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GenreGeneral Vision or Viewpoint | Cultural Context | Plot Summary | Themes and Issues

Cat's Eye

Margaret Atwood has forged a reputation as one of Canada's foremost writers and probably its most famous internationally. Indeed she has noted that when she began writing in the late fifties, 'Canadian literature' seemed to be a contradiction in terms. As one would expect, her fiction carries this concern as one of its main themes. The exploration of the notion of identity, whether it be the identity of the self or the relation of the self to family and nation is at the heart of her work. The capricious nature of self-perception and the power of language both to clarify and distort provide much grist for her fiction. Combined with these concerns there is often an implied, if not overt, concern with the relation of humanity to its environment and the need to respect the natural world.


Atwood plays a cunning game with her readers by writing her most autobiographical book and, in a disclaimer printed at the start of the book, denying that the book is autobiographical in any way. Yet the similarities between Elaine's childhood and Atwood's are striking; both have fathers who are entomologists and spend their summers on field trips in northern Ontario, and later both families move to Toronto which they find equally unpleasant.

This is certainly the story of the author's time and place in 20th century history but it is not autobiographical in an absolute sense. It draws a line beneath the first 50 years of her life and suggests that the next 50 years will be better.

The story is told with a distinct blending of past and present which contributes to the imaginative flow and highlights the writer's powerful imaginative capacity to recall events. In addition the writer makes use of vignettes to draw some highly dramatic representations of her characters and situations.

General Vision or Viewpoint

This novel deals with the problems of growing up as well as the various anxieties of a mother. The narrator recalls incidents from her childhood and the relationships she had with the members of her family. Now as a married woman, she worries about her own children and the problems, which will beset them when they start out in life. She considers the different influences including family, relationships and education, which mould a person and make them what they are in adulthood.

The importance of the past and memories and the need to deal with this in order to cope with present reality seems to be the overall vision or viewpoint presented in this novel.

Cultural Context

There is a great and disturbing contrast between the supposed Christian middle-class morality of Toronto and its blatant materialism. This contrast is epitomized by the character of Mrs Smeath which is chillingly drawn and expresses a perverse world-view. Combined with this is the almost mythic imagery used to detail the young Elaine's fears - the dark ravine and the Virgin of Last Things who helps her escape from the darkness.

Plot Summary

The novel portrays the inner development of the main character Elaine Risley, a successful painter. The novel functions by means of a backward look over her life. Appropriately, the setting is that of Elaine's return to Toronto, where she grew up, to attend a retrospective of her work. This allows her to revisit, both physically and imaginatively, the sites of her childhood and to overcome the traumas associated with them.

Themes and Issues

Cat's Eye begins with a definition of time. This is essential, as the novel is really an extended treatise on the relationship of the past to the present and how this influences our perceptions of others and ourselves. Atwood upsets the old Newtonian vision of the linearity of time and replaces it with one of "time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You didn't look back a long time but down through it like water."

This notion of looking through time as through a transparent medium is further enforced by Elaine's looking through a Cat's Eye marble at the age of eight and seeing her own future as an artist. The notion of the Cat's Eye is central as it is both a symbol of a world that she has been allowed into as an artist, and as a medium which, by its very nature, provides a distorted view of things.

Women and empowerment
The story deals with Elaine Risley who is an artist and is married with two daughters. Elaine's story deals with her past life and achievements and her struggles to come to terms with Cordelia who was a school friend when she was young. It is clear from the narrative that Elaine finds it difficult to deal with the relationship, which she sustained with Cordelia. The narrative moves through sustained flashback to recall Elaine's memories of the various events which forged this relationship and which now mould her thinking in maturity. Elaine imagines what Cordelia is like now that she is old and recalls how she was frequently intimidated by her strength and character. Through the story Elaine learns to come to terms with the past and forgive Cordelia.

Through her commitment to art Elaine manages to overcome many of the complexes she has brought with her from her past. Art becomes a source of inspiration and power for her and through it she learns to understand the factors which governed Cordelia's behaviour.


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