Cat’s Eye unfolds across two separate but interweaving timelines, which depict different phases in the life of its artist-protagonist, Elaine Risley. The timelines of the novel jump back and forth between Elaine’s childhood growing up poor in Toronto following the second World War and her recent (and reluctant) return to the city for her first retrospective exhibition as an aging painter. The novel’s structure itself thus reflects Elaine’s skepticism about the notion of linear time; she states explicitly that time is not a line but a dimension, and this alters the way that the narrative perceives the borders between past, present, and future. With dimensional time, the past does not remain strictly past—unlike with linear time, which marches inevitably forward, things that are lost may inevitably recur or reappear; nothing goes away. The novel suggests that the dimensionality of time manifests most directly through the acts of remembering and forgetting, through which the past may continue to influence the present and future.
Elaine encounters the notion of dimensional time through her brother, Stephen, a physics student who teaches her, “Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.” He believes that one could bend time if they knew enough and could “travel backward in time and exist in two places at once” if they travelled faster than light. This leads Elaine to “think of time as having a shape … like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another.” As a consequence, “sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing.” The scientific explanation that she introduces here establishes the groundwork for the novel’s structure: rather than a straightforward narrative that starts in the past and ends in the future, Cat’s Eye layers Elaine’s past and present and explores the elements of her life that recur or double back.
The structure of the novel itself reflects this resistance to linearity, as it interweaves two different timelines that develop at different paces. Elaine’s childhood timeline proceeds in fits and spurts—it starts in the 1940s as the war is still going on, and continues until after she marries, has her own children, and divorces. The “present moment” timeline occurs over a very condensed period of a couple of days, from Elaine’s arrival in Toronto through the night of her retrospective exhibition. In this timeline, Elaine reflects on the past and as well as her current, more disturbed experience of time. At one point, she finds herself in the living room “not knowing exactly how” she got there, except “a little time jump.” Some of this she ascribes to aging, “early Alzheimers,” but other aspects of her mix-ups in time come from her memories mixing with her experience of the present. She describes this as “the middle of my life … halfway across, halfway over … I’m supposed to be a person of substance,” but “since coming back here I don’t feel weightier. I feel lighter, as if I’m shedding matter…” except instead of rising, “I descend … I am dragged downward, into the layers of this place as into liquified mud.” The place she refers to is Toronto and being in that space drags her back to the time of her childhood.
Even objects and images that Elaine ostensibly forgets reappear throughout the novel, attesting to non-linear time that exceeds the bounds of conscious memory. Elaine was bullied during her childhood, a fact that the narrative introduces in a linear way. However, she also later forgets that experience of bullying, and describes it as “missing time,” which only her mother describes as “that bad time” she had. She had “forgotten all of the bad things that happened,” and the names of her childhood friends became “like names in a footnote” with “no emotion attached.” This process of forgetting supports the illusion of a linear life, but forgetting can also be less permanent than it seems.
Indeed, in one of the novel’s most climactic moments, Elaine rediscovers a cat’s eye marble that she had hidden in her parents’ basement as a childhood. She had acquired it during a phase where all the students in her school collected marbles obsessively, and it forms a symbolic space of solace for her: when she looks at it, “she can see the way it sees … she can look at [people’s] shapes and sizes … without feeling anything else about them.” This clarity protects her from being completely overwhelmed by bullying. Although she had forgotten the marble, its discovery causes her to “look into it and see my life entire.” The marble, a fragment of her past, contains the key to unlock an entire flood of memories—this demonstrates the mysterious ways that the past can intrude on the present, and that one does not have control over the arc of one’s life.
The concept of the preservation of the past developed in Cat’s Eye provides only a cold comfort to the inevitability of death and loss. Elaine’s body “ticks like a clock” because “time is inside it”; she is aging, and she will die. While she resists linearity in the form of perception and memory, there is also an undercurrent of mortality in the novel—while the present might be composed of fragments of the past, there remains the sense that both one’s individual life and that of the universe itself is leading up to something: an ultimate disappearance. The preservation of the past that the novel explores entails not a permanent or eternal preservation, but rather a proof that the present itself is composed of elements that don’t disappear because of memory. Memories of the past compose one’s experience of the present, the way that tinted glasses alter the way one sees the world.
Time and Memory ThemeTracker
Time and Memory 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.
This is what I miss, Cordelia: not something that’s gone, but something that will never happen. Two old women giggling over their tea.
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