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Elaine’s childhood best friend and worst enemy, Cordelia is both a vicious bully and a victim of bullying herself. Over the course of
Cat’s Eye, Cordelia desperately attempts to find some sort of outlet for her voice, hurting Elaine in the process. Throughout their childhood, Cordelia projects her insecurities and loneliness onto Elaine, tormenting her in similar ways to how Atwood implies that Cordelia’s father tormented her. Cordelia projects onto Elaine frequently in their childhood. For example, Cordelia digs a hole to isolate herself in but pretends to bury Elaine in it, punishing Elaine instead of herself. As Elaine becomes able to hide her emotional connection to Cordelia in their teenage years, Cordelia flounders, searching for some other form of power. She turns to shoplifting so that she can have a feeling of ownership. She flunks out of multiple schools, refusing to follow the path her parents want for her. Her desire to play First Witch in
Macbeth also highlights a desire to play someone with a voice and agency, a harbinger of fate and literally someone who works magic. Her feelings of powerlessness eventually result in a suicide attempt.
As Cordelia physically disappears from the novel, she becomes the stand-in for almost every woman Elaine interacts with. Elaine sees Cordelia in both the shoplifting teenager out to get her and the drunk beggar requiring more help that Elaine can provide. Atwood emphasizes the slipperiness of Cordelia’s identity by never giving her a last name and also through her unusual first name. Cordelia’s name comes from the character of King Lear’s youngest daughter in Shakespeare’s
King Lear, a name associated with a theatrical role, not a real person. When Lear asks his daughters to tell him how much they love him, Cordelia, unsure of what to say, says nothing and hopes her love for her father is self-evident. Just as King Lear mistakenly interprets Cordelia’s silence in the worst way possible, Elaine always sees the worst possible motivations in Cordelia’s actions. The instability of Cordelia’s identity has caused some critics to question whether or not Cordelia actually exists, but others see Elaine projecting heavily onto Cordelia as another sign of Elaine’s inability to come to terms with her past.