Essays and Criticism
The Role Played by the Figure of the Virgin Mary in the Life and Art of the Painter Elaine Risley
An important motif in Cat's Eye is the figure of the Virgin Mary. As a child, Risley first encounters the visual representation of the Virgin, and the Virgin enters her imagination and plays a role in her tormented childhood, her development as an artist, and her later search for release from haunting memories. As a mature artist, Risley transforms Catholic iconography and theology into a personal vision of wholeness and redemption.
Because Risley is not raised in a religious home, she must discover the symbolic and healing power of the Virgin for herself. Her father is against religion. He believes it is a form of brainwashing that has been responsible for wars, massacres, bigotry, and intolerance. Risley's mother also has a negative view of religion. For these reasons the family does not attend church, something Risley does for the first time when she accompanies the Smeath family to their Sunday worship at a Protestant church. From the Smeath family she hears only negative appraisals of Catholics. One of their complaints is that Catholics worship the Virgin Mary.
Risley becomes familiar with depictions of the Virgin from the Sunday school that she attends with Grace. But these are Protestant representations that show the Virgin subordinate to Jesus. Only when Risley happens to pick up a piece of paper in the street—printed by the local Catholic school—does she discover traditional Catholic iconography of the Virgin. In this picture the Virgin wears a dark blue robe and a crown and has a halo. Her red heart is shown outside her chest, with seven arrows (to Risley they look like spears) piercing it. These arrows represent the Seven Sorrows of Mary, and in Catholic thought they refer to trials that Mary endured in her earthly life, including Christ lost on the way to Jerusalem, the betrayal of Christ, the Crucifixion, and the Entombment.
Risley stores all these details in her acute visual memory. The picture acts as a seed for her artistic imagination to grow. Later, the exposed heart of the Virgin becomes part of the inspiration behind Risley's series of satirical paintings, "White Gift," where it reappears as the bad heart of Mrs. Smeath.
Nine-year-old Risley is so affected by the portrait of the Virgin that not long afterwards she begins praying to her. Risley sees this as an act of rebellion, since she understands that normally a person should pray to God. This incident might be seen as the earliest moment when Risley's feminist sensibility begins to form, since she is implicitly rejecting the patriarchal version of God in favor of a female icon.
Shortly after this incident Risley has what she believes is a direct encounter with the Virgin. When she is lying freezing in the snow, abandoned by her friends, a lady with rays shooting from her head comes to her, walking as if on air. She is wearing a dark hood, and inside her cloak Risley sees a glimpse of red. She assumes this is the red heart of the Virgin, glowing like a coal outside her chest. The Virgin tells Risley, "You can go home now ... It will be all right. Go home." This gives Risley the strength she needs to haul herself out of the ravine. It is a pivotal moment, important both for Risley's mature art and for her later adult quest to lay to sleep the ghost of her childhood memories associated with Cordelia.
Risley's next encounter with the Virgin comes when she is in her twenties, but the fact that it is recalled in the section that immediately follows Risley's childhood rescue by the Virgin suggests its thematic importance. This time Risley sees a statue of the Virgin in a church in Mexico. It is the only statue of the Virgin she has seen that attracts her. The statue has a number of small items pinned to it by believers who were grateful to the Virgin for having saved something of theirs. Risley realizes the statue represents the Virgin in her role as Our Lady of Lost Things. In other words, the Virgin restores what has been lost. At the time, Risley has repressed so much from her childhood that she does not consciously know what she has lost, and so she does not know what to pray to the Virgin for.
Only later, on her return to Toronto in middle age, does her quest become urgent. The wounds she suffered in childhood still deeply affect her responses to life, and she must resolve in her mind why those things happened and find a way of reconciling with Cordelia.
The image of the Virgin as Our Lady of Lost Things links closely with another recurring metaphor in Cat's Eye, drawn not from the world of religion but from the discoveries of quantum physics. In the opening paragraph of the novel Risley recalls her physicist brother once telling her that:
Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backward in time and exist in two places at once.
Risley interprets this to mean that time is like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. A person looks down through time, like water, not back into it, and time is a layered vessel that still contains everything that...
(The entire section is 2144 words.)