Cat’s Eye

Cat’s Eye Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Margaret Atwood's Cat’s Eye. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Margaret Atwood

Born at the start of the Second World War, Margaret Atwood was the daughter of Carl Edmund Atwood, an entomologist, and Margaret Dorothy, a former nutritionist. She was the middle child of three siblings, and their father’s job led them to travel frequently through rural Canada during her early childhood. This meant that she did not attend school full-time until she was eight years old. Atwood studied English, Philosophy, and French at Victoria College in the University of Toronto and went on to get a master’s degree at Radcliffe College. She writes poetry, novels, literary criticism, and essays—her first book of poetry, Double Persephone, was published in 1961 and her first novel, The Edible Woman, was published in 1969. Atwood has also explored what she calls speculative fiction in her writing, exemplified in her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, set in a dystopian near-future theocracy, and in the post-apocalyptic Oryx and Crake (2003). Atwood has won an extensive list of prizes for her work, including the Man Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Award. She holds honorary degrees from 24 universities, including the University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, the Sorbonne, and Harvard University—which speaks to the breadth of her work’s impact.
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Historical Context of Cat’s Eye

Although this novel was both originally written and ultimately published decades after the Second World War, the conflict hangs thematically over the novel. Some important historical context includes the historical colonial relationship between Canada and the British Empire. Although this novel takes place long after Canadian independence, loyalty and a connection to the British Empire surged during the Second World War. This feeling of nationalism and unity to Western and British ideals suffused the Canadian populace and influenced their willingness to participate in the war. The novel is also steeped in feminist discourse—though the narrator herself displays ambivalence towards feminism and ideology in general, the feminist movement emerges as a distinct theme in Cat’s Eye. Although feminist themes emerged in the mid-19th century with the rise of suffragist movements, it was in the 1960s and the 1970s that broader feminist movements really built up steam and became an integral element of Western culture. The other important historical events in the novel relate to climate science—in 1958, scientists began to realize through precise measurements that the amount of carbon dioxide was steadily increasing in the atmosphere. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s when this book was written and published, models of global climate change and warming began to be floated. Although not popularized until deeper in the 1980s and 1990s, allusions to these theories recur in Cat’s Eye and strengthen the atmosphere of impending catastrophe in the novel.

Other Books Related to Cat’s Eye

Atwood addresses the central themes in Cat’s Eye in several other of her works. For novels exploring feminism and gender relations, consider The Handmaid’s Tale. For other works with intertwined narrative strands and an interest in themes of memory and time, look towards The Blind Assassin. Siri Hustvedt’s novel The Blazing World resonates with Cat’s Eye for its similarly complex female artist protagonist, whose work is often misunderstood by a male-oriented society. Atwood’s other novels such as What I Loved also address these themes of art, memory, and gender, with the addition of questions of violence and identity formation. The short stories of Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013, are also a great space for exploring Canadian literature that addresses both the female and the everyday experience of people in the 20th century. In the realm of science fiction, look to Ursula K. Leguin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for a book that tackles gender stereotypes and a dystopic future. On the theme of memory and objects, consider Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence, which explores the ways that intense emotion can lead people to invest particular objects with extra power.
Key Facts about Cat’s Eye
  • Full Title: Cat’s Eye
  • When Written: 1964 (begun)
  • Where Written: Canada
  • When Published: 1988
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Novel, Postmodern Literature, Feminist Literature
  • Setting: Toronto
  • Climax: In her childhood, when Cordelia bullies Elaine into nearly drowning in the river, breaking the spell of that abusive friendship; in her adulthood, when Elaine stands at the opening of her retrospective exhibition and realizes Cordelia will not come.
  • Antagonist: Cordelia
  • Point of View: First person limited

Extra Credit for Cat’s Eye

Autobiography. Elaine Risley (the protagonist of Cat’s Eye) shares much in common with Atwood: both are children of entomologists who grew up traveling the Canadian backwoods, both are artists with work often lauded for its feminism, both marry and divorce a fellow artist, and so on. This has led some readers and critics to identify an autobiographic strain in the novel.

As One Who Was. In a 1989 interview, Atwood discussed fanmail she received regarding the novel. To her surprise, dozens and dozens of women wrote in saying that they had had their own Cordelias. The letters started with lines like “As one who was buried in a snowbank” or “As one who was almost drowned,” and were from women of all ages, which really amazed Atwood.