misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye in the context of her poetry, realistic & romance novels & Austen's Emma

Dear Friends,

I've been reading Margaret Atwood's poetry and essays on and off for some years now; a few years ago, I read her historical novel (Booker Prize type), Alias Grace, and now this past month, managed her remarkable women's novel of girlhood and growing up, Cat's Eye.  I have no patience for science fiction or allegory, but what I've read of hers, I know that taken together she is one of the major voices of our time.  Survival is a great work about Candian literature.  She has a conception of Canadian literature (English and French) as desperate, as a place and people that have been imprisoned/dominated/shaped by two empires of arrogance: the US and UK, and as a culture whose landscape is strongly hostile/indifferent to human life so must be struggled against.  Her chapter on women in Canadian literature turns up types, a couple of which are central and which Susanna Moodie conforms to to a "T." The hard older "negative" woman, powerful, neither Diana or Venus but some combination of Hecate and Rapunzel.  She uses the archetypes as part of her reductive way of grasping essences in the book.  Her way of describing the imagery and symbols of French Canadian literature reminded me of Willa Cather's The Shadow and the Rock, a historical novel set in 17th/18th century French Canada.

Her Journals of Susannah Moodie are a cycle of poems wherein she shows the way women cope with predecessors is not to erase or knock them out or conquer them, but rewrite and assimilate them into their own work.  Here's the first poem by Atwood which is a play on the opening chapters of Moodie's powerful Roughing It in the Bush:

Disembarking in Quebec

Is it my clothes, my way of walking,
the things I carry in my hand
-- a book, a bag with knitting --
the incongruous pink of my shawl

this space cannot hear

or it is my own lack
of conviction which makes
these vistas of desolation,
long hills, the swamps, the barren sand, the glare
of sun on the bone-white
driftlogs, omens of winter,
the moon alien in day-
time a thin refusal

The others leap, shout

The moving water will not show me
my reflection.

The rocks ignore.

I am a word
in a foreign language.

Emily Carr, a later 19th to mid-10th century Canadian artist and memoirist, Fir Tree and Sky

 Moodie's memoir, which we read on WWTTA (a small women writers this on Yahoo I own and manage] together). is one of the great travel and emigration memoirs of the 19th century. I wrote about this weekly on WWTTA but at length and cannot reproduce them here. I'd have to put them on my website. Her Aias Grace tells the story fo a young woman accused of murdering her employer, and it's against Susannah Moodie's apparently unsymnpathetic account. It's a complex emigration and Jane Eyre story which she shows Moodie got wrong. Ditto on this profound passionate novel. It won the Booker and was almost made into a movie (with Cate Blanchett it was said).

She belongs under the sign of Austen for she writes as a woman and from a woman's point of view.  Alias Grace may be considered an imitation of older books in the Bronte mode; Cat's Eye is a heroine's text (in Nancy Miller's formulation).  The comparison of Cat's Eye with Emma is in the 8th entry below.  Now I write much less as I read and so here can reproduce my journal or weekly entries to WWTTA:

Cat's Eye was summed up by Fran on WWTTA with her usual insight and concision:

    "On the surface it's about main protagonist and first person narrator Elaine Risley's return to Toronto, the hated town of her childhood, for a retrospective exhibition of her successful art work. This visit then turns more and more into a retrospective of her own life and the personal, social, artistic and political developments that accompanied and helped shape, but also to a certain extent warp, it.
   Re-emerging, hitherto repressed, childhood memories force her to confront and deal with a past she'd preferred to forget or view at a cold, ironic distance, as refracted through the cat's eye marble of the title - especially those issues of girlhood mobbing you mention, Ellen.
   On another level, just as the often ironically distorted pictures in the exhibition reflect these unresolved issues and relationships in Elaine's life, in this novel Atwood also picks up on many of the themes, symbols and characters from her earlier novels, developing them further to forge them into a strongly associative intertextual network so that the book itself in effect becomes both a retrospective and highly successful culmination of Atwood's own work and ideas up to that date (1988).
   It's also wickedly and dryly funny in parts. One of those has to do with women's fashion, shop assistants and changing room mirrors, an episode that came flashing back to mind when struggling with same in London recently"

I wrote about it weekly on WWTTA and here is a condensation of my take which I'll set up as a journal of reading:

Entry 1:

It seems to me a novel written from a dual aspect: on the one hand, girl- or even childhood, and how the world seems half-mad and also just what you noticed as you grow up.  This technique is famous in the US in _To Kill a Mockingbird_.  Harper Lee uses it to show us the world of cruel institutionalized racism, repressive sex, and all that was the "old south" through children's eyes.
   Atwood has a different target and here thus far although she's a little bullied by her friends, Carol, Cordelia, and Grace, I think she holds her own pretty well too.  The mocking voice of the later person also writing the book (the retrospective older voice) puts them in their place and shows up the values they are enacting. I find it a witty (it is funny) depiction of girlhood from a modern feminist standpoint -- not that common; I know of one in essay form I enjoyed (in French) by Chantal Thomas.
   She's also targeting materialistic culture and what gives prestige and so on.  There I must admit I was a fastidious and girlie girl and really think I wuold not have enjoyed being an entomologist's child and feel sorry for Elaine's mother although Elaine is presenting her as an ideal in a way, thorough going unconventional individualist. NOt quite because she follows her husband about and lives on his salary, does what he wants.
   As in good women's novels, there's a continuum of women's lives before us.
   Boys are depicted too and with sympathy. I didn't go to a school where hitting was allowed and it was more progressive in outlook than Elaine's but hers resonates.  The business of two doors is funny.  Yes boys and girls are needlessly faultlined often.  Lining up in size places. Why?  That's how we did it in my school. It was a need for some form of order and discipline.
   As Fran says we also have an older woman on her second marriage, returning to Toronto for a retrospective of her art.  This reminded me of Jane Eyre and so many heroines who are painters. I can't say I'm fond of what Elaine paints though and do think there is an ironic distance between the main characters and Atwood. Elaine is not grateful to her promoters and there's wryness here, as well as in the glancing depictions of Elaine's first and present husband.
   Much on Canada. Without being able to say why it seems to me a Canadian novel. I've read Atwood's wonderful book on Canadian literature its motives and there is a Canadian literature. I passed the playing with marbles and so know why the book is named Cat's eye but not really how the image functions quite -- though it puts me in mind of a really grim book by Carson McCullers with a similar title (because of the title).

Entry 2:

   "I've read on in this, mesmerized but also becoming distinctly uncomfortable.  It is about bullying among girls, and I cringe when I see how Elaine succumbs, and also to some extent, Carol to Grace and Cordelia.
   We talked about girlhood books -- this is one, except there is no record of reading much. I realize this is not Margaret Atwood, the heroine is a distinct different self and I ask myself if Atwood made the heroine not a reading girl, because if she was perhaps she'd be more of a loner and just walk away. Elaine does sometimes walk away, but not enough for her peace or self-esteem.
   We talked about dialoguing with books (on Rachel Cuskl the recent novelist, Saving Agnes her best known novel), well, I find myself as I read remembering that after age 12 I had few or no friends for periods of time, and thinking to myself, whew.  My father said I was neither a follower nor a natural leader and had to become one or the other to join in.  At any rate, as I read this, I remember back a bit and say to myself I didn't miss anything worth experiencing as I stayed with my books.

Entry 3:

   "To connect yet more to my blog about girls' books; boys' books and girls' often have as the great villain a child or young adolescent who is a bully, and gets a group around him or her. He or she humiliates and needles in public. And there's no law against this; even custom doesn't sufficiently do anything at all at this age to curb it. Teachers turn a blind eye -- and I've seen parents do that too, much to my horror.
    What's remarkable in Cat's Eye is how Atwood gets it right. Most of the bullying in these pop books don't go so far as really to capture quite what the experience is.  What she does is she shows how bullies work secretly. Elaine is forbidden to tell others; the things she's driven to do are what's not visible and she's afraid to disobey.  What happens to Carol is Carol breaks off; she won't do it all and thus discovers she can free herself, for the two "powerful" ones don't ostracize her.
  And how these things work on a lack fo self-esteem. The particularity and detail are therefore hard to take and memorable because it really is what one can experience.
   Boys bully differently.  They are more overt because their culture allows aggressive and encourages macho male taunting.  They also (I suggest) free themselves from it quicker. They seem not to have the need for perpetual companionship in the same way. Far more girls go to camp in the summer. Boys are not as docile: they are harder to toilet train and they won't be curbed for camp activities in the same way.  When I was in sleep away camp (once and never again) I noticed the male camp counsellors reasoned more with the boys, were actually more respectful of everyone.  The women counsellors often bought into the false terms of the bullies and reinforced sexual stereotypes a given girl was said not to come up to.
  I was mocked for all my books and reading by my counseller as well as other girls and also eating habits.
  Yes there is a lot of literary allusion but Elaine herslef is not a reader. Maybe I'm giving myself away too much for wanting that, but I did think to myself that in my case and I've seen thsi with others that reading girls have a defense: they can retreat into their books (and nowadays to TV and DVDs and so on and others can do this. But they can be smarter and sometimes, just sometimes common sense can make her see what his bully is, confrront her in front of the others and free yourself. Now you will be ostracized probably anyway, but it does count down on the self-torment.
  Elaine is shown to have self-torment.
  Versions of all this in much much muted forms can carry on in women's groups later on -- well in my experience they are much muted, but then I learned a pattern of keeping away a lot.
   Mirrors yes -- there were a lot in Alias Grace.

Entry 4:

  "Just to link another startlingly frank aspect with hard-to-take things in movies -- and hard to know how to take them.
   Elaine picks her feet, nay she pulls the skin off her feet in strips.  Eeek. I had thought it very rare until very recently to come across realistic or not-uncommon forms of self-injury in obsessive-compulsive modes, but Atwood proves me wrong.  I know how we are to "take" I should say:  as part of the evolution of a girl's personality under intense social pressures and pyschological needs/distress, the pain and absorption cuts down on phenomena coming in and thus relaxes, so we are to feel for her the way we do how she submits to bullying.
  It is part of what makes the book so riveting and real.
  I too have had the experience where I can see why something is included, and in a way be glad it's there because it's right and yet find it hard to take and almost wish it wasn't.

Entry 5:

   "I put two professional pieces in the files of WWTTA: the first an essay linking other novels by Atwood with Cat's Eye, and the other a review in WRofB. The reviewer does worry the question Whether the novels aer "uneasy" about women (polite term for disliking women, misogyny stalking along in the deep background). I'd say no and (though hard to prove) would suggest that Churchill's Top Girls and a few other of the films and plays we discussed were misogynist, but not this. To me, this is about human nature itself, even if we don't see the boys. Maybe because: they are not there so we have no inditement but we could. Elaine does prefer boys and finds them easier to be around.
   I read on and discovered three more features which startled me but struck me as true. The mothers of these four girls appear to know what's going on, and actually do nothing, countenance it.  Elaine's mother says at one point she is helpless. Is she?  Grace's awful mother appears to enjoy knowing her daughter is a bully. This comes out when they actually come close to killing her by getting her to go fetch a hat in a freezing river.  I have seen this and not to describe it, but I did go up to a woman and told her her daughter was a monster, and stopped her daughter from doing something to mine. I did rescue her. The woman was livid, and I told her she was vicious for bringing up her daughter as vicious.
   But what a tiny drop in a sea I am aware.
   Then, there is a suicidal impulse going on in Elaine and that is part of why she's susceptible to bullying. She says when she breaks away finally after this episode, that she couldn't help herself but stay with them and didn't know why. She also plays games of disorientation (p. 185 in my old edition), like when she imagines herself outside her body.  I've done this sort of thing, not imagining myself outside my body but deliberately making myself aware of how odd our bodies are and (what is behind your eyes anyway when you look into a mirror, why an outside down retina, no soul, no soul) you take your hand and ask whose is it, and so on.
   There is deep psychological distress here. The biting her lip until it bleeds is anothers self-injury to soothe and calm herself by hurting herself worse and getting absorbed.
  When people talk of autobiography and veils (optics) in ficiton, there is often this implicit assumption the writer is more aware than they are. Maybe it's so painful they can't look, or (like Atwood who seems very sharp and not inclined to emotional muddle) they say it's no use to look too carefully, does no good.
   I'll end paradoxically on Drabble's Patterns in the Carpet. Not unexpectedly to me, that autobiography tells less about her painful vulnerable inner life than a number of her early novels. Is she conscoiusly hiding in the autobiography? Probably she choses not to tell a lot of things, but does that mean in the novels she choses to tell?  Or does it come out without clarity?
   Especially when the writer has impulses which are socially strongly verboten. This includes sexual orientation, strong dislike of the way social organization in society is arranged (competitive and performative) and erotic behaviors. These sort of cover the ground for the authors I"ve brought together.
   Again I have no answer, but I wonder if essays written somehow seem to assume more self-conscious awareness in writers."

Entry 6:

    "This is an extraordinary novel. I certainly got on with it last night.  She moves onto high school life and her depiction of its perversions is just brilliant. She manages to create a wry stance that is ironic: at times it's like she's a person from Mars looking on at the antics of these frantic people. It's a strong presence: she does not herself have to imitate them but sees the absurdities of high school life.  She herself also begins to take over the dominant place between her and Cordelia.
   She doesn't critique the values and norms of this society but rather shows us the adolescent craziness in reaction. I am seeing why the title. She is looking out with a cat's eye.
    The implicit portrait of her mother as a woman refusing to be complicit, refusing to lead her life dressing herself, making up.  We can see the mother retreated into wifehood as a shield.
   She does though provide ammunition for those who would say this is misogynist or at least prefers men. Her real respect for her brother, and the way she presents him as somehow above it all more than she, more sensible, feels like a product of his being a boy.
And it's not presented as he is this way because the norms for boys make them more comfortable than girls but as it's better to be a boy, they are not so driven, they are calmer, they do better in some subjects."

Entry 7: 

   "What's happened now is Cordelia has turned into the weak personality and Elaine (our heroine) the strong one.  This is fascinating and my feeling is true to life.  One can't predict how a personality will turn out. We see much more of Cordelia's family life, where for example, the women (all girls, a mother) are encouraged to play up to the father.
   It emerges that Elaine's unconventional father and retreating mother were in fact healthy enough for her.
   I do find myself throughout preferring the sections where we fast forward to Elaine the artist today. They are easier to take. She is now almost (but not quite) renewing a relationship with her first husband who is a shit and whose present wife has left him.
   The deepest interest for me is the development of Elaine's personality. This is finally a heroine's text: at its center is the complex heroine we are probably to identify with. Well, I don't like her as she emerges :).  But like Emma, maybe I'm not supposed to.  She is certainly real, as she gets impatient and bored by Cordelia, and almost falls for Husband No 1, Jon, again. I love her scepticism.
   I do wish she were more of a reader, and find myself remembering Heroines who stick in their poetry now and again.  That Elaine doesn't is a signal to me how far from Atwood is this heroine. If aspects of the novel and heroine are autobiographical, the book and central presence as a whole is not -- though Atwood does love to draw and her Susannah Moodie poems appear in an art book of great beauty she did with a fellow artist.

Entry 8: 

    "As I come to the end of this remarkable novel, I think to myself, does it belong to the type of novel Mary McCarthy's Group (which I have never been able to get into) represents? 
   By this I mean to suggest to myself that it's a novel about what happened to this set of young girls.  The heroine, Elaine, begins in present time and her present life, and then she moves back to have a long central section about her girlhood and young adolescence. Each girl's background and situation is accounted for and we see them interact, and then slowly we see how they grew a little later into adulthood, and what happened to each.
   It remains a comfort book since the heroine is clearly among them the relative winner. Cordelia ended in an asylum her relatives put her into; it may be that the woman who looked like Grace comes to Elaine's show and is now a rigidly narrow moralist, retreating into a version of what her mother was, only more waspish because the role is now threatened.
  Atwood treats the feminism of Elaine's new associated and her show skillfully.  First through her flashback technique and juxtaposition, she does reveal how hard it is for a teenage girl and then young women to cope with sex as presented practised (so to speak). She shows how slowly she was drawn into marriage, and Jon's hostility to what makes her life meaningful.  Her loyalty to her daughter.  She also has a heroine who admires boys and wants to be one in part (which is part of what may make this book called anti-women).
   Then the feminism she encounters is presented as alien to her, making her feel insecure and perhaps threatened and as something strange.  It's for comedy but I also think a rhetorical technique to make us identify with the heroine still.
   I can't love this book the way I can say Austen's because finally I can't identify with or recognize myself in the heroine that much and there are aspects of her personality which I regard as very real and nowadays would admit to myself.  Like her coldness to Cordelia in one of their meetings before Cordelia is put away (what a phrase).  I can't warm to her. I want to warm to her :)
   It reminds me of Austen's Emma in this. In her case Emma was the bully and we don't see the inward trajectory of Harriet's moving away from her. So this is superior to the early book in its awareness and compassion, for Atwood herself compassionates Cordelia and even Grace and certainly Elaine's mother.
  Stephen, her brother, is kept from us, leading a successful professional life, but not a personally happy one we can see. 
   Also for its intricate art -- different from the other. Controlled cyclical -- very much a woman's art. 
   But it makes me want to read more of her early novels. When we read Alias Grace, I bought an omnibus book of her early works which includes Surfacing and Edible Woman.  This book will help me get to them at last.

Entry 9:

   "I finished the novel the other night. I found it ended very well. Having just written an email on women's friendships in art, I'll just say that on the concluding page, Elaine cries for Cordelia.  That was a beautiful moment."

Emily Carr, In Autumn

Here is the last poem from Journals of Susannah Moodie. The book I own is an art book supervised by Atwood where she had a friend artist make the separate pages into works of abstract and modern art appropriate to each poem.  For this last poem the recto side a black page, in the center the well-known picture of Susanna Moodie, the one we had on our site for so long. Just the center.  The facial mask. The verso is grey-white and the poem in grey-black letters:

"A Bus Along St. Clair's:  December"

It would take more than that to banish
me:  this is my kingdom still.

Turn, look up
through the gritty window:  an unexplored
wilderness of wires

Though they buried me in monuments
of concrete slabs, of cables
though they mounded a pyramid
of cold light over my head
though they said, We will build
silver paradise with a bulldozer

it shows how little they know
about vanishing:  I have
my ways of getting through.

Right now, the snow
is no more familiar
to you than it was to me:
this is my doing.
The grey air, the roar
going on behind it
are no more famliar.

I am the old woman
sitting across from you on the bus,
her shoulders drawn up like a shawl:
out of her eyes come secret
hatpins, destroying
the walls, the ceiling

Turn, look down:
there is no city:
this is the center of a forest

your place is empty.

Emily Carr, At Sitka

Tags: 20th century, jane austen novels, women's art, women's memoirs, women's novels, women's poetry

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