Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627
CAT’S EYE begins in the middle of things, flashing backward to moments from Elaine’s childhood and forward to her encounters in contemporary, trendy Toronto, a very different city from the one she abandoned. Stephen W. Hawking’s A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME provides an epigraph to the novel, and Elaine’s astrophysicist brother, also named Stephen, provides a theory of time that accounts for the spiral form and the desperate ambitions of the novel. “Time is not a line but a dimension,” he contends, and Elaine, for whom everything is “drenched in time,” begins to see the days of her life as “a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another.”
“When we gaze at the night sky,” lectures Stephen, “we are looking at fragments of the past.” And when Elaine gazes at the vibrant paintings on the wall, when she recounts incidents from her own past, the images and words, she knows, are pale echoes of remote, irretrievable phenomena. Yet they flash brilliantly across the pages of Atwood’s novel--eight-year-old Elaine tyrannized by “best friends” Cordelia, Grace, and Carol; Elaine at the Toronto College of Art enmeshed in a humiliating affair with her teacher, Mr. Hrbik; Elaine in bed with raffish future husband Jon as a distraught lover hurls a bag of warm spaghetti on them; Elaine and daughter Sarah fleeing Jon and Toronto.
Atwood has an apt eye for details of growing up in the 1940’s and 1950’s, but she does not sentimentalize those decades. “The past isn’t quaint while you’re in it,” says Elaine, who, never employing the past tense, is always in it.
Atwood regulars will be reminded most of LADY ORACLE, her 1976 fictional autobiography that likewise begins in the middle and arches backward and forward and that, narrated by a novelist, also aspires to see artistic unity in the vivid moments of an individual life. The young Elaine hoards a cat’s eye marble as a talisman that enables her to observe the world without succumbing to its terrors, and the metaphor of cat’s eye provides an algorithm for Atwood’s art.
Elaine notes of her unconventional mother: “It’s as if, like a cat, she cannot see things unless they are moving.” Fiction cannot repair the fleeting, mangled past, but CAT’S EYE fixes its traces, movingly.
America. CLX, May 6, 1989, p.435. London Review of Books. XI, January 19, 1989, p.3.
Bouson, J. Brooks. Brutal Choreographies: Oppositional Strategies and Narrative Design in the Novels of Margaret Atwood . Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993. Uses feminist and...
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