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Literature / Cat's Eye (1988)

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A 1988 novel by Margaret Atwood, following the story of Elaine Risley, a painter, who returns to Toronto to find herself overwhelmed by her past. Memories of childhood - unbearable betrayals and cruelties - surface relentlessly, forcing her to confront the spectre of Cordelia, once her best friend and tormentor, who has haunted her for forty years. The novel focuses largely on the theme of identity, as well as Feminism and mentions Canada during World War II.


This book contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Cordelia's father is obviously quite psychologically abusive towards Cordelia, despite the charming façade he puts on around her friends.
    • Carol's parents aren't much nicer, her father even beats her with a belt, buckle end at one point, and her mother beats her with a hairbrush for leaving Elaine to die in the river.
  • Adults Are Useless: Elaine's parents seem vaguely aware she's being bullied, but are clueless as to how to stop it, because she hasn't been physically hurt. With that said, her mother finally puts her foot down when Elaine nearly drowns and freezes in the river, calling the girls' parents to make sure they are scolded.
  • Adult Fear: Quite a bit.
    • Elaine's mother in her last years talks about how she wishes she had known how to help Elaine with her bullies, and how nasty they were.
    • Stephen's arrest and death respectively, separated by years apart. For Elaine's parents, they find it hard to comprehend how the latter happened so randomly.
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    • Elaine has a lot for her two girls, and watches over them to see the telltale signs of bullying.
  • Alliterative Name: Carol Campbell.
  • Aloof Big Brother: Stephen, who is condescending towards Elaine.
  • Attempted Suicide: Suzie, a girl from Elaine's art college, slashes her wrists when she becomes pregnant with Mr. Hrbik's baby. It's not made clear if she survives, but Elaine does have a strange dream about her.
    • Elaine, maybe. The narrative makes it quite ambiguous.
  • Author Avatar: Elaine's childhood is modelled on Atwood's own, most notably the time she spent living in the wilderness of Quebec and Ontario due to her entomologist father's work.
  • Broken Bird: Elaine, so much: 'Cordelia, I think. You made me believe I was nothing. "So?" To which there is no answer.'
  • The Bully: Cordelia's vicious bullying of Elaine is particularly disturbing because she keeps insisting it's to "improve" her. She also turns on Carol occasionally, and Grace later on.
    • Ironically, Elaine starts to bully Cordelia when they are reunited at thirteen, but nowhere near to the same extent.
  • Canada, Eh?: Toronto is very vividly depicted.
  • Catchphrase: "So?", which both Cordelia and Elaine use.
  • Children Are Cruel
  • Disability as an Excuse for Jerkassery: An indirect example, but Grace gets Carol and Elaine to do what she wants because her mother has a 'bad heart'.
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  • Fainting: Elaine begins to do this to herself while under Cordelia's bullying regime- she stops doing it once she breaks free of Cordelia's control.
  • Foregone Conclusion: We already know early on in the novel that Stephen is dead.
  • Freudian Excuse: It's heavily implied that Cordelia's cruelty towards Elaine is her imitating her father's psychological abuse of her, "I can hear this for what it is. It's an imitation, it's acting. It's an impersonation, of someone much older."
    • Elaine's inability to understand other girls her age as a child was because she constantly moved around with only her parents and older brother for company.
  • Jerkass: Cordelia is one; she mellows as she gets older. Grace and to a larger extent, her mother Mrs. Smeath, who is pointlessly cruel to Elaine, a child for being a 'heathen'. Elaine gets her own back later when she paints a series of humiliating portraits of Mrs. Smeath for an art gallery opening.
  • Laser-Guided Karma:
    • Mrs. Smeath for Elaine is a Bitch in Sheep's Clothing that clings to moral superiority. Elaine as an adult paints her in a humiliating fashion, and those paintings become her most notable.
    • Cordelia wedges her way into Elaine's tiny circle of friends and humiliates the latter on a regular basis. She then finds herself humiliated similarly in high school, as a result of her own unwillingness to face her problems and flaws.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Did the Virgin Mary really come to Elaine's side when she fell through the ice in the creek? It was likely a hallucination.
  • Moral Event Horizon: In-universe for Elaine's parents, when Cordelia, Grace and Carol force Elaine to climb on the icy river and leave her to drown and freeze when the ice breaks. Despite Elaine's protests that the girls weren't with her, Elaine's mother calls the girls' parents who each exact their own punishment. For Elaine, she decides that dying is much worse than the daily scorn that the girls can push on her.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Josef after Suzie nearly kills herself, since she carried his child. Elaine leaves him over his lamenting.
  • Nice Guy:
    • Mr. Banerji, a student of Elaine's father, who is a very polite, respectful individual.
    • Mrs. Feinstein, whom Elaine remembers fondly into her adulthood.
    • Also Ben, Elaine's second husband.
  • Not Afraid of You Anymore: Elaine finally breaks free of Cordelia and Grace's bullying after she nearly freezes to death in the river.
  • No Such Thing as Bad Publicity: In-universe, a woman runs into Elaine's art showing and tosses a bottle of ink at one of her paintings of Mrs. Smeath. Elaine actually mistakes her for Grace but sees that she is a stranger. This event gives Elaine publicity.
  • One of the Boys: Elaine, very much, especially since it takes her a long time before she learns to trust other women again. She does eventually befriend some fellow female artists.
  • Sibling Rivalry: Cordelia and her older sisters obviously don't get on.
  • Shotgun Wedding: Elaine marries Jon quickly after finding out she's pregnant with their daughter.
  • Stern Teacher: Ms. Lumley, who inspires terror in her young students.
  • Teacher/Student Romance: Mr. Hrbik has an affair with both Suzie and Elaine, though the latter comes away from the relationship far better off than the former.
  • Those Two Guys: Cordelia's sisters, Perdita and Miranda.
  • Tomboy: Elaine, like her mother, which makes her very much ill-equipped to deal with the expected social dynamics of young girls.

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