Atwood's depiction of Elaine's development agrees with the theories of aging discussed in Kathleen Woodward and Murray Schwartz's Memory and Desire. Apparently, aging "generates a multiplicity of self-images," and through "varieties of playing" and "uses of illusion," we can connect past experiences into a continuous narrative that helps us deal with old age.15 According to Schwartz, "The space of illusion can fail to achieve its integrating aims and yield instead to a regressive search for imaginary unities of youth. Or we may be confronted with a violent return of the repressed, a rupture of all sense of continuity."16

In the same volume, Kathleen Woodward suggests that as we age, "we separate what we take to be our real selves from our bodies."17 She believes "the recognition of our own old age comes to us from the other, that is, from society. We study our own reflection in the body of the others, and as we reflect upon that reflection—reflection is of course a metaphor for thought—we ultimately are compelled to acknowledge the point of view of the Other which has, as it were, installed itself in our body."18 This recognition makes us experience what Freud called the uncanny, as we recognize our possible future absence, our nothingness, our death. As a result, we react against the images in mirrors and the images we see of ourselves in others.19

Carol Gilligan also speaks of mid-life as being "a time of return to the unfinished business of adolescence."20 When facing the "issues of separation that arise at mid-life," women are vulnerable due to the confusion of identity and intimacy at the crucial stage of adolescence when they formed a notion of themselves as they related with others.21 These theories explain why Elaine, when encountering middle age, needs to re-establish her own identity, to integrate past experience into her present sense of self. At first she seems to be looking for the imaginary unities of her youth as she searches for Cordelia in Toronto. As she stays there, scenes she has repressed surface. She sees herself in mirrors and is surprised by the sight; she sees herself in the figures of ladies begging on the streets and answers to their needs; and she plays with illusion, in seeing herself through the eyes of others, even those who seemed so oppressive to her as a child. She is able, through her play with images and with memory, to find continuity, a continuity seen in the narrative that structures the novel and that determines the arrangement of paintings in the art show. But she must work through the unfinished business of her adolescence, and that involves dredging up memories of a very difficult time in her development.

In her concern with memory, with the need for her protagonist to confront the past in coming to know herself, Atwood most resembles contemporary African-American novelists. In Corregidora, Gayl Jones portrays Ursa repeatedly recalling her grandmother's words until she understands their meaning; in The Temple of My Familiar, Alice Walker stresses how vital recapturing the past is for the personal growth of her protagonists, particularly Suwelo; and in Beloved, Toni Morrison depicts Sethe working through the memories of her traumatic escape from slavery and the murder of her daughter so that she can let go of the past. Likewise, Atwood presents Elaine undergoing her own form of psychotherapy in gradually uncovering, for the reader and for herself, the scenes of her childhood.

Atwood, Walker, Morrison and Jones all portray their protagonists' encounters with parental figures, particularly the mother, but the African-American writers place more importance on the interactions between the generations. Storytelling, within the texts, becomes not only a tribute to a cultural tradition, but also an act of community building as characters strive to keep the cultural past alive. While the African-American writers use oral narrative in their works as a tool for uncovering what has been repressed in a character's consciousness, Atwood depends more on Elaine's paintings and her visit to the scenes of her youth to trigger her memory. Few words are spoken, for Atwood is more concerned with Elaine's personal understanding gained through private reflection and is perhaps more skeptical of finding a common cultural past within the metropolis of Toronto, even among individuals who are of the same race, class, and gender.

Cat's Eye differs from the work of contemporary African-American women writers in another significant way: Elaine's memories are restricted to her personal past, and her encounters with the figures of her past are presented in a realistic manner. While Elaine may think she sees the characters from her past as she walks around Toronto, her interactions with these figures are always explained as occurring in her mind. Encounters with the dead come only in her dreams, in her invented narratives, in her reviewing of her art, and in the memories sparked by her return to the scenes of her past.22

In commenting on Walker's The Temple of My Familiar, Ikenna Dieke writes, "Recollective art is a rhetorical strategy of relocating the lost self, of seeking and uncovering an inner tapestry of identity, not mere psychological identity, but the exterior contexts—social, political, and personal—that make up the human self in all its complexity."23 He could easily be speaking of Atwood's project in Cat's Eye. Atwood may restrict herself to the personal recollections of her protagonist in this work, but the forces that have shaped Elaine reflect much about social and cultural conditions in Canada, particularly in the coercive nature of the white middle class, so dominant in the 1940s and 1950s.

Throughout the novel, the middle-aged Elaine expresses her hatred for Toronto. Even though it may now proclaim itself a multicultural mecca, a "world-class city," offering diversified restaurants, boutiques, and renovated districts, underneath she recognizes the same old city, with "street after street of thick red brick houses, with their front porch pillars like the off-white stems of toadstools and their watchful, calculating windows. Malicious, greedy, vindictive, implacable."24 Elaine always feels lost in Toronto, even in 1989, because to her it still represents middle-class conformity and intolerance.

During her first eight years while her father is a forest-insect field researcher and the family leads an unconventional, nomadic life in northern Canada, Elaine longs for real girl friends, for a relationship with someone like herself. Then her father takes a position as a professor in Toronto, and Elaine is able to become friends with other girls her age. She finds herself an outsider. Despite being the same race, class, and gender as the girls who befriend her, Elaine painfully discovers how different she is from the rest of middle-class society. She has no religious training since her father, a scientist, does not believe in organized religion. She knows nothing about the material trappings of middle-class culture: pageboy haircuts, Eaton catalogues, chintz curtains, and twin sets. By comparing her home to the homes of her friends, she recognizes that her family is not as well-off financially. Finally, the customs and rituals of little girls seem strange to her because she has grown up playing with and freely emulating her closest companion, her brother, without worrying about society's gender restrictions.

When Elaine first moves to Toronto, Carol Campbell befriends her. Besides offering companionship, Elaine, as an exotic oddity, serves as a means of enhancing Carol's own status. Carol treats Elaine as she would a member of a primitive tribe, marveling at Elaine's ignorance of the objects, rituals, and ways of life of the Toronto middle class. But the differences that amaze Carol at first soon become the targets for attack when other girls join the group.

Elaine begins playing a part so that she can fit in with her girlfriends. Caught between her own tendencies to express herself as her brother would and her society's expectations for her to be delicate, modest, and conforming, she loses her own voice and identity, copying the behavior of her friends and remaining silent when her views do not agree with theirs.

During the summer following her introduction to the society of little girls through Carol Campbell and Grace Smeath, Elaine stands outside her parents' window, imagining that they do not exist. She becomes critical of her parents and begins searching for replacement figures for them. Chodorow explains that as an adolescent girl begins to reject her parents, she longs for a best friend "whom she loves, with whom she is identified, with whom she shares everything.…Her friendship permits her to continue to experience merging, while at the same time denying feelings of merging with her mother."25 The mother substitute Elaine takes is Cordelia, who has joined the group by the time Elaine returns. Attracted by Cordelia's wildness and her potential to be subversive in defying the conventions of society, Elaine soon finds that Cordelia can get away with being different because she is older and wealthier. Instead of providing an outlet for Elaine, Cordelia becomes the embodiment of the culture's intolerance, directing the other girls in their persecution of Elaine.

Cordelia is an abusive mother figure who reinforces Elaine's sense of difference at every turn, making her constantly feel that she is not normal, not like other girls. We learn later that Cordelia feels alienated in her home environment because she is not as gifted as her two sisters are. Cordelia's treatment of Elaine, then, mirrors her own family's treatment of her. In tormenting Elaine, Cordelia is simply acting out of the loneliness and rejection she feels within her own family, even echoing her parents' words in her reprimands of Elaine.

Despite the ill treatment, Elaine doesn't betray her "friend," so strong is her need for relationship. Elaine fears being cast out forever from her circle of friends. Her only defense becomes her silence, and she grows mute even to herself. Even though she tries her best to fit into this new social group, attending church with Grace Smeath, submitting herself to the harsh treatment of Cordelia, and even reaching the point of negating herself, Elaine never feels comfortable conforming in this manner. Elaine shows her continued sense of alienation when she states that she likes cat's eye marbles best because they are "the eyes of something that isn't known but exists anyway … like the eyes of aliens from a distant planet."26 Symbolically, Elaine removes the cat's eye marble, a sign of her secret difference, from her purse when she goes to church.

In church, Elaine feels perhaps the greatest pressure to conform under the watchful eyes of Grace. At first when Elaine notices the pictures of Jesus surrounded by children of all different colors who look at Him with the same worshipful gaze Elaine has directed toward Grace, she feels included, taken in. Yet she also senses a problem with society's desire to privilege what is white over that which is colored. As the Sunday school class watches slides in which knights with very white skin battle evil, Elaine sees through this illusion, so to speak, noticing the light switches and the wainscoting beneath the projected image. And on White Gift Sunday, Elaine is disturbed because the gifts are "made uniform, bleached of their identity and colors.… They look dead."27 The color white in both circumstances is important, for it introduces a racial element that is reinforced not only by Elaine's identification with ethnic and racial minority figures, but by the association of Elaine with the color black throughout the novel, an association that will be discussed in more detail later. As Toni Morrison notes in Playing in the Dark, characters of color are often used to define, through their difference, the implications of whiteness.28

The individuals portrayed in Elaine's painting "Three Muses" all share with Elaine an outsider status in Toronto. She includes these figures in her portrait because as a child, not only is she treated kindly by each one, but she identifies with all of them in their alienation from the dominant culture. First, she sees in her father's associate from India, Mr. Banerji, a creature like herself, "alien and apprehensive."29 She notices his chewed nails, the misery underneath his smile, the pressure he feels living in a society so foreign to him. Like Elaine, Mr. Banerji is never totally accepted in Toronto. After suffering through years of racial discrimination in the university's promotional system, he finally returns to India.

The second muse is Mrs. Finestein. Elaine enjoys baby-sitting for her son, Brian, since he is uncritical, unlike her friends. But when Grace and Carol point out that Brian is a Jew, revealing their prejudice against the people they call the killers of Jesus, Elaine fears her own ability to protect the child and stops baby-sitting. Still, she feels there is "something extra and a little heroic" about Brian because he is a member of a group that has suffered under Hitler's rule.30 She later feels the same dimension of heroism added to her own character when her painting "White Gift" is attacked at the art show by a conservative middle-class woman outraged by its blasphemy.

The third figure with whom Elaine identifies is her teacher, Mrs. Stuart. Elaine enjoys Mrs. Stuart's class much more than Mrs. Lumley's. Instead of indoctrinating the students about the superiority of British culture over the culture of the colonies, Mrs. Stuart, a Scot, stresses the positive aspects of foreign lands. Mrs. Stuart, an exile herself, gives Elaine hope, for she offers her images of wonderful foreign places where she may be able to escape the stifling atmosphere of Toronto.

While Elaine is a white Canadian, not ostensibly a member of a minority in Toronto, Atwood encodes racial difference within the text to accentuate Elaine's feelings of oppression. As Elaine surrenders power over her own self-definition, Atwood associates her more and more with the color black while her oppressors, Cordelia, Carol and Grace, are aligned with white images. For example, Elaine derives her strategy for surviving the taunts of her friends through two sources, both associated with blackness. When she discovers a dead raven one summer, she notices that no matter how she pokes it, it does not feel a thing. She notes its color, black like a hole, and reflects that no one can get at it, no matter what they do. When she subsequently blocks her own feelings, she becomes like the dead raven. After fainting at the Conversat, she discovers an even better way of escaping from her tormentors. By holding her breath until she faints, a sensation she describes as blackness closing in around the edges of her eyes, she is able to avoid Cordelia's reprimands.

When Cordelia and the other girls bury her, Elaine has no image of herself in the dark hole, just a square of blackness, because at this point, she essentially loses her identity. Elaine learns to protect herself by not being, not feeling, not talking. In picturing Cordelia pushing her off a cliff, drawing a self-portrait that shows her figure as a small speck of light in the middle of blackness, and finally finding some type of escape through fainting, losing consciousness, and going into a state of nothingness, Elaine works harder and harder to negate herself.

This negation continues until Elaine is able to find a mother figure who can replace the harmful Cordelia and thus fulfill Elaine's pre-Oedipal need to form an attachment with someone like herself. Her need for a mother substitute becomes exacerbated when her own mother's miscarriage and depression distance her from Elaine. At this point, by dreaming that Mrs. Finestein and Mr. Banerji are her parents, Elaine reveals her perception that these characters, as members of ethnic minorities, have more in common with her and thus promise more support as parents than her own family is able to provide. In the same dream, Elaine pictures her mother giving birth to twins, one gray and the other missing. She sees herself as one twin, gray and without identity, and the double, the role Cordelia serves, is missing. At this point, Elaine realizes, through her dreams, the need for a new figure to whom she can become attached.

The figure that replaces Cordelia is an imaginary one that Elaine chooses in deliberate opposition to the society responsible for the erasure of her identity. When Elaine overhears Grace's mother and aunt discussing her, she realizes that despite her efforts to conform, they still view her as a heathen, and more importantly, that the adult society sanctions the abuse she receives from her peers for being different. At this point, in rebellion against the God Mrs. Smeath and her society seem to control, she chooses her own private icon, the Virgin Mary, a figure always in the background in Grace's religion. Elaine rebels against the rules of the "onion church" by aligning herself with an opposed minority, the Catholics, and kneeling as she prays to this alternate mother figure.

In the scene in which these prayers are answered and Elaine finds the strength to break with Cordelia, black and white imagery again plays a crucial role. Cordelia makes an angel in the white snow and her face appears as a white oval right before she throws Elaine's hat into the ravine. These images of whiteness contain a sinister aspect, however, for the imprint of Cordelia's fingers in the snow makes the angel appear to have claws, and the chilling ice of the ravine threatens death for Elaine. What comes to her rescue, in contrast to the whiteness, is not the traditional image of Mary, with blue dress and crown, but the figure of Mary dressed in black. Elaine, then, aligns herself with minorities, both literally and figuratively, in order to overcome the oppression of white, middle-class Canadian society.

Once Elaine is able to create a mother substitute, Mary, with her imagination, she can break free of Cordelia's domination. Elaine, released from her silence, begins to seize control through language, becoming the mean mouth that can frighten Cordelia through her stories. Earlier, Cordelia had seized narrative control by telling of her family, the dead people in the ravine, and witches in eggshells, but now Elaine relishes her power over Cordelia by telling her she is a vampire. The figures associated with her power over Cordelia, Mary and a vampire, come again to Elaine's mind as she returns to Toronto. Regretting wearing her powder-blue jogging suit to the interview at the gallery, she wishes for a Nun black or Dracula black outfit to make her feel more powerful. Before reunion with the images of her past, she is still daunted by the judgmental atmosphere she encounters in the gallery, and she looks to black disguises to aid her.

While the imaginary mother substitute, Mary, allows Elaine to escape Cordelia's domination, this vision does not offer a permanent resolution to her relational needs. In the next stage of her development, Elaine avoids others who resemble her, for she still fears facing herself. Not until she can make a connection with her double, with the image of Cordelia, will she feel comfortable with herself or with those who reflect what she is.

In art school, then, Elaine stays away from other girls and looks for acceptance from male students. Securely dressed in black, living in a neighborhood of immigrants, she fits into the art school crowd. Elaine seems to follow traditional lines of development at this point, finding in her art teacher, Joseph, a father figure who promises that although he is beginning with nothing, he can "finish" her. Joseph, called D. P. (Displaced Person) by the other art students because he is an Eastern European refugee, needs Elaine's support as much as she needs his. Once again, Elaine aligns herself with someone else who feels alienated from the culture. Even her intimate life with Joseph is associated with a foreign world, for they always have sex on his Mexican blanket.

The need in Joseph, and later in Jon, does not frighten Elaine the way that need in other women does, for it is the need of someone different from herself. With Cordelia and with her fellow art student, Susie, who parallels Cordelia and is conflated with her in Elaine's dream, Elaine is more frightened, for she sees herself mirrored in both. Susie and Elaine are both dating Joseph and thus parallel. When Elaine meets Cordelia again, her image is mirrored in Cordelia's sunglasses, and Elaine realizes that she is acting her role in relationships with men in her life just as much as Cordelia is acting on stage. Elaine refuses to help either of these women, to form bonds with them, for that would mean confronting herself. She does not become friends with Susie, and she later refuses to aid Cordelia in leaving the mental institution.

Once again, as Elaine had negated herself to fit into the female world of the little girls, she negates herself in fitting into the roles defined by the men in her life. By first allowing Joseph to mold her, and then later in conforming to Jon's expectations when she moves in with and then marries him, she loses a sense of her own identity. She becomes silent, feels vacant, and upon discovering that she is pregnant, feels once again that she is a black square that is totally empty. Indeed, neither Joseph nor Jon sees Elaine; instead, they project onto her the image of their need. Elaine's understanding of how each man views her becomes obvious in her painting of them. In this painting, Elaine, with a cat's eye marble head, appears as the model for Joseph and Jon, yet their portraits are not of her. The symbolism in this piece of art shows that Elaine is capable of seeing, but not of being seen.

Elaine's unresolved problems with her past lead her eventually, in considering her life a ruin, to attempt suicide, longing for death as she did in the ravine. The voice that pushes her in this scene is Cordelia's, for Cordelia is the first to make Elaine feel as though she is nothing. Once Elaine realizes that Cordelia's voice will not go away as long as she stays in Toronto, that the echoes of the past will continue to haunt her, she finds the strength to leave. Within the childhood world of young girls and within the structures of marriage and motherhood, Elaine fails to find her own identity because of the pressure middle-class society places on her to conform. She flees to British Columbia, she says, not only to mark the end of her marriage, but also to escape the city of Toronto.

In her new locale, through her painting, Elaine once again regains control of her life, and she is even able to remarry, but she is unable to find connections with women because her relations with the women earlier in her life have not been resolved. The act of separating oneself from the past, the act that culminates the male bildungsroman, does not lead to resolution in Atwood's novel. Elaine claims that she is good at leaving and not looking back, but while such a separation may allow her to heal some of her wounds, her complete self-knowledge occurs only when she is able to look back, to return and confront the past.

It seems important that Atwood does not portray Elaine as finding herself through feminist collectives or motherhood. Perhaps Atwood is rebelling against the myths that maintain that a woman can get a better sense of herself through organized groups of women who share the same experiences of oppression, or through becoming a mother and thus satisfying her longing, according to Freud, for a penis. Repeatedly, Atwood emphasizes Elaine's alienation from other women—those in her art group, in her consciousness-raising group, and in the gallery holding her retrospective show—for all these women seem as judgmental to her as her first female friends, Cordelia, Grace, and Carol.31

The third stage of Elaine's development parallels patterns Diana George notes in the work of female poets. Using Kathleen Woodward's theories on female aging, George concludes that "an encounter with one's parents (and in the case of aging women poets, especially the mother) may permit the poetic self to move toward wholeness, even if not to achieve it."32 In Atwood's portrayal of Elaine's return to her mother, she also parallels trends in the work of African-American authors. Joyce Pettis, in discussing works by Paule Marshall, Gloria Naylor, and Toni Morrison, notes that often in black women's texts, "Characters travel back to their cultural origins or to the origin of their maternal ancestors in search of bringing coherence to fragmented lives."33 In the last episode of the chronological narrative that structures Cat's Eye, Elaine returns to Toronto to be with her dying mother. Together, they uncover layer upon layer of the past in an old trunk, eventually coming to the red purse, associated in Elaine's mind with the saving figure of Mary.

Earlier in the narrative after Elaine describes the figure of Mary rescuing her from the ravine, she tells of visiting churches wherever she goes, searching for statues of the Virgin Mary. Though she approaches each with hope, she is always disappointed—until she and Ben travel to Mexico. There, in a foreign environment far away from Toronto, she sees a statue of Mary, dressed in black, the only statue of Mary that seems real to her. Recognizing Mary as "a Virgin of lost things, one who restored what was lost," Elaine wants to pray to her but does not because she does not "know what to pray for."34 At this point in her life, when she has escaped from her past and is beginning a life with Ben, she recognizes the importance of the symbol of Mary, but she does not yet realize what the finder of lost things can restore to her. Once she and her mother begin uncovering the past by going through the trunk, however, Elaine realizes that what was lost were the memories of her past, the sense of self of which Cordelia and others had robbed her.

As the items in the trunk and her mother's recollections help Elaine recover repressed memories, she is able to look into the last item she finds, the cat's eye marble, and see her life entire. Even though her mother is unaware of the importance of these artifacts, they enable Elaine to confront the events of the past and herself. Elaine, now that she is a mother, can understand and forgive her own mother for not protecting her against Cordelia. She realizes that her mother was concerned but powerless, unable to control the social pressure that had been so traumatic for her daughter. Elaine's growth, it seems, depends not so much on her mother's actions, then or now, but on Elaine's efforts to deal with her past during her final trip to Toronto.

Elaine, throughout her life, has resisted being a spectacle, being the subject of either her own gaze or the gaze of others. She does not like Joseph to stand behind her; that reminds her of Cordelia walking behind and judging her. She avoids mirrors, declaring that women do not want to see themselves. Indeed, she resists the whole idea of returning to Toronto for the art show and of staying at Jon's because it is "a silly thing to do, too retrospective," but the retrospective art show forces Elaine to look again not only at her painting as it reflects her life, but also at herself and her past.35 The cat's eye marble once gave her power to see without feeling so that she could separate herself from others; now that this separation has prepared her for a new kind of bonding, she is granted the ability to see with feeling, through her painting and her dredging up of old memories. In looking again at her portraits of Mrs. Smeath, Elaine notices that what she always believed were self-righteous eyes were actually the eyes of a displaced person who shared her own fear and loneliness.

As Elaine imagines seeing herself as a child through the eyes of Mrs. Smeath, she changes her opinion of this woman. Rather than reacting to her with the accustomed hatred, wishing to exact an eye for an eye, she reacts with sympathy and empathy. By imaginatively placing herself in the position of another, Elaine creates the bonds that had been impossible to form earlier in her life. After reviewing the paintings that depict her unconscious grappling with the past, Elaine, drunk and disappointed with the show, cries, making what she feels is a "spectacle" of herself, even though no one is watching. She has become a spectacle for herself, a means of seeing and the object being seen.

Finally, Elaine is able to overcome the haunting figure of Cordelia by recognizing that the fear and loneliness and pain she felt as a child were the emotions Cordelia experienced as well. When she returns to the ravine, she no longer has to depend on imaginary figures of Mary to help her, for she has become the older figure now, capable of seeing Cordelia from a different perspective. Atwood dispenses with the traditional symbol of maternal care and artistic inspiration by having Elaine dismiss the vision of Mary as being "nobody and nothing."36 Memory makes the vision return in absolute clarity, but a mature Elaine recognizes that she directs the images of Mary and Cordelia; they no longer control her. By reaching out to comfort the imaginary figure of Cordelia, Elaine shows that she has reached an acceptance, not only of her past and the figures in it, but of herself.37 That is the reason that, as she turns to look down the path, the image of Cordelia is no longer there. In her place is a middle-aged woman. Elaine has come to accept herself, her present position in life, by taking the inner journey through her past and renewing the relationships from which she had previously run away.

The ending of Cat's Eye is not entirely positive, for Elaine still feels the loss from failed relationships. But as she flies home, Elaine realizes that she has regained a sense of herself and that the echoes of her past, like the stars above her, provide her with enough light to see by. Atwood's heroine, unlike the protagonists of earlier bildungsromans, completes her growth in self-knowledge. She does not go mad, she does not commit suicide, and she corrects her earlier actions of separating from others. She achieves full maturity by reforming the pre-Oedipal bonds in accepting, if only in her imagination, the other who is like herself.

In Cat's Eye, Atwood shows that Elaine, in search of self-definition, is hampered by the pressure middle-class society places on her to conform to established roles. By establishing her kinship with minority figures, Elaine becomes empowered enough to break away from the coercive influence first of Cordelia and then of Jon and Joseph. But not until Elaine is able to reconnect with these figures in her past does she feel whole. In returning to Toronto, Elaine first makes peace with Jon. Then, through looking again at her art, reviving old memories, and summoning visions of Cordelia and Mrs. Smeath, Elaine is also able to reconnect with the abusive figures of her childhood, recognizing that they felt the same alienation and loneliness as she did. Atwood shows that growth for individuals and for societies comes when people are able to empathize and connect with those who differ from them while also embracing themselves.

In having Elaine return to her childhood home to participate in a retrospective art show, Atwood, like many of her contemporaries, stresses the importance of memory in the maturation process. The bildungsroman evolves, as a result of this change in emphasis, from a linear structure to a circular one that illustrates even in its form the interaction of past and present in a protagonist's psyche. Earlier in her life, when Elaine severed her ties with Cordelia and Jon, she used the imagined mother substitute, Mary, and her painting to help her escape from her past. But such avoidance left her development incomplete so that at middle age, she must overcome her depression by returning to Toronto. There, she fully develops her identity by playing with images of herself as seen in the bodies of others and by embracing those images both as they appeared in her childhood and as they appear now. While growing up under the pressures of white, middle class conformity made Elaine's childhood traumatic, she is able to find emotional release by returning to the scene of this trauma and learning, in her imagination, to identify not only with those who shared her sense of alienation, but also with those who were her oppressors.


  1. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in The Portable James Joyce, ed. Harry Levin (New York: Viking Press, 1946), 526.
  2. Joyce, Portrait, 469.
  3. Joyce, Portrait, 483.
  4. Joyce, Portrait, 470.
  5. Gayle Greene, Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 15-16.
  6. While I am aware of the objections made to Chodorow's work as universalizing the experience of white women, I find her theories useful in discussing Elaine's development since Elaine fits the model on which Chodorow's observations are based. I do not wish to suggest by my use of Chodorow, however, that all women, regardless of socio-economic, ethnic or racial difference, follow this model exactly. Nor do I believe that this plot structure is restricted only to female authors and female protagonists. Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides proves otherwise. I simply believe that women raised within the family structure Chodorow describes tend to have greater relational needs than men and that contemporary women authors often adopt the circular plot structure as a means of writing against the earlier tradition of the bildungsroman.
  7. Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye (New York: Bantam Books, 1989), 3.
  8. Atwood, Cat's Eye, 6.
  9. Elizabeth Abel, Elizabeth Hirsch and Langland, The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1983), 9-13.
  10. Earl G. Ingersoll, Margaret Atwood: Conversations (Princeton: Ontario Review Press, 1990), 194-195.
  11. Ingersoll, Margaret Atwood: Conversations, 236.
  12. Atwood, Cat's Eye, 3.
  13. Claudine Hermann's observations of differences between male and female conceptions of space and time come to mind here. She links women's being cut off from space and subjected to time without any means of recuperating it through action to an absence of grammar, an inclination toward poetry. She quotes Professor Anastasi of Fordham University: "On the whole, girls are better than boys in subjects that rely primarily on verbal activity, memory, and perceptual speed. Boys are better in subjects involving numerical reasoning, spatial aptitudes, and in certain informational subjects like history, geography, or the sciences in general." Claudine Hermann, "Women in Space and Time," New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), 173.
  14. Atwood, Cat's Eye, 119-120.
  15. Murray M. Schwartz, "Introduction," Memory and Desire: Aging—Literature—Psychoanalysis, ed. Kathleen Woodward and Murray M. Schwartz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 3-5.
  16. Schwartz, "Introduction," 3-5.
  17. Kathleen Woodward, "The Mirror Stage of Old Age," Memory and Desire: Aging—Literature—Psychoanalysis, ed. Kathleen Woodward and Murray M. Schwartz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 104.
  18. Woodward, "The Mirror Stage," 104-105.
  19. Woodward, "The Mirror Stage," 109-110.
  20. Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), 170.
  21. Gilligan, In a Different Voice, 170.
  22. In Surfacing, Atwood uses more of the techniques common to Walker and Morrison, for in this novel, Atwood deals with the way in which one culture, from the United States, threatens to obliterate another culture, that of the Canadians, especially the native Indian population of the North. As Lissie's memory, in extending through many generations in her various incarnations as animal and human, connects Walker's characters with their cultural past, Atwood's protagonist in Surfacing goes beyond her own personal past in using Indian cave painting as clues to her father's disappearance and in following Indian ritual to revert to a more animalistic state in which she has visions of her dead parents. In her protagonist's interaction with the dead, Atwood uses a similar technique to the one Morrison employs in Beloved.
  23. Ikenna Dieke, "Toward a Monistic Idealism: The Thematics of Alice Walker's The Temple of My Familiar," African American Review 26/3 (Fall 1992); 509.
  24. Atwood, Cat's Eye, 14.
  25. Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978), 138.
  26. Atwood, Cat's Eye, 67.
  27. Atwood, Cat's Eye, 132.
  28. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992).
  29. Atwood, Cat's Eye, 138.
  30. Atwood, Cat's Eye, 143.
  31. Gayle Greene argues in Changing the Story that Cat's Eye is a misogynist text reflecting the current backlash against feminism. I disagree. I feel Atwood is merely attacking the assumption that women readily connect because of their common experience.
  32. Diana Hume George, "'Who Is the Double Ghost Whose Head Is Smoke?' Women Poets on Aging," Memory and Desire: Aging—Literature—Psychoanalysis, ed. Kathleen Woodward and Murray M. Schwartz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 143.
  33. Joyce Pettis, "'She Sung Back in Return': Literary (Re)vision and Transformation in Gayl Jones's Corregidora," College English 52/7 (November 1990): 787-799.
  34. Atwood, Cat's Eye, 212.
  35. Atwood, Cat's Eye, 16.
  36. Atwood, Cat's Eye, 422.
  37. Note the difference between this image and the image at the end of Portrait when Stephen becomes the "spiritual-heroic refrigerating apparatus," turning away from Emma, his mother, and his friends to embrace "the white arms of roads" and to be alone. Joyce, Portrait, 525.