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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 739

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...

(This entire section contains 739 words.)

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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 scenes from her childhood. While standing at the ravine that had been the turning point in their relationship, Elaine comes to terms with the knowledge that it had been Cordelia’s own fears and insecurities that had led to her cruel behavior. She is left with the regret that she has been denied the ability to form close friendships and will always struggle to maintain a sense of self-worth.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 522

Cat’s Eye focuses on a fifty-year-old protagonist, Elaine, who is revisiting the city of her childhood. Elaine is a controversial artist who is returning for an exhibition of her works. During her journey, she undergoes a transformation, for she learns about herself, her art, and her life at various stages in the novel.

Elaine’s childhood begins with her traveling with her family across northern Canada. Her father is an entomologist who follows infestations; therefore, the family moves from motel to motel until she is eight years old. Elaine’s early childhood contrasts the new existence she faces when her family relocates to Toronto. She is forced to adapt to suburbia, which includes learning a new vocabulary and local etiquette. The clothing, speech, and items Elaine encounters reflect the rigidity associated with the 1940’s and 1950’s that Atwood recalled from her upbringing.

Elaine must learn what it means to be feminine and to socialize with members of her own sex. She realizes that she is different from the others at school and that her parents are not wealthy. During this time, Elaine becomes fascinated by another girl her age, named Cordelia. Cordelia lives in a large home with a cleaning woman and with other extravagances that Elaine admires. Cordelia claims to befriend Elaine; however, Cordelia and her other friends constantly harass Elaine for her many shortcomings and submit her to torturous acts. Elaine does her very best to garner their approval, for she considers them her only friends and fears further isolation. Atwood is illustrating the cruelty that exists in little-girl behavior.

Miraculously, Elaine breaks away from Cordelia. As teens, the two rekindle a friendship, although of a different kind; Elaine has become the stronger of the two. Cordelia fails out of school, and independent Elaine develops a passion for art, which she studies at university. During her studies, she has a love affair with a teacher and mentor and then meets another art student, Jon, whom she marries. Among other events, Elaine has a daughter and tries to commit suicide. During this time, she finds herself involved in the emerging feminist movement. In an ironic twist, Elaine encounters Cordelia as an adult. Cordelia is now the one who has attempted suicide and who is confined to a mental institution.

Unfortunately, Elaine is still haunted by Cordelia and plagued by insecurities. Although Elaine does not meet her friend when she revisits Toronto, she does return to the place where they were children together. By returning to this setting, Elaine undergoes a catharsis, and she makes peace with Cordelia by letting go of her past. The novel portrays the personal and social implications of evil and redemption.

Cat’s Eye presents many similarities to Atwood’s experiences. Critics have commented that Elaine’s voice reflects Atwood’s own. Elaine’s travels in northern Canada, her passion for art, and her relationship with the feminist movement are all reminiscent of Atwood’s life. The novel has received praise for its chronicle of memory through a weaving of the present and past. It has also been applauded for its electrifying imagery and poetic language.