Cat’s Eye

by

Margaret Atwood

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Cat’s Eye: Part 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Elaine leaves the gallery and decides to go shopping and buy yogurt and oranges. On her own, she usually forgets about eating. She watches teenagers on the street outside a department store and wonders if she and Cordelia looked like that at their age. She thinks about all the cloth they sell in the form of bath towels and sheets, which are designed to be disposable—in the old days, people bought for quality and checked the way buttons were sewn and how good the cloth was. Inside the department store, she gets lost on her way to the food hall and goes the wrong way on an elevator. She looks at all of the cosmetics and thinks of them as a form of religion, designed to “stop the slow passage of time.” She wonders why children’s dresses are designed in plaid these days, the color of the Scots, despair, and murder.
The scene at the start of this chapter is inflected by the events at the very end of the last chapter, as Elaine’s unhealthy habit of forgetting to eat and her compulsive tendency to think about Cordelia are now inflected by the event of the burial. It’s difficult to untangle the degree to which Elaine still feels friendship for Cordelia, which only shows the nuance of their relationship and the degree to which cruelty must have been normalized. Elaine’s reflections on disposability relate to her having come from a wartime generation, as the tendency to ration and to take care of objects for durability comes directly from this more frugal national consciousness. Elaine sees some positive consequences to the war—the creation of a generational consciousness around waste is something that she valued, as she does not understand the wastefulness of this new generation. That she sees cosmetics as a means of slowing time suggests that if one looks younger, one may as well be younger, though the disguise would be unlikely to slow death.
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Elaine remembers peeling the skin off her feet during the time when Cordelia had power over her. She did it at night, when she ought to have been sleeping, because nobody but her ever looked at her feet so no one could know. It made it painful to walk, but she enjoyed the exposure. She also enjoyed having something definite to think about and hold on to. She also chewed the ends of her hair and bit her cuticles, but these habits were unconscious, whereas her feet were deliberate.
This habit that Elaine develops is a visceral representation of the cruelty she undergoes at Cordelia’s hands, but it also directly represents the type of gendered cruelty that it was. Cordelia does not inflict physical violence on Elaine, but she is responsible for the physical violence that Elaine inflicts upon herself. This foot-peeling habit demonstrates the power of psychological manipulation, as Elaine seeks vulnerability, exposure, and distraction that she can only achieve by injuring herself.
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When she had her own children, Elaine initially wished that she had had sons instead of daughters; she thought she knew what to do with sons, but not with daughters. As a mother herself, she was always on the lookout for chewed and bitten nails and skin on her daughters’ hands and feet, afraid they would develop the same habit. Her girls, however, were well-adjusted—even when Elaine needed to lie down alone in a dark room, they said she just had a headache and would get better in a day. While thinking about these things, Elaine stands among the plaid dresses absent-mindedly until a sales lady interrupts her and asks if there’s anything she needs, so she asks for directions to the food hall.
When Elaine looks for her old habits in her daughters, it implies that she believes that her experience was not unique and that it would be not only plausible but probable that her daughters should undergo the same torturous bullying. However, even in adulthood, the symptoms of her cruel childhood relationships affect Elaine alone; she has to retire to her bedroom to be alone, and this indicates the degree to which her identity was permanently marred by her experience.
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Back in the past, Elaine sits on a window ledge in the zoology building watching the parade; Cordelia, Grace, and Carol sit on a different ledge because they are not speaking to Elaine. They say she said something wrong, but they won’t tell her what. They want her to guess what she said, so that she learns never to say such a thing again—it is “for [her] own good, because they are [her] best friends and they want to help [her] improve.” She thinks that everything will be better if she keeps quiet, because she can’t remember saying anything different from usual. Elaine’s father walks into the room and asks the girls if they are enjoying the parade; afraid of saying something wrong, Elaine says nothing. However, Cordelia accuses her angrily of impoliteness after he leaves. She asks what Elaine has to say for herself; Elaine has nothing to say.
This form of bullying is defined by indirectness and a sort of coyness that means that the girls could drop the ruse at any point—they cannot be easily targeted for their behavior, as they inflict damage as much by what they won’t say as by what they will. This forces Elaine to hurt herself in service of self-improvement, an elusive project defined by her so-called friends. By telling her that she has done something wrong, the girls grant themselves an authority borne of nothing outside of their own judgment, but by assuring Elaine that they are her friends and only “want to help [her] improve,” they convince her to play along and continue hurting herself; merely by pretending friendship the girls can exact endless power, As a consequence, Elaine tends towards silence, stillness, and nothingness—she experiences a reduction of her own ego, something that might be invisible on the outside but is clearly deeply violent.
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Elaine stands outside Cordelia’s room while Cordelia, Grace, and Carol have a meeting about her. They think that she does not measure up, although they have given her every chance. They want her to “do better,” though they refuse to clarify what they mean by that. Perdie and Mirrie come up the stairs, and Elaine wishes she were as old as them—she thinks they would be her allies. They ask if the girls are playing hide and seek, but Elaine says that she cannot tell them what game they are playing. She feels mute and dissociative. Meanwhile, Cordelia’s Mummie walks by in a painting smock and tells Elaine that there are cookies in the tin for the girls.
The fact that everyone in Cordelia’s family manages to see the bullying unfold without noticing or intervening indicates that the bullying was relatively invisible on the outside, as the girls enact it under the guise of friendship and play. This also helps clarify Elaine’s tendency to play along; if everyone around her treats this behavior as normal, it would inevitably normalize it for her as well.
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Ultimately, Cordelia permits Elaine to return to the room, but she stands for a long time with her hand at the doorknob, looking at her own hand as if it were not a part of her. This is one of many games that they play with her, which makes Elaine an anxious mother—she scrutinizes her children for bitten nails or chewed hair, and asks them leading questions. She thinks that little girls are particularly cruel to each other. In her own childhood, the girls grow meaner and meaner as more time passes— they tell her everything that needs improvement with her, but promise to help her.
Games of exclusion are treated as the natural realm of girls—just how girls act and how they treat each other. However, innocent behavior can contain as much damaging cruelty as direct aggression; accusing someone of inherent imperfection can be as violent as directly attacking them, if they are too vulnerable. Elaine comes to believe that young girls are just cruel to each other and that cruelty is a typical aspect of girlhood.
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The weather grows colder, and Elaine lies in bed peeling the skin off her feet and thinking that she is abnormal and not like other girls. She gets dressed in the morning, puts shoes and stockings on over her peeled feet, and goes into the kitchen. She has started having trouble eating breakfast in the morning, and instead takes time watching coffee percolate or making toast. When she looks at the toaster, she contemplates sticking her finger on the red-hot grid. She wants to slow down time to avoid having to go out and play. Whenever she does leave, Grace, Carol, and Cordelia are waiting for her. The girls constantly order her around, but only when no one is watching. They say things like “Stand up straight!” and tell her that people are watching her, that she holds her sandwiches wrong, and that she moves weirdly when she walks.
At this stage, Elaine has begun to fully internalize the messages that her so-called friends have been throwing at her about her own worthlessness. She exhibits depressive and anxious behavior in being unable to eat and continuing to self-harm by peeling her feet, but instead of blaming the girls or externalizing any of her feelings, she just retreats inwards. This demonstrates how easily one’s identity can shift due to the influence of others.
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Elaine knows that if she told anyone about what was happening, it would be a violation of secrecy and she would be cast out of her friend group. That matters to her because she does not see Cordelia as her enemy, because enemies are people who yell at each other and fight, like the boys in the schoolyard; enemies feel hatred and anger. Cordelia is not her enemy, but rather her friend, who “loves her and wants to help her.” All of the girls are her friends, “her girl friends, her best friends.” Because she has never had any before, Elaine still loves them and is afraid of losing them. She does sometimes wish she had hated them, as “hatred is metallic and unwavering; unlike love.”
Elaine loves her friends and wants them to love her too, so she gets further sucked into their scheme of bullying. The theme of secrecy is also important, as this defines how Elaine sees the gendered aspect of it—whereas boys are associated with outright public aggression, girls are responsible for these private modes of behavior. Furthermore, if it’s a secret, no one intervenes and this behavior is further mobilized. Framing this bullying as constructive criticism is what truly gets to Elaine, as she believes that she could return to the girls’ good graces if she just acts right; she blames her own behavior rather than that of her friends.
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Sometimes Cordelia decides to make Carol the target of improvement, and invites Elaine and Grace to walk ahead and discuss her faults. Elaine does not feel bad for her when this happens, but instead rejoices because of all the times that Carol had done the same to her. However, this happens less frequently as Carol cries too easily and can’t be trusted not to draw too much attention to herself. On other days, Cordelia acts normal and does not make any efforts to improve anybody; Elaine thinks she might have given up the task. She is supposed to act normal on those days, as if nothing had ever happened, but she still feels like she is being watched—she worries she will “cross some invisible line.” Elaine starts to make excuses to avoid playing with them; she says she has to do chores for her mother.
The ebb and flow of the bullying shows its complexity and explains the nuances of Elaine’s feelings about the other girls, especially Cordelia. By making other girls the target of bullying sometimes, her authority is legitimized; it makes it appear that her judgments come from special knowledge that the other girls don’t have, and that their friendship is still truly real. The fact that Elaine plays along when this happens also begins to complexify the victim narrative; Elaine, though innocent of her own victimization, plays along when Carol is made victim. This shows that sometimes people in conflict can adapt to and even adopt traits of those they are in conflict with. The fact that Elaine’s entire identity and perspective has been shaped by this is proven by the darkness of her feeling of always being watched.
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Elaine likes doing the laundry and using the old wringer to get the clothing dry, because she enjoys watching the dirty water run out and feels “virtuous” about “leaving the clothing clean and pure.” She has to be careful when using the wringer, because women can get their hands or hair caught. Elaine thinks about what would happen if she got her hand caught in the wringer, and pictures the “blood and flesh” traveling up her arm while her hand comes out the other end “flat as a glove” and “white as paper.” She finds “something compelling” about the image of a person traveling through the wringer and coming out flat and complete “like a flower pressed in a book.” Eventually, the girls catch on to Elaine’s ploy to avoid them, and accuse her of thinking that she is better than them. They ask Elaine’s mother directly to let her play; she agrees.
Elaine’s extremely visceral morbid fantasy of being flattened out by the laundry wringer has profound symbolic weight; it represents on the one hand the depth of Elaine’s psychic trauma, as she wishes to negate herself as a means of escaping criticism. On the other, this flatness represents a desire for perfection that is actually impossible for humans—she wants to be complete, like a flower pressed in a book, but even the image she fantasizes about far exceeds human capacity. Elaine does not wish to become Cordelia or another role model, but rather a flat representation much like the paper dolls that the girls cut and paste in magazines.
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Elaine still goes to church on Sundays with the Smeaths, because Mrs. Smeath seems to enjoy seeing herself as a charitable person, though she does not appear particularly pleased with Elaine. She always asks Elaine if she would like to bring her brother Stephen along next time, or perhaps her parents, and Elaine feels judged for the failure to bring along any other members of her family. By this point, she has memorized all the books of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. She receives perfect scores on quizzes in Sunday school. However, Grace reports back on her even when she is a “goody-goody,” and that makes Elaine feel shame and worry that it is wrong to be right. She then tries to do worse and deliberately gets a 5 out of 10, but gets chided by Cordelia for getting stupider.
At this point, Elaine’s relationship to religion appears to have evolved significantly, but she does not notice more support in the church than she does in other parts of her life. In fact, learning to be more pious and demonstrate her faith actually only brings her more trouble than good, as her “perfect” behavior brings in just as much criticism as her failures and imperfections. At this point, the indication is that religion cannot protect her, and religious communities are not always as wholesome or dedicated to good as they are made out to be—in fact, Mrs. Smeath embodies this in her total disinterest in Elaine. She wants to convert the heathens, but makes it clear that nothing Elaine can do will work to prove herself sufficiently.
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On White Gift Sunday, everyone brings cans of food to church to donate to the poor. Elaine has brought Habitant pea soup and Spam, which she thinks might be the wrong kinds of things to donate, but were all that her mother had in the cupboard. She dislikes the concept of white gifts, because they become “hard” and “uniform” under the tissue paper—she finds they look “sinister,” “bleached of their identit[ies],” and “could be anything.” Sitting in the pew and singing hymns, Elaine feels like she wants to be good and follow instructions for Jesus, but she starts to feel like it’s less possible. She sees a glint of light off Grace’s glasses and knows that she is watching her.
Elaine’s disenchantment with the church comes to a head in this section. She arrives at that point in part because she starts to feel like nothing she will do can ever be good enough as a result of the scrutiny and bullying of her friends. It’s important that her sense of wrongdoing extends even to something like donating food, as Elaine’s family is not wealthy—to donate anything at all means more from them than from a family who could give more easily, but Elaine is unable to see that because of her anxieties around doing the right thing.
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After church, they watch the trains and return home for dinner, and Elaine comes along because these activities happen every Sunday, and she knows that it would be bad to break the routine. She has gotten used to the Smeaths and their specific habits, like using only four squares of toilet paper and saying grace. At the dinner table, Mr. Smeath makes a joke about farting that Elaine doesn’t understand. Mrs. Smeath chastises him, but he asks Elaine if she found it funny; she says that she doesn’t know, because she doesn’t want abandon Mr. Smeath but also doesn’t want to provoke anger when Grace inevitably tells Cordelia what had happened. Grace does report the incident, and they make fun of her for not knowing what the joke meant—however, Elaine realizes a strong loyalty to Mr. Smeath that resembles her loyalty to her brother, to the outrageous, and to subversion.
The scene at the dinner table marks an important turning point, as Mr. Smeath’s crudeness shows Elaine other possibilities for living and acting even within this highly proper family. He reminds her of her own family and her brother, who disregard propriety. Although Elaine is not able to stand up for herself on the outside, because she still loves Cordelia too much, she does start to come into her identity as a person who prefers subversion to conforming.
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The weather is cold enough that the milk comes frozen in its bottle in the mornings. Miss Lumley notices Elaine’s handwriting deteriorating, and chastises her, which makes Elaine even more anxious because she knows that Carol will hear and report the exchange later. All the girls go to watch Cordelia in a play, but instead of feeling excited to attend her first play, Elaine can only think of her anxiety. The holiday season starts, and the radio fills with sugary music like “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and other songs that all of the children are expected to sing in school. Elaine feels most ambivalent about “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” as it bothers her that there is something wrong with him, but it gives her hope that he eventually ends up beloved and accepted—Elaine’s father dismisses him as a sign of commercialism.
Elaine is so driven by anxiety that she can no longer perform well in class or enjoy even nice moments with her friends, but rather focuses on the bad. The Christmas season comes with a set of customs that are usually meant to feel magical for children, but between Elaine’s jaded scientist father and Cordelia’s bullying, she seems to have lost her interest in the season.
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Despite all of the festive tasks, Elaine goes through the season “like a sleepwalker” and takes no interest in snowmen or Santa Claus (Cordelia recently told her that he does not exist). She gets a Barbara Ann Scott doll for Christmas, which is what she said she wanted, and is the first girl-shaped doll that she has ever possessed. It looks nothing like the real figure skater Barbara Ann Scott, who is muscular where the doll is a stick, and it has what Elaine considers to be “the worrying power of effigies” to be a kind of “lifeless life.” Elaine ends up packing it away, which she says is to keep it safe but is actually to prevent the doll from watching her.
Elaine’s doll is a sexist depiction of a strong female skater, as it tries to make her body appear thinner to fit standards of beauty applied to women. This concept of effigy is important, because it reflects the process that has been happening to Elaine all along, as she also sees herself as being shaped into nothingness and lifelessness. These recurring themes of life versus lifeless, and nothing vs something, are shaped by gendered discourses, as girls are expected to act in certain ways lest they be disqualified from some unspoken standards of womanhood.
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A student of Elaine’s father, Mr. Banerji, joins them at Christmas dinner, as it would be too far for him to fly back to India.  Elaine thinks he seems afraid and ill at ease and that he reminds her of herself. Elaine has developed a knack for uncovering hidden misery in others. Elaine’s father serves the stuffing and the turkey, while Elaine’s mother adds the mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and asks Mr. Banerji whether they have any turkeys in his country. During the meal he only seems comfortable when exchanging biology-related jokes and facts with Elaine’s father, such as the Latin name of the turkey and other stories about turkeys.
Mr. Banerji is a critical character for Elaine, because he is one of the first people that she really identifies with—regardless of his age, gender, or race, she sees herself reflected back in his anxiety and nervousness. Though these may not be entirely positive points of comparison, the fact that this identification was possible at all is a turning point for Elaine, and it also means that some of her problems are not an inherent problem of her gender necessarily—it’s a problem that belongs to anyone made vulnerable to judgment and social exclusion.
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Elaine and Mr. Banerji both pick at their meals, and Elaine thinks that wild things are smarter than tame ones because they know how to look out for themselves. She divides everyone she knows into the categories of “tame” and “wild,” with her mother, father, and brother being wild along with Cordelia, but Grace and Carol fitting into the category of tame.  Mr. Banerji and Elaine’s father talk about genetic manipulation of produce, sparked by a hypothetical turkey bred to have four drumsticks instead of two drumsticks and two wings, because there is more meat on the drumstick. Mr. Banerji criticizes the thought of fooling with nature, and Elaine agrees—investigating nature and defending oneself against it are one thing, but fooling with it is another. They all finish their meal with a conversation about poisonous snakes. The turkey carcass on their table makes Elaine think of “lost flight.”
The wild and tame distinction gestures at Elaine’s tendency to seek order in the world. Significantly, she does not categorize herself, although readers have no reason yet to believe that Elaine is particularly capable of standing up for herself. The discussion of genetic modification adds more nuance to the role that science and scientific attitudes have thus far played in the book. In this case, the central distinction is whom should science serve—Elaine’s father seems to resent a version of science aimed at bending nature to serve mankind rather than serving ideals of observation and knowledge. The fact that Elaine ends the dinner thinking about turkeys as a symbol of lost flight shows her concerns about her own fettering at the hands of Cordelia.
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After Christmas, Elaine gets a job walking Brian Finestein in his baby carriage after school. For an hour or so of walking him, she receives twenty-five cents, which is a lot of money. She really likes Mrs. Finestein, who has pierced ears, wears real fur, and has a vestibule that smells like the baby’s ammonia-soaked diapers, as they are sitting in a bucket in the vestibule waiting to be picked up by the diaper company. The idea that someone else could come and do one’s laundry intrigues Elaine. The whole set-up of the house blends in Elaine’s mind into an image of “ultrasophistication.” Mrs. Finestein is like no mother that Elaine has ever seen.
Meeting Mrs. Finestein is critical for Elaine, as she represents both a different class bracket and a different kind of womanhood for Elaine. Especially as this is tied to a paid job, Elaine finally has an opportunity to see a version of a female identity that might be tied to independence, which contrasts sharply with the models she had confronted up until that point.
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Elaine wheels Brian out in the carriage and observes how quiet he is, as he never cries and never laughs. She likes him for being silent and uncritical. At first, Elaine likes the job and loves that Mrs. Finestein is willing to pay her in nickels because it seems like more money. She lays the nickels out by year and enjoys looking at the images of king’s heads on them. One day, however, Cordelia and the girls catch her out walking Brian. They ask for his name and when she says it is Brian Finestein, Grace and Carol make fun of him for being Jewish, which Elaine had never heard of. She asks her mother later what Jewish is, and she says that it is another kind of religion and tells her that “Hitler had killed a lot of the Jews during the war.” She starts to feel like he won’t be safe with her. She also learns that the family is Jewish, and her mother tells her about Hitler and the Holocaust.
The fact that Elaine wants her payment in nickels can be interpreted in a few different ways—most simply, as a childish desire for “more,” but more significantly in relation to this attachment to the king’s heads on them, which both show the connection that Canada has to the UK and monarchy and the darkness roiling in her identity at this point (demonstrated by her morbid fascination with the beheading). Meanwhile, the confrontations that Elaine has with Cordelia and the other girls are particularly fraught here, as this is the first occasion where another person is somewhat witness to their bullying, though only a child. They use anti-Semitic terms and reference to the Holocaust as part of their bullying mechanisms, which shows how pervasive those views were even in a country that ostensibly fought the Nazis. However, Elaine is instead fascinated by the idea of another, different religion, which shows her attitude towards religion as a special way of differentiating oneself.
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Another day, Elaine goes out walking Brian, thinking that his religion adds another dimension to the image she had of the family—it “adds something extra and heroic.” Cordelia, Carol, and Grace catch her again, and Carol asks for a turn walking the baby. When she refuses, Grace says that the Jews killed Christ. Meanwhile, Cordelia tricks Elaine into saying the word “bugger” in relation to men who catch bugs, and even though Elaine does not know the precise meaning of the slur she feels dirty for having betrayed her father. After this day, she decides to quit walking Brian, so he won’t be in danger—she has an obscure sense that he is not safe with her, and pictures him winding up in a snowbank or hurtling towards the bridge over the ravine.
The homophobic terms that Cordelia uses in relation to Elaine’s father demonstrate the cruelty of this mob mentality and further set up a distinction between Elaine’s social world and her familial world, placing her inevitably in conflict with both. This forces Elaine to form an identity and make decisions in this space of conflict and choosing.
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Mrs. Finestein forgives Elaine for quitting and gives her an extra nickel, but Elaine still goes home feeling like she has failed her, as well as herself and her father. However, she also spends all of the nickels she earned with this job on candy—licorice whips, jellybeans, fizzy sherbet—that she shares equally as a kind of atonement with her friends. In the moment “just before giving, she feels loved.”
At this stage, Elaine is not ready to reject Cordelia and continues to submit to her power out of love—though quitting her job could be seen as an act of subtle resistance, the decision to then purchase and share sweets shows just how deeply love for another person can become embedded in one’s mind, to the extent that it results in self-destructive decision-making.
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One Saturday, Elaine sits at home watching the icicles and eating the alphabet soup—she used to spell out words with the letters, but now takes no particular interest. Grace calls to ask her to come out and play; she joins reluctantly, because she knows that she will be accused of something if she says no. Her stomach feels “dull as if full of earth,” but Elaine’s mother notices nothing and just tells her to dress warmly. On the way, Elaine feels translucent, like a hand held over a flashlight. She sees the three girls at the end of the street, looking dark as if cast in shadow. Cordelia criticizes her for coming to them when they had said they would come to her, and when she does not respond she asks her if she is deaf. Elaine throws up in a snowbank when they make fun of her.
Elaine’s general apathy and dullness indicates the extent to which this period of extended bullying and suffering has turned her psyche against itself—her unwillingness to seek out confrontation with her friends or to defend herself causes her to lose her sense of self entirely, which is a kind of obliterating violence that confirms that extremity that the novel wants to attribute to a particular kind of (often gendered-feminine) cruelty. When this culminates in real illness, that pattern peaks, especially because it is directly paired with Cordelia’s cruel insults. This directly contradicts the notion that words are not violent, as Elaine experiences physical harm at the culmination of emotional abuse.
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Elaine ends up going straight home and lying in bed with a fever. She feels safe, wrapped in her illness as if in cotton wool. She starts to get sick more often, and feels relief when she doesn’t have to go to school. She just lies in bed and looks at the ceiling light or the doorknob, and sometimes cuts things out of magazines and pastes them into her scrapbooks. The women in these magazines have germ killers or can get rid of their unwanted odors or rough skin.
The magazines that Elaine examines during her period of illness turn the patterns of bullying that Elaine experiences from Cordelia into a problem on a national and international scale, as the magazines say to women in general the kinds of things that Cordelia says to Elaine in particular: you are insufficient, and we can help you be better.
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Other women are pictured doing things they aren’t supposed to do, like gossiping too much, being sloppy, being bossy, or knitting too much—this proves to Elaine that there will be “no end to imperfection or doing things the wrong way”; even after growing up, no matter how hard one scrubs there will be some spot or imperfection left behind. Nevertheless, she is still somehow happy to cut the imperfect women out and save them in her scrapbook. She listens to the Happy Gang on the radio, but they make her nervous. She doesn’t like to think about the passage of time.
However, the magazines seem to provide an inexplicable comfort to Elaine, which indicates that identification can in itself be comforting—just knowing that problems are shared can lessen the burden. At the same time, the other elements of Elaine’s convalescent periods make her fixate on the passage of time and make her nervous—she does not like the fake happiness of these social news programs, and she does not like picturing the future, perhaps because she does not know what of her unbearable present will remain, and what will change.
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Winter melts away and spring comes. Elaine’s parents start pulling weeds in their garden, and Elaine skips rope in Grace’s driveway with Carol and Cordelia. They look like girls playing, but Elaine finds the songs that they skip to somehow menacing. Everyone at school starts playing with their marbles again, but now the voices of children in the schoolyard shouting for puries and bowlies sound to Elaine like ghosts or animals caught in a trap.
The difference between the appearances of the girls—as friends innocently playing, and the cruel reality—shows how difficult it can be to read the truth of any situation on the surface. Similarly, Elaine’s perspective towards the schoolyard games has totally shifted and become much more pessimistic since the year before; because of the change in her identity and experience, she now perceives the other children as much more melancholic.
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When they cross the wooden bridge on the way to school, Elaine recalls the jar that Stephen buried and thinks about it shining in secret in the dark underground; she thinks about going and finding the jar herself, and though she knows that it would be impossible to find, she likes to think about things that the others know nothing about. She remembers her cat’s eye marble when spring comes, and takes it out secretly. She hides it from the girls, and it helps her feel “a sense of control.” When she holds it, she can see the way it sees—she can “see people moving like bright animated dolls […] without feeling anything else about them.”
Elaine’s own cat’s eye marble allows her to see clearly. It symbolizes the importance of clarity and trusting one’s own identity, as her secret change in perspective totally changes her attitude even though her situation remains much the same.
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This year, Elaine’s family waits until very late to leave for the summer. They rent a cabin on the shore of Lake Superior, and Elaine feels relieved. She finds a dead raven in the woods, and seems to think “it’s lucky that it can’t feel anything.” Stephen has developed an interest in butterflies and walks alone in the woods with a journal seeking different butterflies that he can record. Elaine’s favorite is the luna moth; Stephen finds one and shows it to her, though he tells her not to touch it as the dust will come off its wings, and it won’t be able to fly anymore. Elaine begins to have scary dreams, full of symbols—the cat’s eye, the wooden bridge over the ravine, and nightshade berries. She doesn’t dream about Cordelia. Elaine’s mother think she is happy.
This summer trip is full of potent symbols, from the dead raven that Elaine envies—which reveals the extent of her self-destructive attitudes—to the luna moth, which represents Elaine’s own experience. A delicate touch can totally impede its ability to fly, which is an analogy for the way that Cordelia treats Elaine; on the surface, the words she says are not too extreme, but they decimate Elaine’s ability to protect herself and to grow. Elaine’s dreams show the extent to which she has internalized the specific negative attitudes of Cordelia—however, she displaces negative thoughts about Cordelia into these symbolic dreams, because she is not prepared to confront her relationship.
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