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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Cat’s Eye is the deeply disturbing story of a young girl whose life is scarred by the cruel treatment she receives at the hands of her friends. The novel follows the girl from childhood into middle age, tracing the effects of her early experiences on her adult life.

Atwood moves her narrative back and forth through time to tell Elaine’s story, intercutting the years of the girl’s troubled childhood with scenes from her later life. As a very young child, Elaine lives in relative isolation with her parents and her brother, Stephen, as their father pursues entomological research in the Canadian wilderness. When she is eight, the family settles in Toronto, and Elaine finds herself interacting for the first time with girls her own age. Her encounters with her first two friends, Grace Smeath and Carol Campbell, are marked by her confusion over social customs she has yet to learn and her desperate desire to fit in. When a third girl, Cordelia, joins the group, she quickly becomes the foursome’s leader and soon begins an escalating campaign of criticism and cruelty toward Elaine, whose lack of self-assurance Cordelia has sensed from the start.

Under the guise of “improving” their friend, Cordelia, Grace, and Carol humiliate and belittle Elaine, devising punishments and elaborate rules for her to follow. The effect of this treatment on Elaine is devastating; she begins to withdraw into deep depression and self-hatred, undergoing bouts of illness, fainting spells, and even self-mutilation before the situation at last reaches a crisis point. When Cordelia throws Elaine’s hat into a frozen ravine and orders the girl to retrieve it, Elaine falls through the ice and, in a state of delirium, imagines that the Virgin Mary has descended from the bridge overhead to help her. After recovering from the episode, she returns to school and at last defies Cordelia, breaking off her relationship with all three girls.

When she encounters Cordelia again two years later, Elaine has repressed all memory of the events, and the two girls become friends throughout their years in high school. Yet while Elaine does well in school and later wins a university scholarship, Cordelia begins an emotional slide that starts with declining grades and ends in a breakdown. Elaine has developed a sharp-tongued, brittle exterior that keeps her own inner lack of self-esteem at bay, and her impatience with what she sees as Cordelia’s weakness causes her to pull away from her friend.

In college, Elaine is encouraged in her work by her drawing teacher, Josef Hrbik, a Hungarian immigrant with whom she is soon having an affair. At the same time, she also meets and begins an affair with Jon, whom she eventually marries when she becomes pregnant with his child. After the birth of their daughter, Elaine joins a group of women artists whose first exhibit helps establish her reputation as a painter. Her work is dominated by images from her childhood, although she continues to repress memories of her friends’ cruelty to her. She sees Cordelia twice over the years, the second time in a sanatorium to which Cordelia has been committed after a mental collapse and suicide attempt.

Elaine and Jon separate, and she moves to Vancouver, where she meets and marries Ben, with whom she has a second daughter. Her brother, Stephen, who has become an eminent physicist, is killed by terrorists during an airplane hijacking, and both her parents die several years later. In the weeks prior to her mother’s death, while helping her sort through family odds and ends, Elaine comes across a blue cat’s-eye marble that she had clutched in her pocket long ago during Cordelia’s childhood attacks, and her past experience comes flooding back to her.

In her forties, Elaine returns to Toronto for a retrospective of her work, but it is Cordelia who dominates her thoughts. Half expecting to see her old friend, she is distracted throughout her show’s opening and later decides to revisit several...

(The entire section is 1,261 words.)