Elaine’s cat’s eye marble has multiple layers of symbolism in the novel, at once representing isolation, the persistence of trauma, and Elaine’s innermost self. One year, all of the kids in Elaine’s class get caught up in a craze of marble-collecting. They compete by gambling their marbles against each other in games, with a winner-takes-all policy. Unlike her brother Stephen, who always wins, Elaine rarely succeeds in these marble competitions. She does possess one special marble, however—a cat’s eye with a blue center, which she keeps secret from others and stores in a red purse. There are three layers to the symbolism of the cat’s eye marble. When Elaine first finds it, it acts as a talisman to ward off her negative emotions. The marble, then, represents Elaine’s sense of isolation, and the refuge that beloved objects can provide to people. It holds all of her memories and her secret, hidden thoughts when she becomes the victim of bullying and no one steps in to rescue her. Things of beauty create an oasis against negativity; the glass marble represents clarity and the importance of protecting inner thoughts against outer disturbances.
As she ages, Elaine forgets about the marble, only to rediscover it years later in a trunk in her mother’s basement. This discovery leads to the second layer of the cat’s eye’s role in the novel: it unlocks all of Elaine’s repressed memories from her childhood. In a single instant, looking at the blue glass core of the marble throws open the doors of her memory. When people endure traumatic events, they often repress them in order to move forward; the marble marks the ways that different objects from one’s past can reappear and trigger these floods of memories. For the novel, part of what this means is that nothing ever totally disappears—the past continues to stay with us, in the form of objects and memories.
In the third layer of meaning, the cat’s eye recurs as a motif in Elaine’s artwork. In one image, the cat’s eye replaces her own head. In another, she paints the Virgin Mary holding an oversized version of the marble between her hands. On some level, this becomes a symbol about symbols—the cat’s eye represents how an object from someone’s real life can be made to carry different meanings. The relationship to that symbol can begin to define one’s self-identity, as demonstrated by Elaine’s fixation on the cat’s eye. For Elaine, then, the cat’s eye ultimately represents her inner self—and by focusing on it, she can shut out the rest of the world.
Cat’s Eye Marble Quotes in Cat’s Eye
The cat’s eyes are my favorites. If I win a new one I wait until I’m by myself, then take it out and examine it, turning it over and over in the light. The cat’s eyes really are like eyes, but not the eyes of cats. They’re the eyes of something that isn’t known but exists anyway; like the green eye of the radio; like the eyes of aliens from a distant planet. My favorite one is blue. I put it into my red plastic purse to keep it safe. I risk my other cat’s eyes to be shot at, but not this one.
We cross the wooden bridge on the way home from school. I am walking behind the others. Through the broken boards I can see the ground below. I remember my brother burying his jar full of puries, of waterbabies and cat’s eyes, a long time ago, down there somewhere under the bridge. The jar is still there in the earth, shining in the dark, in secret. I think about myself going down there alone despite the sinister unseen men, digging up the treasure, having all that mystery in my hands. I could never find the jar, because I don’t have the map. But I like to think about things the others know nothing about.