Book Review: Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood
Nothing Goes Away
I can feel my throat tightening, a pain along the jawline. I’ve started to chew my fingers again. There’s blood, a taste I remember. It tastes of orange Popsicles, penny gumballs, red licorice, gnawed hair, dirty ice.
Elaine Risley returns to her hometown for a retrospective exhibition of her paintings after years of being away. She returns to memories of her childhood and adolescence fraught with pain from her life with Cordelia, her best friend and tormentor. Past and present collide and meld together as Elaine reminisces while preparing for her exhibition, finally bridging the gap between who she once was and who she is today.
Cordelia is the scorching hot sun that Elaine’s life revolves around. She dominates the friend group consisting of Grace Smeath, Carol Campbell, and of course, Elaine. Because of her unorthodox upbringing raised travelling with her entomologist father and independent mother, they take on a project to improve and refine Elaine. They chastise her. “I have to sit on a window ledge by myself because they aren’t speaking to me,” Elaine explains, “It’s something I said wrong, but I don’t know what it is because they won’t tell me. That way I will learn not to say such a thing again.” They punish her. “All of this is for my own good, because they are my best friends and they want me to improve.” They abuse her; and like true abusers, they manipulate her to make her think that their treatment is warranted. And she believes it.
This is how it goes. It’s the kind of thing girls of this age do to one another, or did then, but I’d had no practice in it. […] Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.
Atwood transports us to the mind of a frightened little girl, and thrusts us into vivid, visceral descriptions of an emotionally abusive childhood. As someone who has struggled with emotional abuse (and is still reeling from its aftershocks), Atwood’s prose feels incredibly real and hits very close to home. I relate very strongly to Elaine’s confusion and conflict between the desire to be loved and accepted and the desire to be happy. Atwood attributes these desires to the reality of the pain of growing up a woman: we are given very strict expectations and conventions of femininity, and too often, when we deviate from these unspoken rules, we are forced by society to pay the price.
To complement Elaine’s struggles, Atwood asks us: is anyone ever truly deserving of pain? One night after dinner in Grace’s house, she overhears the following conversation:
“You don’t think they’re being too hard on her?” says Aunt Mildred. Her voice is relishing. She wants to know how hard.
“It’s God’s punishment,” says Mrs. Smeath. “It serves her right.”
Elaine is shocked, and upon reading it, so was I. Mrs. Smeath, Grace’s mother, suggests that she deserves the pain brought on by her abusers. “I hate Mrs. Smeath,” Elaine thinks, lost in thought, “because what I thought was a secret, something going on among girls, among children, is not one. It has been discussed before, and tolerated.” Mrs. Smeath feels this way because of the way Elaine’s parents deviate from societal norms and conventions, especially because they are not religious.
But does anyone deserve pain just because they lead a lifestyle we don’t understand? Does anyone ever deserve pain?
Eventually, after an incident involving a cold winter’s day and a hat (no spoilers!), Elaine realizes she’s been victimized and stops hanging out with her friends. She grows up, and eventually, she forgets the events of her childhood. After graduating, Elaine moves away and forges a new life as a painter.
The past has finally caught up with the present. Elaine finishes preparing for her retrospective exhibition. She plays guides us to her paintings, to the events and people who shaped who she is today. She has translated all the hurt from her past into something tangible – into art.
“This is the kind of thing we do, to assuage pain,” Elaine explains, and I understand. Often we are ashamed of our pain, of admitting that we were once weak enough to be hurt. Through the process of creating art, not only do we find catharsis, we also cultivate connections with others with similar pains. And with the catharsis, and with the connections, we will finally learn to move on.
Cat’s Eye is a very important novel. Atwood discusses and describes a kind of pain not often voiced out loud; not enough people are aware of how emotional abuse has the potential to damage and destroy someone’s life. And more importantly, Atwood gives us an example of how powerful we can be once we have the courage to harness our pain to create something beautiful. By reading this novel, we grow up with Elaine and we experience pain as she experiences it. We learn that we are not alone. And together, we learn to live despite our pain and with it.