Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463
At the heart of Cat’s Eye’s harrowing story of childhood cruelty are the contrasting personalities of Elaine and Cordelia. The initial differences between the two girls are great, with Elaine’s awkwardness and lack of self-confidence making her the perfect foil for her more sophisticated friend. Having spent her earliest years largely in isolation with her family, Elaine is thrown into her first friendships with no knowledge of the traditional behavior expected of young girls, and she finds herself ill-prepared for the rigid codes and values she is expected by her peers to embrace. Elaine’s natural desire for friends is intensified by her fear of not fitting in, a fear that Cordelia will seize upon and exploit.
For her own part, Cordelia is not at all the self-assured individual her new friends assume her to be. As the youngest of three daughters, she is herself excluded and frequently ridiculed by her older sisters, who subject her to a milder version of the treatment she will visit so forcibly on Elaine. It seems clear that the source of Cordelia’s own insecurities and her family’s damaging psychological dynamic is the girls’ cold, critical father, whose love and approval Cordelia is never able to win.
As is often the case among children, Cordelia acts out among her peers a more primitive version of the treatment to which she is subjected at home, casting Elaine as the victim and herself in the role of harshly critical authority figure. For Elaine, whose family is loving and warm, this treatment is shattering, and she comes to believe that she not only must endure it but is deserving of it as well. It is an internalized lesson that will continue to haunt her throughout her adult life as she experiences periods of crippling depression and finds herself wary of friendships with other women. Cordelia, too, is permanently damaged by her status as her family’s least-loved child and, unlike Elaine, is never able to achieve even a functional level of adult behavior.
Although the two girls are the book’s central focus, Atwood has also created several memorable secondary characters. Through Elaine’s eyes, the reader is given intriguing glimpses of her brilliant brother, Stephen, with whom she has a close relationship that fades as the two enter adulthood. Also vividly drawn is Grace Smeath’s mother, a humorless religious fanatic who knows of the behavior to which Elaine is subjected and believes it is her punishment from God. As an adult, much of Elaine’s rage will focus on Mrs. Smeath, who becomes her subject in a controversial series of paintings. Particularly chilling are Grace and Carol, two otherwise unremarkable girls who are quick to become Cordelia’s willing allies in Elaine’s torment.
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