Monday, 15 December 2014

Review: Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

by Holly Govey

Possibly one of the most intriguing, captivating and thought-provoking novels I have ever read, Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood, discloses the haunting story of controversial painter Elaine Risley as she vividly reflects on the events of her childhood and the way in which they have shaped her personality. Albeit unique, her story can be amplified to represent the perpetual construction of identity, where the notion of humankind’s paradoxical relationship with the past is mirrored by Elaine’s disorientation as she struggles to integrate lost aspects of herself. In this way, Cat’s Eye explores many ideas which correlate to my identity, allowing me to draw implicit parallels between events in her childhood and that of my own life, thus facilitating the novel as an interesting and insightful read.

Elaine’s strongest memories are of Cordelia, the worst perpetrator of a trio of girls, whose actions tint her perceptions of relationships and her world, echoing Sigmund Freud’s belief: that much in adult identity is formed in early childhood. However, in contrast to this novel he states that these childhood ordeals can be constructive, stating that “One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.” Conversely, the bullying Elaine suffered throughout her childhood, which instigated her depression and the decline in her perspective of self worth, continued well into her adult life. This idea is further sustained with her reflection on the significance of these events on her present life as she reiterates that, “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life sized.”  This epitomises the impact of childhood trauma and also the way in which children can easily stray from reality, causing them to hyperbolise events due to their distorted perspective of the world, thus imploring us to question the reliability of Elaine’s account of her childhood.

Atwood presents the development of relationships and the process of growing up as the impartial observations of an entomologist looking at a bug under a microscope (alluding to Elaine’s scientist parents) and this detached narration mirrors Elaine’s attempts to isolate the recurring memories of her past. Girl culture is a prominent theme in this novel, emphasised by the persistent presence of certain ideas, for example, the culture of fashion scrapbooks, makeup, of dating etiquette, relationships with brothers, and of knowing your place in the hierarchy of female friendship. These concepts are universal, thus allowing me to relate to Elaine's experiences and the way in which she hardens to this girl culture, becoming a sharpened and bored high-school girl with a "mean mouth," not impervious to this culture of women but simply afraid of it. The effect of these societal pressures renders Elaine apprehensive and creates in her a sceptic who trusts no one due to the wounds inflicted on her from her childhood

Furthermore, this novel also highlights the ubiquitous existence of human consumerism, a theme popular in many of Atwood's novels, advocated through Elaine’s realization of her needs of material entities; purses, nightgowns and makeup. In the crux of her relationship with these three cruel girls, Elaine starts consuming herself, chewing on her hair, biting the skin around her nails and the hard flesh on the bottoms of her feet. In spite of this, Elaine stays with these girls because, a childhood spent with malicious friends is better than a childhood spent alone, especially for girls. This belief may elucidate Elaine’s actions as, at the summit of their cruelties, after the girls torment her to her breaking point, she takes all of her hard-earned babysitting money, quits her babysitting job, and spends all the earnings on candy, which she gives to the girls. They consume it, and in a way, Elaine feels consumed, as she mistakes this for love and they take up her mind and attention yet destroy her internally. This vicious cycle of consumerism echoes the nature of our society, both in financial terms and relationships as the effects of girlhood literally eat away at a child until she is nothing but the product of her environment.

The novel is rooted in Canada in the mid-20th century, and includes an exploration of many contemporary cultural elements, including feminism and various modern art movements. Atwood portrays the Feminist Movement from the perspective of one who lived through it, by depicting a protagonist who finds herself threatened by the strength of the feminine rabble that zealously lead the way, albeit she experiences scratches of guilt for ignoring the call to sisterhood. Elaine feels she is not worthy to join the cause because she is stubbornly heterosexual, unforgivably fond of men and a mother, and states that “Forgiving men is so much easier than forgiving women” emphasising her bias towards males, which may originate through her traumatic experiences of female relationships throughout her childhood years. Although I appreciate those who changed the world for the better, I don’t think I would have had the requisite anger or courage to promote change had I been alive at the time; however, it is interesting to perceive an alternative perception of this era.

In utilising a female focaliser and exploiting analepsis to explore aspects of her protagonist’s history, Atwood’s novel harbours an implicit echo of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, written in 1925. Although diverse in eras- as Mrs Dalloway provides an insight into the first wave feminism of the early 20th centuries focused on overturning legal inequalities, particularly women's suffrage, whereas Cat’s Eye’s late 20th century publication refers to the broadened debate over cultural inequalities, in particular sexual liberation for women- these two novels are equivalent in their character’s meditations on the effects and significance of their pasts. Mrs Dalloway takes place on a single day in June 1923, and follows the heroine from early morning through to night, on which she gives a large formal party, whilst her mind constantly returns to the past and she becomes obsessed with her memories of an adolescent romance. Mirrored by this structure, Cat’s Eye charts Elaine’s movements in the present as she prepares for a retrospective show of her art, whilst reminiscing about her childhood years. A further echo is distinguished in the similarities between the end of both characters’ narratives, where Elaine’s reflections on her self-portrait, which reflects three little girls in the back glass of her painting is paralleled by Mrs Dalloway’s confrontation with forgotten associates from her past.

By employing the title “Cat’s Eye”, Atwood creates a sense of the multi-dimensional shape of time which exists only in our minds, where Elaine’s prized possession of a cat’s eye marble represents the looking glass of how others see her and the way in which our lives can be reduced in significance. When Elaine rediscovers the marble years later and looks through it, she regains the memories she had lost, “her life entire”. The marble also served Elaine as a protective amulet- linked to the symbolic allusion of eyes- and appeared as a common motif in her paintings, linked with those she perceived to be an ally. In this way, one of her most important paintings depicts the Virgin Mary carrying her marble over the bridge, a real life event that occurred during Elaine’s childhood when she was left to freeze to death in the ravine by her friends. My controversial interpretation of the marble is that it can be amplified to represent Elaine herself, where the deep scarring of her sinister childhood instigated her to lose herself and memories, leaving her to become a “cat’s eye”. In this way she is as cold as marble, detached and devoid of feeling, encompassed by glass- surrounded by reflections of her past, and hard yet fragile- as cracks are starting to appear on the surface of the carefully constructed mask of her appearance and identity.

Cat’s Eye closes with an optimistic tone by articulating the juxtaposition between Elaine’s gradual rise to personal and artistic success in contrast to the lives of the tormentors of her youth which spiral downward into mediocrity and oblivion, epitomized by Cordelia who fails to establish a strong identity for herself and ends up in a mental institution. More pessimistically the novel also grapples with the new scientific paradigm, where the cosmological uncertainty is paralleled with the uncertainty that defines the lives of the characters, in this way serving as a good representation of the epoch that we live in. Similarly the delivery at the end of the novel, an eye for an eye only leads to more blindness”, conveys the notion that to achieve inner peace and facilitate self preservation, one must understand and forgive, although not forget- which I believe is a relevant and  imperative concept today.

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