Cat’s Eye

by

Margaret Atwood

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Cat’s Eye: Part 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In Jon’s apartment, Elaine reflects on the difficulty that she sometimes has getting out of bed, and even taking the steps to brush her teeth. She feels like she has no worth, and thinks about Cordelia asking her what she had to say for herself, and Elaine answered “Nothing,” which she now associates with herself. She “felt the nothingness coming on” last night, so she tried to call Ben; however, their answering machine was on, and she heard her own voice instead. She gets out of bed and paces amongst the severed fake arms and feet in Jon’s apartment—she likes the dinginess of his studio, as she feels more comfortable around “things that are falling apart.” She feels like she is at least “in better shape than them.” Though she still feels off, she gets dressed and leaves the house.
Back in the present, this moment reveals the darker sides of Elaine’s mental health. She attributes her low self-esteem directly to Cordelia, which suggests that the girls’ friendship was rooted in psychological manipulation. The fact that Elaine feels so comfortable in Jon’s messy apartment surrounded by fake severed arms speaks both to the fragmented nature of her mind and self-esteem, and to the violence underlying her thoughts and memories.
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Walking through the city, Elaine has the jingle from the Happy Gang stuck in her head. Whereas Toronto used to be empty, the city is now full and chaotic. Elaine feels like she needs a new dress for her opening, as the one she brought with her is a somber black dress chosen not to outdress any of the clients. She considers a pink dress, a color that “is said to make enemies go soft on you”—she wonders why the army has not caught onto this yet. She tries on different dresses in a shop, hoping to be transformed, although she believes that this becomes less possible as one ages. In the dressing room, she catches a girl nearly stealing her purse—all she sees is a hand slipping away, and this makes her think of Cordelia, who is long gone.
The Happy Gang was a radio show that played during the 1930s and 1950s—though the exact timeline of the novel is unclear, Elaine would not have heard this tune for at least a decade or two. These cheerful variety shows provided a contrast to wartime woes, and Elaine’s memory of that song is attached to her observations of the newly vibrant city because she can’t help but think about what the city was like during the war. The fact that Elaine feels like she needs to reconsider the dress for her opening indicates her anxiety that she will be negatively judged by an audience; it’s telling, then, that she compares choosing a dress to developing a military strategy. It’s also poignant that she feels so haunted by Cordelia, and particularly helpful in this instance that she sees her in the behavior of a young girl—whatever her relationship with Cordelia was, it was clearly at its most potent during their childhood.
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Back in her childhood, Elaine thinks about the school they were sent to: the Queen Mary Public School. Girls have to wear skirts, and there are different doors for girls and boys. Although they lead to the same place, the children are never allowed to use the wrong door. Elaine wants to know the secret behind the boys’ door, but she is not allowed. The schoolyard is also separated by gender, and Elaine only sees her brother when they’re lined up outside. She isn’t supposed to talk to him at school, since boys get teased for having younger sisters, which is a stark contrast from their relationship at home, where they fix up fake walkie-talkies with cans and string and slip coded messages under each other’s doors. Now she has to make friends with girls. However, she feels awkward and on the edge of some “unforeseen, calamitous blunder” among girls.
Elaine’s complicated relationship to other women begins at a young age, as she is sent to a school where gender divisions are strict—the contrast between her relationship with Stephen at home and at school is one of the first keys to this confusing gendered division. Whereas at home the two can play freely without much regard for the categories of boys and girls, at school those exact divisions form the center of social life. The inherent exclusion formed by these categories breeds a sense of secrecy, which occupies Elaine. Her desire for female friends stems from a lack of that very thing, but her fear of some kind of “blunder” points to the sense of awkwardness that Elaine already feels among women. She fears mistakes on her own part, and this sense of internalized shame comes from the strong social expectations placed on young women.
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Carol Campbell befriends Elaine, partly because she also takes the school bus. She lives closer to school and has a pageboy haircut, which she gets done at the hairdresser’s. She and her sister wear matching outfits every Sunday. Her family is Anglican, unlike Elaine’s family who never goes to church. They walk home over a decaying bridge over a ravine, where they aren’t allowed to play because there could be dangerous men down there. Carol shows Elaine all her different clothing and the nice things in her house, and talks about piano lessons and tells her secrets. When Carol visits Elaine, she is surprised by their poverty and gossips about her at school. However, she presents the gossip as exotic rather than mean, as Elaine’s friendship matters to her.
Carol and Elaine’s friendship is defined by contrast. Carol and her family differ from Elaine’s both in their wealth and their relationship to religion, and it is through that difference that Elaine learns that her family is poor. This is also the first time religion is explicitly mentioned in the book, indicating that it takes a secondary place in Elaine’s family, if it has a place at all—this establishes a dynamic of “home” being the space of science, and “outside” being the space of religion. Carol’s decision to gossip about Elaine from the very beginning hints at more sinister impulses hiding underneath this friendship, while the decaying bridge and warnings about bad men in the ravine add a sense of explicit danger, as though one wrong move could lead to devastating consequences.
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Elaine and Stephen take Carol to the zoology building, but the different animals and scientific tools creep her out. Elaine thinks that Carol is a “sissy,” but she also finds her “delicacy” somehow compelling and worthy of pride. Elaine feels like she can’t pretend to be grossed out, because her brother would know she was lying, but also cannot express her interest in anything boyish or revolting. She chooses to say nothing. After they leave the building, they go to Carol’s house, and Carol takes her into her parents’ bedroom. Carol’s parents sleep in twin beds and her mother wears rubber gloves to wash the dishes. She shows Elaine everything in her house as if it were a museum, and she is surprised about all of the different things that Elaine does not know, such as what a cold wave or a coat tree are.
Elaine seems to define herself primarily in relation to others at this point, so it becomes difficult for her when she has to choose between Carol and her brother. One of the underlying threads here indicates that science is, at this point in time, a distinctively male field, because Elaine sees the “delicacy” and revulsion that Carol displays as plausible and even admirable. The type of relationships modeled here are ones where sameness and similarity matters the most—just as Carol’s parents sleep in matching twin beds, Elaine feels an impulse to agree with and follow after Carol. This impulse to agree maps onto having a sense of the “normal” that a person prioritizes over his or her own instincts.
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Carol introduces Elaine to her best friend Grace Smeath, who is a year older and in the next grade. Elaine stops visiting the zoology building with Stephen, and instead plays with Carol and Grace, and feels self-conscious, as if she is only doing an imitation of a girl. Grace, who is pale, beautiful, and delicate, controls the games they play by threatening to go home with a headache if the girls refuse. They mostly draw in coloring books and look through Eaton’s Catalogues. They also play school, and Grace is always the teacher. In their games, Grace and Carol always insult their own work and compliment the other, which Elaine finds fake but mirrors. She starts to want things that the girls want, like braids and a purse, and feels like she is coming to understand a girls’ world where she just has to cut out pictures and say she has done it badly.
The closer that Elaine becomes to other girls, the more she compares herself to them and tries to be like them. Elaine consistently seems a little bemused by the activities that the other girls like, and just plays along because she values the friendships. This shows, in part, the psychology of these relationships, which require not explicit demands or threats, but rather more subtle and internalized mechanisms of peer pressure and social norms. A particularly significant moment here is when Elaine realizes that a large part of girlhood social identity consists of doing things like cutting out pictures and then self-deprecatingly saying that one has done a bad job on it. Her decision to choose these girls over her brother and over time in the zoology building makes this the first major swerve away from science and scientific curiosity and into a more vibrant social world instead. Grace defines this world and provides the initial contours for female relationships—because of her beauty and delicacy, she is able to control both of the other girls.
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At Christmas, Elaine gets gifts from Carol and Grace—bath salts and a coloring book, as well as a photo album and a red plastic purse from her parents. She takes pictures carefully because she does not want to waste any of them, and she enjoys looking at the negatives where everything white—like snow and people’s teeth—appears black. She puts the pictures in her photo album, though only one of them contains a photo of her, looking “shrunken and ignorant.” The house finally looks nicer in the living room and kitchen, but the bedrooms are still unfinished. Elaine likes to lie on the new hardwood floors and read comic books while listening to the radio, which is made of dark wood and has a single green eye—Stephen says it makes eerie noises from outer space between stations.
Although the two gifts from her friends are relatively neutral—fairly gendered but not particularly symbolic—the camera and photo album are extremely important. Cameras create semi-artistic images of a person, forcing them to look at themselves from an external perspective. Elaine does not seem to like looking at pictures of herself and does so with particularly critical eyes. It’s also important that she prefers the negatives to printed images, revealing an interest in the theme of inversion and opposites—it shows how easily different realities can hide under the surface.
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Grace starts inviting Elaine over without Carol, which she says is because of her mother’s bad heart. Mrs. Smeath has to rest every day because of her heart, and she is controlling, sturdy, and hardworking. Grace and her siblings share all hand-me-downs, including underwear. On Valentine’s Day, Elaine thinks about Mrs. Smeath’s bad heart while she cuts out hearts from red construction paper to put on the windows—she finds it mysterious and pictures it as “red, but with a reddish-black patch” like a bruised apple. She thinks of it as a “compelling,” “horrible treasure.” Elaine, reflecting back later, pictures Mrs. Smeath reclining on the sofa and thinks about how much she hates her.
Grace choosing Elaine over Carol shows the beginning of competition in these friendships, as well as manipulation, though it favors Elaine. Instead of representing life and love, which would fit her maternal role, Mrs. Smeath’s heart symbolizes corruption. When the adult Elaine interjects that she hates Mrs. Smeath, it suggests that Mrs. Smeath’s behavior mirrors the symbolic corruption of her heart. Elaine’s admission also reminds the reader that adults can traumatically influence children.
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After the winter, the snow melts, and the children all lick icicles like popsicles. The house looks like something left over from the war, surrounded by rubble and devastation. Stephen wants to make a bunker out of the hole next door when the water level goes down. He has started collecting comic books and running around in the mud with other boys. Sometimes Elaine reads quietly in Stephen’s room with them, but she has to keep silent.
In this seasonal change from winter to spring, Elaine continues to see any evidence of rubble or devastation in relation to the war. This persistent metaphor both attests to the literal influence of World War II, and serves as a means of either directly foreshadowing negative events to come or just reflecting Elaine’s own cynical perspective. Though she and Stephen still spend time together, the marks of aging and gender divides only grow stronger as Elaine is only allowed to keep company with Stephen and her friends if she keeps totally quiet.
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At school, Elaine skips rope with Carol and Grace, though she finds the songs unsettling. The sun starts to set later, and the girls wear cotton dresses to school and cardigans they take off on the way home. They dress Grace up in flowers with her hair unbraided and take a photograph where she “looks like a princess.” They play in the houses under construction in the neighborhood, although it is forbidden, and Elaine climbs in the rafters alone because Carol is too frightened, and Grace does not want anyone to see her underwear.
Elaine’s play with Carol and Grace also continues to reflect her ambivalent relationship to them. On the one hand, she desires these relationships, even when they center around Grace and her feminine beauty. On the other hand, she sees herself as different from the other two girls, and that difference leads to isolation when she chooses to climb into the rafters alone. Elaine’s decision reflects her divided character, split between her yearning for intimate female friendships and her more independent, introverted impulses.
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Everyone starts collecting marbles at school, which they use to gamble against each other in games. There are plain marbles and more exotic versions, which are the cat’s eyes, puries, waterbabies, metal bowlies, and aggies. It’s considered cheating to buy marbles instead of winning them. Elaine’s favorites are the cat’s eyes, which she thinks actually look like eyes—but not of a cat, rather “something that isn’t known but exists anyway,” “like the eyes of aliens.” She has a blue one that she hides in her red purse. Stephen wins the most marbles, jars and jars of them, and one Saturday afternoon he takes the best ones out by the ravine and buries them. He also buries a treasure map, and tells this to Elaine, “but he doesn’t say why, or where the jars are buried.”
This scene introduces the inspiration behind the novel’s title, Cat’s Eye. The fact that the marbles are won through these schoolyard competitions adds a sense both of risk and of commonness to the marbles—Elaine’s prized treasure is something that could be lost at any point, and something that everyone has but that she still wants to keep secret because it is precious to her. This sense of secrecy extends to Stephen as well, who decides to bury the best of his marbles just for the pleasure of the secret. This passage establishes two key images: the cat’s eye marble that Elaine hides in her purse, and sees as a sign of the unknown, and the buried jar of marbles out by the ravine. Because they are out by the ravine, these marbles also add something beautiful to an area that has thus far been described as the place where “bad men” might be.
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Elaine and her family leave town to go north for the summer, where the land is less developed and the air smells clearer. They fish and sleep in an abandoned logging camp, and Elaine and Stephen wander together. Elaine finds a tin of maple syrup that was rusted shut, and thinks of it as “an ancient artifact, like something dug up out of a tomb.” Their father changes from his city clothing into baggy pants and work boots while he investigates a massive caterpillar infestation that leaves the trees denuded, as if burnt. He tells them to remember it, in the tone of voice people usually use for “forest fires, or the war: respect and wonderment mixed in with the sense of catastrophe.”
This summer trip out of Toronto lets Elaine and her family return to their old lifestyle for a while, and Elaine reconnects with her brother—this shows the degree to which the changes in their relationship have to do with social expectations, because their relationship reverts with the disappearance of those expectations. This is true for Elaine’s father, as well, who relishes the return to research. The description of this caterpillar infestation reflects the novel’s relationship to natural catastrophe—there is a sense of powerlessness, but this gets mixed in with admiration.
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At dinner, Elaine’s father talks about the end of the world, inevitable with the atom bomb; only insects will survive. Elaine thinks about Carol and Grace, and they already feel less real to her. Elaine’s mother pays them to collect blueberries, a cent a cup, and makes puddings and sauces. Stephen writes in urine on the sand, not his name but rather words like “Mars” or “Jupiter.” In the middle of September, Elaine walks to the outhouse without a flashlight and looks back at her parents sitting by the kerosene lamp; she finds it unsettling to look at them, knowing that they don’t know they’re being watched, and feels “as if I don’t exist; or as if they don’t.”
Elaine’s father seems to have an extremely apocalyptic attitude, one that ties scientific development—in the form of the atom bomb—with the unintended consequence of the end of the world. Humans can spark grand-scale catastrophe, but they cannot control those catastrophes. Elaine’s sense of isolation here is also important, because she seems prone to isolating herself both from her friends, in their absence, and from her family, though they are all there. The experience she has watching her parents refers to how easily a person can feel unseen by others, and how the experience of being ignored or unseen can mess with one’s sense of reality.
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Elaine and her family return in September, and their house looks “enchanted,” with thistles and goldenrod grown up out of the mud around it. A third girl has joined Carol and Grace: Cordelia. The three of them watch from the apple trees as Elaine comes home, but they do not run up to greet her. Eventually, Grace waves, and Carol too—but not Cordelia. Cordelia is tall, with hair cut in a pageboy and a lopsided smile. She introduces herself like an adult with a handshake, and points out dog poop on Elaine’s shoe (though it turns out to only be part of an apple).
Because the reader has already encountered Cordelia at two different stages in Elaine’s life—later in her youth and as a phantom occupying her adult thoughts—this introduction feels particularly loaded. First of all, Carol and Grace greet Elaine much more lukewarmly than she expects, which signal that the arrival of this third person has shifted the dynamics of their friendship. Cordelia herself is described as being unconventional—the pageboy haircut, lopsided grin, and adult handshake—but all in ways that give her more power. From the outset, she disarms Elaine by mixing propriety with a somewhat conniving attitude; telling her that she stepped in dog poop, for example, could be interpreted as polite advice or a warning that Elaine is going to be scrutinized.
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At the start, Elaine feels intimidated by Cordelia but also a sense of intimacy. Cordelia lives in a bright house with Swedish glass vases in which her mother arranges flowers. This differentiates her from Elaine’s mother, who only ever puts wildflowers she picks herself in pots sometimes—thinking about this, Elaine realizes her family isn’t rich. Cordelia’s family has a cleaning lady, and eats eggs out of egg cups. She has two older sisters, Perdie and Mirrie, who always say they look like Haggis McBaggis, an ugly old hag they made up. They do ballet and play viola. All three sisters call their mother “Mummie,” and are afraid of disappointing her, though they keep secrets from her as well. One day, Perdie tells Elaine that Cordelia wants to be a horse when she grows up.
The comparison between their two mothers is important, because Elaine begins to develop a stronger sense of what a “normal woman” and “normal family” are supposed to look like by observing Cordelia’s mother and sisters. Elaine starts to form her sense of identity through her conflicts with Cordelia at this point—she admires Cordelia, and that admiration gives Cordelia her power. On the other hand, the novel hints that Cordelia’s family life is not as simple as it seems—at home, she is excluded from her older sisters and made to feel less accomplished than them. The conflicts that arise out of that could point both to the reason for Cordelia’s desire to exert power over her friends, and to the infectious nature that hierarchies and exclusion have—the more one is excluded, the more one wants to exclude others.
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Elaine, Carol, Grace, and Cordelia play dress-up with Cordelia’s clothing; she wants them to perform plays, but they mostly walk around aimlessly because Carol giggles too much and forgets her lines, and Grace does not like to be told what to do and claims to have headaches. When they go to school together, they pool their allowances to buy popsicles and gumballs that they share. On their path, they pass the wooden footbridge and all the weeds along the way, which include goldenrod and burdock and deadly nightshade, with its red berries. Cats prowl along the path, staring at them, and they even find a condom along the path one day (which they call a safe) and conceal it below the grating on the sidewalk. They walk across the rotting wooden bridge over the ravine and Cordelia says the water is “made of dead people” because it flows from the cemetery.
The story that Cordelia tells about the dead people here adds another dark layer to the bridge metaphor, which fits with the novel’s sense of layered time. What Cordelia picks up on is that if there is a cemetery upstream, dead bodies very literally would decompose into the water—however, she gives more profound meaning by treating the water as an accumulation of these dead bodies. This adds to the sense that, even if something changes form or appearance over time, it can never fully lose its history.
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Cordelia dares the other girls to go down into the water, but none of them want to, although Elaine knows it is only a game as her own mother goes down into the ravine during her walks and the boys play down there. Instead, they collect flowers made of deadly nightshade and make pretend meals they leave; when they disappear the next day, Cordelia says the dead people ate them.
The pretend meals made of nightshade stand for the dangerous games these girls are playing—on the one hand, there is the whimsy of the fantastical worlds of their imagination, and on the other is the very deep shadow of death. Underpinning all of this is Cordelia’s desire for control and leadership, which manifests in her attempts to shock the other girls.
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The girls start wearing skirts instead of pants at school which comes with all sorts of rules about how to cross one’s legs to avoid flashing one’s underwear. Underwear becomes a popular theme at school, and Cordelia makes up fake underwear for the different teachers—lavender frills for Miss Pigeon, plaid for Miss Stuart, and red satin long johns for Miss Hatchett. The girls get a nasty joy thinking about what underwear their teachers wear. Miss Lumley, Elaine’s current teacher, is cruel and gives boys the strap. She rules by fear and hates sniveling, so if children cry she often says “I’ll give you something to cy about.”
The rules that develop for girls are strict but universal—they are expected to wear clothing that directly restricts their behavior, because they will be blamed if their underwear shows. This restricts rowdier activities, and the novel hints at the ways in which these rules further divide girls and boys. However, the response among the girls is not anger but rather to respond with cruel humor, turning the rules into an excuse to make fun of their teachers. The cruelty is reciprocal, however, as evidenced by Miss Lumley’s strictness. The girls clearly develop their attitudes in response to their teachers. Furthermore, because Miss Lumley’s cruelty is framed as appropriate punishment, she is teaching the children to blame themselves for certain abuses—if they step out of line, even just in the form of showing fear, she is allowed to punish them physically. This kind of demonstration of power can be easily internalized.
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They have a photograph of the King and Queen in the schoolroom, and Miss Lumley teaches the students to draw the Union Jack and support the British Empire. She makes them sing “God Save the King” every morning, even though they are Canadian. She brings in newspaper clippings about the Royal Family, which she sticks to the blackboard, as well as pictures of children in scruffy clothes standing in front of rubble. These are the war orphans, which Mrs. Lumley uses to remind the students to eat everything on their plates and never waste, to not complain (as their houses did not get bombed) and to collect used clothing to donate. Even though she is not afraid of snakes or worms, Elaine is afraid of Miss Lumley’s invisible bloomers, which Cordelia says are navy blue.
Miss Lumley’s obsession with England clearly speaks to the culture of nationalism that developed around World War II. One of the deepest impacts the war seems to have had on this generation’s psyche was the reinforcement of an international culture that celebrated England and the UK. The etiquette born here, of thrift and avoiding waste, clearly strikes a chord with Elaine, who remembers these events many years later.
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