How do Elaine's paintings in Cat's Eye reflect her childhood trauma and symbolism?

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Elaine discusses a number of her paintings in the novel. The paintings include earlier pieces and those created specifically for the art gallery.

Elaine's paintings reflect her childhood trauma and symbolize her adult attempt at detailing the depth of her past suffering. One painting is titled Fallen Women. 

In this painting, three women are depicted falling downward onto unseen, jagged rocks below. The rocks presumably represent a nebulous group of men. Elaine theorizes that "fallen women were women who had fallen onto men and hurt themselves." This particular painting conceptualizes the different stressors in Elaine's childhood and adulthood. The men are portrayed as an unseen, mysterious force. 

In Elaine's childhood (as well as that of her friends'), men were largely absent during normal waking hours. Invariably, however, they miraculously emerged after dark, when their work outside the home was completed. Some of these men were abusive or even indifferent to the girls during the hours they interacted. Others, like Mr. Bannerji (who appears in the painting Three Muses) are positive and empathetic role models. In her paintings, Elaine portrays both the negative and positive aspects of masculinity. 

The three women in Fallen Women likely represent Cordelia, Grace, and Carol, Elaine's girl tormentors during her youth, while the men represent those who failed Elaine during her youth and adulthood.

Elaine tells us that the three women in the painting are not pulled down or pushed; they are merely falling. She appears to imply that the women are not responsible for their predicament nor are the men responsible for the women's plight. It is a strange characterization of the painting until one stops to think about it. Elaine isn't interested in subjecting her adult psyche to a self-defeating cycle of blame and anger. Her paintings are cathartic, a form of self-expression; they invariably represent a defiant, feminist statement validating her emerging courage and self-resilience.


1) Margaret Atwood: A Critical Companion by Nathalie Cooke.

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The retrospective of Elaine's works in the art gallery is organized chronologically. Her last five paintings are larger than the earlier ones, reflecting the most important and influential events of her life. They are of her parents, her brother, the three people who showed her kindness during her childhood, a self-portrait of her as an adult and a child, and her near-death experience as a child. The titles of her paintings are also the titles of some of the chapters, establishing the connection between her art and her life. Elaine doesn't consciously remember the near-death experience she had in the ravine, but her last painting reflects it. The retrospective of her art is partly Elaine's attempt to achieve a sense of self and to let go of her past.

I have found several websites that will help you analyze Elaine's paintings. The analysis of her paintings begins on page 41 of the "wac." website.

Let me know if you have further questions. Good luck!

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In Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, what are Elaine's traumatic experiences? Was she traumatized by her first husband? How?

At the age of eight, Elaine moves to Toronto where she is mercilessly picked on by other girls, effectively ruining her self-esteem.  As a result, she begins to develop obsessive-compulsive behaviors, like biting her nails and picking skin off her feet (not exactly endearing her to her tormentors).

Later, she develops some thicker skin and marries Jon, after becoming pregnant.  I don't know if  Risley is "traumatized" in the same measure as she was as a child, but her brief marriage, characterized by vicious arguments, certainly didn't help. 

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