Margaret Atwood is a prolific Canadian novelist, poet, essayist, and critic. Her work often deals with themes of feminism, ecology, and nationalism. Born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, in 1939 to Carl Atwood, a forest entomologist, and Margaret Dorothy Atwood, a dietician, Atwood grew up traveling around the bush country of Northern Canada while her father conducted his research. Around the time Atwood turned twelve, her family settled in Toronto for the majority of the year but continued to spend summers in the bush country. Atwood began writing stories, plays, and comics at the age of six, and at the age of sixteen, she decided she wanted to be a writer. She graduated with honors from Victoria College at the University of Toronto, where she also wrote for the college literary journal, Acta Victoriana. She received a master’s degree from Radcliffe College, which became part of Harvard University. Her first published poetry collection, Double Persephone, came out in 1961 and won the E. J. Pratt medal. Her first novel,
Atwood began writing notes for the book that would become Cat’s Eye in 1964 while teaching in the English Department at the University of British Columbia. After writing other works, Atwood returned to these notes in the mid-1980s with a desire to write a realistic story that touched on the material culture she remembered from growing up in the 1940s and 50s. She also wanted to write about the ages of eight to twelve, when children are generally socialized in gender-segregated groups, because she considered this time of development to be largely unexplored. Atwood noted that little girls often express a particular type of cruelty that she explored in her novel, and she worried before the book’s release that people wouldn’t want to read a depiction of girlhood that portrayed girls as vicious and cruel. However, the book was released in Canada in 1988 to generally positive reviews and was a finalist for both the Governor General's Award and the Booker Prize.
Critics describe Cat’s Eye as Atwood’s most autobiographical work, noting significant overlap between the protagonist Elaine’s life and Atwood’s own. Cat’s Eye was published right as Atwood approached the age of 50, around Elaine’s age in the novel. Both of their fathers are entomologists who lament the widespread use of spray pesticides. Just like Elaine, Atwood grew up traveling around with little formal schooling in her early life. In her collected essays on writing, Negotiating with the Dead, Atwood describes her early encounters with little girls who found insects disgusting in a very similar manner to Elaine’s first confusing friendship with Carol. Elaine’s ambivalence about being considered a feminist artist and discomfort around what it means to be both a woman and an artist also mirrors comments Atwood has made in essays and interviews. Like Elaine, Atwood famously dislikes critics attempting to label or categorize her or her work. Furthermore, Atwood has spoken on her difficulty in finding female role models in the literary world because so many female novelists have come to disastrous ends, such as Virginia Woolf, who committed suicide. Despite these similarities, Atwood has insisted that Cat’s Eye merely uses autobiography as a format and remains largely fictional.
Cat’s Eye takes place primarily in post-World War II Toronto, a time of great economic and social change. With the rising number of new families after the war, Canada struggled with a housing shortage because little large-scale development had happened since the 1920s. In response, the Canadian government created the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which pushed toward creating suburban developments featuring houses with inexpensive mortgages. Developers often used the same plan for all the houses in a development so that they could build more quickly, and they removed any trees in their path because it was cheaper than building around them. We see this building philosophy reflected in Elaine’s mud-covered neighborhood, and Atwood depicts Toronto as continually under construction, reflecting the suburbanization of the city. The post-war era also marked a return to the conservative values of home and family and an upswing in Christian church membership. In addition, Canada welcomed many new European immigrants, particularly refugees from the war and Communist Eastern European countries, seen in the character of Mr. Hrbik. This world of construction, conformity, and displacement underpins Elaine’s struggle for acceptance and identity throughout Cat’s Eye.