A certain tension between art and science runs throughout Cat’s Eye. In fact, Atwood’s novel can be seen as a series of experiments on the path to understanding the world—as the daughter of an entomologist, protagonist Elaine Risley starts by following the pattern set by her family, which is oriented towards atheism and science; she then tests out Christianity as she comes of age, before eventually becoming a painter. Elaine reaches for art, science, and religion as a means of parsing and controlling the often-cruel or indifferent world she encounters, yet in the end, none of these options in isolation saves Elaine from loss and disaster. Elaine ultimately chooses not to distinguish entirely between these three categories at all, and instead finds ways that they overlap through the vessel of her paintings. There is no singular way to make sense of the world, the novel thus suggests, and only through a combination of art, science, and spirituality does Elaine arrive at some form of fulfillment and self-knowledge.
As a child, science shapes Elaine’s worldview. She hides out with her brother Stephen in the science building where their father works, where they seemingly never tire of using the microscopes to examine “butterfly wings” and “cross-sections of worms.” Elaine excels at biology in high school but, in the “middle of the Botany examination,” realizes “that I’m not going to be a biologist, as I have thought. I am going to be a painter.” Though she does not explicitly reject science or her family, this decision aligns with her growing apathy towards her father—who enjoys talking about scientific catastrophes and other topics that Elaine categorizes under “this is not what people are supposed to talk about at the dinner table”—and the growing distance she feels towards her brother and his arcane knowledge of physics.
Unlike Elaine’s relationship to science, which begins as her following in her father’s and brother’s footsteps, her relationship to religion is an active rejection of her family. She starts attending church around the age of nine with the family of her friend Grace Smeath, despite her agnostic parents’ reluctance. She initially finds the ceremonies compelling—after she comes home the first day, she thinks that the stars “no longer look cold and white and remote,” but instead now “look watchful.” Religion directly replaces the coldness of science and gives her actions (like memorizing psalms) she can take to imbue her world with meaning. However, after she starts being regularly bullied she comes to find religion unfulfilling. She reports “losing confidence in God” and resenting the strict and judgmental Christianity of Mrs. Smeath. Elaine decides to abandon God because she feels abandoned. She also comes to realize she does not want to forgive her bullies, despite what religion may teach: “if it means I will have to forgive Mrs. Smeath or else go to Hell when I die, I’m ready to go.”
Having found both science and religion unable to offer fulfillment, Elaine turns to art and synthesizes the categories that have shaped her through her paintings. Some of these include the influence of her scientific background, especially those that relate to her brother. She calls one painting Unified Field Theory, referencing the theory in physics that explains how forces are transmitted through fields—but the painting itself is of a “wooden bridge,” beneath which “is the night sky, as seen by a telescope […] or so you think. But there are also stones down there … because this is the underside of the ground.” This painting connects her brother’s scientific passion with his childhood decision to bury a jar of marbles underground, which unites this grander theoretical field with the kinds of personal events that define Elaine’s life.
In other paintings, Elaine builds in religious references. The “Virgin of Lost Things,” a representation of Mary, appears to her during her childhood near-death experience in a frozen river. Although she ostensibly abandons religion because of her resentment towards God, this figure reappears in that same Unified Field Theory painting, where, “between her hands, at the level of her heart, she holds a glass object: an oversized cat’s eye marble, with a blue center.” The Virgin represents the figure that Elaine felt saved her, which suggests the ambiguity of Elaine’s feelings about religion. She may have developed agnosticism towards strict dogma, but her personal sense of faith still allows religion to have meaning—here expressed in her art.
Elaine choosing to integrate her personal experiences with science and religion into her art has the effect of blurring the lines between these categories, which many people perceive as distinct pillars of society. For Elaine, religion and science provide a backdrop for connecting with other people and trying to understand the world, but neither fully satisfies her—however, instead of rejecting them entirely she integrates these modes of understanding into her paintings. Her art allows her to create an oasis of order in her life, but ultimately does not change anything—rather than impacting the world itself, art (much like science and religion as depicted in this novel) impacts one’s understanding of the world. Therefore, combining elements of these three distinct categories allows her to at self-knowledge that she could not have found alone.
When asked “Why do you paint?” by an interviewer, Elaine replies, “Why does anyone do anything?” This question teases at the novel’s core questions—that is, what orders a life, and what should one live for? On the one hand, Elaine’s response points at a certain nihilism; on the other, it suggests an innate human drive to pursue fulfillment. In the end, while Elaine chooses to focus her life on art over science and especially religion, she acknowledges the way that all three methods evoke the questions that shape human existence—and encounter similar difficulties in answering them.
Art, Science, and Religion ThemeTracker
Art, Science, and Religion Quotes in Cat’s Eye
We like scabs. We pick them off—there isn’t room for a whole arm or leg under the microscope—and turn the magnification up as high as it will go. […] We look at earwax, or snot, or dirt from our toes, checking first to see that there’s no one around: we know without asking that such things would not be approved of. Our curiosity is supposed to have limits, though these have never been defined exactly.
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.
“Remember this,” our father says. “This is a classic infestation. You won’t see an infestation like this again for a long time.” It’s the way I’ve heard people talk about forest fires, or the war: respect and wonderment mixed in with the sense of catastrophe.
But Cordelia doesn’t do these things or have this power over me because she’s my enemy. […] In the war there were enemies. Our boys and the boys from Our Lady of Perpetual Help are enemies. […] With enemies you can feel hatred, and anger. But Cordelia is my friend. She likes me, she wants to help me, they all do. They are my friends, my girl friends, my best friends. I have never had any before and I’m terrified of losing them. I want to please. Hatred would have been easier. With hatred, I would have known what to do. Hatred is clear, metallic, one-handed, unwavering; unlike love.
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.
But in the middle of the Botany examination it comes to me, like a sudden epileptic fit, that I’m not going to be a biologist, as I have thought. I am going to be a painter. I look at the page, where the life cycle of the mushroom from spore to fruiting body is taking shape, and I know this with absolute certainty. My life has been changed, soundlessly, instantaneously. I continue my explication of tubers, bulbs, and legumes, as if nothing has happened.
I go back to my apartment, lie down on the floor. […] I feel as if I’m at the center of nothingness, of a black square that is totally empty; that I’m exploding slowly outward, into the cold burning void of space. When I wake up it’s the middle of the night. I don’t know where I am. I think I’m back in my old room with the cloudy light fixture, in my parents’ house, lying on the floor because I’ve fallen out of bed, as I used to do when we had the army cots. But I know that the house has been sold, that my parents are no longer there. I have somehow been overlooked, left behind.
My brother Stephen died five years ago. I shouldn’t say died: was killed. I try not to think of it as murder, although it was, but as some kind of accident, like an exploding train. Or else a natural catastrophe, like a landslide. What they call for insurance purposes an act of God. He died of an eye for an eye, or someone’s idea of it. He died of too much justice.
Really it’s Cordelia I expect, Cordelia I want to see. There are things I need to ask her. Not what happened, back then in the time I lost, because now I know that. I need to ask her why. […] Perhaps she’s forgotten the bad things, what she said to me, what she did. Or she does remember them, but in a minor way, as if remembering a game, or a single prank, a single trivial secret, of the kind girls tell and then forget. She will have her own version. I am not the center of her story, because she herself is that. But I could give her something you can never have, except from another person: what you look like from outside. A reflection. This is the part of herself I could give back to her. We are like the twins in old fables, each of whom has been given half a key.
Now it’s full night, clear, moonless and filled with stars, which are not eternal as was once thought, which are not where we think they are. If they were sounds, they would be echoes, of something that happened millions of years ago: a word made of numbers. Echoes of light, shining out of the midst of nothing. It’s old light, and there’s not much of it. But it’s enough to