Cat’s Eye

by

Margaret Atwood

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Cat’s Eye: Part 12 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Elaine goes to 4-D Diner, a new and fake version of the diners of her childhood. It reminds her of Sunnysides but done up as a museum, and feels like they could have included wax versions of her and Cordelia drinking milkshakes and looking bored. She hasn’t seen Cordelia since she said goodbye to her at the door of the rest home, but she has heard Cordelia talking to her ever since. Elaine orders coffee and pie and watches young people enjoying the quaintness of the past—she thinks the past was not quaint when it was “the shape her life was squeezed into,” and only “becomes so with the passage of time.” Elaine picks up the gifts she had bought her family on the way, which included fountain pens, only recently back in fashion. Elaine reflects on all the old objects that must exist somewhere in limbo, just waiting for re-entry into usage.
Visiting this retro-style diner makes Elaine reflect on her own past, because it contains aesthetic elements of the past, even if the place itself is new. The way she describes the past makes it seem that the passage of time often declaws the past—that is, it takes things that were dangerous, painful, or traumatic and lets them fade in intensity. It becomes clear that Elaine has not seen Cordelia in decades, as their last encounter occurred when Sarah was still young. Elaine’s obsession with Cordelia relates to the transformation she underwent from victim to enactor of cruelty. Elaine reflects on other elements of her past and seems to see time as something of a cycle, where old objects or people occur.
Themes
Gender and Cruelty Theme Icon
Identity and Conflict Theme Icon
Time and Memory Theme Icon
Elaine walks past Josef’s old apartment and wonders what became of him. He made a film once that seemed to be about Elaine and Susie, but Elaine feels like she can’t blame him because she was unfair to him; she does not regret her unfairness, because she sees unfairness as one of the only defenses that young women have, because they are “walking in the dark on the edge of high cliffs thinking themselves invulnerable.” She also does not begrudge him developing his own versions of the past, because made a painting called Life Drawing about him and Jon—both naked and painting a model, who has a marble-like sphere of bluish glass for a head.
Josef also used his art to process his relationships with Elaine and Susie. Their relationship had strong gendered elements, but Elaine has concluded that her own unfairness and cruelty towards him was therefore justified. Elaine transmuted both Josef and Jon into her Life Drawing painting, and she seems to have also included a reflection of herself in the form of this model whose head is the cat’s eye marble. When she carried the marble as a child, she used to see herself as one with it, and able to see through it somehow. This painting symbolizes her sense of being objectified by these two men and used for their art and egos, but it also represents her ability, as an artist, to do the same to them.
Themes
Art, Science, and Religion Theme Icon
Gender and Cruelty Theme Icon
Identity and Conflict Theme Icon
Time and Memory Theme Icon
Elaine meets Jon at the roof bar of the Park Plaza Hotel, where she used to go with Josef. They don’t speak much at dinner, unlike at lunch, because they both already know why they are there. In the elevator on the way down, Elaine catches sight of herself in “the dark glass obscured by time”; she could be any age. They go home together and sleep together with the lights off, for the comfort of it. Elaine does not feel she is being disloyal to Ben, only loyal to something that predates him; she also knows she will never do it again. She invites Jon to the opening, but he does not want to go.
Timelines converge when Elaine meets Jon at the Park Plaza hotel; in some ways, he’s come to embody both her past with Josef and her past with him. Likewise, Elaine sees herself as caught in the past when she sees her reflection in the mirror. This final physical connection between Jon and Elaine triggers her memories about the end of their relationship, which involved deep conflict, jealousy, and hypocrisy.
Themes
Gender and Cruelty Theme Icon
Identity and Conflict Theme Icon
Time and Memory Theme Icon
The narrative skips back to earlier in their relationship, when Elaine realized that Jon was having affairs. She collects evidence, but does not confront him at once.  Jon confronts her about her previous relationship with Josef, and they fight. Elaine starts to get sick more often and paint less. She does tend to Sarah, but does not manage to do anything else because she feels like a failure and like she would be unable to live up to any of the suggestions made by her feminist circle friends.
Jon displayed some serious sexism when he got jealous of Josef but continued to have his own affairs. However, this conflict unburies Elaine’s tendency towards self-destructive ideation. Rather than either conforming to narratives from her feminist circle and blaming Jon for being a man or even assigning blame to him on a more personal level, Elaine retreats into herself and feels responsible for his behavior.
Themes
Gender and Cruelty Theme Icon
Identity and Conflict Theme Icon
Time and Memory Theme Icon
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Elaine lies alone in her bedroom and “feels nothingness wash over her,” and thinks that whatever is wrong with her is her fault. She thinks she has done something wrong, “something so huge that she can’t see it.” She feels like she might as well be dead. One night, when Jon does not come home, she hears a voice and cuts herself with an Exacto knife; Jon finds her in her blood, but she claims it was an accident. She feels cleansed; she feels like “she heard the treasured secret voice of a nine-year-old child.”
The sense that Elaine is nothing and that she has done something so wrong that she cannot identify it come straight from Cordelia’s bullying—Elaine cannot shake this identity buried in shame and guilt, and proves how insidious these depressed self-negating attitudes can be. This culminates in a suicide attempt, which terrifyingly restores Elaine’s sense of self—she cuts herself with a knife used usually for art, which makes a connection between the suicide attempt and her creative tendencies. She also hears Cordelia’s voice egging her on, though she has not seen her recently—this suicide attempt completes the mirrored relationship between these two women, connected in darkness.
Themes
Art, Science, and Religion Theme Icon
Gender and Cruelty Theme Icon
Identity and Conflict Theme Icon
Time and Memory Theme Icon
Elaine decides to leave Toronto after the snow melts, because she feels like it is the city that is killing her as much as Jon. She takes Sarah, and writes a note to leave him, then makes a peanut butter sandwich and calls a taxi. Jon comes home before the taxi arrives, but says that he can’t stop her when she says that she’s going to Vancouver, so she gets in the car and moves to Vancouver. She sees herself as being good at leaving, because “the trick is to close oneself off and not look back.”
Elaine does decide to act after her climactic suicide attempt, but she acts by abandoning Jon in the same way she abandoned Josef, and Cordelia before him. Her tendency to avoid confrontation might come from her internalized sense of nothingness, as she tends to avoid making dramatic decisions—she is able to leave others because of her ability to forget the past, which she sees as closing herself off, and move forward.
Themes
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Identity and Conflict Theme Icon
Time and Memory Theme Icon
Elaine finds Vancouver both worse and better than she expected, and changes her opinion day to day. She freelances and refinishes furniture for an antiques dealer. She sees a therapist but stops going when it seems like he just wants to ask if she has orgasms. She shows her art sometimes in group showings of women artists, but feels like she is too privileged to fit in. She envies their conviction, but does not share it. Elaine also makes several women friends who are also single mothers—the relationships are not close, because they avoid each other’s “deeper wounds,” but they complain together, and it reminds Elaine of the friendship between Babs and Marjorie in her Life Drawing class
Elaine takes steps to rebuild her life independently, which includes art, parenthood, and female friendships. The start of her time in Vancouver is described in a very condensed manner, in large part because it seems to lack conflict and with that, depth—she is able to build a career as well as relationships with other women, which had always eluded her, by keeping those relationships shallow. They resemble Babs and Marjorie, who always put others down, but they also resemble her relationship to Cordelia as a teenager.
Themes
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Gender and Cruelty Theme Icon
Identity and Conflict Theme Icon
Time and Memory Theme Icon
Eventually, Jon comes to visit as a move towards reconciliation, and Elaine’s parents also come to visit because they miss Sarah. Stephen continues to send postcards and a stuffed dinosaur for Sarah, as well as a water pistol, a counting book, and a plastic mobile of the solar system. Suddenly, Elaine’s art starts to sell—two galleries represent her, and she travels and wears black.
Elaine also has improved relationships with her parents, who visit her, as well as her brother, who sends gifts and doesn’t visit. He wants to share his life with Sarah, as he gifts science-related toys for her. Elaine also starts to live her dream, selling her art, traveling, and dressing as she had imagined in her fantasies. The most significant element of this part of the narrative is how quickly it is told, as though Elaine has decreasing interest in her own life as she ages and becomes happier—conflict occupies and defines her, and these conflict-free years fade together.
Themes
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War vs. Environmental Catastrophe  Theme Icon
Identity and Conflict Theme Icon
Elaine has tentative and rushed affairs with men that she meets periodically, but there are long intervals between these encounters because she finds it difficult to balance relationships with her life as a single parent to Sarah. One day, Elaine meets Ben at the supermarket. She finds him simple and romantic, and he takes her to Mexico and seems delighted with her. They end up combining their households, and Elaine enjoys how oddly conventional her life has become. Ben is ten years older than her and has already been divorced once and has a grown son. They have a daughter together, Anne, and Ben builds an ordinary and good life with Elaine—he sees her as a little fragile but ultimately takes care of her and helps take care of the business end of her art. While she enjoys her life in Vancouver, she feels like she can’t look back.
Elaine’s relationship with Ben contrasts with every relationship she has described thus far in that it seems to lack conflict and drama. She seems much more content in this relationship and in the life she has built with him and their daughters in Vancouver. In many ways, this peaceful relationship is about contentment, compromise, and forgetting the past. Elaine has to divide the periods of her life to feel stable, because her past is rife with intensity and instability. While she is able to do this, it hints at repression—she has to further fragment her life to fit into her present, because the past and present do not form a coherent narrative.
Themes
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Gender and Cruelty Theme Icon
Identity and Conflict Theme Icon
Time and Memory Theme Icon