Cat’s Eye

by

Margaret Atwood

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Cat’s Eye: Part 8 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Elaine describes how she used to go into churches to read the inscriptions and seek out statues, especially of the Virgin Mary. She never sought the churches out and never entered during services, but would stumble upon them by accident and go in impulsively. She preferred Catholic churches to Protestant, because she loved the shameless extravagance. However, she usually ended up disappointed because they did not live up to her expectations, though she never knew what she was expecting.
Although Elaine seems to have lost the sense of religious faith that she developed as a child, her relationship to churches, and to the Virgin Mary in particular, carries over for the rest of her life. She seems to be drawn to the aesthetics of the church as much as anything else—the extravagant willingness to dedicate everything to the practice of religion. While Elaine herself cannot be consumed by dogma, she seems to have an interest in obsession and in belief, these qualities that can order people’s lives and provide comfort.
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Elaine remembers going to Mexico with Ben on their first trip together, before she knew that their relationship was going to be long term. Ben went to the market to take pictures, while Elaine ended up walking into a poor and grubby-looking church, where the paintings of the stations of the cross seemed to have been done awkwardly but by someone who really believed. She suddenly saw a statue of Mary, the Virgin of Lost Things and ended up sitting in front of her for a long time, until Ben came and found her and asked her what she was doing; she hadn’t even realized that she had ended up on the ground.
The Virgin of Lost Things that Elaine finds in Mexico is a particular example of her interest in belief, although instead of placing a lost object in front of the statue the way that the visitors did, Elaine sits herself in front of it, implying that there is a degree to which she still sees herself as a lost thing.
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Elaine also thinks about the different phases that her daughters went through—when they were about twelve or thirteen, they took to folding their arms, staring at whoever they were talking to, and saying “So?” meaning So what. Cordelia did the same thing when she was that age, and Elaine always felt like there was no answer to that question. Cordelia had “made her believe that she was nothing.”
Elaine’s weakened sense of self traces back to Cordelia, whom Elaine saw echoed in her own children. Even as an adult, Elaine has a hard time protecting her self-worth, and still sees herself as nothing thanks to one toxic friend who pushed her to see herself that way. This suggests that a person can form their identity in relation to the way it is reflected back by other people. In Elaine’s case, this means that extended pain and conflict with another person can indelibly shape her own identity.
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Time passes, the King dies and is replaced by Queen Elizabeth, who used to be Princess Elizabeth—Elaine feels like her memories of the princess make her uneasy. Cordelia and Grace skip a grade to end up in Grade Eight, whereas Elaine and Carol are only in Grade Six at a new school, which has been built on their side of the ravine, so they no longer have to take the school bus or walk over the collapsing footbridge on their way home. Elaine forgets the period at her old school, and can no longer remember any of the bullying—not the plates, not the Virgin appearing to her in the ravine.
The change in the British royalty remains an important one even for these Canadian students, which shows the long-running influence of the war on their national culture—at the same time, Elaine’s relationship to the English monarchy becomes more complicated with time. The changes in her daily routines are drastic in this section—with the end of her relationship to Cordelia comes a change in school, which means that she no longer has to cross the fateful ravine. This symbolizes a positive change for her, as the ravine was associated with death and decay.
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Elaine remembers having been friends with Cordelia, Carol, and Grace, but they all seem flattened to her, and “their names are like footnotes or the names of distant cousins”—there is no emotion attached to them; “time is missing.” However, no one mentions this missing time to Elaine except her mother, who sometimes mentions that bad time she had. She has a happy life, but feels closed off. Her parents work on their garden, and someone tears down the bridge at the ravine in order to replace it with a concrete bridge. One day, Elaine stands at the hill and watches the bridge come down—she has an uneasy feeling, “as if there’s something still buried down there or someone still standing on the bridge, left in the air by mistake and unable to get to land”—however, it’s obvious to her that there is actually no one.
Although only a year has passed, Elaine forgets her most traumatic memories, which makes it seem that she might move on unscathed from this period in her life. However, she perceives this as missing time, not as an improved and unbroken set of memories, and this missing time messes with her identity. Elaine feels uneasy because unspoken memories have entrenched themselves in her psyche, but she can no longer put words or mental images to them. Most significant is the anxiety she feels around the destruction of the bridge. While she perhaps should feel relief at the destruction of a place full of such bad memories, she instead gets caught up in the sense that something important has been left either buried (this could be the marbles that Stephen buried) or in the air (which might represent the Virgin Mary, or Elaine herself).
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Cordelia and Grace graduate, and Carol hangs around near boys and isn’t much liked by other girls. Elaine has a boyfriend she seems ambivalent about, and sees her first television set. Eventually, Carol moves away, and Elaine skips Grade Seven and breaks up with her boyfriend. She gets a haircut because she is tired of having long hair and feeling like a child. She reorganizes her room, rediscovering the cat’s eye marble, the red purse, and some chestnuts. She sees her old photo album but does not remember writing in it. She hides all these things in a trunk in her parents’ basement, along with her mother’s wedding dress, their collection of ornate silver, bridge tallies, and drawings from her childhood. She inspects the old drawings with distaste, because she thinks they are inept and that she could do much better now.
Time starts to pass more quickly as Elaine moves through school, and it’s remarkable how unremarkable the series of events that she records are: first boyfriend, first television set, and first short haircut. The objects that Elaine finds, both in her room and in the trunk, are significant in that they represent moments of the past that were once very important but do not contain strong residual emotional weight for Elaine. This shows that one of the ways that time passes as layers is through objects that last through time, even if memories do not—for instance, Elaine does not currently access the memories in connection with the marble, and she cannot access the memories of her mother in relation to the items in the trunk—however, those objects exist as a sort of congealed version of the time that passed with them.
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Cordelia’s mother calls the day before high school begins; she wants the two girls to walk to school together, as they appear to be studying at the same high school. Elaine agrees, though her mother seems uncertain. When Elaine and Cordelia walk together, Elaine notices the things that have changed about her old friend, such as longer hair with a peroxide streak, and orange lipstick, and nail polish. Looking at Cordelia makes Elaine realizes that she doesn’t look like a teenager yet, “just a kid dressed as one,” and longs to be older. Cordelia has been held back, supposedly for getting caught drawing graffiti of a bat with a penis on it, so they are in the same grade at Burnham High School. At school, they have announcements every morning followed by Bible reading and prayers. All the girls at school are older and bigger than Elaine, which makes her feel self-conscious.
Although this reunion between Elaine and Cordelia feels like it ought to have some intense tension, the result is decidedly anticlimactic. Although Elaine still seems to regard Cordelia as an authority, in this case on teen womanhood and coolness, their interaction lacks the bullying and power plays of childhood. Furthermore, Cordelia has clearly not been as successful as Elaine, being held back for something inane while Elaine has skipped a grade—the wheels of power between the two appear to be shifting. At the same time, Elaine still pressures herself in comparison with her peers and tends to put herself down as juvenile and underdeveloped, which indicates that this process of internalizing shame is still part of her.
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Elaine feels distanced from her emotions, which does make her feel older than some of the other kids. She feels calm, even though teenage years are supposed to be a whirlwind of emotions; sometimes she watches herself cry in the mirror. She sits with Cordelia at lunch, and they call boys “pills” and “creeps,” words that don’t apply to girls. Cordelia collects photos of celebrities, which she pins to the wall. They go to the record store together after school and try out records, though only Cordelia ever buys them because she has a higher allowance. They listen to Frank Sinatra, whom Cordelia particularly likes.
Elaine seems to be dissociating, which means she has a sort of mental block in place so that she cannot fully experience her feelings. Although this is likely a consequence of her bullying, she does not directly make that connection. Her relationship to Cordelia now seems like a generic female teenage friendship, and the two of them insult boys (implying a divide between the genders) and listen to popular records. The past appears to have been forgotten.
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Perdie is in college now, and Mirrie is a senior in high school; they smoke and have developed a strange vocabulary. Cigarettes are “ciggie-poos,” eggs are “eggie-poos,” breakfast is “brekkers,” and a pregnant woman is “preggers.” The girls leave Cordelia out, and criticize her. Cordelia, meanwhile, starts shoplifting, which she calls “pinching.” She pinches candy and lipstick, and then a pink scarf. Eventually she pinches two horror comics from the drugstore, which the girls read to each other while they are walking home; it gives Elaine nightmares, so she hides the comic she took in Stephen’s room.
The world that Cordelia’s sisters develop for themselves leaves her out, which sheds some light on Cordelia’s childhood behavior—it seems like she treated Elaine much the same way that Cordelia’s older sisters treated her. This reveals an underlying theory of identity formation: instead of necessarily rejecting traits in one’s bullies, sometimes a person actually takes on their bully’s traits, perhaps as a method of assuming control. Otherwise, Elaine and Cordelia’s relationship appears fairly stable at this point, with their main hobbies involving minor bouts of acting out—while one wonders why Cordelia feels the need for theft, it ultimately appears to tie into this anti-social rejection of adults and norms that Elaine also shows at other points in the story.
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One Sunday, Elaine sits with her family while her father draws spruce budworms, and her mother makes sandwiches. Their house has gone through some changes—they have a new radio and a record player, as well as stainless steel silverware. Their father has picked out these new items rather than their mother, who says that “all her taste is in her mouth” and doesn’t care how an object looks as long as it’s functional. She has taken up ice dancing, tangos, and waltzes, which Elaine finds mortifying, though she is glad that her mother at least practices indoors where no one will see. Elaine’s mother “doesn’t give a hoot about what other people think about her”; Elaine finds this irresponsible, though she does like the word “hoot.” Elaine thinks her mother is more like a nonmother, and wishes that she too could have the luxury of not caring what other people think.
The passage of time has treated Elaine’s family well, as represented by their financial success. Their father choosing how to decorate the house marks another way in which this family differs from typical families at the time, as women were expected to be responsible for household areas. Elaine’s mother, however, is an idiosyncratic woman, as demonstrated by her unique dancing hobbies and her lack of regard for the opinions of others. Elaine appears to have a conflicted relationship with her mother in this sense, as she both experiences shame and jealousy in regards to her mother—because Elaine does not share this quality of not caring what others think, she has a harder time understanding her mother.
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Stephen has a razor now, though he does not shave on the weekends. He studies in ragged clothing but has to dress nicely to go to his “private school for brainy boys.” He studies math, and sometimes has friends over to play chess. Elaine brings them cookies on occasion, but is mostly left out. Now, when their father makes statements about the polar ice caps melting and the doomed fate of humanity, Stephen does not seem to care because in the big picture, the human race is just a blip.
Stephen has changed and is growing more distant from Elaine, diving both into his studies and his male friendships—his process of growing into adulthood involves rejecting the family and belittling his father’s long-held passions, which reflects a common coming-of-age trend of needing to reject the past in order to move forward.
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As an adult, Elaine now knows that her father wanted to be a pilot in the war, but was not allowed to do so, as his work was essential. She knows that he grew up on a farm and did his high school courses by correspondence, that he put himself through university by working in lumber camps and cleaning out rabbit hutches, and that he played country fiddle at square dances and was 22 years old before he first heard an orchestra. Learning these things about her father makes Elaine uncomfortable; she wants him to be just her father as she has always known him. She thinks that “knowing too much about other people puts you in their power” because you are forced to understand their reasons for doing things, and are then weakened.
Elaine resents learning about her father’s past because of the vulnerability inherent in doing so. The war influenced him—and, by extension, Elaine’s childhood—more than she had realized at the time. His career as a scientist is now implicated with military connotations, as this passage reveals that his research was considered relevant for the war, for inexplicable reasons—this shows the hidden connections between science and violence, a theme often discussed in relation to World War II given the invention of the highly catastrophic atomic bomb.
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Related Quotes
Elaine learns to make her own clothing in home economics and gets fashion advice next door from Mrs. Finestein. Sometimes she gets stuck doing dishes with Stephen, who condescendingly teaches her about space and time. He makes her a Möbius strip to visualize infinity and tries to convince her that the universe is multi-dimensional, including time, though she has a hard time picturing more than three dimensions. Stephen teaches her about space-time, which is what humans live in and which cannot be separated from space. He says that if you put one identical twin in a high-speed rocket for a week, he would come back to find his brother ten years older than he is himself—Elaine thinks that this is sad. Stephen also says the universe is like an expanding balloon covered in dots, and that if humans could travel fast enough they could go back in time.
The things that Elaine learns in school are a marker of times where girls learned home economics while boys learned more mechanical skills, though these classes do train her for independence—making things, instead of relying on others. Her interaction with Stephen while doing dishes shows that their relationship still has some closeness even though they’ve been growing apart in recent years. Only when forced to do dishes together do they interact extensively, but Stephen does share his world with Elaine, showing that he has not completely rejected his sister. The information that he shares with her about time will shape her indefinitely, as she did not previously know that time had so many dimensions. The reader already had this information and knew that Elaine would learn it from Stephen eventually, as the novel opened with a scene that follows this one, where Elaine explains this information to Cordelia.
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In the summer, Stephen works as a canoeing teacher at a boys’ camp, so Elaine travels alone with her parents to Sault Ste. Marie and exchanges letters with Stephen and Cordelia, who seems bored. Stephen ridicules everything he sees, from the camp counselors to the girls they have crushes on, while Cordelia writes in real ink and dots her eyes with little round circles and signs all her letters with thinks like “Yours till the sea wears rubber pants to keep its bottom dry.” Elaine feels like she is just “marking time,” and is “surly.”
This anticlimactic summer marks the end of the section, which has been characterized by little action and an acceleration in the passage of time—the years take fewer pages to cover, and the events that do occur lack drama. In some ways, this testifies to the power of forgetting, as Elaine writes letters with her brother, who mostly neglects her during the year, and with Cordelia, who had bullied her so viciously as a child—she does not hold grudges or seem to perceive the past as part of the present, but instead develops a kind of antsy relationship to the passage of time.
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