Cat’s Eye

by

Margaret Atwood

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Virgin Mary Symbol Analysis

Virgin Mary Symbol Icon

Elaine learns about the Virgin Mary when she starts going to church with the Smeaths. Although she ends up growing distant from organized religion, visions of Mary recur throughout her life; Mary emerges as a force of maternal protection and hope, who stands in contrast to the neglectful figures in Elaine’s life. Mary takes on many names in the novel: “The Virgin, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, The Virgin of Lost Things.” When she starts getting bullied by Cordelia, Carol, and Grace, Elaine decides “to do something dangerous, rebellious, perhaps even blasphemous”: to pray to the Virgin Mary instead of to God. For Elaine, Mary represents a kind of freedom or hope that she does not find in the Christian God. She paints the Virgin Mary as a lioness later, and describes her as “fierce, alert to danger wild” with a “gnawed bone” at her feet.  This wildness and fierce protectiveness defines her image of Mary. By contrast, her parents, even her own mother, disregard the bad things that happen to her, as does God.

When Elaine nearly freezes in the ravine after Cordelia throws her hat down, Elaine notably sees a vision of the Virgin Mary. She says she feels “her around me, not like arms but like a small wind of warmer air.” Mary says to her, “You can go home now.” At the end of the novel, she admits that this was only a fantasy, and that “nobody came.” This suggests that Mary represents Elaine’s fierce desire to be seen and protected. She is a symbol of maternal intervention, the voice of intercession that Elaine has so sorely lacked. For Elaine, she is “wrapping me in warmth and painlessness, she has heard me after all.” The core of the bullying that Elaine faces consists of her friends overly-scrutinizing her and judging her behavior; this fantasy of Mary represents the desire to just be seen and supported.

The particular iterations of Mary that recur to Elaine are the “Lady of Perpetual Help” and the “Virgin of Lost Things.” She sees the later on an altar in Mexico when she visits with her husband Ben, and examines the tin symbols of items that other people lost and pinned to her. In her own later painting, she depicts a Lady of Perpetual Help descending to earth with “two brown paper bags of groceries.” In this painting, “she looks tired.” These versions of Mary represent the domestic role of women, who humble themselves in service to others. This suggests Elaine's view that helping others, particularly in the manner expected of women, requires a certain sacrifice of self.

Virgin Mary Quotes in Cat’s Eye

The Cat’s Eye quotes below all refer to the symbol of Virgin Mary. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Art, Science, and Religion Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Anchor Books edition of Cat’s Eye published in 1998.
Part 7 Quotes

I hear someone talking to me. […] The person who was standing on the

bridge is moving through the railing, or melting into it. It’s a

woman […] She isn’t falling, she’s coming down toward me as if walking, but

there’s nothing for her to walk on. […] Now she’s quite close. I can see the white glimmer of her face, the dark scarf or hood around her head, or is it hair? She holds out her arms to me and I feel a surge of happiness. Inside

her half-open cloak there’s a glimpse of red. It’s her heart, I

think. It must be her heart, on the outside of her body, glowing

like neon, like a coal. […] You can go home now, she says. It will be all right. […] I don’t hear the words out loud, but this is what she says.

Related Characters: Elaine Risley (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Bridge, Virgin Mary
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:
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Virgin Mary Symbol Timeline in Cat’s Eye

The timeline below shows where the symbol Virgin Mary appears in Cat’s Eye. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part Seven: Our Lady of Perpetual Help
Art, Science, and Religion Theme Icon
Identity and Conflict Theme Icon
...behind Cordelia, Grace, and Carol, Elaine sees a paper with a picture of the Virgin Mary on the ground, and decides to pray to her instead. She picks it up and... (full context)
Art, Science, and Religion Theme Icon
Gender and Cruelty Theme Icon
...woman on the riverbank, who tells her to go home. She thinks it’s the Virgin Mary. (full context)
Art, Science, and Religion Theme Icon
Gender and Cruelty Theme Icon
Identity and Conflict Theme Icon
Time and Memory Theme Icon
...but feelings fuzzier about the river of dead people and the appearance of the Virgin Mary. (full context)
Part Eight: Half a Face
Art, Science, and Religion Theme Icon
Identity and Conflict Theme Icon
Time and Memory Theme Icon
...go into churches to read the inscriptions and seek out statues, especially of the Virgin Mary. She never sought the churches out and never entered during services, but would stumble upon... (full context)
Art, Science, and Religion Theme Icon
...been done awkwardly but by someone who really believed. She suddenly saw a statue of Mary, the Virgin of Lost Things and ended up sitting in front of her for a... (full context)
Gender and Cruelty Theme Icon
War vs. Environmental Catastrophe  Theme Icon
Identity and Conflict Theme Icon
Time and Memory Theme Icon
...her old school, and can no longer remember any of the bullying—not the plates, not the Virgin appearing to her in the ravine. (full context)
Part Ten: Life Drawing
Art, Science, and Religion Theme Icon
Gender and Cruelty Theme Icon
Identity and Conflict Theme Icon
Time and Memory Theme Icon
...classes, Elaine pesters the other girls by talking about the dirtier aspects of Jesus and Mary, like breast-feeding and changing diapers. She likes it when she can get under the skin... (full context)
Part Eleven: Falling Women
Art, Science, and Religion Theme Icon
Gender and Cruelty Theme Icon
Identity and Conflict Theme Icon
Time and Memory Theme Icon
At home, Elaine paints at night while Sarah sleeps. She paints the Virgin Mary as a lioness, fierce and protective, and as an exhausted housewife in a painting called... (full context)
Part Fourteen: Unified Field Theory
Art, Science, and Religion Theme Icon
Time and Memory Theme Icon
The last picture, Unified Field Theory, shows a woman dressed in black on a bridge— the Virgin of Lost Things, holding an oversized cat’s eye marble in her hands. Under the bridge,... (full context)