Much of the novel confronts how identities form in adolescent relationships. As a child, Elaine experiences severe bullying at the hands of her closest friends, which scars her and affects the work she later produces as an artist. However, Elaine does not merely take on the role of the victim—she also observes the ways in which she begins to merge with her bullies—Cordelia in particular—and take on some of their traits and behaviors. She notes both how these childhood cruelties impact her self-image and how her ability to identify with those who inflicted such cruelties shape her all the more intensely. Atwood’s coming of age story ultimately depicts an intertwining of love and aggression that exposes the role that conflict plays in forming one’s identity.
Elaine’s best friend and worst influence is Cordelia, the friend who bullies her in childhood, acts as a chaotic companion in adolescence, and haunts her adulthood. In the first movement of this relationship, Cordelia moves to Elaine’s neighborhood during the summer and alters the dynamic of her friend group. Cordelia becomes the de facto leader of the former trio, egging on Grace and Carol in twisted games of psychological manipulation, which culminate in Elaine’s near death by freezing. However, Elaine continues to love her, though “Hatred would have been easier […] Hatred is clear, metallic, one-handed, unwavering; unlike love.” The depth of the damage was possible due to her love for Cordelia, which made her vulnerable.
While the story could have ended with this lesson about bullying, Cordelia and Elaine become friends again in high school and their dynamic begins to reverse. Elaine becomes cold and hurts both Cordelia and other classmates but says “it disturbs me to learn I have hurt someone unintentionally. I want all my hurts to be intentional.” She develops a vicious side that directly mirrors the way that Cordelia acted towards her years before—but this viciousness is still dissonant with her core instincts. Instead, it stems from a desire to understand Cordelia and, thus, better understand her own childhood.
By the end of the novel, the dynamic established in childhood has almost entirely reversed. Cordelia suffers failure after failure, unable to go to college and experiencing mental health break-downs that result in institutionalization. Elaine, on the other hand, builds both a family and a career—though she also suffers, by all standards her life is happier than Cordelia’s. Even when she gives money to a woman begging for help, Elaine says, “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.” The traits she names in herself mirror those she identifies in Cordelia, demonstrating the ultimate inversion of their roles and extent to which this relationship has shaped Elaine’s own sense of self.
Unfortunately, Elaine’s desire to understand Cordelia’s perspective can never be fulfilled. She wants Cordelia’s version of the story, where she is not the center—she says, “But I could give her something you can never have, except from another person: what you look like from outside. A reflection. This is 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 desire for reflection and for being seen from the outside justifies the push and pull tension between the pair, and explains the process through which individuals, who yearn to be seen and understood, come to resemble each other even in cruelty.
Even in her later romantic relationships, Elaine describes a tendency towards spiking hostility and aggression that occurs between her and her partners, which reinforces her relationship between conflict and identity formation. She pursues a romantic and sexual relationship with her mentor and art teacher Mr. Hrbik, which reflects undertones of the strange dynamic she had had with Cordelia. She describes “I walk away from him. It's enormously pleasing to me, this walking away. It's like being able to make people appear and vanish, at will.” Some of her cruelty appears to be, therefore, a desire for control.
Later, she falls in love with and ultimately marries Jon, but their relationship is also deeply defined by conflict and tension. They fight and throw things at one another, and, “The things I throw miss, although they are worse things. The things he throws hit, but are harmless,” and she starts to see “how the line is crossed, between histrionics and murder.” The intensity behind this relationship reflects Elaine’s clear association between romantic love, identification, and aggression—love, for her, manifests in relationships of mutual conflict. After her divorce with Jon, she says “What we share may be a lot like a traffic accident but we get one another. We are survivors of each other. We have been shark to one another, but also lifeboat. That counts for something.” She does not categorize this relationship as abusive—nor does she categorize Cordelia in her childhood as the sole aggressor. Instead, she notes in both of these cases how violent behavior from one party shapes and fuels the other to become a more violent and cruel person in return.
Ultimately, the picture of identity formation that arises through the novel is not one of each individual having an inherent natural identity that is built into them at birth, but rather one built from complicated and tense exchange. While individuals might be influenced by their families, their environments, or their friendships, the things that leave the strongest and most indelible marks in every situation have to do with conflict. Conflict leaves scars that run deeper than compassionate relationships throughout this narrative—and one of the most significant ways it does so is in the ways that individuals come to mirror and reflect traits of cruelty to each other. This does not have to be inevitable—Elaine hopes that her daughters have escaped this cycle of violence—but the cycle that she describes, beginning with her family and Cordelia and extending throughout her life—molds aspects of her identity that dramatically define her worldview.
Identity and Conflict ThemeTracker
Identity and Conflict Quotes in Cat’s Eye
Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backward in time and exist in two places at once […] But I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.
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.
There are days when I can hardly make it out of bed. I find it an effort to speak. I measure progress in steps, the next one and the next one, as far as the bathroom. These steps are major accomplishments. I focus on taking the cap off the toothpaste, getting the brush up to my mouth. I have difficulty lifting my arm to do even that. I feel I am without worth, that nothing I can do is of any value, least of all to myself. What do you have to say for yourself? Cordelia used to ask. Nothing, I would say. It was a word I came to connect with myself, as if I was nothing, as if there was nothing there at all. Last night I felt the approach of nothing.
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.
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.
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.
My father has eaten everything on his plate and is digging for more stuffing in the cavity of the turkey, which resembles a trussed, headless baby. It has thrown off its disguise as a meal and has revealed itself to me for what it is, a large dead bird. I’m eating a wing. It’s the wing of a tame turkey, the stupidest bird in the world, so stupid it can’t even fly any more. I am eating lost flight.
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.
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.
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.
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.