“I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.”
This quotation appears at the very end of Chapter 1, where Elaine describes how Stephen once explained to her the concept of space-time. Elaine’s conception of time as liquid transparencies evokes the image of a microscope. By going through all the images she has of her past, Elaine puts her life under a microscope, researching her memory and looking for answers about her traumatic childhood and why she feels stuck in the present. However, she also uses the image of staring down into water and seeing what bobs to the surface, which means that memory also operates according to happenstance, not necessarily scientific logic. Although Elaine narrates her life more or less in chronological order, she occasionally interjects anecdotes, such as the Mexico trip in Chapter 37, out of order because they relate to where she is in her story. She remembers the Mary statue after recounting the ravine incident, which highlights Mary’s importance to that part of her life.
The mysterious statement that “nothing goes away” introduces a few different aspects of Elaine’s memory. First, we can read the statement as meaning that even if an image doesn’t come to the surface and one can’t see it, it still exists. So even when Elaine can’t remember something, it still affects her, such as when she gets angry at Cordelia in her teens despite having forgotten the ravine incident. In addition, this phrase brings to mind the hold the past has over Elaine, particularly how she cannot let go of Cordelia’s torment. In a gentler reading, Elaine continually hears echoes of people she has known or things she has experienced throughout the novel. She repeats images in her artwork, as in her Mrs. Smeath paints, and sees nightshade in reality and her dreams. Even after the last time she sees Cordelia, she hears her voice. In Cat’s Eye, the past never stays past but reverberates throughout the entirety of Elaine’s life.