Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 304

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.

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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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1183

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 in adult society. However, Atwood treats this part of Risley's story in much less detail than her childhood world, which is the main focus of interest. The main coming-of-age story is of Risley as a fifty-year-old painter trying to come to terms with being middle-aged. This is an almost constant theme in the present-day narrative sections. Risley draws attention to the fact that she is aging: she should get bifocals, but thinks they would make her look old; she walks but does not jog because jogging is bad for the knees; she searches for a dress in the department store that will transform her, but notes that this is less possible with the advancing years. She surveys the range of wares in the cosmetics section and is not put off by the strangeness of some of the ingredients: "I'd use anything if it worked—slug juice, toad spit, eye of newt, anything at all to mummify myself, stop the drip-drip of time, stay more or less the way I am."

In addition to these concerns, Risley has little confidence that in middle age she has attained the kind of wisdom that would compensate for the discomforts of aging. Hence her mental restlessness and obsession with the figure of Cordelia from her past. And although her career is successful, that also reminds her of the fact that she is no longer young. She is concerned when she sees herself described in a newspaper article as "eminent": "the mausoleum word. I might as well climb onto the marble slab right now and pull the bedsheet over my head." She feels the same about having a retrospective: "first the retrospective, then the morgue."

Art and Science
In addition to being a coming-of-age novel, Cat's Eye is also a künstlerroman ("artist novel"), about the growth of an artist—her discovery of her vocation and development of mastery of her craft. The pivotal moment in this respect is when Risley first realizes that her destiny is to be an artist. This occurs during her grade thirteen biology exams (in certain places in Canada, students who are bound for university go through an extra grade). She knows already that she can draw anything, "the insides of crayfish ears, the human eye, frogs' genitalia, the blossom of the snapdragon ... in cross section." This seems to be an innate ability. But at that moment she has a revelation, "like a sudden epileptic fit," and knows with absolute certainty that she is not going to be a biologist, but a painter.

Later passages describe Risley's artistic education: the Life Drawing class; the development of her taste through art history courses; her experiments in the technique of egg tempera; and then her emergence as a painter in her own right. A vital moment comes when she is in her twenties and makes a change in her artistic subjects: "Until now I've always painted things that were actually there, in front of me. Now I begin to paint things that aren't there." This helps her to develop a surreal, visionary quality in her work, and she also begins to emerge as a painter with a feminist sensibility, as when she paints the Virgin Mary as a fierce lioness, for example.

Risley's career as a painter is in contrast to the vocations of her father and brother, both of whom are scientists. As an entomologist, her father examines the world in microscopic, objective detail; her physicist brother is drawn to speculations, couched in the language of mathematics, about the origins of creation and the laws that govern it. His interest is in the search for a unified field theory— a single theory that would explain all the diverse laws of physics and how they manifest in the physical world. Although Risley's art is personal and subjective, concerned with her inner world of feelings rather than the objective world of things, she and Stephen do have something in common, in that she, too, searches for a "unified field theory" (the title of one of her paintings). For Risley, this is a way of creating wholeness, understanding, and healing through art.

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