Cat’s Eye

by

Margaret Atwood

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Cat’s Eye: Part 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Elaine has a cappuccino in Simpson’s department store, thinking about how different it looks from her childhood; as Eaton’s, it used to be full of bargain clothes and wrenches, but now has become the resplendent home of imported chocolates, gourmet food, and even an espresso counter. Elaine feels overwhelmed in the presence of so much indulgence and is only comforted by the fact that she can see a shoe repair counter, which implies that people still get their shoes cared for instead of throwing them out at the first sign of wear. She thinks about the shoes of her childhood, most of which were brown and matched the pot roast done in the pressure cooker. Everything was sturdier then, from shoes to food. Elaine’s mother did most of the cooking back home even though it wasn’t her favorite thing; she was generally not fond of housework, though she liked making cakes.
The changes at Simpson’s make Elaine feel conflicted, in part because she has to reflect on the contrast to her childhood, noting what has changed with time. The biggest shift here is in one from thrift to luxury. Throughout the novel, Elaine reflects that she misses this bargain mentality that came with wartime and rationing. In this passage, she actually associates this new luxury with flimsiness and things being consistently thrown away.
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Down in the steamer trunk in the cellar, they had a whole set of silverware that was never brought up or displayed because it would have had to be polished. Elaine wonders if her mother knew what was happening at the time, and thinks about what she would have done in her position—there weren’t the same options back then, and a lot was not said.
Elaine’s mother clearly did not thrive under typical gender roles of the time—she liked neither cleaning nor cooking, but had to take on the majority of those responsibilities due to those social trends.
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Elaine made a series of paintings of her mother once, a double triptych that she called Pressure Cooker. It showed her mother in her bib apron, first in colored pencil, then as a collage of illustrations from the old Ladies’ Home magazines and finally all white and made of pipe cleaners, “as if she were dissolving.” The next image was the same series but went from white to realistic and depicted her mother wearing her slacks, boots, and man’s jacket and making chokecherry jam at an outdoor fire, as if it were a materialization. Elaine made the paintings after her mother died, though critics thought it was about the Earth Goddess. Elaine wanted to make her mother timeless, though she knows the paintings “are drenched in time.”
When her mother is forced into a gender role that she finds oppressive, she is represented as disappearing—in fact, the imagery matches the way that Elaine felt as a child when she was bullied by Cordelia, which drives home the self-negation inherent in trying to match oneself to someone else’s vision. The other image shows a form of liberation, which involves objects and behavior that are not traditionally feminine and show the idiosyncrasies behind individual identity.
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On the street, Elaine sees a woman lying on the sidewalk. Although everyone walks around her, Elaine stops. The woman addresses her as “lady” and asks for help. Elaine feels that the word “lady” has been through a lot, having to describe “Noble lady, Dark Lady, she’s a real lady, Listen lady, Hey lady watch where you’re going,” among other things. A passing man dismisses the woman as “only drunk,” which annoys Elaine because she sees being that drunk as hell enough. She helps the woman up, and, in a voice of pure neediness and woe, the woman begs Elaine not to leave her all alone. Elaine gives her some money, and the woman says Elaine is “Our Lady” and doesn’t love her, which Elaine agrees with—her eyes remind her of Cordelia’s. Elaine tries to convince herself that she’s a good person, but she knows that she is “vengeful, greedy, secretive, and sly.”
The interaction that Elaine has with the woman on the street calls up the theme of religion, because the woman refers to Elaine as “our lady,” which is both a reference to the Virgin Mary and an often sexist term applied to women, as Elaine thinks about it. Although Elaine decides to help her, this moment makes her think about herself as a vengeful and greedy person—at this point, it is unclear if this inner voice is a manifestation of the internalized bullying from her childhood (a representation of Cordelia) or if there is something else that has happened in Elaine’s life by now to make her view herself this way.
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When they come back in September, Elaine feels like Cordelia is backing her towards the edge of a cliff. She used to alternate between kindness and malice with periods of indifference, but now has become harsher and more relentless, as though she wants to see how far she can go. Elaine and Carol are in Grade Five, and they have Mrs. Stuart as their teacher, who is Scottish, and whom all the students love. She keeps a bunch of dried heather on her desk, along with hand lotion that she made herself, and in the afternoons she makes herself a cup of tea that smells of something that she pours into it from a silver bottle.
Elaine’s relationship with Cordelia has shifted inexplicably for the worse, although it was already fairly extreme—this escalation starts to foreshadow the sense that their relationship will have to reach some kind of breaking or turning point, eventually. Meanwhile, having Mrs. Stuart as a teacher provides Elaine with another model of womanhood, albeit an incongruous one—she mixes keeping soft hands with drinking alcohol at work.
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To keep herself sane, Elaine holds onto the cat’s eye. Cordelia, Grace, and Carol walk ahead and she pictures Cordelia and Grace and Carol disappearing, and thinks about committing suicide with the nightshade berries or Javex from the laundry room. She doesn’t want to do those things because she is afraid of them, but she also hears Cordelia’s voice in her head telling her to do them and knows that she would do them to please her. She thinks about telling her brother, but is afraid he will make fun of her for being a sissy. She also thinks that he would be “helpless” against the indirectness of girls and their whispering methods.
Elaine starts experiencing severe suicidal ideation, and the fact that she hears Cordelia in her head shows the extent to which she has utterly internalized Cordelia’s voice. This kind of internalized malice must necessarily shift Elaine’s self-conception, which also bleeds into her fears about telling Stephen about the bullying. These fears have somewhat gendered roots, as Elaine is anxious both that Stephen will not take her situation seriously, and that even if he did, he would be powerless against their methods. She feels somehow that the methods Cordelia uses to mistreat her are difficult to pin down and combat, because of their secrecy and indirect nature.
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One day, Elaine is greasing muffin tins with her mother when her mother says vaguely that she does not need to play with the other girls, and that there must be other girls she could play with instead. Elaine looks at her mother and feels miserable; she worries that her mother will tell the other mothers, which would be the worst thing that she could do. She also can’t quite imagine it, as her mother is different from other mothers and does not fit in with the idea of them—she is airy and hard to pin down, and does not inhabit a house the way that other mothers do. Other mothers don’t skate on the neighborhood rink or walk in the ravine by themselves.
This interaction between Elaine and her mother is eerie, because it indicates that the bullying that Elaine has been undergoing was not as covert as she thought it was. While that secrecy almost justified the bullying by normalizing Cordelia’s behavior and making it appear unnoticeable, this interaction indicates that the behavior was actually being deliberately ignored.
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Elaine’s mother says that when she was little and kids called her names, they used to say “sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me”; Elaine responds that they don’t call her names because they are her friends; she believes this. Her mother tells her she needs to stand up for herself and have a backbone, which makes Elaine think of the easily crumbled backbones of sardines. What’s happening to her must be her own fault, for having too little backbone. Her mother then confesses that she feels powerless; instead of responding, Elaine takes the tin of muffins from her and puts them into the oven.
This passage suggests that with age and adulthood does not come wisdom or immediate answers to all problems; Elaine’s mother, quite frankly, does not know what to do about her daughter’s situation. Instead of comforting her, however, she tries to advise her daughter by minimizing the severity of the problem and telling her to stand up for herself, which shows that she does not fully understand Elaine. This interaction places Elaine in conflict with her mother and with her family in general, as it proves that she cannot trust them for support or protection in a meaningful way—she has to solve her problems herself, but to do so she would have to first acknowledge that this mistreatment is a problem, and not just a sign of friendship.
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Cordelia brings a pocket mirror to school and holds it up to Elaine’s face, demanding that she look at herself. Elaine sees her face, but doesn’t see anything outside the ordinary—just the dark spots on her lips where she’s bitten off the skin. During this time, Her parents host bridge parties, and many people come, filling the house with the alien scent of cigarettes. Elaine lies in bed feeling left out as she listens to the bursts of laughter coming from below. She doesn’t understand why this activity is called bridge when it’s nothing like a bridge. When Mr. Banerji comes, Elaine feels hopeful because she feels that if he can deal with whatever is after him, she can too.
By forcing Elaine to look at herself in the mirror, Cordelia attempts to confuse Elaine about the border between being normal and being abnormal (in contemporary discourse, this is called “gaslighting”). Meanwhile, Elaine is able to attain a sense of future through her identification with Mr. Banerji—she can picture a time in the future where things will have changed for the better in her life, all because of her ability to identify with him.
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Soon, Princess Elizabeth comes to visit Toronto on a Royal Visit—the news captivates Elaine, who follows her progress in the papers. She memorizes the route and thinks that she will have a good chance to see her, as the path should pass right by their house on the road with its bulldozed earth and mud mountains. Elaine looks forward to the visit and feels that she is expecting something, although she cannot exactly identify what. She knows that this is the same princess who is supposed to have “defied the bombs in London” and be brave and heroic. In the end, the event is brief and crowded, and Elaine stands with her Union Jack, unable at first to tell which car is the correct one. Elaine finally spots a pale glove waving from the window, and she realizes that what she really wanted was to throw herself in front of the car, but instead she just stands there and does not move.
Elaine builds up grand but vague expectations surrounding the princess’s tour because of the associations she has between the princess and the war—Elizabeth symbolizes this ability to withstand severe destruction and come out heroic, the process of turning pain into growth and seeing that suffering has some ultimate benefit or meaning. However, these grand visions are cut short when Elaine spots nothing more than a pale glove and finds herself unable to turn her symbolic identification with the princess into the real ability to leap in front of the car. She is impotent, which ties both to a lack of willpower on her part in this moment and to the underlying knowledge that visions and fantasy often do not match reality.
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Miss Stuart, who likes art, has the students do a number of art projects, from seasonal paper cutouts for the windows to group murals with pictures of foreign countries. Elaine particularly likes art projects about foreign people and places, because it helps her think of escape. It doesn’t bother her that her teachers at Sunday school have told her that these kinds of people are heathens or starving and need to be converted, fed, and educated, and that Miss Lumley saw them as crafty and treacherous. Miss Stuart presents foreign places as beautiful, sunny, and simply different, and Elaine pictures herself visiting them one day.
For the first time, Elaine experiences the way that she can connect to others and to herself through art—whether it be learning about foreign cultures or her own life, the process of engaging with art allows an escape from her own reality. When it comes to experiencing other cultures, Elaine enjoys learning beautiful new perspectives (which, importantly, contradict the narratives she learns in church, planting the seeds of dissent).
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One day, Miss Stuart asks the students to draw what they do after school, and while most students draw skipping ropes and themselves playing with a dog, Elaine feels stuck. She ends up drawing her bed with herself lying in it, and then colors in the night with a black crayon until the whole picture becomes so dark that only the faint outline of her bed and her head on the pillow remain. The picture disappoints and dismays her, as it differs from what the other children have drawn and she feels like it was the wrong thing to draw. She thinks Miss Stuart will dislike it and tell her that she “has more between her ears than that.” However, Miss Stuart just asks her why the picture is so dark, and touches her briefly on the shoulder. Elaine feels the touch “glow briefly, like a blown-out match.”
The picture that Elaine creates about her own life unearths decidedly unbeautiful themes. Elaine’s drawing reveals the darkness dominant in her thoughts—her sense of isolation, loneliness, and the degree to which Cordelia’s bullying has begun to shape her identity. However, there is a turning point when she expects to be criticized for the wrongness of her picture and receives support instead. Elaine learns that the thoughts in her head and heart might be understood and accepted through her art, without needing to be beautified or toned down, which helps explain her later career as a painter.
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On Valentine’s Day, Elaine gets the most cards from boys, though she hides them. Carol has started growing breasts and wearing lipstick, which makes Cordelia jealous because even though she is older she doesn’t have any sign of breasts yet. Carol pinches her cheeks to make them red, though when her mother catches her, she calls her cheap and says that she is making a spectacle of herself. Carol later says that she is being beaten by her father with a belt, which is hard for them to reconcile with the image of Mr. Campbell as a man with a soft mustache who calls Grace “Beautiful Brown Eyes” and Cordelia “Miss Lobelia.”
At this stage, the passage of time begins to be marked in the girls’ bodies and in shifting social attitudes. Elaine starts to receive approval from outside of her circle in the form of these valentines, and this decision to hide them from the other girls shows the beginnings of a rebellion or at least a distancing in her. Cordelia’s cruel envy over Carol’s changing body reveals some of her own insecurities and potential motivations for lashing out at the other girls, while the experiences that Carol describes further reinforce the difference between how people might seem on the outside and how they experience the world.
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Elaine knows that fathers are enigmatic, like Mr. Smeath with his secret life of trains and escapes. Elaine thinks that all fathers except her own are “invisible in the daytime, as daytime is ruled by mothers”—"fathers come home with the darkness,” and that there is more to them "than meets the eyes.” Carol also shows the girls her (Carol's) mother’s contraceptives hidden in a drawer. She lies on her bed and pretends to be sick, and Cordelia says that they have to listen to her heart and pulls up her shirt. She asks Elaine to feel her heart, and Elaine does so even though she doesn’t want to; she feels Carol’s breast like “a balloon half filled with water,” and Cordelia makes fun of Elaine for touching Carol’s breast instead of her heart.
Elaine associates mothers and fathers with times of day, or rather with differing social practices, as the day is typically ruled by routines and normalcy, while the night is more eerie and difficult to pin down. Part of the cruelty of the girls and women Elaine knows might, in part, stem from their chafing at the strict daytime expectations placed on their shoulders—unable to live out nuanced selves in the daytime, they lash out secretly at others. The set-up where Elaine is made to feel Carol’s breast ties into this, as the whole game is based on shame associated with the developing female body and the sense that it is not normal to touch or embrace it—the girls use roleplaying games in order to act out their own discomfort and shame, and project it onto each other.
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Elaine’s mother is taken to the hospital all of a sudden when an ambulance comes in the middle of the night, and their father says that it was an accident—Stephen think she had a miscarriage. He was awake when the ambulance arrived because he had stayed up to watch the stars after the city lights had been turned off, and saw flashing lights but no siren. When Elaine wakes up in the morning, she sees a pile of folded sheets and some blood on the mattress, but it has been cleaned up by the time she comes home from school. Elaine’s mother is quieter and weaker when she comes home from the hospital, and is expected to rest.
This bitter scene depicting Elaine’s mother’s miscarriage partially serves to remind us that Elaine herself is merely a child at this point—she misses as much about the life and suffering of her family members as they do of hers. She has to read the event out of the signs left behind, like the sheets and bloody mattress, her mother’s exhaustion, and the certainty that Stephen feels about the event.
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Sometimes Elaine has to repeat herself before her mother registers that she’s speaking, as she appears to have gone off somewhere else or forgotten that Elaine was there. Elaine finds this much more frightening than the blood, and knows that her father is frightened too because he asks the children to help out more. Once her mother gets better, Elaine find a single small knitted sock in her basket. She dreams that her real parents are Mrs. Finestein and Mr. Banerji, and that her mother has had a baby—one of a set of twins, and the other is missing. She also dreams that her house has burned down, and that her parents are “dead but also alive,” lying side by side and “sinking into the transparent earth.”
Elaine’s mother goes through a trauma of her own, which causes her to withdraw into herself. In many ways, this withdrawal mirrors Elaine’s own, and thereby reinforces the sense that both of these women can only cope by pulling back from the outside world. Elaine’s dreams can be interpreted in various ways, but the recurrent themes are of a reality that doesn’t quite match expectations. Something or someone is missing, and catastrophe looms on the horizon. These dreams reflect Elaine’s deep unhappiness about her own life, her simultaneous withdrawal from her family in her fantasies about having different parents. and her sense of loss in these dreams about a missing twin child and her parents dying in a housefire.
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Elaine goes to a Conversat with her father, Stephen, and his friend Danny. It’s like a museum, with lots of visitors and educational displays that include things like chicken embryos and a human brain in a bottle; it looks “like a flabby grey walnut” and Elaine has a hard time believing that she has one in her head. In another room, they get their fingerprints taken, and Danny and Stephen goof around by putting fingerprints on each other’s foreheads. They also see a turtle hooked up to a machine with its beating heart exposed. Looking at it makes Elaine think of an eye, or a hand clenching and unclenching; she does not want to stay in the room, but it’s too crowded for her to leave. Elaine faints. She realizes that “fainting lets her step out of time, because when you wake up it’s later and time has gone on without you.”
The trip to Conversat depicts the distance that has been growing between Stephen and Elaine, as he prefers running around with his friend to spending time with her; science, which used to be a space of intimacy for the two of them, has become yet another distancing point. The turtle with its heart openly exposed recalls Mrs. Smeath’s bad heart, which Elaine has already been disturbed by. The exposed heart also shows vulnerability, pain, and exposure, as well as the ability to live on, much like Elaine’s own situation. However, Elaine feels threatened by this vulnerability—she pictures the heart as an eye, and feels potentially watched by it. However, the fainting is a significant response, as Elaine learns to separate her mind and her body in times of crisis. The fact that she sees this as stepping out of time reinforces the novel’s conception of time as something experienced subjectively.
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Around this time, Cordelia makes up a new game. Elaine is supposed to picture ten stacks of plates for her ten chances—every time she does something wrong, Cordelia says “crash!” and a stack of plates breaks. One day during recess, Elaine teaches herself to faint on command; she starts doing it every time she feels overwhelmed, but no one can prove that she is doing it on purpose. She becomes known as the girl who faints, and feels a “little blurred and transparent” every time she does it, as though “she doesn’t have to pay attention to the things being said to her.”
The mysterious game that Cordelia invents to torment Elaine represents the ultimate symbol of her actions: what she seeks is pure power and criticism that does not need any specificity—she can cruelly make the plates crash whenever she wants with no need to attach real thoughts or words. Elaine manages to escape with her fainting game, though this method still involves self-harm and self-destruction. However, it also involves taking control of her own experience of time—if she can step out of her own life, she cannot be touched, at least temporarily.
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