Both of the timelines in Cat’s Eye confront themes of war and catastrophe. Elaine comes of age in the period immediately following the Second World War and describes a childhood defined by the social and economic effects of the fighting. She specifically focuses as much on the distinctive effect that it had on social values of the period, encouraging a sense of thrift and national unity. In the book’s more recent timeline, however, contemporary society faces looming environmental disaster in part brought about by selfish consumerism. The novel contrasts the different ways that large-scale catastrophes shape both population-wide and individual experiences: whereas the war left behind some ambivalent and even positive values of national community, the large-scale catastrophes still approaching support a nihilistic worldview—if everything and everyone will disappear anyway, holding onto constructive hope becomes increasingly difficult for the narrator.
References to the war permeate Elaine’s childhood narrative. She and her family have a migratory lifestyle because of her father’s job researching “spruce budworms,” which Elaine discovers later in life was “considered essential to the war effort.” They hear “air raid sirens,” though their “mother says the war will never come here.” Still, war “filters in over the radio, remote and crackly, the voices from London facing through the static.” As Canadians, their experience of the war is limited to what was communicated at a distance—which clearly leads to a tense atmosphere and a sense of waiting but does not come with any real sense of danger. Even so, the war affects her family on several layers. Researchers are not well paid, and as such the family lives nomadically and off rations during the period. When they settle in Toronto, their neighbors look down on their poverty and “ragamuffin” lifestyle.
However, the scope of the war’s impact extends beyond the negative. It instills positive values of thrift and a conscious relationship to material objects, as well as a strong national spirit—Elaine’s teacher Mrs. Lumley makes them sing “God Save the King” to celebrate the free British spirit (although they are technically Canadian), and Elaine—along with the whole town—celebrates when Princess Elizabeth comes to visit. While Elaine does not consider nationalism positive in a direct sense—she expresses extreme ambivalence to all ideology, in fact—this does lead to a sense of unity and hope.
Although Elaine only realizes this in hindsight, the war led to a society and an entire generation opposed to waste and aware of a sense of community. She thus complains about consumerism in the modern day and says that there is a difference between people that remember the Second World War and those that don’t: “We have long attention spans […] we eat everything on our plates. We save string. We make do.” An aversion to wastefulness was born in the war, which impacted an entire generation. Meanwhile, the environmental catastrophes looming on the horizon are directly tied to higher consumerism and waste, and generations forgetting to value thrift.
Elaine also reflects on natural catastrophes in both time periods: in her childhood, her father references environmental destruction but is rarely taken seriously, whereas these themes become common place in her later life. At one point, Elaine’s father shows her an infestation of budworms, saying, “Remember this… you won’t see an infestation like this again for a long time.” Elaine thinks that this is “the way I’ve heard people talk about forest fires, or the war: respect and wonderment mixed in with the sense of catastrophe.” The emotions that she ties to war and catastrophe here are not singularly negative—one of them is a sense of wonder, which exposes the ambiguity that people can feel in relation to these large, defining events. Catastrophes cause a sense of wonderment as well as doom; they are fascinating but make one’s life feel more precarious.
In fact, Elaine’s father often discussed the fate of the human race at the kitchen table. He predicts that an increase of methane-producing cows will cause the earth to “become a giant greenhouse. The polar seas will melt and New York will be under six feet of water.” However, Elaine’s brother Stephen dismisses this apocalyptic prediction about the fate of the human race to say, “if the sun went supernova it would be eight minutes before we’d see it.” He claims, “sooner or later we’re going to be a cinder anyway… so why worry about a few cows more or less?” Elaine sees this as a victory on her brother’s part, as “whoever cares the most will lose.” The two themes of war and natural catastrophe weave together to create a picture of the lack of control that humans have over their fate—but where the war brought with it a sense of national community and of thrift, the looming threat of environmental catastrophe seems to make all values moot.
In some ways, wars represent the past and natural disaster the future when it comes to the narrative’s relationship to catastrophe. Wars generally occur for fixed periods of time—even when they end, they continue to mark and define a society, but as they are human-driven they can eventually be forgotten. Natural catastrophe, on the other hand, marks humanity’s hubris—while scientists like Elaine’s father might predict them, average citizens tend to dismiss those predictions without overwhelming evidence; there is no space in the present for thoughts of future catastrophe, whereas the past cannot be escaped. Perhaps paradoxically, wartime breeds a spirit of hope, as nations come together to fight a common enemy—in contrast, these environmental catastrophes are sparked by accidental individual actions and come with a sense of doom.
War vs. Environmental Catastrophe ThemeTracker
War vs. Environmental Catastrophe Quotes in Cat’s Eye
“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 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.
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.