Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye is a sharp study of a very female torture
- As we approach the novel’s 30th anniversary, it’s hard to think of many characters who have endured pain
Apr 20, 2019-
One of the first things you notice when embarking on the unsettling experience of reading Cat’s Eye is that its narrator, Elaine, is herself unusually observant. Her memories of her messed-up childhood are more than vivid. On the first page, she remembers her brother studying while standing on his head (he claims that this will make the blood run down into his brain and nourish it), while wearing his “ravelling maroon sweater.” We are introduced to Elaine’s teenage friend Cordelia, who has “grey-green eyes, opaque and glinting as metal.” Cordelia is on a streetcar with Elaine and they wear: “long wool coats, with tie belts, the collars turned up to look like those of movie stars and rubber boots with the tops folded down and men’s work socks inside. In our pockets are stuffed the kerchiefs our mothers make us wear, but that we take off as soon as we’re out of their sight … Our mouths are tough, crayon red, shiny as nails.”
And on it goes: everything about the way people look and present themselves is precisely rendered and catalogued. The smells Atwood describes are especially evocative: that streetcar “is muggy with twice-breathed air and the smell of wool”; Stephen “smells of peppermint LifeSavers” over his usual scent of “cedarwood pencils and wet sand; the alcohol her entomologist father uses in his work “smells like white enamel basins”. As Elaine even tells us, with typical wryness: “We remember through smells, like dogs do.”
At first, this vivid act of time travel makes for a pleasant adventure, with Cat’s Eye feeling like a portrait of the artist as a young woman. This is a type of novel so well recognised that academics have even borrowed a German word to describe it: Künstlerroman.
While we’re among the academics, I might even invoke Roland Barthes, who once suggested that “the sense of the object always trembles—not that of the concept”. Which is roughly to say, physical descriptions can resonate with us more clearly than ideas. It was eating a madeleine that brought on Proust’s emotional flood of memories, not just missing his grandma. And in Cat’s Eye, it’s very often the physical world that helps us see how Elaine is feeling.
Most notably, when she is nine, she bites her lips, chews her hair and peels the skin off her feet, going “down as far as the blood”. For her, the pain “gave me something definite to think about, something immediate. It was something to hold onto.”
The pain in Cat’s Eye sets it apart from any standard notions we might have of what should happen in a Künstlerroman, for Elaine has endured torture that feels unusual in literature even as we approach the novel’s 30th anniversary. She has been bullied by female friends—and moreover, bullied in a manner precision-engineered just for her.
As Elaine carefully observes the world, her tormentors are observing Elaine. When we first meet the teenage Cordelia on those opening pages, we are told she has an acute sense for detail. (“Cordelia can tell cheap cloth at a glance. ‘Gabardine,’ she says. ‘Ticky-tack.’”) But it’s when we see her as the 10-year-old chief instigator of Elaine’s suffering that her powers really come to the fore. She constantly monitors Elaine, demanding to know what she has in her pockets, enlisting accomplices to report back on her behaviour, deportment, conversation—in all of which she finds fault. Worse still, Cordelia makes Elaine scrutinise herself: “Cordelia brings a mirror to school … She takes it out of her pocket and holds the mirror up in front of me and says ‘Look at yourself! Just look!’ Her voice is disgusted.”
Though this cruelty feels very specific to Elaine, there’s also something universal about it. Elaine realises that women are always judged and “there is no end to imperfection”. The details that have been building up over the course of the book start to feel ever more oppressive. As critic Molly Hite once noted: “They reinforce the imputation that growing up female, even growing up as a white, middle-class female in a prosperous North American country, is different only in degree from living in a police state.”
Pain can be found everywhere and in everything. “The toaster is on a silver heat pad,” Elaine tells us. “It has two doors, with a knob at the bottom of each, and a grid up the centre that glows red-hot. When the toast is done on one side I turn the knobs and the doors open and the toast slides down and turns over, all by itself. I think about putting my finger in there, onto the red-hot grid.” If you think that sounds nasty, read what happens when she encounters a wringer. When you are always being watched, your own powers of observation can extract a terrible price.
— © 2019 The Guardian
Published: 20-04-2019 10:16