Cat’s Eye

by

Margaret Atwood

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Cat’s Eye: Part 11 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Back in the present, Elaine walks drunkenly by a monument to the South African War, and wonders if anybody living still remembers that war or if anyone passing by in their cars ever actually looks at the statues. She also sees several flags on display at the Parliament building: the Union Jack, the new national flag, and the old flag she could never draw, which has been demoted to the flag of the province. She passes a church and several shops, which reminds her of how dilapidated these buildings used to be. When she thinks of Josef, she feels like she understands his melancholy—she feels like she would have been frantic if either of her daughters had started a relationship with a man fifteen years older. When she thinks about her daughters, she wants to buy them a gift, but also does not know anymore what they would like.
Elaine observes how fragments of the past do not necessarily mean anything if they go unnoticed, and that even great events like wars will eventually be forgotten. However, she does still observe the importance of the Union Jack, which means that the connection between Canada and the UK has yet to disappear. She also tends to notice churches, even though they remain in the background for her at this point, and any evidence of how much Toronto has gentrified, though she doesn’t necessarily see this transformation as progress. Thinking about Josef now that she is older helps her to understand him, though she also now understands the problematic nature of their relationship—thinking as a mother changes her perspective, though she also does not seem to be that connected with her daughters and their desires.
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Elaine looks at a display of silk scarves when a girl interrupts her, whom she assumes to be Cordelia. However, it is a young Middle Eastern woman, who convinces her to donate some money for her family. She does not specify where she is from, but she tells Elaine that her people are being killed, and Elaine knows that she could come from any number of countries. She has been made to suffer by a war, the war that killed Stephen. In the end, Elaine does give her the money, and the woman tells her that God will bless her. Elaine walks away and thinks about the scale of global suffering, and the fact that every day “there are more outstretched hands” and no end to the amount of need in the world.
Elaine still perceives any interruption by a woman to be Cordelia, which reveals the influence the latter still has on her. This stranger represents the darker side of ongoing conflicts, and the novel reminds readers of the human costs of wars. It also is revealed here that Stephen is not only dead, but has been killed—this is glossed over in the narrative at this moment, but is a shocking reveal for the reader. In many ways, the novel refuses to let its climactic events be climactic, instead focusing on the long-term impact that they have on someone’s life. Instead, Elaine reflects on suffering on a global scale, and seems to have an extremely pessimistic view about the state of the world—the contrast between Toronto’s upward development that has been described so far and this description of global poverty is poignant.
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Elaine leaves her job at the Swiss Chalet at the end of summer and moves back in her parents’ cellar. She knows that financially she has to, though she feels that both her parents’ house and school are hazardous places because her life is multiple and she feels fragmented—rather than feeling lethargic, she feels alert now, but it’s an adrenaline borne of having to maintain multiple deceptions.
Because Elaine has to move back home, she starts feeling like her life and her identity are fragmented. These are emotions somewhat typical of coming-of-age stories, but exaggerated in Elaine’s case, in part due to her traumatic relationship to Cordelia—she has already divided the past from the present, and now separates different areas of her life and keeps them apart from each other.
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Elaine has continued to pursue a relationship with both Josef and Jon, and fallen in love with both of them. She keeps the two secret from each other, and from her parents. Josef offers her a certain amount of stability combined with fear—he tells her stories of how women are treated as property in his country, and that men are allowed to shoot women if they catch them with another man. Jon, on the other hand, offers a sense of youthful escape and mischief; the life that they have together is counter-normative and more playful. When she visits his house, he has painted the walls in one of the rooms pitch black and though he often lives alone, he also sporadically shares the apartment with itinerant friends of his who are between jobs.
Elaine loves both men, because they symbolize different things for her—whereas her relationship with Josef has a push and pull of authority that recalls her dynamic with Cordelia, Jon represents a refreshing escape from all of that.
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Jon takes pride in his messy home and his art, which should capture “pure painting.” He is a very productive painter and changes out the paintings on his wall almost on a weekly basis, but they tend to be swift frenzies of colors that represent nothing more than process. However, his art is the only place that Jon is interested in purity. In his home, he resents housekeeping in a “protest against all mothers.” Elaine feels like she can’t clean his apartment lest he regard her as a maternal figure. Although Jon does not see women as “helpless flowers” or “shapes to be arranged” the way that Josef does, he categorizes them as smart or stupid. He considers Elaine “smarter than most,” which flatters her but also makes her feel dismissed.
Jon comes to symbolize a relationship to art that Elaine ultimately rejects, which is of art as a pure state of being that rejects social norms—in his case, it involves a typical masculine rejection of doing household work, as well as a sense that art is something totally pure. Jon still puts women into boxes, just like Cordelia had, but he sorts Elaine into the superior box—at the same time as feeling flattered, Elaine feels dismissed by him for two reasons: any categorization of her as a woman bothers her, and boxing off people with labels tends to incite her hostility. Elaine’s yearning towards individuality shines through, and her instinctive sense that these modes of categorizing others have more to do with power dynamics than they do with a true judgement about the world.
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Josef starts to feel suspicious and asks Elaine where she has been when she is not around him, but she does not feel guilty because he has always been able to have a duplicitous relationship with Susie behind the scenes. One day, Susie randomly calls Elaine and asks her to come over. She says that something is wrong and she needs help, but that she can’t tell Elaine anything over the phone.  Elaine takes an hour to walk there. When she gets there, she has to ask the superintendent for Susie’s apartment number and for help getting the door unlocked, which he does only reluctantly after Elaine says that it’s an emergency.
Although Josef has no real claim over Elaine as they lack a formal relationship, he shows how easily one falls into normative conventions when in relationships by feeling so possessive over her.
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Inside the apartment, the drapes are drawn and there is a weird smell. The furniture seems normal, but Elaine sees a dark carpet on the footprint. She looks for Susie and finds her lying in blood on her bed. At the sight of her, Elaine feels like she has been abandoned; she also feels sick and has to throw up in the bathroom, where she washes her hands in the blood-spattered sink. Fortunately, Susie does still seem to be alive so she has the superintendent call an ambulance; Susie has had a makeshift abortion. Even though Elaine knows that she would have done the same in Susie’s place, she feels a vengeful sense of satisfaction.
Elaine’s bias against Susie almost has deadly consequences. Susie has had an illegal abortion, which nearly takes her life, and only has Elaine as her primary contact. This shows how lopsided their relationship is, as Elaine dislikes Susie strongly, but Susie does not seem to share her suspicion if she trusts Elaine in this situation. Instead of feeling pity for Susie after identifying with her, Elaine translates her sense of identification with Susie into feelings of vengeance, as though she had won some kind of competition. This shows the depth of her own internal cruelty, much of which has sprung out of these gendered biases against women that she still carries.
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Although Susie does not want her to tell Josef, Elaine does so anyway. When he finds out, and says he will never get over his guilt. He becomes melancholy and no longer wants to go out for dinner or have sex. Elaine starts slowly to feel contempt for Josef, to use her mean mouth on him, and to make excuses for avoiding dates with him. When he waylays her outside the museum once to tell her that he has plans to leave Toronto forever, Elaine just tells him that it’s good and walks away from him. She does not dream about him. Instead, she dreams about Susie, but half-transformed into Cordelia—in her dream, Susie skips rope and licks a popsicle, and looking at her Elaine knows that she has done something wrong.
Josef, unsurprisingly, reacts to the event with melancholy, which means that he is making the crisis about himself, instead of Susie. Elaine ends things with Josef in the same manner that she ended her relationship with Cordelia: by walking away. Elaine seems to follow a pattern of intense emotional involvement with someone that culminates in her abandoning them, which relates to her sense of individuality and her asociality. However, Elaine does seem to be plugged into a social sense of morality that bleeds into her dreams, as she identifies Susie with Cordelia. This shows her sense of guilt for abandoning both women, though this guilt transforms instantly into Elaine’s old sense of self-hatred, which manifests in believing that she has done something wrong.
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Now only dating Jon, Elaine feels more virtuous because she is no longer hiding anything from him, although he has no reason to suspect that anything has changed in their relationship. She feels that she is in love with him, and continues to go over to his apartment and act like they are a couple although they have established nothing explicit between them. They go to parties where artists smoke pot and Elaine tries to avoid seeing Jon flirt with other girls—he is open about this, saying that sexual possessiveness is a bourgeois concept because nobody owns anybody. Jon no longer paints his energetic swirls and instead paints straight lines or perfect circles in flat colors, the point of which are to make your eyes hurt when you look at them.
Elaine’s relationship with Jon does not display particularly unique qualities, except for the newfound lack of secrecy. In general, this novel places a heavy emphasis on secrecy and on the division between what happens in public and in private: the two differ even in the most private relationships, and a sense of secrecy or asociality adds emotional intensity to a situation that is otherwise identical. Secrecy creates situations of power. In their relationship, Jon continues to show a tendency towards inane masculine rejections of conventional norms, all of which result in his access to free relationships with women and pretentious abstract art.
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Elaine resumes her lifestyle of school in the daytime, though the subject matter has shifted towards chiaroscuro and more violent biblical images. Elaine does not like these shadowy pictures of naked women and strange fruits that seem served up to her—she prefers the earlier styles of artistic clarity and oil paints. She experiments with artistic styles, and practices in secret—she likes detail, egg tempera, and painting recognizable objects; she knows that Jon would call her work illustration. She also comes to like the effects of glass and, inspired by work like Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Marriage, starts including objects with reflective surfaces where she can hide alternate figures or perspectives. Elaine knows that her artistic taste is out of fashion and hides her work from other people.
Elaine continues to go to school and begins to develop her own style. While she dislikes these Renaissance images for their religiosity and depictions of women, she does start to develop her own artistic style by using old egg-based paints. The fact that she is drawn to mirrors and reflective surfaces shows that one of her main interests is this theme of reflection, which relates to the question of reality: what is real, and how does one perceive reality?
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Elaine takes another night course on Wednesday nights which is taught by a Yugoslavian—the subject is Advertising Art, and most of the students are from the Commercial division of the Arts College. Her teacher had done a famous rendering of pork and beans that Elaine remembers from the wartime period of her childhood, when they frequently ate pork and beans. After she graduates, she can’t get any work that she wants so she starts doing mock-ups for companies and rents her own apartment with a real bed. Although Jon makes fun of her for her decorating tastes, he prefers to stay at her apartment as opposed to his own.
In her own work, Elaine is drawn to these depictions of contemporary objects, in part because of the commercial art that she studies—she learns from an artist who works in advertising, and this reveals much contemporary art is funded and supported in the commercial realm. There is never pure art, as artists have to make a living; older generations of artists made religious work because they were supported by the church, while contemporary artists make work influenced by commercialism because funding exists there.
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Elaine’s parents move up north—her father returns to research, and her mother misses the garden but clears out the house. Elaine does not miss her parents, as she is still relieved to no longer be living with them, and relishes the opportunity to eat junk food and be responsible for her own messes. Elaine designs book covers during the day and paints in secret at night. Her parents sent postcards, as does Stephen—his become taciturn and come from various locations, from Nevada to Bolivia to New York. Elaine can only guess as to what motivations drive his travels, and finds out through one of these postcards first that he got married to a woman named Annette and then, some years later, that they had gotten divorced.
Elaine’s parents finally return to an environment more like where they spent their summers, which fully allows Elaine to live in the freedom of adulthood. Elaine’s life seems to be a balance of her daytime work and art, as she does not make enough money to self-sustain from her art; the fact that she paints so much anyway shows the depth of her dedication to her craft. She has grown only more distant from Stephen, as represented by his few and taciturn postcards from all over the world. Far from the closeness of their childhood, it seems that their adult relationship is characterized by the bare bones of information exchange.
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Stephen and Elaine communicate in this manner for some time, until one day he gives a lecture in Toronto on Unified Field Theory. Elaine attends, along with a large crowd of fans—she understands little, though it is clear that his work is well-respected. At the introduction to the talk, he talks about time. He says that when we gaze at the night sky, we are looking at fragments of the past, both because the stars as we see them are echoes of events that we saw lightyears ago and because everything down here is a fossil of the chaotic and explosive moments at the creation of the universe. Elaine is unable to follow the talk after that, but she watches the slideshows full of photos of galaxies and different charts, and finds Stephen afterwards so they can talk during the reception.
When Stephen finally returns to Toronto, he does so in the capacity of a respected professor, and his talk echoes the topics he taught Elaine about during her childhood: time and space. From what Elaine understands of his theory, the present is composed of pieces of the past, as all light comes from distant stars and all of reality is a relic of the Big Bang.
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It becomes clear that Stephen does not share Elaine’s memories of their childhood—that he sang “Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer,” played war, and buried marbles. Elaine wonders if those marbles are still there, all these years later, or if someone found them when they built the new bridge. Stephen continues to keep the secrets of the past, which reassures Elaine that he is the same person underneath the physical changes of aging. She considers paying to have a star named after him for his birthday, because she thinks he might find it amusing, but she also wonders if they concept of “birthday” still has any meaning for him.
When the two siblings speak after the talk, it becomes clear that the significant images from their childhood that have so defined Elaine’s thinking are relatively inconsequential for Stephen. He does not remember the songs he sang or the marbles, which have been recurring images at every stage of Elaine’s life. However, she finds something comforting in his secrecy, as it reminds her of his privacy in their childhood. In this case, it’s difficult to discern what is a sign of his consistent character and what is a record of the innate differences between people. Two people will always conflict over their perspectives on what is important, and this creates a profound difference between even close relatives. Elaine clearly still loves her brother and thinks of his birthday, but it also appears that she sees him as somehow having transcended time and convention.
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Jon has moved on from painting geometrical shapes and now does pictures that resemble commercial illustrations, and instead of discussing purity talks about the necessity of “using common cultural sign systems to reflect the iconic banality of our times.” Elaine thinks that she could give him advice on his work because of her actual experience in the commercial realm, but knows that her advice would be unwelcome. He starts staying over more and painting at her apartment, because his is full of American draft dodgers who are disappointed to find that Toronto is not just a pacifist version of the United States
Jon’s art has come to resemble Elaine’s, which shows the weakness of his prior relationship to art. Furthermore, his lack of desire to ask her for advice also shows that he continues to have this gendered expectation that female artists have nothing to share with him. He has a strong ego that withstands all evidence of his own weakness, from his changing opinions to his lack of success. His social milieu has expanded to other typical non-conformers in the form of these American draft dodgers, who have a principled anti-war sentiment but also seem to have national beliefs given their disappointments about Toronto.
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Elaine does his Jon’s laundry now, and on Sundays they sleep in late and go on long walks holding hands. One day, she discovers that she is pregnant—though she fears telling Jon, she does not have an abortion. She lies on the floor of her apartment and her body feels numb and inert; she feels as though she is “at the center of nothingness, of a black square that is totally empty,” and feels like she is expanding into space. She wakes up in the middle of the night and doesn’t remember where she is; she feels like is back in her childhood home, and though she knows that it has been sold, she feels like she might have been left behind there.
Over time, the relationship between Elaine and Jon has become more domestic, and it appears normal until her pregnancy. Elaine’s pregnancy triggers massive dissociation, and the images she describes resemble her description of being buried when she was a child. It seems that pregnancy has a similar connotation of self-negation for Elaine, and it sets her off into the past. Although a child usually symbolizes futurity, it makes Elaine think of the past, perhaps to a degree because having a child inevitably reminds her of when she was a child.
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Elaine starts painting objects from her childhood, like a toaster and the wringer, as well as a glass jar of nightshade. She knows that these must be memories because most of those objects do not exist anymore, but they have a clarity to them that does not match with the quality of memories. Although Elaine does not picture herself directly in relation to them, these objects do come with a sense of anxiety. She starts biting her fingers again, and feels like her body is full of time. She paints Mrs. Smeath numerous times. When she looks at the images of Mrs. Smeath, Elaine has the sense that Mrs. Smeath knows that everything that has happened to Elaine is her own fault, because there is something wrong with her—however, Mrs. Smeath won’t tell her what it is. Sometimes, she has to turn the paintings of Mrs. Smeath to face the wall.
This orientation towards the past manifests in her work, as she paints significant items from the period where she was being bullied by Cordelia—all of which are chapter names of the novel. Although Elaine does not explicitly remember these objects, they do come from defining moments, which shows that even though she has repressed these events, the past remains close at hand. She even begins self-harming again, by biting her fingers like she used to. The most important figure she paints is Mrs. Smeath, the adult witness to her bullying, whom she hated so fiercely as a child. Mrs. Smeath makes Elaine feel young and badly behaved—she reminds her of the worst of social conventions, both religious and class-based, and reminds her that she once did not fit into those conventional spaces. Instead of blaming the spaces, Elaine blamed and continues to blame herself, which reinforces the theme of how an identity can be built in situations of conflict.
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Time skips ahead, and Elaine is walking Sarah in her stroller. She is over two now, so she can walk, but the stroller allows for faster movement and also provides a space for Elaine to hang her grocery bags, which she sees as part of the tricks that she has learned as a mother that she did not have to know before. She lives with Jon as a family (they married because of the pregnancy), and dresses in mini-skirts. Elaine is still adjusting to changes in her body and in society—she can’t keep up with new vocabulary and feels like she is no longer young, now that she will be thirty in a couple of years.
This two year jump is the largest gap in time up until this point, and it both starts to indicate that the narrative is nearing its end, in that gaps in time prevent a sense of building up to a climax, and also implies that the experience of early motherhood was not particularly essential to Elaine. As she reveals, the first two years felt like living in a fog, which indicates that her identity as a mother does not feel like her central identity.
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Elaine takes care of Sarah with a fierce love as well as frequent irritation and feels like she is finally coming back into the world after a year of living in a fog. Jon also loves Sarah, which surprises Elaine and which she feels grateful for. He had wanted them to go to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon, which he saw as a sort of a joke—however, this offended Elaine because with the child growing inside her, she had felt that whatever was happening between them could not be characterized as a joke. Right after the marriage, Elaine felt relieved and full of adoration—she wanted things to stay exactly as they were and wanted Jon to stay hers but knew that he could not.
Elaine’s relationship to Jon seems to be souring, in part because he treats their relationship with humor that she does not share. Playing socially conventional roles, like having children and getting married, seems like a joke to him, whereas it’s serious for her. Elaine also starts to get a sense of her own mortality in this moment, as she approaches thirty, and begins to thematize her own inevitable death in that sense of aging.
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Jon and Elaine start have intense fights, which involve throwing things at each other. At the crux of their conflict is that their relationship was borne of the desire to run away from the grown-ups, and yet they have become the grown-ups. Jon works as a supervisor part-time at a co-op graphics studio, and Elaine works part-time as well so they can manage to pay the rent. Jon has given up painting, and makes constructions instead, out of any object he finds. He also decorates the house whimsically and makes the toilet seat sing “Jingle Bells” whenever it is lifted, for Sarah’s benefit. Whenever he is around, he makes toys for her and plays with her—but he is not always around. In the first year after Sarah’s birth, Elaine mostly quit painting and did freelance work whenever she had the energy.
The conflicts between Jon and Elaine are shockingly violent and a complete disruption from the sort of conflicts that Elaine was involved with in the past, which centered on emotional manipulation, secrecy, and withholding, instead of anger and physical aggression. It appears that they are both uncomfortable with playing adults, even though they also know they have to play those roles. Jon’s relationship to art seems to have become more material with his constructions: this turns the entire world into a playground, because anything can be art, and anything can be made into a toy. Elaine does not seem able to balance her motherhood and her art, and is drained of energy—being a mother is a job in itself, and drains her of energy.
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Elaine goes to a feminist meeting about anger against men, where she feels like she’s on shaky ground. The women who attend come from various different circles, though all artistic—they are dancers, writers, editors, and painters like Elaine. Elaine had not been in an all-female space since health class in school, when they learned about menstruation. In this meeting, women express anger at various things that control their lives and render them unequal to men—whether it be the clothing they are expected to wear, shaving their legs, or wearing lipstick—because all of these things indicate that there is something wrong with the way they are.
Elaine’s decision to go to this feminist meaning implies that she was open towards feminism, which could be surprising given her tendency to describe men as blameless. This aligns with her open-mindedness, but that same tendency to avoid dogmatism makes it difficult for her to integrate into this feminist space. Elaine also reflects on how much femininity focuses on convincing women that they need to correct something about themselves via cosmetic products or changes in their behavior, which connects to the bullying Elaine experienced from Cordelia.
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Many of the women in this room have suffered from serious violence at the hands of men, whether rape, physical abuse, discrimination, or dismissal. On the one hand, Elaine believes all these stories and knows that the world is full of sinister men who prey on women, earn more money for doing less work, and pass all the housework onto women. On the other hand, she has chosen to live with a man. She has a family with a man, and she feels nervous that she does not fit into the sisterhood. Though no one says anything explicit to her, she feels that her choice to live with a man is regarded as an invitation for any bad thing that might happen to her. Elaine feels like she is standing outside a closed door while decisions are being made for her.
The discussions in Elaine’s feminist group highlight just how grave misogynistic violence and cruelty can be. It’s particularly important to note Elaine’s observation that she never spends time in all-female spaces, which is a partial explanation of her distrust of sisterhood. Although Elaine and the novel acknowledge and condemn sexist violence, and do seem to lay a lot of pressure on the patriarchy, the conclusions remain undogmatic in that Elaine does not want to reject men entirely. She feels uncomfortable being asked to take sides or throw away her family, but she feels that this decision makes her vulnerable to criticism.
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At home, Elaine paints at night while Sarah sleeps. She paints the Virgin Mary as a lioness, fierce and protective, and as an exhausted housewife in a painting called Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Jon looks down on her paintings, because he sees them as irrelevant; however, Elaine sees a certain kind of freedom in that, because if what she paints doesn’t matter, then she can paint whatever she likes. They slam doors and throw things at each other when they fight, and though Elaine throws more dangerous objects at him, she usually misses. Jon starts making art where he smashes things and glues the pieces back together. He dismisses her anger when they fight as being “because she’s a woman.” Elaine responds by saying she is not angry because she is a woman, but because Jon is an “asshole.”
Elaine’s relationship to art becomes more clear, as she uses art to process the gender and power-based themes that have plagued her for years. This image of Mary shows that religion remains important to her, while emphasizing the power and pressure that women face in domestic roles, from motherhood to being a wife. Elaine reclaims oppressive images in her Mary paintings and turns them on their head to show an empowering side to them. She seems not to care about whether her paintings are taken seriously, which indicates that her motivation is not explicitly to influence others, but rather to let out something inside her. Jon reveals his own internalized sexism when he dismisses her as a woman, though Elaine seems to have grown—instead of taking his criticism on authority, she recognizes him for a jerk and is able to recognize her own anger.
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Elaine joins a group of women in her feminist meetings to put on a group art show. There are four participants: Carolyn, who calls herself a fabric artist and whose work includes patchwork quilts with objects like condoms stuffed with unused tampons, Jody, who works with sawn-apart store mannequins that she glues together in disturbed poses, Zillah, who is blond and does what she calls Lintscapes, which are made of the fuzz from drier filters and which she turns into beautiful multilayered textured compositions, and Elaine. They have the show in a defunct supermarket, which they spend three days cleaning and rearranging. They offer gallon jugs of Canadian wine, cheddar cheese, and Ritz crackers at their opening and a surprising number of people show up. A journalist who comes to document the opening jokes that the girls should “burn a few bras” for him while he’s taking their pictures.
This art show reveals that Elaine can get along with other women, despite her previous doubts and experiences, and it also provides more perspective on what art can mean to women. The three women that Elaine works with all focus on different kinds of material art, where they repurpose objects to create aesthetics and messages. Though they all have different styles and resources, the common theme is to juxtapose domestic materials, like lint, with the artistic theme. It shows that even things like shopping, sex, and laundry have artistic potential, and that daily lives can be made the vehicle for profound messages. It’s clear that their audience has them typecast as feminists in what is meant to be a derogatory way, but that only serves to make their sexist views seem small.
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Elaine comes early to the opening and looks at all of their work on display, which makes her feel that her own work is weak and far too decorative and pretty—she sees herself as having failed to make a statement and as having remained peripheral. Most of the people who attend their show are women, and Elaine realizes that she has no close female friends. This makes her think of Cordelia, whom she has not seen for years. Jon has not arrived at the opening despite having promised to attend, so Elaine considers flirting with someone. Jody introduces Elaine to her mother, who views the work on display with mild disapproval—though she did like Elaine’s painting Deadly Nightshade—and reminds Elaine of her own mother.
Elaine continues to feel marginal even at her own exhibition, because she does not trust the strength of her work or her relationships. She is still haunted by Cordelia, which shows the indelible mark that relationship left on her. Interestingly, meeting another mother who disapproves of her work leads her to think about her own mother, which also indicates that many of Elaine’s internalized expectations about the important relationships in her life have a sense of conflict at their center
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Many of the paintings that Elaine chose for the opening are of Mrs. Smeath, portrayed in one lying on the sofa wrapped in an afghan with a rubber plant behind her, in another (called Leprosy) as sitting in front of a mirror with half of her face peeling off, and in yet another set of four (White Gift) wrapped in white tissue and then slowly unwrapped with her rotting heart and the text “The Kingdom of God is Within You.” Elaine does not fully understand why she hates Mrs. Smeath so much.
These images of Mrs. Smeath draw on several of the themes that caused Elaine the most distress and pain as a child. She highlights memorable objects like the rubber plant, as well as themes of deception and hypocrisy as forms of corruption through the rotting face and the damaged heart being given as a gift.
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A woman comes up and confronts Elaine in anger—she thinks at first that it is Grace Smeath, but it is just another religious woman offended by her art style. She throws an ink bottle at White Gift, which does not bother Elaine because she knows it will be easy to remove from the varnished painting. This event makes a splash in the newspaper article written about the event, and Carolyn advertises the show from then on with the words “abrasive,” “aggressive,” and “shrill” that had been used to describe them.
The confrontation with this angry woman, whom Elaine first takes as a vision from the past, shows how much conflict can be embedded in art. This woman clearly took the art personally, as an insult to a certain kind of matronly motherhood and religious belief. However, the scandal ends up benefitting Elaine, which is a recurring motif in the novel—explicit attempts to sabotage someone can play to their benefit. The women are still typecast in a sexist manner by the media, but they show that embracing stigma can be empowering when they claim for themselves the same words that were wielded against them.
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Elaine visits an institution where Cordelia’s parents have placed her because she tried to commit suicide. Cordelia had called her on the phone and mentioned seeing her in the newspaper, but when Elaine suggested that they meet up, Cordelia said that she was not allowed to leave the institution. Elaine has a hard time recognizing her, as she has put on some weight and is moving more slowly and speaking with a thickness in her voice. They go out to lunch, and Elaine has to pay because Cordelia is not allowed to have any money. They order coffee and pastries and discuss the tranquilizers that Cordelia has been put on, as well as the details of her suicide attempt.
This reveal of Cordelia’s institutionalization is one of the novel’s biggest turns, as it shows the complete reversal of their fortunes. Although her decline has been tracked and even foreshadowed for most of the novel, the fact that Cordelia attempted suicide shows depths to her psyche and to her pain that clash with the image of her as a torturing child. Cordelia has been brought down, kept on drugs, and trapped in a situation that clearly makes her unhappy.
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Cordelia has seemed to have lost her idea of herself, and she asks Elaine to help break her out—when she refuses, Cordelia does not seem surprised. Although Elaine speaks to her gently, she feels a seething anger with Cordelia for asking this of her; she wants to rub her face in the snow or twist her arm. Cordelia accuses Elaine of always having hated her, and when Elaine denies this, Cordelia says she will manage to escape anyway. Back home, Elaine dreams of Cordelia falling from a cliff or bridge making a snow angel in the empty air and ends up sending her a note that is returned to sender; presumably, Cordelia escaped on her own. Elaine dreams of a mannequin statue holding something draped in white cloth under its arm: Cordelia’s head.
Elaine does not appear to bear much sympathy for Cordelia and refuses to help her, proving inaction to the pinnacle of cruelty in the novel. Elaine and Cordelia serve as mirrors for each other, and they disturb the reader’s natural desire to designate allegiances with a protagonist and against an antagonist. Elaine’s dreams are highly symbolic, and they recall images both from her childhood, in the snow angel, and her art—these images carry a sense of danger and risk, and they represent the calm before the storm—the moment before the body hits the awaiting cliffs or before the cloth has been lifted to reveal the skull. Deception and secrecy are key images here, as is the sense of painful anticipation.
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