Cat’s Eye

by

Margaret Atwood

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Cat’s Eye: Part 9 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Charna tells Elaine that the article made front page in Entertainment. It was titled “CROTCHETY ARTIST STILL HAS POWER TO DISTURB,” and reading it makes Elaine feel old. The article includes three pictures, one of her head, and two of paintings—the first painting was one of Mrs. Smeath, bare-naked and flying in the air with Mr. Smeath attached to her back like an asparagus beetle, the other also of Mrs. Smeath but alone with a paring knife and a potato, unclad from the waist up and the thighs down.
The article Andrea wrote about Elaine after her interview has obvious sexism in it, but Elaine seems more disturbed by the implications of her age—between the words “crochety” and “still,” there is a passive aggressive indication of surprise that hints Elaine’s time ought to already have passed. The paintings focus on Mrs. Smeath, whom Elaine hated as a child—the fact that she painted these scandalous images of that strict Christian woman indicates a cruelty in Elaine and in her animosity of Mrs. Smeath. Elaine paints Mrs. Smeath as she least would have liked to be seen.
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Elaine is described as eminent, and unformidable due to her blue jogging suit, and their conversation is reduced to “deliberately provocative comments.” Elaine feels tempted to be deliberately provocative at the opening in order to confirm everyone’s deepest suspicions; she considers using Jon’s ax-murder special effects, but at the same time knows that she would never do any of these things. She just finds it comforting to think about, because it distances her from the whole affair and reduces it to a prank. She hopes Cordelia will see the article, and thinks of the only picture she ever made of Cordelia, called Half a Face. Only half her face is visible, and she seems scared of Elaine. Elaine fears Cordelia—she fears being Cordelia, and feels that “somewhere along the line they changed places, though she has forgotten when.”
Elaine’s desire to act out shows her distaste for social norms—she wants to act out at her opening, but specifically to undermine people’s expectations of her. However, Elaine’s biggest rebellions remain fantasies; she wants to act wild, but it appears that the only true outlet for those feelings is her art. It’s also important that part of her motivation to act out is to take these events less seriously—she wants distance and seems to fear earnestness, perhaps because she does not fully see these social rituals as real, or because she does not see herself as real or good enough. Her reflections on Cordelia are telling, as she believes that she has somehow switched places with Cordelia. Though there is no evidence of this in the girls’ childhood narrative, it illuminates one of the novel’s key themes about identity, and about how instead of arguing for a black and white narrative of good and evil, this novel reveals the ways that cruelty can breed cruelty in others, and that people can come to take on traits of the people they clash with because of the intensity of those relationships.
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Elaine enters Grade 10 and gets her period, which makes her into one of the “knowing” who gets to sit out volleyball games and go to the nurse’s office for aspirin. She starts shaving her legs, not because there’s much there, but because the practice makes her feel good; while she does so, Stephen stands outside the bathroom and teases her for taking so long. At school she is silent and watchful and does her homework, which makes her a good student. Cordelia, on the other hand, is raucous, plucks her eyebrows, and paints her nails Fire and Ice. She always loses her homework and comes up with intricate swear words like great flaming blue-eyed bald-headed Jesus, and their teachers wonder why the two of them are friends.
Elaine relishes aging at this point, because it lets her fit in with other girls and expectations that society holds for women, like shaving and having periods. Meanwhile, Elaine and Cordelia only grow closer even as on the surface they appear to become increasingly different.
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On the way home from school, Elaine and Cordelia sing witty parodies of popular songs and make snowballs that they throw at passing cars, though they also once hit a woman by mistake. They start making fun of Grace Smeath and her family, calling them the “Lump-lump Family.” Cordelia remembers all sorts of details about them, like the fact that they had rationed newspaper, and Elaine happily plays along into the game of making fun of the Smeaths through savage jokes.
Cordelia does not seem to fit in at school and likes to antagonize others, but Elaine plays along now that the targets are things like religion, passing cars, and the Smeaths. This shows how insidious this kind of bullying is, and how easy it is to build an “us” versus “them” mentality—Elaine plays along with these insulting stories about the Smeaths, mostly targeted around their class background (as seen through the rationed toilet paper), despite her own history of bullying.
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They also break into the cemetery and smoke cigarettes. Elaine tells lies about Mrs. Smeath, claiming that she is a vampire and that Elaine herself is one too. Cordelia feels uncomfortable about these lies but can’t keep up with Elaine, so she just calls her silly. However, Elaine keeps up the ruse, saying that she has been dead for years and that she won’t suck Cordelia’s blood because she is her friend. Eventually, they have to run out of the cemetery to avoid being locked in. Cordelia wants to point to the “Lump-lump Family cars,” but Elaine tires of this game—instead, she privately relishes what she sees as her triumph over Cordelia; she is stronger than Cordelia now.
This us-versus-them dynamic culminates in a chilling moment where Elaine turns this savage attitude against Cordelia, by pretending that she is a vampire and making Cordelia feel uncomfortable and left out. While the joke itself is not explicitly cruel, it resembles Cordelia’s early cruelty, as it’s meant to create a destabilizing effect on the other person and establish authority. In fact, Elaine wants to triumph over and dominate Cordelia, which is identical to what Cordelia had been to her. In this sense, the two are more similar than different, which starts to erase the sense of special cruelty to Cordelia’s actions, and reveals it to be scarier by normalizing it.
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In Grade 11, Elaine has finally started to catch up to the girls in her class in terms of height. She has become known for her mean mouth, which she only uses when provoked—she makes short, devasting comments directed mostly at girls. The girls in her class fear her, but also respect her—on the surface, Elaine makes more friends because of her meanness, because people want to protect themselves against her. Boys don’t draw her attention as much, except Stephen, and the two of them exchange verbal meanness with each other as a kind of a game.
Elaine becomes mean in Grade 11, both at home and at school, which marks the completion of her trading roles with Cordelia. Meanness becomes a form of self-protection—paradoxically, the more negative energy Elaine puts out into the world, the more friends she has, at least on the surface. This shows how many relationships can be built on a foundation of fear rather than trust, and how especially female cruelty focuses on words rather than deeds. A “mean mouth” defines Elaine, rather than something more tangible that can be traced back to her.
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Elaine’s father says that her sharp tongue will get her in trouble, but it doesn’t effectively tone her down because Elaine likes crossing the line of the socially acceptable and feeling like she is taking some kind of risk. She mostly uses her mean mouth on Cordelia—she insults the guys that Cordelia likes, and makes her feel stupid. Meanwhile, they start to learn about the Blitz and World War II in history class; Elaine feels amazed that she’s studying a period of history that she lived through. She draws during class, though she has trouble drawing hands.
Elaine’s justification for her meanness focuses on crossing lines and taking risks, which speaks to the sense of discomfort she continues to feel with social norms. She targets Cordelia most of all, allegedly her best friend, which reinforces the theme of complex and fraught female relationships. At the same time, the girls start to study World War II, which they all lived through, revealing how rapidly national crisis can become part of myth and history through the establishment of distance, facts, and narrative. At the same time, Elaine seems disinterested in that history, preferring to take refuge in art, which is more of distraction for her at this stage.
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Elaine starts dating boys, which was not a conscious plan of hers and just sort of happens; the relationships are completely effortless—they want to escape adults and other boys, and she wants to escape and other girls, so she finds it a good fit. Elaine feels like she understands boys and understands how they think about women—she believes they are fearful about their bodies and about being laughed at or ridiculed, and that leads to them lashing out at women. Elaine does not hold their negative words about women against them, because she doesn’t think that the use of those words means that they dislike real girls—they are a pure manifestation of these fears.
Elaine manifests the classics “not like other girls” attitude in high school, as she becomes welcomed by boys with ease. Elaine perceives insecurity in the bravado of boys, who are expected to act certain ways by everyone around them, and respond by lashing out at women. They actually resemble Elaine, in some ways, with this tendency to lash out as a means of protecting against ridicule or vulnerability. This understanding of male sexism that Elaine develops sets the tone for some of her difficulties with dogmatic feminism later on; she does not believe that men hate women, but rather that men have an image of women created in their heads out of their fears, and they hate this image.
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Furthermore, Elaine does not think any of these words (like “stunned broad” and “bitch”) apply to her at all, only to the kinds of girls who walk through high school halls trying to be seductive and ignoring the existence of those words. The way to get around them is to walk in the spaces between them and to evade them, like walking through walls. Even when her parents express concern about her, Elaine dismisses them; she’s growing into her independence. Although Elaine seems to see all of these boys as similar and does not fall in love, she enjoys their bodies and the process of getting to know them at movie theaters or after school dances.
Despite her understanding of male sexism, Elaine herself has clearly internalized some sexist ideas, as she also believes that other girls deserve the insults thrown at them, because they try to fit in. This criticism reveals her belief that conformity deserves ridicule and that only nonconformity can be regarded as true or safe.
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A girl around Elaine’s age is found murdered in the ravine—it’s not the spot where Elaine nearly drowned, but another branch of the same ravine. It makes the front page of all the newspapers, because these kinds of things are not supposed to happen in this part of Toronto, where people leave their doors unlocked at night. This girl is found near her bicycle, and she has been molested, which is a word that the teenage girls already know. Photos of the girl are published from when she was younger and alive, and they already begin to take on a quality of being haunted—it’s a look of vanished time. She wears clothing much like the clothing that Elaine owns, and it doesn’t seem right to Elaine that someone can be murdered on just a normal day in their everyday clothing.
When this girl is found in the ravine, it is the manifestation of years of threats and rumors turned to reality, and it is a cold shock on the narrative—those childhood stories about the dead, the trick Cordelia played on Elaine with her hat, and every other story about the ravine underpin this story. This girl could have easily been Elaine or any of her friends. Elaine has a hard time thinking about this girl, both because of the temporal and gendered nature of the issue. Photos of her contain all the potential she was supposed to have, potential Elaine shares since the two share similar clothing and behavior.
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Although Elaine had dismissed the notion of bad men in the ravine, this event forces her to reflect on the issue; part of her thinks that there was something shameful in the girl being murdered, as no one wants to talk about her. Elaine also vaguely remembers having a doll with white fur on the border of her skirt, whom she used to be afraid of—she hasn’t thought about this doll in years.
Elaine also sees shame in this murder, which recalls her own childhood experience of being secretly bullied—Elaine has a tendency to blame the victim borne in her own experience of victimhood, even if she cannot remember it. At the same time, this murdered girl makes her think of the doll she asked for at Christmas years before, which she ended up hating because of its fakeness and sexist body—this shows that even forgotten events can remain in the back of one’s mind as influences.
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Stephen interrupts Elaine and Cordelia while they sit doing physics homework, and makes fun of Cordelia for not understanding what he calls “kiddie physics.” At this point, Cordelia has been trying to date boys for a while, but something about her makes them uneasy. She talks to them like grown-ups do by asking leading questions and laughs like someone she might have heard on the radio. Meanwhile, the Earle Grey Players (an acting troupe) come to their school to put on Macbeth, and Cordelia gets the part of serving woman. Despite her excitement, she messes up on opening night by replacing one of the props: a rotting cabbage that was supposed to splat down as a fake version of Macbeth’s head, but instead bounces away.
Cordelia has a difficult time being taken seriously, which shows a role reversal from earlier in the novel. She comes across more as a buffoon than a tyrant now, with even her successes—like her part in the play—turning into farcical failures. Cordelia exemplifies a desire to play a role, as symbolized by her passion for the theater; what this novel implies is that the more one strives to fill a role perfectly, the more elusive that job becomes.
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Time passes, and Elaine and Cordelia enter Grade 13. As the oldest people in school now, they get to look down on the incoming students. They are finally old enough to take biology, where Elaine and Cordelia partner up. They are supposed to dissect frogs and worms in their class, but Elaine dissects Cordelia’s for her because she has too much fear and aversion. Elaine loves biology, and enjoys memorizing all of the different parts of the circulatory systems of different animals. What they learn in class does not quench Elaine’s interest in the subject, so she also goes and draws images from slides she finds at the zoology building. When Dr. Banerji sees her at it, he compliments her; he has a wife now.
Elaine’s love of biology recalls her childhood games with Stephen, where her curiosity about the world and lack of squeamishness directed her actions. However, Elaine’s tastes have been validated with age, as she is now required to do dissections, whereas the reaction of feminine disgust holds Cordelia back. Even here, the overlap between art and science begins to emerge, as Elaine translates her interest in biology into making these drawings. Dr. Banerji’s rise in life to being settled and having a wife maps Elaine’s, which makes sense as the two of them are parallels in this novel. It indicates that exclusion does not need to be permanent, and that social trends can change.
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One night, Cordelia comes to Elaine’s house for help with her biology homework and stays for dinner. At dinner, Elaine’s father talks about the daily extinction of species, the poisoning of rivers, and inevitable epidemics in front of Cordelia, who finds it strange. At Cordelia’s house, dinners are always either “slapdash” (when her father is absent), or extremely formal (when her father is present). Cordelia seems afraid of her father, and incapable of engaging with any of his banter.
Elaine’s father is consistently interested in natural catastrophes. However, Cordelia’s discomfort suggests that thinking about catastrophe on a global scale is not normal, which differentiates natural disasters from the war—whereas war becomes part of national narratives and integrated into positive social rituals (like school classes, being thrifty, and adoring the monarchy), natural disasters are meant to be disregarded, perhaps because they do not fall in the scope of things that humans can control. This passage also sheds light on Cordelia’s family life, which is defined by her fearsome father. Cordelia’s uncharacteristic meekness in his presence contrasts with both the bully child Cordelia and the cool thieving teenager. These variations in her identity show that people are often not what they seem, and people who lack authority in one area sometimes try even harder to reclaim it in others.
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Elaine has intense dreams. Sometimes she dreams about boys—but sometimes she dreams that she’s trapped in an iron lung and can’t breathe. She dreams that she’s wearing a fur collar in front of her mirror, and that someone she can’t see stands behind her. She dreams of finding a plastic purse hidden in a trunk somewhere, with some kind of treasure inside it. She dreams of being given a head wrapped in cloth, which she doesn’t want to unwrap.
Elaine’s dreams recall traumas of her childhood that she has repressed, such as the iron lung she used to picture Cordelia in, the fur collar that her doll wore, the plastic purse with the cat’s eye marble stashed inside, and the head from Cordelia’s play. Some of these images, the head in particular, are from the more recent period in her life and her friendship with Cordelia, where she has allegedly moved past from the cruel conflicts of their past. These dreams show that the conflict bubbles under the surface, and that even if Elaine has consciously repressed her negative memories of Cordelia, she continues to form new negative associations. Most of these symbols share one thing in common: disguise or hiding. Something has been wrapped up or hidden away, and this disguises the true identity of whatever lies beneath the surface. This sense of burial or disguise defines Elaine’s sense of identity, as her personal identity is hidden under layers of social roles and expectations, both large scale and on a personal level.
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Cordelia tells Elaine that she used to take extreme actions to fake sick and skip school, like eating mercury from a thermometer. Eventually, Cordelia explains why she always used to dig holes: she wanted somewhere all hers where she wouldn’t be bugged. She describes hoping that being still and out of the way she would be safe—particularly from her father. She says Elaine was her only friend at the time, which makes Elaine feel sick—though she can’t quite identify why.  While Cordelia is talking, Elaine suddenly sees “a flash of her nine-year-old face taking shape” beneath her current one, and feels a wave of shame and sickness and guilt. She doesn’t want to know where these feelings come from or what happened in the past, so she changes the subject to silly jokes. When she closes her eyes, “she sees a square of darkness and purple flowers.”
The person that Cordelia describes here is effectively Elaine—faking ill to escape scenarios she did not feel safe in, staying still in order to protect herself from an authority figure—but this clashes with the version of Cordelia that was visible during this same time period. Cordelia translated her own victimhood into victimizing Elaine, and Elaine cannot cope with this knowledge. The deepest revelation here is that all of those cruelties stemmed from a chain of cruelty, beginning here with Cordelia’s father. Complex relationships are infectious, and cruelty spreads like a virus. Given especially that one cannot entirely escape the past, as proven by Elaine’s highly symbolic memories of nightshade and being buried, it seems hopeless to try to cut off these chains of cruelty.
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Elaine starts avoiding Cordelia, though she doesn’t fully understand why. Cordelia often waits for her and they walk home together anyway, but their conversations falter. Cordelia starts failing tests, and Elaine no longer helps her with her homework. Cordelia has trouble concentrating and often changes the subject in the middle of a sentence; she has also started slipping up on grooming. Eventually, she changes schools. Her family moves, and they grow distant. Meanwhile, Elaine takes her exams. The exams are done in summer in the hot gymnasium, and several girls faint. Elaine expects to do well on the biology exams, because she can draw anything. In the middle of the botany exam, she realizes that she wants to be a painter, though she does not identify why. Her life has just changed “instantaneously” and “soundlessly,” and she continues with the exam as if nothing had happened.
Elaine starts excluding Cordelia soon after unearthing some bad memories from their childhood, which indicates that this exclusion is a form of punishing Cordelia. Cordelia ends up failing accordingly, which shows how essential their friendship and Elaine’s forgiveness have been for her. However, Elaine has no problem moving on, showing that her tendency in the face of pain is still to forget—forgetting or repressing the past allows her to avoid pain. That Elaine realizes her desire to be an artist during her botany, or plant biology, exam shows her path as a direct rejection of her family—biology is her father’s realm, or the realm she shared with Stephen, and to realize her aspirations to be a painter during this exam shows a desire to leave the familial sphere. This revelation also directly links science and art—she chooses art as part of her engagement with science, because even her success in science pushes her into the realm of art, which dissolves the boundaries between the disciplines.
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After exams, Cordelia calls Elaine and says that she wants to see her. When Elaine arrives at her new house, she sees Cordelia looking like a wreck, with greasy hair and an unkempt appearance. Cordelia pulls a case of doughnuts out of the fridge and lights a cigarette. They make small talk, and Cordelia reveals that she has been avoiding studying and does not plan to go to university. Elaine tells her that she has to do something with her life, but Cordelia just asks why and does not seem to be joking. She has no interest in any academic subjects.
In this parting encounter between Elaine and Cordelia, it seems that Cordelia has completely fallen in the world. Their positions are totally reversed, and Elaine has all of the power that she once lacked over Cordelia.
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Though Cordelia wants to revisit nostalgic memories, like the cabbage or the fact that they used to throw snowballs at old ladies and sing songs, Elaine feels like looking backwards puts her into danger. She also feels a hardness and resentment towards Cordelia, as though all of her problems and miseries were self-generated and with a little willpower she could escape her current situation. She leaves abruptly, despite Cordelia’s obvious need of her, and looks back to see her blurry silhouette in the window.
Negative feelings arise for Elaine when Cordelia brings up the past, which shows how differently the two of them remember their friendship. Elaine’s cruelty in this instance stems from withholding—she knows that Cordelia needs something from her, and she refuses to provide it. In this novel, absence and inaction tend to cut deeper than action, as the closed door or the receding figure becomes a space where one can project negative emotion or self-judgment without end. The Cordelia of this moment needs presence and support, but Elaine will not provide it.
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