full title Cat’s Eye

author   Margaret Atwood

type of work   Novel

genre Bildungsroman; fictional autobiography

language English

time and place written Mid-1980s while teaching at various American universities

date of first publication 1988

publisher McClelland and Stuart

narrator Elaine narrates the novel, speaking always in the present as if experiencing each event in the moment. While Elaine never intentionally lies to the reader, her imperfect memory and incomplete understanding of other characters causes her to contradict herself or otherwise imperfectly describe events.

point of view Elaine narrates all events past and present focusing on the thoughts, feelings, and understanding she has at the moment. Only in the sections set in the present does she analyze and reinterpret her past.

tone Dry, witty, and cynical. Elaine speaks with a dry irony, often finding the most cynical interpretations of the people and things around her. This cynical armor, while clever, also appears defensive, as if Elaine is avoiding her true feelings about the events she narrates.

tense First person, present tense.

setting (time) 1940s1980s

setting (place) Toronto, Canada

protagonist Elaine

major conflict When painter Elaine Risley returns to Toronto for a retrospective exhibition of her artwork, she realizes that she is emotionally trapped in her past by her childhood best friend and bully, Cordelia.

rising action Throughout Elaine’s early childhood, Elaine’s best friends bully her terribly. Their torment results in an accident in which Elaine is trapped at the bottom of ravine and nearly freezes to death. Elaine becomes a standoffish and emotionally shut down teenager. Elaine and Cordelia lose touch. However, when Elaine arrives in Toronto for the retrospective of her artwork, she imagines seeing Cordelia everywhere.

climax Cordelia fails to appear at Elaine’s exhibition, revealing that in one way or another, Cordelia has moved on from her relationship with Elaine. As a result, Elaine can no longer project her inability to move forward onto Cordelia.

falling action Elaine returns to the ravine after the exhibition, and she reimagines her traumatic incident by picturing nine-year-old Cordelia trapped in the ravine. She tells Cordelia she can go home. On the plane back to Vancouver, Elaine sees two old women joyfully playing cards and regrets she will never have that relationship with Cordelia.

themes The inevitability of aging, patriarchy, artificiality

motifs Art history, twins, wings and flying

symbols The cat’s eye marble, the Virgin Mary, deadly nightshade

foreshadowing Atwood foreshadows Stephen’s death through his obsession with airplanes and also when his reckless accidental trespassing leads to his arrest. Several of Elaine’s dreams foreshadow later events, such as the dream of the collapsing bridge, which foreshadows her getting trapped in the ravine. In addition, Elaine often makes oblique references to parts of the past she hasn’t discussed yet. For example, she thinks about suicide often, foreshadowing both her own and Cordelia’s attempts. Finally, Elaine’s guilt-ridden encounters with the women on the street prepares us for Elaine’s abandonment of Cordelia.

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