Although Margaret Atwood’s novels have often been described as strongly feminist, Cat’s Eye both engages with and resists feminist ideology. The novel deals extensively with the differences between men and women, yet focuses on cruelties specific to female/female relationships and the fraught nature of developing a female identity. Although the specter of male violence remains present at the outskirts of the novel, the most potent examples of physical and psychological damage in Elaine’s life occur in her relationships with women. Though some feminist narratives depict women as the victims of centuries of male patriarchal violence (and Elaine does not reject those narratives out of hand), Cat’s Eye explores the oft-neglected subject of female cruelty and violence—which, the novel argues, can often remain invisible, even as its consequences last a lifetime.
Although Elaine frequently discusses the nature of girls and boys, she focuses on female cruelty, particularly in childhood. Girls and boys are strictly divided in her school; there is even a “Girls” and a “Boys” door to the school building. Elaine wants “girl friends” desperately at first, but is “not used to girls, or familiar with their customs.” She says, “I feel awkward around them, I don’t know what to say. I know the unspoken rules of boys, but with girls I sense that I am always on the verge of some unforeseen, calamitous blunder.” When Elaine has her own daughters, she feels a deep worry about parenting them instead of sons, because of her own childhood. In fact, “most mothers worry when their daughters reach adolescence but I was the opposite. I relaxed, I sighed with relief. Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life sized.” She consistently refers to the capacity girl children have to hurt each other, because it so often goes unnoticed in comparison to the warlike aggression of young boys.
In particular, Elaine’s relationship to Cordelia highlights the perverse scope that female cruelty can take. Much of the direct violence in that relationship is technically self-inflicted: Elaine describes starting to “bite her fingers” and “peel the skin” off her feet, leaving them raw and tender, when the bullying becomes too extreme. Technically, Cordelia never touches her—Elaine’s mother even tells her daughter to ignore her bullies, as “sticks and stones” are what really hurt people, not words. Yet at one of the novel’s climaxes, Elaine nearly freezes to death because Cordelia has thrown her hat in a river. As small as these actions appear on the surface, it’s clear that they lead to physically violent consequences and, perhaps more importantly, the total destruction of Elaine’s sense of self.
As an adult, Elaine tries going to feminist meetings; however, she ends up feeling uncomfortable with the groups’ ideological insistence on male violence as the main source of women’s pain. She further describes how “pain is important” in these groups, but only “the pain of women.” She considers herself “insufficient of scars” to fit in, in large part because most of her scars came from women and not men. Always something of a skeptic, she feels “guilty of having” too few “positions” or “dogmas.” She calls her heart “a dubious object at best,” and notes that she still shaves her legs.
She also thinks “women know too much”—an insistence reflected in her art. Though she does make paintings about men and women, in these artistic representations she ascribes a lack of intent or emotional depth to men that she does not to women. In her painting Falling Women, she says, “There were no men in this painting, but it was about men,” yet she does not ascribe intentions to them: “They were like the weather, they didn't have a mind… they were like… a line of sharp slippery rocks” that you could take care walking along, but if you slipped, “it was no use blaming the rocks.” By depriving men of intentionality, she softens their violence; if it’s unintentional and mindless, it’s no longer explicitly cruel.
Elaine’s women, on the other hand, have strong traits—her Virgin Mary on the other hand is “fierce, alert to danger, wild,” like a lion with “a gnawed bone” at her feet. Her women fall more often into categories of fierceness and wildness than good or bad—their actions and whatever cruelties come with them are often tied into this sense of wildness and self-preservation, whereas Elaine seems to find men less interesting (and perhaps simpler) as subjects.
This also suggests that female cruelty is perhaps made all the more painful specifically because of the fact that women are already othered by society. That is, their need for self-preservation in a patriarchal world engenders their cruelty, and women’s shared experience of marginalization leads to the ability to cut other women down with vicious precision; “women know too much.” Regardless of its roots, the novel’s focus on the nature of violence and psychological manipulation among female relationships suggests that more explicit violence can be dealt with, whereas invisible cruelties have a ripple effect.
Gender and Cruelty ThemeTracker
Gender and Cruelty Quotes in Cat’s Eye
This is the middle of my life. I think of it as a place, like the middle of a river, the middle of a bridge, halfway across, halfway over. I’m supposed to have accumulated things by now: possessions, responsibilities, achievements, experience and wisdom. I’m supposed to be a person of substance.
What we share, Jon and I, may be a lot like a traffic accident, but we do
share it. We are survivors, of each other. We have been shark to one another, but also lifeboat. That counts for something.
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.
As I turn back, I see my purse, lying on the floor where I put it, and after all these years I should know better. It’s open. The cubicle wall comes down to only a foot above the floor, and back through the gap a noiseless arm is retreating, the hand clutching my wallet. The fingernails are painted Day-Glo green. I bring my shoeless foot down hard on the wrist. There’s a shriek, some loud plural giggling: youth on the fast track, schoolgirls on the prowl. My wallet is dropped, the hand shoots back like a tentacle. I jerk open the door. Damn you, Cordelia! I think. But Cordelia is long gone.
Most mothers worry when their daughters reach adolescence, but I was the opposite. I relaxed, I sighed with relief. Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.
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.
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.
I walk away from her, guilt on my hands, absolving myself: I’m a good person. She could have been dying. Nobody else stopped. I’m a fool, to confuse this with goodness. I am not good. I know too much to be good. I know myself. I know myself to be vengeful, greedy, secretive and sly.
I begin to spend time outside my body without falling over. At these times I feel blurred, as if there are two of me, one superimposed on the other, but imperfectly. There’s an edge of transparency, and beside it a rim of solid flesh that’s without feeling, like a scar. I can see what’s happening, I can hear what’s being said to me, but I don’t have to pay any attention. My eyes are open but I’m not there. I’m off to the side.
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.
I am still a coward, still fearful; none of that has changed. But I turn and walk away from her. It’s like stepping off a cliff, believing the air will hold you up. And it does. I see that I don’t have to do what she says, and worse and better, I’ve never had to do what she says. I can do what I like.
Knowing too much about other people puts you in their power, they have a claim on you, you are forced to understand their reasons for doing things and then you are weakened.
Girls at school learn to look out for my mean mouth and avoid it. I walk the halls surrounded by an aura of potential verbal danger, and am treated with caution, which suits me fine. Strangely enough, my mean behavior doesn’t result in fewer friends, but, on the surface, more. The girls are afraid of me but they know where it’s safest: beside me, half a step behind […] Some of them are already collecting china and housewares, and have Hope Chests. For this kind of thing I feel amused disdain. And yet it disturbs me to learn I have hurt someone unintentionally. I want all my hurts to be intentional.
A wave of blood goes up to my head, my stomach shrinks together, as if something dangerous has just missed hitting me. It’s as if I’ve been caught stealing, or telling a lie; or as if I’ve heard other people talking about me, saying bad things about me, behind my back. There’s the same flush of shame, of guilt and terror, and of cold disgust with myself. But I don’t know
where these feelings have come from, what I’ve done.
We are silent, considering shortfalls. There’s not much time left, for us to become what we once intended. Jon had potential, but it’s not a word that can be used comfortably any more. Potential has a shelf life.
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.
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.
This is what I miss, Cordelia: not something that’s gone, but something that will never happen. Two old women giggling over their tea.