Summary: Chapter 36

Elaine’s mother finds Elaine in the street as she walks home from the ravine, and Elaine doesn’t tell her mother what happened. Elaine believes the Virgin Mary saved her.

That night, Elaine dreams of being chased through school. A hand pulls Elaine to an invisible staircase, and she ascends until she can no longer hear her shouting pursuers. 

Elaine stays home for two days. Cordelia calls to apologize, which Elaine knows she didn’t want to do. 

Back at school, Cordelia suggests the girls punish Elaine for telling on them. Suddenly, Elaine realizes she can walk away from Cordelia and the others, and that Cordelia’s admonishments had only been Cordelia imitating an adult all along. She compares it to stepping off a cliff and discovering the air will hold her. Finally, she leaves this group of friends behind.

Summary: Chapter 37

As an adult, Elaine often goes into churches to look at the statues of saints, but the statues of the Virgin Mary never look right.

During her first trip to Mexico, Elaine wanders into a small church. Its Mary statue depicts a woman dressed in black with charms pinned to her dress. Elaine calls her the Virgin of Lost Things, the only Virgin statue that seems real to her. Elaine considers lighting a candle, but she doesn’t know what to pray for. When Ben finds her, she can’t remember how she got on the floor. 

Summary: Chapter 38

For the rest of elementary school, Elaine attends a new school on her family’s side of the ravine and forgets the nightmares of her old one. She thinks of herself as “happy as a clam,” complete with hard shell. The city replaces the wooden footbridge with a concrete bridge. 

As she prepares for high school, Elaine puts her cat’s eye marble in the red plastic purse, which she then places in a box in the cellar with her childhood drawings. 

Before the first day of high school, Cordelia’s mother calls Elaine’s mother to ask if Cordelia and Elaine can walk to school together. Elaine’s mother asks Elaine about it with concern, which confuses Elaine. Elaine agrees. 

The next day, Cordelia explains that she had been expelled from her private school. However, she seems unconcerned and says that she was too young for high school because she skipped a grade. Elaine has also skipped a grade and worries about failing. 

Summary: Chapter 39

Although Elaine is amongst the youngest in her first-year class, Elaine thinks of herself as being spiritually older than the students around her. In her health class textbook on teenage emotions, she reads that she’s supposed to be having erratic mood swings, but Elaine feels calm. 

Because Cordelia has already had a year of high school, she shows Elaine how to make witty remarks about the teachers and other students. The girls listen to records together, and Cordelia coos over the singers. Elaine tries to copy her but knows she’s just acting. 

Now older teenagers, Perdie and Mirrie seem even more sophisticated than they used to. They disapprove of how Cordelia dresses and remind her that their father thinks she’ll fail out again if she doesn’t pull up her socks. 

Cordelia starts shoplifting. Once she steals a horror comic, which she reads with Elaine. It tells a story of twin sisters, one pretty and one with a burn on her face. The burned sister hangs herself in front of a mirror and then haunts the mirror. When the pretty sister looks in the mirror, the burned sister possesses the pretty sister’s body and tries to steal her boyfriend. The boyfriend notices that the girl’s reflection in the mirror is that of her sister and smashes the mirror, returning the pretty sister back to her own body. 

Summary: Chapter 40

Stephen goes to an academically rigorous private high school. Although Elaine’s parents offered her the opportunity to attend a girls’ private school, Elaine didn’t want to go to an all-girls school. At dinner, Elaine’s father continues to prophesy the end of the human race because of irresponsible science. Stephen, interested in astronomy, no longer finds the human race interesting. He tells their father that the sun will go supernova eventually, so the human race doesn’t matter. 

Elaine now knows more about her father’s past, which she doesn’t like because she has to take his motivations into account. 

Stephen tries to educate Elaine so she doesn’t become like other girls, whom he sees as unintelligent. He tries to keep her from spending too long getting ready in the bathroom. Around this time, he explains space-time to Elaine.

Analysis: Chapters 36–40

Elaine’s sudden, mysterious ability to walk away from her friends comes from the protective power of nothingness and distance. When Elaine describes walking away from her friends as discovering the air would hold her, she evokes the dream of the staircase that lifts her above her pursuers. Both experiences involve support from what appears as nothingness. In her dream of stairs, Elaine finds herself too high above the crowd to hear her tormentors, which is similar to how her cat’s eye marble allows her to create distance and separation. As we have seen, the distance created by her cat’s eye marble is always one step away from numbness and nothingness, and in this case, Elaine relies on that nothingness to help her walk away from her friends. When she gains some emotional distance from Cordelia, she realizes that, to a certain extent, Cordelia’s threats have never been real. For one, Cordelia quite literally does not have the power to stop Elaine from walking away. For another, Elaine recognizes that Cordelia had been repeating insults meant for someone else, which means Elaine has acted as a stand in for their real target all along. 

Although Elaine puts the marble away with the trappings of her childhood, in her teenage years she internalizes its power of distance and numbness. She cultivates a sense of calm detachment from her emotions, and she even believes herself above teenage mood swings. In particular, she appears to have a difficult time legitimately enjoying herself, which we see in how she imitates Cordelia’s crushes on musicians. This numbness explains why Elaine’s understanding of being “happy as a clam” emphasizes that what makes clams happy is their protective shell, which keeps them from attack. Elaine uses the appearance of happiness as a shell to disguise her inner turmoil. This distance may also account for Elaine’s confusing memory loss because forgetting her trauma means she doesn’t have to cope with it. Elaine’s staircase dream also represents Elaine’s transition to emotional distance because of how she uses the staircase to get too high above the crowd to hear them, and therefore, she no longer has to listen to their taunts. Furthermore, Elaine can look down at the crowd, like she used to look at her friends through her marble, without interacting with them, again becoming a disinterested observer.

The twin story in Cordelia’s stolen horror comic demonstrates the fraught way the image of twins operates throughout Cat’s Eye. We may generally think of twins as extremely close siblings or equals, but within the framework of the twin story, twins have an inherently antagonistic relationship. Only one twin gets to be attractive, loved, and, indeed, even living at a time. In order to experience a happy life, the burned twin must literally take over her sister’s. While Elaine and Cordelia are not literally twins, Atwood has twinned them together in the novel up to this point, such as when Cordelia creates a “circle of two” between them and in Elaine’s obsession with Cordelia over the other girls. In addition, Cordelia treats Elaine like her antagonistic twin by making Elaine the subject of ridicule to avoid being ridiculed herself. Elaine’s fear that, like Cordelia, she won’t be able to pass her first year of high school because she skipped a grade reveals that Elaine also sees their fates as tied together, or at least doesn’t put firm boundaries between them. This story has frightening implications for their high school years, suggesting that only Elaine or Cordelia will thrive—not both.

In Chapter 40, we see how suburban socialization has had a very different effect on Stephen from Elaine because it allowed him the freedom to cultivate individuality and separateness. Whereas Elaine has spent her childhood trying desperately to appease people, Stephen feels free to detach himself from humanity to the extent where he doesn’t care about its future, as evidenced from the biology conversation at dinner. Whereas Elaine’s parents, as a rule, don’t care much for outside opinions, Stephen has taken this further and become disinterested in and even disdainful of society entirely. However, he has had the freedom to do so, whereas Elaine has learned over the past four years that ignoring other’s opinions makes life impossible. While Stephen misreads women’s obsession with appearance as stupidity and shallowness, a threat to his sister’s intelligence, Elaine understands it as a survival mechanism, the bare minimum she must do to go out in public. Stephen’s assessment of Elaine as “smarter than most” brings to mind Elaine’s secret Valentine’s Day success, demonstrating again that being “not like other girls” can confer social power.