Cat’s Eye

by

Margaret Atwood

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Cat’s Eye: Part 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Elaine walks along Queen Street past comic book stores wishing she were back in Vancouver with Ben and thinks about her ambivalence towards making this trip in the first place. She had decided to come because of the difficulty of getting a retrospective at all as a female painter. She finds Sub-Versions, the gallery, located between a tattoo parlor and restaurant supply store, which she thinks will go due to gentrification. She does not like galleries, because they remind her of churches—"too much reverence” and a “sanctimonious” feeling. Inside, her paintings have been uncrated, many of which are owned by various purchasers by now and have been specially borrowed for the retrospective.
Elaine’s resentment towards being back in Toronto for this retrospective clearly stem from multiple sources: her unpleasant childhood memories and hatred of the city of Toronto tied with her frustrations with being seen and treated as a “female painter,” along with her complicated emotions of having a retrospective at all, perhaps because it is a sign of aging. The complexity of Elaine’s identity as a painter comes to light here, as she expresses her conflicts about galleries being similar to churches. Although Elaine herself paints, she holds herself at a distance from arts culture, in large part because she seems to resent and question dogma.
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Elaine wonders if her market value would go up if she cut off her ears or killed herself. She sees a painting she did two decades before of Mrs. Smeath in egg tempera wearing nothing by a flowered bib apron, reclining on the sofa rising to Heaven; she called it Rubber Plant: The Ascension. She has a hard time looking at her paintings now, and feels the strong urge to take an Exacto knife to them all. Charna approaches her, and Elaine regrets choosing to wear a blue jogging suit; she wishes she had worn all black. She introduces her to Andrea, who wants to interview her. Andrea says that she thought Elaine would be bigger, and Elaine responds “I am bigger.”
Elaine has difficulties with her own work, unable to have empathy for the way that she executed her thoughts and feelings back then—this strong desire to destroy her paintings speaks to the ways that one’s identity can change over time, as well as to the high level of self-criticism that Elaine feels. However, criticism and cruelty is not only self-directed—this interaction with Andrea helps one understand why Elaine might doubt herself, because the first interaction has with it a teasing tone of cruelty—the expectation that Elaine would have been bigger comes with sexist undertones, and even recalls the way that Cordelia and Elaine talked about older women when they rode the streetcar together as children.
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They sit down for the interview, and Elaine is concerned that Andrea is judging her for seeming like a normal middle-aged woman. Andrea says the interview will be placed in the Living section, and asks her questions about fame and her generation of artists. Elaine says that her generation was the forties, not the seventies, because she grew up then—she attributes an influence to the colors in her work, and identifies a generational gap between those who remember World War II and those who do not. Her generation has longer attention spans and a mentality towards thrift.
This conversation with Andrea marks one of the first extended interactions that Elaine has had with another human being in the adult portion of the novel, and it brings out important themes of gender, the war, and her identity under the unique lens of her adult life. A relatively unified picture of Elaine’s identity emerges through these different threads—she is a person who resists dogma and easy categorization, and feels frustrated or uncomfortable with being forced to conform to conventional viewpoints. Her identification with the forties is particularly important, as she draws a generational gap based on values of thrift between herself and anyone who did not live through the war—this indicates both that the war had pervasive impact, but also that some of the consequences on social values were not negative. Elaine values the parts of her identity born in this conflicted time of World War II, which adds a layer of nuance to the novel’s treatment of the war.
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They also discuss gender, and whether Elaine was discriminated against or how she balanced art with having children and getting financial support from her husband. Elaine does not give her the stories of outrage she wants. When asked if she had had female mentors, Elaine says there were none and that her teacher was a man: Josef Hrbik, who was kind and taught her to draw naked women. Elaine says she does not identify as a feminist and hates party lines; when asked why she paints, she says “why does anyone do anything?”
This resistance towards conventions includes feminism—Elaine clearly experiences discomfort identifying proudly as a woman, though her whole interviewing being categorized in the woman-oriented “Living” section, and she does not want to say anything bad about her male art teacher—this shows an obvious discomfort with typical “men versus women” narratives, which is accentuated by the obvious hostility between the two women. The lack of direct conflict shows how much damage and frustration that just enforcing expectations can have—Andrea at no point explicitly antagonizes Elaine, but because the questions she ask imply that certain responses are more normal than others, the expectations that this sets frustrates Elaine.
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Back in Elaine’s childhood memories, she walks home from school with Cordelia. At Grace’s house, Cordelia realizes that the Smeaths order all their clothing from Eaton’s Catalogue and judges her for it. While flipping through the catalogues, she fixates on the brassiere section and adds hair to the models under their arms. They talk about breasts and periods, which Perdie and Mirrie have just gotten. Elaine has never thought about adult women’s bodies before, and she finds it embarrassing, though she doesn’t know why. They start looking at their own bodies for signs of change, but are safe so far. The girls feel like they can’t ask their mothers questions about their bodies or puberty, as “an abyss exists between them.” Cordelia talks about babies and male anatomy—she says that “men have carrots between their legs” and that “seeds come out and get into women’s stomachs.” Elaine has a hard time imagining any of their mothers permitting this to happen, especially not Mrs. Smeath.
These discussions about women’s bodies and development have both a bitter and a sweet layer—there’s a sense of familiar “coming of age” attached to any discussion of puberty where children come up with odd metaphors about body parts and activities that they don’t understand. Images like the “carrots” between men’s legs bring a sense of innocent naivete to these conversations. At the same time, that naïveté is somewhat undermined by the way that Cordelia tries to use these conversations to her own advantage. Using information as power, she tries to freak out the other girls by talking about their aging bodies and the relationships they will have with men. There’s cruelty in her persistence, but a cruelty that none of the girls know to question—especially because it seems that these girls aren’t meant to ask their mothers or siblings about puberty. That indicates that these topics are supposed to be private, or even shameful.
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Grace says that God makes babies, which ends their discussion. However, Elaine has her doubts, as she has seen insects mate before. She considers asking her brother, but she thinks the question would be indelicate, even though the two of them have examined scabs under the microscope and aren’t grossed out by things like gutted fish they find under logs. Cordelia says that boys put their tongues in your mouth when they kiss you, which repulses Carol and Grace, and makes Elaine wonder why they would do it—she thinks it would be just to be repulsive.
Elaine’s reference to insects shows one of the uses of science in dismissing human social conventions when they are unnecessarily controlling—social conventions and dogma try to claim that certain behaviors are “normal” or “natural,” whereas examples from nature prove that they aren’t. The fact that Elaine keeps herself enough at a distance from these conversations to reflect on those questions says a lot about her character and about how relationships form her identity—she feels torn between her instinctive questioning of social norms and her desire to fit in with her friends.
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Elaine goes to the cellar at Grace’s house and sees Mrs. Smeath peeling potatoes; Mrs. Smeath invites her to come to church with the family. When she tells her parents about the idea, they try to dissuade her but Elaine chooses to go anyway. Elaine’s mother finds the idea particularly stressful, as her own parents had been strict and had forced her to go to church whether she liked it or not; Elaine’s father says he “does not believe in brainwashing children” and thinks that religion is responsible for wars, bigotry, and intolerance.
This section of the novel contains an extremely pivotal moment for Elaine, as she both discovers religion and also enters a world very remote from her family in doing so. Elaine’s parents offer some common secular perspectives on religion, in that her father—who represents science—perceives religion as nothing more than dogmatic brainwashing, and Elaine’s mother associates it with parental control. However, Elaine does not like to take this information just based on her parents authority—in this case, she chooses to reject one form of dogmatic beliefs by replacing it with another, which foreshadows some future problems for her.
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Elaine wears a plaid secondhand dress she got secondhand from a family friend. She takes the cat’s eye marble from her purse and leaves it in her bureau drawer and brings a nickel for collection instead. When she gets to Grace’s house, they notice that she doesn’t have a hat, so she has to borrow a hat for church. Mrs. Smeath’s sister, whom they call Aunt Mildred, comes along with them, and they drive through the empty Sunday streets to church. Inside, they sit in a pew and Elaine observes the stained-glass windows depicting Jesus hovering, with messages like “The kingdom of God is within you,” “Suffer the little children,” and “The greatest of these is charity.” She tries to follow along when everyone stands up and sings, but does not know the tunes.
Elaine’s experience at church resembles her experience among other girls, in that she perceives it as a desirable or comforting community that is full of rituals that she just doesn’t know the steps of yet—the implication here is that fitting into society and feeling fulfilled just requires learning the right rules and following them, after which harmony and success will naturally follow.
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They then go to Sunday school, at the end of which Elaine feels suffused with goodness and loved by God. Elaine and the Smeaths go to Sunday dinner, where they eat baked ham and baked beans and baked potatoes and mashed squash. Elaine starts eating before grace because she does not know what it is, which Mrs. Smeath chides her for. After dinner, Grace and Elaine sit on the velvet chesterfield in the living room and read their Sunday school paper. When she goes home, she tells her parents she has to memorize a psalm and thinks about heaven. When she looks out the window that night, she sees the stars—instead of “cold, white, and remote,” they now look watchful to her.
Although Elaine consistently makes minor mistakes (such as eating before saying grace), she still finds this world comforting at this age because she knows what she has to do to improve herself. Religious belief orders her world—even the stars are transformed, metamorphosed into a comforting force that can watch over and protect her. This shows the nature of her internal struggle and dissatisfaction with scientific understanding—Elaine clearly does not reject science or logic fully, but rather sees something cold and remote in an overly-logical mode of engaging with the world. She has spiritual longing that, for now, she wishes to solve with religion and social ritual.
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Boys and girls exclude each other actively at school now; the girls stand in small clumps, whisper amongst themselves, and use spools to make potholders, though Elaine still reads comic books in her brother’s room quietly if no other girls are around. She used to take boys for granted, but now she pays attention to them because she feels that boys and girls are not the same—boys do not take baths as often and they take pride in drab clothing. The boys are growing more aggressive with each other, and work at acting like boys.
As the children age, gender becomes more important—girls and boys are expected to exclude each other, which shows how extensively these gender roles are meant to direct one’s life. Gender is associated with a kind of pack mentality, one that ought to mean showing hostility to anyone not included—of course, Elaine’s behavior shows that this division between the genders is not born of an inborn instinct toward dislike—in fact, she still wants to do the same things as before, like reading comic books, and changes her behavior at times only to conform.
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Stephen has his first girlfriend, whom he keeps secret from everyone but Elaine. He writes Elaine notes in code that usually end up being about this mystery girlfriend. Elaine feels ambivalent about holding his secret, as it both makes her feel singled out and like she isn’t important. Eventually, they break up and he returns to comic-book collecting and astronomy. He gets a chemistry set and does weird experiments in the basement. When he gets a star map, he looks at the stars through binoculars and teaches Elaine the constellations—"he’s started collecting stars.”
Stephen resembles Elaine in his tendency to conform to the behavior of his peers to a degree, but regularly diverge at a certain point—for instance, he gets a girlfriend, but then promptly immerses himself in science and refuses to completely ignore his sister. In a sense, science becomes a refuge or replacement for emotions; through scientific research, one has a certain amount of control over their environment. This places scientific interest in a positive but limited light, as it cannot replace or account for feelings outside the scope of knowledge.
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On Halloween, Grace wears an ordinary lady’s dress, Carol a fairy outfit, Cordelia a clown suit, and Elaine a sheet because that is all there is. When Halloween passes, Cordelia starts digging holes in the yard, claiming she “wants to make a clubhouse.” Poppies made of red cloth blossom on the streets for Remembrance Day, and the schoolchildren are expected to memorize poetry about the war dead and wear poppies on their coats. One day, the other girls make Elaine dress in all black as Mary, Queen of Scots. They have her lie in the hole and bury her in dirt, and she stops feeling like it’s a game—instead, she feels “sadness, betrayal, and the darkness pressing in on her.” Later, she describes forgetting what it was like to be buried. She cannot picture the hole, only nothingness. She “does not remember being rescued.”
On Remembrance Day, all of the children are forced to dress up and memorize poetry to honor the war dead; these rituals demonstrate the continued and significant impact that the war had on the social practices even of Canadian schoolchildren far to the West. Morbid rituals seem to shape the girls on a much smaller scale as they enact their own with Elaine as the target; this burial event is the first time the girls cross the line between play and punishment, games and reality. By burying Elaine, they put her in real danger. Supposedly, this behavior is part of an innocent girls’ game, but Elaine’s experience completely contradicts that innocence. It also evidences a moment of trauma, which Elaine associates with darkness and with forgetting—though her memories leading up to the event are vivid enough, she cannot recall the rescue, which indicates that strong emotional moments can impact one’s experience of time and can create gaps only to be filled by logic—she must have been rescued, if she survived.
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Elaine does not remember her ninth birthday, although she tries—she “only sees emptiness,” and when she tries to picture it she sees the image of a thicket of nightshade. She knows there must have been a cake and presents, and that Cordelia, Grace, and Carol must have been there, but she cannot remember anything outside a “vague horror of birthday parties.” Though she knows it’s the wrong memory, she still pictures the nightshade flowers, the smell, and “a sense of grief.”
This gap in Elaine’s memories clearly comes from her traumatic experience at the hands of her friends, but she also knows that they all continued to be at her party and to celebrate with her, which implies that there was no direct punishment for them having buried her alive. The vivid image of the nightshade, a flower associated with death, encapsulates this duality—nightshade is something that looks beautiful on the outside and yet is lethal. As a flower, it also represents a type of deadly femininity, like the gendered cruelty of Elaine’s young friends. That it impacted her memory and her sense of past narrative time further proves that the subjective experience of time is not linear, but formed of a mixture of real memories, logic, and sense-based fantasy.
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