Themes and Meanings
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.