Although I do not have a specif list of New Years resolutions as I found that I mostly give up on them by mid January, one of the big goals I have to start a YouTube channel focusing on literature overall. To ease myself into it, I have decided to start with a writer whose work I loved and appreciated since I was quite young (8th grade was probably too young to read the Handmaid’s Tale) which is Margaret Atwood. In researching which of her works to talk about in the video, this novel came up quite a few times, so I decided to go for it and I do not regret it. Atwood truly is a masterful storyteller who is able to transfer her readers into post WWII Canada as she is into the dystopian Republic of Gilead. I truly enjoyed reading ‘Cat’s Eye’ and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who loves Atwood and writers similar to her.
Cat’s Eye plot is seemingly quite straightforward. Elaine, the protagonist, is a painter who returns to her hometown of Toronto to attend a retrospective exhibition of her work. But, it is far from simple as she also frequently makes trips to her childhood, especially focusing on the years she was bullied mercilessly by her peers. It is a heartbreaking story about girls being cruel to one another and the deep psychological trauma all of them suffered. Each chapter depicting events from the past is follower by middle-aged Elaine, now a decently successful artist, wife and a mother, dealing with the fact she is growing old. At first, I found these switches a bit hard to follow, but the more I got into the story, the connection between events from past and present became clearer. This is not a story about Elaine so much as it is a story about trauma and understanding how all life events shape us into who we are as adults.
This novel is beautifully written and I honestly did not expect anything less from Atwood. Her prose is quite accessible, but it is far from bland or trivial. She offers a lot of insightful vignettes into the philosophy of art and its significance, religion, friendship and the childhood that are spread all over this novel. A lot of her meaning is hidden in symbolism (such as the image of Virgin Mary reoccurring in Elaine’s life or the titular marble) or intertextuality to other works, most notably Shakespeare. To be honest, I did not catch a lot of them while reading and only understood them after reading some academic papers about this novel. However, even without this knowledge, I am sure you will absolutely enjoy Atwood’s writing. The way she builds the story and the characters is truly genius and it is important to pay attention to clues she leaves. Some of them may not always seem too important when they first appear, but become significant as the novel progresses.
One of the best aspects of ‘Cat’s Eye’ for me are the characters. Considering this is often classified as Künstlerroman (type of novel dealing with the development of an artist), it does make sense a big portion of the novel is dedicated to Elaine and her inner world. This was often represented in her paintings, who often show everyday objects from her memory and people. Through them, Elaine is able to work out her trauma and seemingly deal with it. Atwood really made me care for her, so much that I dreaded reading the sections of the novel that depict horrific bullying she suffered by the hands of her ‘friends’. At times, I struggled to relate to her attitude towards women as she often belittled and misunderstood women, but then I would remember her childhood experiences and it became clearer. In Elaine’s character, especially the art she produced, the long term effects of bullying become apparent. On the other hand, Atwood made me feel for Cordelia, her tormentor. When Elaine became Cordelia’s bully, it did not feel like it was any kind of happy ending or fulfillment of revenge fantasy for her or the reader. Instead, the opposite became true, especially when more information was given about Cordelia’s home life, ruled by abusive father. At the end, it seemed like Cordelia was also the victim and the tragic figure who simply perpetuated the cycle of abuse she learned at home. The real villains of the story were the adults who could not deal with their children. Only as an adult herself and returning to the place that she feared where her trauma began, she is able to forgive Cordelia and herself for leaving her. This moment was not followed by big fanfare, but it was a huge step in Elaine’s internal world.
As I already mentioned, at times, I had to put the book down after reading a chapter where the girls were particularly cruel. As Atwood said herself, all of us had Cordelia in our lives, more or less cruel. By not making her a one dimensional stereotype of a bully that we often see depicted, she complicated the issue of childhood bullies, especially among girls. This made me think about Cordelia like girls I knew and made me wonder what their home lives were and what happened to them after school was over. Were they the way they were because they were simply bad people or because of influences in their lives? If they were showed kindness, would they have been different? Did we all collectively fail them or was there no way to help bullies? Atwood asked a lot of questions through her characters but as usual, it is up to her readers to answer them, and they may be different for each of us. What do you think about this? Did ‘Cat’s Eye’ make you feel the same way as me?
Finally, ‘Cat’s Eye’ is truly a heartbreaking story about traumas that we all carry to a lesser or higher degree and how we deal with them every day. As usual, Atwood’s female characters are not simply evil or simply good, but rather she complicated the relationship between bullies and their victims by switching the roles mid way through the novel. There were many aspects of the novel that I did not cover in this review as ‘Cat’s Eye’ is beaming with symbolism on almost every page. I am preparing a script about this and three other Atwood’s books in which I will go into more depth about her female characters and why they are so effective, so keep an eye for that. At the end, as always, if you feel like I missed something important, do let me know in the comments below. Did you read this or other books by Margaret Atwood? What are your thoughts?
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