Published in 1988, “Cat’s Eye” is a novel about the life of Elaine Risley written by Margaret Atwood. The story follows a controversial artist and her remembrances of her childhood. Her relationship with Cordelia is a major focus on her life and how it affected her relationships throughout her life.
As a child, Elaine was bullied by Cordelia and her two friends. The confusion came from being so young and thinking the cruelty was a form of caring. When an especially cruel trick goes horribly wrong, and Elaine almost dies, the book takes a turn. She separates herself from the girls and begins to harden herself. When she renews her relationship with Cordelia the tables have turned and Elaine is the bully at times.
In her paintings, Elaine shows the relationships. They are modern art, and not everyone can see the story. One of her paintings is a self-portrait with a mirror reflecting the three little girls who terrorized her in the background. Another is a tribute to her brother who was killed by terrorists. While a few show the mother of the girl, who took her to church every Sunday and passed judgments on her.
The book is a great representative of the world as it was following World War II and on into the nineteen eighties. It follows the rise of feminism, and the social mores of the time. Although Atwood has admitted to parts of the story as autobiographical, she is commenting on the social dynamics of young girls. She brilliantly spotlights the cruelties and devotions shared in young girls.
Part One: Iron Lung
“Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimension of space.” Elaine Risley’s brother, Stephen told her that while standing on his head to bring more blood to his brain. Elaine discusses this idea with her best friend, Cordelia while they are riding a street car at thirteen. Elaine remembers thirteen as the age of surety. They could stare people down, they rolled their eyes and scoffed a lot. They pass judgments on the other occupants of the street car. Especially their dress.
Now, as an adult, Elaine wonders if the people just had trouble seeing how they looked in the mirror, as she does now. She wonders what would happen if she met Cordelia now. Would they recognize each other? Then she pictures her like a bag lady or living in an oxygen tent. Later she walks down the street of Toronto and notices all the changes. No streetcars, huge towers. She begins to bite her nails again and recognizes the anxieties.
Part Two: Silver Paper
“Everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.” Elaine is an artist. She has a husband, not her first, and two grown daughters. Her husband is a travel agent, her daughters training to be an accountant and a doctor. Very sensible people, but Elaine is not sensible. On her passport, she put her occupation as a painter, since she is embarrassed to be called an artist.
Elaine’s husband is busy at work since it is almost Christmas and people travel a lot, so she is staying with her first husband, Jon. She is in a retrospective art show. First it is all retro, then it is the morgue. She is laying under a duvet on a futon in his studio. He is in Las Angeles working, but plans to return in time for her show. Jon is an artist, too, so the bathroom is dingy. She puts on a sweat suit and heads down to the gallery where her show is going to be held. There is the poster with the stock photo. “Risley in Retrospect.” Someone drew a mustache on her photo and she wonders if it is random vandal or a message. Elaine sees this as an achievement. She has a face someone took the time to draw a mustache on. Then she wonders if Cordelia will come to her opening and what their meeting would be like.
Elaine remembers the time before she moved to Toronto with her family as a little girl as happy. She sits in the backseat of the family Studebaker, while her brother, Stephen sits in the front because he becomes carsick. The roads are mostly empty because of the war. They sleep in tents or remote motels. The motels and gas stations are often closed because gas is rationed. People don’t travel unless necessary. In the winters they stay in small apartments above other peoples houses. There are flush toilets, and their furniture comes out of storage. In the cities are air raid sirens, although the war doesn’t come as far as Canada. They listen to reports of the war in Britain through a crackly radio. Elaine and Stephen play army, they fish, they hunt for frogs, snakes, and bugs. They don’t fight very often, but when they do it is hushed. They know if they are caught they will both be punished.
On her eighth birthday, they are in a motel and Elaine receives a camera. She’s not sure if she wanted a camera, but she does remember that she wanted a balloon. Now that the war is over, balloons are coming back. But what she wanted was a girl friend. She wanted the kind of friendships she read about in books. Since they don’t stay in one place very long, their mother conducts their education when they are not in school.
On this day they are going to their new home. They have a house that the owner didn’t finish because he went bankrupt. It needs a lot of work, but they all pitch in to make it a home. For the first time, Elaine has her room. At first, they sleep on the floor in sleeping bags, but every day something new arrives. A card table to eat meals, flooring, cots. Their father works on it when he comes home from work. Now her father has changed jobs and now wears suits to work. Instead of a forest insect field researcher, he is a professor at the University. On Saturdays, they go with their dad to the Zoology Building where he works and examines the specimens. One day they see a Santa Parade from the window. After that Elaine always contributes the sights and scents of a lab to Santa Claus.
Part Three: Empire Bloomers
Sometimes Elaine enters into a deep depression. She feels like it is a nothing. She feels herself sinking into that now and calls home to touch base. The sound of her answering machine helps. As she walks along the streets of Toronto, she thinks about the black dress she has for her opening. She stops in a store and tries on a dress in the dressing room. She sees a hand sneaking under the stall trying to steal her wallet out of her open bag. Elaine stomps on the wrist, and it retreats.
Elaine remembers her first days at school in Toronto. Tucking her dress in the legs of her snow suit. She drinks milk from small bottles. At the playground, the boys line up on one line and the girls in another to reenter the school through doors clearly marked “boys” and “girls.” The sexes are separated on the playground, also. The only time she sees her brother at school is while he is standing in line. She is not allowed to talk to him in front of his friends because little boys are teased for having little sisters and mothers. At home they talk through messages slid under their doors and through tin cans attached with strings.
At school, Elaine begins to make girl friends. Carol is her first one because they are the only girls on the bus. From her, she learns about haircuts and beauticians. When she visits her house, Elaine sees a living room Carol is not allowed into and a piano she takes lessons on. After Carol visits Elaine’s house and sees the lack of furniture and work being done, she tells everyone at school that Elaine’s family sleeps on the floor because “we’re from outside the city; that it’s a belief of ours.” Carol is disappointed when their beds arrive. Carol doesn’t repeat the oddities of Elaine’s family out of cruelty, but because she wants them to be marveled at for their uniqueness.
When they take Carol to the University on Saturday, she makes all the appropriate remarks girls made to bugs, etc., “Eww.” Stephen continues to tease her as boys would pretty girls. Carol tells Elaine she is her best friend and points out her other best friend, Grace. She is in an older grade and only plays with Carol on Saturdays. Elaine begins to spend her Saturdays playing with these girls instead of going to the University.
Grace is manipulative. They play the games she wants, or she has a headache and blames them for it. With her, Elaine learns about paper dolls and Veronica Lake. Grace’s mother is different than Carol’s. She doesn’t wear twin sets and has a bad heart. Therefore, Grace is only allowed one friend over at a time. Elaine’s memories of her are of a woman laying on the couch in the living room. Not asleep, but not quite awake either.
Stephen’s friends sometimes congregate in his room to read comic books, or they play outside together. Elaine will join them reading comic books and plays marbles. She likes the Cat’s eyes best. Her favorite is a blue one that she never risks in the games. Stephen is amazing at the game and collects a lot of marbles. Every Saturday he puts them in a jar and buries it under the bridge. Then he makes an elaborate treasure map and buries it, too. Elaine never finds out where they were buried or why.
During the summer, their family travels north and stays in an abandoned logger’s cabin while their father studies caterpillars. When they go back, Elaine’s friends are waiting almost where she left them. But they’ve changed. A new girl is with them. Cordelia.
Cordelia is thin and pretty. She has two older sisters. From Cordelia, Elaine begins to learn about egg cups and bra cups. Her mother is small and fragile. Her daughters are indulgent of her and call her Mummie. They play dress up and put on small plays for themselves with props.
Elaine remembers the year at school. Remembering to keep her knees together since she is wearing a dress, making potholders, fidgety boys, discipline from the teacher. Every morning they sing “God Save the King,” “Rule Britannia,” and the Canadian anthem. They donate to the poor children left from the war in London.
Part Four: Deadly Nightshade
Elaine is checking out the gallery her art is to be shown. She is uncomfortable with the fame and wonders of the paintings on display. She is surprised with an interview by a reporter who wants to know about life as an artist in the seventies. She says her time was the forties. She says there is a difference between people who remember World War two and those who don’t. “We have long attention spans. We eat everything on our plates. We save string. We make do.” When asked about her mentors, Elaine tells the reporter she was taught to paint nudes by a man. The reporter pushes her for a feminist mentor, but she says she is “too old to have invented it, and you’re too young to understand it. So why discuss it?”
Elaine is sitting with her girl friends, Cordelia, Carol, and Grace. They fumble their way through discussions about sex, menstruation, penises, and pregnancy. Grace’s mother invites Elaine to go with them to church. She wants to go since Grace is the desirable friend. Elaine’s mother is unsure, but her father says every educated person should know the Bible. He warns her not to believe everything she hears. After church, she attends Sunday Dinner at Grace’s house and then has to memorize a psalm. Now she begins to worry about Heaven.
Stephen is going through changes, too. He gets a crush on a girl and only tells Elaine about her. When that ends, he gets a chemistry set and does experiment in the basement. Then he gets a star chart and identifies stars. He moves from one obsession to the next.
Part Five: Wringer
Elaine is looking for some food to stock the fridge at Jon’s loft. She wanders through the city, once again remarking on all the changes. She goes into a store she went into with Cordelia years ago. The department store has modernized. She looks at a few clothing items before finding out where the food is. Elaine thinks of her daughters. She wonders at their strength. They never seemed to go through the same harassment she endured.
Part 6: Cat’s Eye
Cordelia’s torture was the kind little girls use on each other. Their barbs are said in helpful tones. There are the admonishes to stand up straight. There are the small barbs about the way she walks, talks, doesn’t talk. When she is alone with Grace or Carol, they report to Cordelia. Elaine’s every action is monitored. When her mother tries to step in, she can’t figure out where to do so. Elaine tries to avoid the girls by claiming she must help her mother; they ask her mother if she can play. Elaine learns that illness keeps her at home and away from school, so she won’t have to see them on the playground or walking to and from the bus. So, she becomes ill often. Then she teaches herself how to faint on command. This prevents some of the bullyings.
Part Seven: Our Lady of Perpetual Help
Finally it comes to a head when Elaine almost freezes to death. At first the bullying was concentrated on one of the other girls and Elaine had actually begun to loosen her tension and laugh. But then Cordelia fell down a hill. At first Elaine thought it was on purpose and gave a small laugh. But, Cordelia didn’t intend the tumble and was embarrassed so she lashed out at Elaine. She took her hat went up on the rickety bridge and through it in the water. She insisted Elaine go down into the river bank, a place they were forbidden to go because the derelicts hung out there. Elaine knew she had no choice. When she stepped out onto the ice to rescue her hat she went through. She was in frozen water to her waist and stuck. When she screamed and looked up for help, the girls had fled.
Elaine slowly managed to get out of the water, but she was frozen. She laid down on the bank and waited to die. But she saw the Virgin Mary, who helped her get up and make her way home. Elaine had begun to lean towards the Virgin Mary when she encountered the “Christians” at Grace’s church. They made unchristian remarks within her hearing that were some of the basis for the cruelty dealt out by their daughters. Grace’s mother said Elaine deserved the rough treatment she was getting from the other girls because her family did not attend their church.
Her mother found her walking to her home. She did not have frost bite, but it was a close call. Her mother was frantic but handled the warming up the process with calm. Elaine told her the girls were not there and she fell in a while trying to retrieve her hat. But her mother knew what had happened and called the girl’s mothers. When Elaine was well enough to return to school, the girls tried to blame her for getting them in trouble, but she denied it. Finally, she found the strength to stand up to the girls and broke off her friendships with them. What ever tactic they tried she rebuffed. She felt stronger every day.
Part Eight: Half a Face
Elaine began to make other friends. Cordelia and Grace left for another school, and Carol moved. Slowly Elaine started to forget all the cruelty done by them. Soon she could hardly remember them at all. So when Cordelia moved back a year later, Elaine agreed to walk with her to school and back.
Cordelia and Elaine were both starting in the new high school. Elaine was twelve but had been put up a grade and Cordelia had been put back for bad behavior in the school she had transferred to. Since it was a new school and they only knew each other, they spent a lot of time together. Sometimes Elaine would feel uneasy about certain things that would remind her of Cordelia’s cruelties, but she had almost completely blocked it all out.
Part Nine: Leprosy
Adult Elaine is woken from a deep sleep. The interview she gave is in the entertainment section of the paper, and the gallery organizers are thrilled. There are pictures of some of her paintings in the paper. She thinks of the one painting she did of Cordelia. It is titled half a face although all of her faces is visible. These thoughts bring her back to her eleventh-grade year. She and Cordelia have switched places, and Elaine has become the bully. She uses quick and hurtful words. She especially uses her hurtful words on Cordelia. She begins to go out with boys because she is more comfortable around them than girls. Her brother teases her about them and makes bets on how long each one will last. Cordelia doesn’t date as often. Something about her makes boys uncomfortable.
The girls go on double dates, study together, and have dinner at each other’s houses. Cordelia doesn’t do as well in school because she won’t concentrate. When they have dinner at Elaine’s house, the dinner table conversation is about science. At Cordelia’s, it depends on whether her father is there or not. When he is not there, dinner is haphazard, when he is it is formal.
While talking one evening, something Cordelia says brings back some of the emotions Elaine had been blocking. She begins to remember the cruelties and starts to avoid Cordelia in small ways. Soon Cordelia’s family moves to another neighborhood, and the friendship drifts away. One day Cordelia phones asking Elaine to visit her. She takes the subway across town. During their visit Cordelia says that she has a tutor and is failing her classes. She doesn’t care. Then she begins to remind Elaine of more of the past treatment. Finally, Elaine leaves promising to call her. The both know she won’t.
Part Ten: Life Drawing
Adult Elaine has dinner with her first husband, Jon. They talk easily about their daughter and his marriage. He and his wife have separated. After dinner, they part ways. Elaine remembers her first time to draw a nude woman. She was seventeen and in art class at University. Her parents had been concerned when she said she wanted to study art instead of biology. This is where she meets her first husband, Jon. He is studying art, too.
In April Stephen gets arrested. He is studying Astrophysics in California. He wandered onto a military base while chasing a butterfly. He is happy in his studies. Elaine goes back to school and spends time with her friend’s boyfriend, Josef. They begin to sleep together. She is unhappy. One day Cordelia calls. She ran away from home and is acting in small plays. She has decided to become an actress. On a night that Josef is with Susie, instead of Elaine, Jon comes over. They spend some time together, and he kisses her.
Part Eleven: Falling Women
Elaine and Jon become lovers. She is still sleeping with Josef, too. One night Susie calls her to come over. When Elaine arrives, she finds that Susie tried to abort a baby and is bleeding profusely. She goes with her to the hospital. When they finally find Josef he is sad but not as remorseful as Elaine thinks he should be. She knows he would not have married Susie, so does she. Susie tells him she never wants to see him again. Now he gives all his devotion to Elaine, who also spurns him.
Now she decides she is in love with Jon, although he continues to see other girls. When Elaine graduates, she discovers there is not much she can do with a degree in art. Eventually, she lands a job in advertising and gets a small apartment. Jon spends most nights with her there.
Her parents sell the house and move north. Her father retires from the University and goes back to research full time. Elaine gets postcards from her mother and Stephen. One day she gets a postcard from Stephen that he got married then two years later she gets one with the statue of liberty and, “Got divorced.”
One day Elaine receives a post card that Stephen will be in Toronto to deliver a speech on paper in physics. She hasn’t seen him in years and barely recognizes him. When she talks to him, she realizes they barely know each other.
Jon spends more and more time at her apartment. He is slowly moving his things in. She doesn’t ask what he does when he is not with her, or who he is with. Then one day, to her surprise, she finds out she is pregnant. Elaine continues to paint but doesn’t want to tell Jon about the pregnancy. Finally, she tells him, and they get married. Sarah is born, and they both love her. They move into a larger apartment. Jon gets a job in graphics, Elaine paints at night. They begin to fight.
Elaine joins a group of women artists. They put on feminist art shows. A lot of obvious hating towards men. Jon becomes angrier. The there first show receives mixed reviews. Cordelia calls her from an asylum. She overdosed on sleeping pills and is now being kept there. She asks Elaine to get her out, but Elaine worries about having her around Sarah. She tells her she can’t help her leave the asylum and takes her back. Three months later Elaine tries to reach out, but the letter comes back address unknown.
Part Twelve: One Wing
Elaine meets Jon for dinner. They go back to her room and make love. She asks him to come to her retrospect, but he declines. Elaine remembers when their marriage fell apart. Women called the house for Jon. Finally, they had a fight about it. He accused her of sleeping around; she told him she didn’t have time even if she wanted too, and he was coming home late. Finally, she confronted him about the girl that called the house and he left to spend time with his girlfriend.
That winter is rough. Sarah is sick a lot, and so is Elaine. She doesn’t paint. One night Jon doesn’t come home until late. When he does, he finds that Elaine has tried to cut her wrist. At the emergency room, she tells the doctor it was an accident. Finally, she gets the courage to leave Jon. She takes Sarah to Vancouver. There she sees a therapist and starts to paint again. She meets Ben and marries him. He is ten years older and more established. He has a grown son and adores Sarah. They have Anne. Her parent’s visit and Stephen sends small gifts for Sarah and postcards.
Part Thirteen: Picoseconds
Five years earlier Stephen was murdered by terrorists. They had taken the plane he was on hostage and used him as an example of what they would do. Her father dies quickly afterward and her mother follows a year later.
Elaine learns from her mother that Carol, Cordelia, and Grace came to her the day Elaine fell through the ice and told her Elaine had been kept late at school. If she had believed them, she wouldn’t have gone looking for her. They go through the boxes in storage, and Elaine finds the Cat’s eye marble she used to carry around with her. Suddenly her memories return.
Part Fourteen: Unified Field Theory
Elaine puts on her black dress and goes to the gallery. She looks at all the paintings she has done over the years. She sees the people from her past, as well as the one she did for her brother. It’s called One Wing. It’s a triptych with a WWII plane and a soldier holding a wooden sword falling out. Although many people show up, Elaine continues to look for Cordelia. She never shows. After the show, Elaine goes home exhausted. She drinks coffee and cries. Cordelia must be dead.
Part Fifteen: Bridge
Elaine goes to the bridge to see where she went into the water. She thinks she sees Cordelia, but she doesn’t. The book closes with Elaine looking at two old women giggling together on the flight home. She thinks that she misses having that time with Cordelia. Just two old women giggling over their tea.
Elaine Risley – a renowned artist who returns to Toronto for a retrospect showing of her art. She spends the time remembering the days of her young girlhood when she was the victim of a bully. She had a strong family. Her father was an entomologist and professor while her mother was warm and loving. Her brother was a genius. She became a controversial artist who opened the doors of feminism.
Elaine was always more comfortable with males and struggled throughout her life to understanding and deal with women.
Stephen Risley – Elaine’s brother. The two were close even though his mind moved from project to project. He was extremely intelligent. He moved through school quickly and specialized in physics as well as biology and other subjects. He had numerous awards and published many papers on his theories. He was randomly selected while on a plane taken by terrorists and killed.
Cordelia – Elaine’s nemesis and best friend. When they were young Cordelia terrorized Elaine emotionally. She was cruel and punished her emotionally until it eclipsed when Elaine was almost killed while being forced into a frozen lake. Their friendship began again years later when they were teens, and Elaine had blocked out the damage done by Cordelia. Now Elaine was the one given to cruelty. They separated again and came together again briefly when Cordelia was in a rest home after her acting career went badly and she tried to kill herself.
Jon – Elaine’s first husband. A fellow artist, he had trouble settling down to life as a husband and father. After Elaine had tried to kill herself when he continued to see other women, she left him. They repaired their relationship and had become distant friends.
Grace – one of the girls in Elaine’s childhood group. Grace was the girl who took Elaine to the church where she met a new group to bully her. Grace would report back to Cordelia any slips Elaine committed that she should be punished for.
Carol – another of the girls who aided in bullying Elaine. Although they were the same age, she was also fearful of Cordelia and went along in the bullying.
Ben – Elaine’s current husband and the father of her second daughter. He is a travel agent and thinks her art is amazing. He is a good man. He makes her content and happy.
Mrs. Risley – Elaine’s mother. She is kind. She wears pants when other mothers wear dresses. She bakes even though she doesn’t like to cook. A caring mother who is often at her wit’s end with her children who are often very introspective.
Mr. Risley – Elaine’s father. A professor at the University and an entomologist. He took Elaine and her brother to the lab at the University every Saturday so they could learn about what he was studying. He took the family on expeditions of study every summer until the children were old enough to be home alone. Then he would take his wife. He retired after the children were grown and continued his studies full time.
Margaret Atwood Biography
Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada on November 18, 1939. She is an environmental activist in addition to being a novelist, poet, and businesswoman. Margaret Atwood writes science fiction, dystopian and historical fiction.
In 1957 she graduated high school in Toronto, then attended the Victoria College at the University of Toronto beginning at the age of sixteen. This was when she decided she wanted to write professionally. Atwood began published poetry and articles in her college paper. In 1961, she graduated with a Bachelor Degree in English with honors and a minor in philosophy and French. Also in 1961 she won the E. J. Pratt Medal for her privately printed book of poetry.
At this time, Atwood began graduate studies at Harvard’s Radcliffe College with a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. In 1962 she had a master’s degree. Atwood also started her doctoral studies at Harvard, but didn’t finish her dissertation on “The English Metaphysical Romance.”
She was an English Professor at the University of British Columbia in 1965, Sir George Williams University in 1967 to 1968, the University of Alberta from 1969 to 1970, York University from 1971 to 1972, and the University of Alabama in 1985. Atwood was also a Berg Professor of English at the New York University.
Although her books bring to light feminism, she doesn’t think her writing falls under that framework, since she would have had to choose to write that way consciously. When critics try to place her books such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” into the category of science fiction, Atwood argued that she wrote them as speculative fiction. Her stance is that science fiction has monsters and spacemen, whereas speculative fiction could happen.
The LongPen or a method of remote robotic writing was a concept designed by Margaret Atwood in 2004. With this method, a person can write in ink anywhere in the world by using a tablet PC and the internet. This technology allows her to do remote book signings. She formed Unotchit, a company that produces and distributes the technology. The company shifted to businesses and legal transactions in 2011.
In 2014, a chamber opera written by Margaret Atwood was performed at Vancouver’s York Theatre. The opera is the story of Pauline Johnson, a Canadian writer, and performer set in 1913.
Margaret Atwood was very Anti-American during the 1960s and 1970s. When Canada and the United States were debating on the free trade agreement, Atwood spoke against the measure. She is a staunch environmentalist and was an honorary co-president of the Rare Bird Club with her partner, Graeme Gibson. When the University of Toronto tried to put in an artificial turf field, she threatened to cut them out of her will.
Future Library Project was conceived by Katie Paterson in 2014. The idea is to gather an original story from popular writers every year until 2114. The manuscripts will be held in a specially designed room in Oslo. Margaret Atwood wrote Scribbler Moon as the first contribution. She laughingly thinks that in one hundred years when the book is finally read, they will need a paleo- anthropologist to translate the story.