Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The subject Atwood has chosen to tackle in Cat’s Eye is a difficult one: the specific nature and source of the cruelty sometimes visited upon young girls by one another. In Atwood’s view, there is a distinctive type of “feminine” cruelty that arises directly from the largely powerless position of women within society. At the time in which the early part of the novel is set, a postwar return to peacetime status dictated that women restrict themselves to traditional roles centered on home and family. For Elaine, reared outside these social restrictions by a mother who is less bound by conventional thinking than other women, what begins as a socializing process quickly degenerates into a daily barrage of critical comments on her clothes, appearance, speech, posture, and general attitude. Elaine does not fit in, and under the guise of helping her, her friends come close to destroying her in their ruthless efforts to force her to conform. That she will never be able to satisfy the ever-changing standards they set for her is a crucial part of their destructive game, but strict adherence to accepted social roles is still the basis for their criticisms.

Seen in a larger context, however, it becomes clear that these messages of expected social behavior that the other girls have already internalized are coming from the adult world. Cordelia’s father, in particular, has left her feeling unloved and insecure, and her response to her own unhappiness is to turn it upon someone else. Grace Smeath, too, has absorbed her mother’s self-righteousness and believes Elaine to be deserving of the treatment she receives. For Elaine, the lasting result of her experience is a nearly unshakable sense of inadequacy and a deep mistrust of other women, both qualities that can only perpetuate a position of relative powerlessness.


(Novels for Students)

Memory and Identity
Although she is a successful middle-aged painter, Risley does not have a secure sense of identity or self-worth. In Jon's studio in Toronto, she confesses that sometimes it is all she can do to drag herself out of bed in the morning. On such occasions she feels worthless, and this reminds her of how Cordelia's relentless criticisms used to make her feel as if she was nothing. Only the previous day, Risley saw a poster advertising her retrospective, with a picture of herself on it, and this gave her some satisfaction that she had at least achieved a "public face." But what of the private one? Risley's private self is buried under the weight of repressed memories, and yet memory is the only tool she has to reconstruct who she is and how she came to be that way.

But memory, as she continually reminds the reader, is unreliable. Although the past extends its hold over the present—Risley's relationship with Cordelia still haunts her—who can accurately remember the past? Risley draws attention to the fact that there are gaps in her memory. When she tries to recall her ninth birthday party, for example:

I close my eyes, wait for pictures. I need to fill in the black square of time, go back to see what's in it. It's as if I vanish at that moment and reappear later, but different, not knowing why I have been changed.

At one point, Risley speculates on what future diseases of the memory may affect her; there are so many different ways of losing and reclaiming the past. And it is not only as an adult that memory is fragile. Even as a child, Risley sometimes cannot recall events, even though she knows they happened. She has even forgotten that she has forgotten things. In particular, she forgets the bad things that have happened to her, sometimes only a few months after they have occurred. She has a gift for burying the past.

By the time she reaches her twenties she does not even want to remember, and she finds that "The past has become discontinuous, like stones skipped across water, like postcards: I catch an image of myself, a dark blank, an image, a blank."

Later, when she is in her forties, Risley does not even remember the traumatic incident when she nearly froze to death in the ravine: "My memory is tremulous, like water breathed on." The image is suggestive. Still, calm water reflects the face of the observer; water disturbed presents only a jagged, distorted image, like a broken mirror. Somehow Risley must try to connect all the fragments to create a self that is whole.

Coming of Age
Because there are two distinct narrative threads in the novel, there are also two coming-of-age themes. One is when young Risley enters adolescence and early adulthood. She attends college, discovers her talent for painting, has her first lover, and establishes her place...

(The entire section is 1183 words.)