A Look into the Future through the Past: Personal Identity and How it is Achieved in Margaret Atwood’s, Cat’s Eye

[(essay dated June 8, 2008) In the following essay A.S. analyzes the development of the female character, Elaine Risley, in Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye during her search for personal identity. A.S. also notes the differences between Atwood’s writing style and that of other writers – such as Ellison and Joyce – who have written novels dealing with the same topic of identity, using male characters.]

“Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backward in time and exist in two places at once” (Atwood, 3)

Elaine Risley, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, visits her home town of Toronto for her art retrospective and is flooded with memories as she “travels backward in time” to confront what has been smothering her identity. She sees time as “having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid of top of another. You don’t look back along time but down through it like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away” (3). This becomes apparent through Atwood’s reoccurring flashbacks that consume the present storyline and we witness Elaine’s whole childhood flashing before her eyes within a time span of several days.

Elaine grows up in an atypical family who “lived in so many places it was hard to remember them” (22). She spends the first 8 years of her childhood as what one would classify as a “tomboy,” spending time at her father’s work – the Zoology Building – and inspecting things through microscopes with her brother Stephen. “We look at earwax, or snot, or dirt from our toes” (39). When they finally settle down and Elaine goes to school, it is hard for her to develop friendships with other girls because she cannot seem to relate to them.

Once she finds a group of 3 girls who befriend her, Elaine must act a part to fit in. The need of approval overpowers her and she finds herself caught between society’s expectations of what a girl should be and act like, and her own way of expressing herself. She loses her voice along with her identity by imitating her friends and keeping her own views to herself.

Her silence does not win their approval, however, and the girls taunt, criticize and play persecute Elaine and cause her to feel as though she “will burst inward,” (151). finally leading to her self mutilation – peeling the skin off her feet until they bleed – her blackouts and even her out of body experiences.

A common theme in throughout the novel is flight. At Christmas dinner, her father tells a story about the difference between wild and tame turkeys.

“He tells a story of a turkey farm where the turkeys all died because they were too stupid to go into their shed during the thunderstorm. Instead they stood around outside, looking up at the sky with their beaks wide open and the rain ran down their throats and drowned them. He says this is a story told by farmers and probably not true, although the stupidity of the bird is legendary. He says that the wild turkey, once abundant in the deciduous forests in these regions, is far more intelligent and can elude even practiced hunters. Also it can fly” (137)

Later in the scene Elaine characterizes the people in her life as either “tame” or “wild.” She does not mention herself on this list. She then mentions the turkey at the table revealing itself “for what it is, a large dead bird,” and that she is eating its wing; she is “eating lost flight” (139). Atwood uses this anecdote to emphasize Elaine’s situation. She is being tamed by her friends, being silenced and losing her own “flight,” because of her unnecessary and “stupid” need of their friendship.

At the same time as she is losing her identity in the past, Elaine is also in her present life as a middle-aged painter confronting memories to regain identity. This storyline – although less developed – is where Atwood’s circular timeline of events begins and ends.

Many novels written about the search for identity have a linear timeline. The main character – usually of the male gender – seeks out to find himself in contrast to his family and society as a whole. We see this pattern in many novels such as: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, where the main characters set themselves apart from everyone else and move forward.

In contrast, Atwood uses circular return in Cat’s Eye to help emphasize a woman’s need to be defined in relation to others. Through flashbacks in her character’s past, Atwood takes us to the depths of the female mind and shows us how women need to confront the past to get on with the future.

[A.S. 2008]

“‘The Progression of Feminism’: Margaret Atwood, Protofeminism, and The Edible Woman

[(essay dated June 3, 2008) In the following essay, A.S. draws parallels between America’s social and political shift (1950s – 1960s) – including gender stereotypes and the importance of traditional values during these two decades – and the relationships presented in The Edible Woman. A.S. further claims that through this novel, Atwood satirizes the conservative views held by the majority of people and openly acclaims the progression of feminism.]

Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Edible Woman (written in 1965; published in 1969), almost directly mirrors the rise of feminism in North America, although it precedes the movement by several years. As a conscious observer, Atwood notes the importance of traditional values and their impact on society while – whether consciously or not – predicting the second-wave feminist movement and social revolution.

We learn about the impact of values through the main character (and partial narrator), Marian McAlphin. She is a woman of conviction; stable, structured and working hard in a consumer-oriented firm, Seymour Surveys. In this firm, women do all the leg-work while men sit in their offices and later distribute the results of the survey to whatever companies need them. The men’s offices are located upstairs – suggesting the power they have over the women – while the women’s desks and cubicles (they aren’t important enough to have individual offices) are located downstairs. Marian does not interact much with her co-workers besides the obvious business interactions they ; she does not have anything in common with them, therefore does not fit the standard mold. The most she does is go to lunch with “the office virgins,” but even then conversation is limited to fashion and gossip which do not interest her.

The office virgins are one perfect example of the typical woman Seymour Surveys hires: young and single, while another –and the only other – type of woman they hire is one who is past her prime, because she is less susceptible to distractions and pregnancy. (The firm “regards pregnancy as an act of disloyalty” (19))

Marian’s job at the firm is to write surveys, sample products put on the market, and gather responses from the public. Pleasing the public is a main concern of businesses; if the people are not given what they need and are unsatisfied, someone isn’t doing their job; this not only stops a company from getting on top, but also stifles competition and minimizes profits. This ideology is present throughout the novel – whether at the workplace or mirrored in Marian’s personal life – and can be tied to America’s conservative ideals of the early 1950s, where competition and big business were the key to success – but also coinciding with the more liberal aspects of the country (i.e. social programs such as: Social Security and Health Care, which are aimed at helping and pleasing the common people).

Like these government run programs and businesses alike, most of Marian’s life focuses on pleasing other people. She manages to create a balance between keeping – or perhaps feigning – contentment and helping others at the start of the novel, but even by the first line of the book, we know this will not last throughout. “I know I was all right on Friday when I woke up; if anything I was feeling more stolid than usual” (Atwood, 3). By mentioning Marian’s apathy in the first line of the novel, Atwood prepares the reader for a change in her character, or her quest for something to feel passionate about.

Atwood uses first person narrative in the first part of the novel to show Marian’s stability in life and then switching to third person as a way to depict Marian’s loss of identity. At the start Marian finds herself searching for happiness and the proper steps to get there. She is in a seemingly happy relationship with a charming and sophisticated man named Peter; she has graduated from college, is well educated and has managed to find a good, but monotonous job with benefits.

Through this job she meets an intriguing young man named Duncan when conducting a beer survey. He becomes a sort of variable in her life because he deviates from social standards and does not fit the masculine stereotype at all. He is “thin and lanky,” and she mistakes him for a young boy the first time they meet. His apartment is a mess; all exposed surfaces are “littered with loose papers, notebooks, books opened face-down and other books bristling with pencils and torn slips of paper stuck in them as markers” (49). With this description, we discover that Duncan is educated but still young and careless. These qualities are what first attract Marian to him. He seems like a needy child and her suppressed maternal instincts arise.

While Duncan is portrayed as the anti-male stereotype, Marian’s boyfriend Peter adheres to the stereotype very strictly. We are first introduced to him at his apartment through Marian’s eyes while she waits for him to get out of the shower. He owns “two rifles, a pistol, and several wicked-looking knives,” (58-9) with which he “goes hunting a lot with his oldest friends” (59) and is well educated with “a small bookcase” of law books, detective novels, and other various books throughout his apartment. He is the epitome of a bachelor, through his natural charm and a laid-back lifestyle. Peter even has a masculine and toned body to parallel his personality.

Marian sees a change in Peter – or maybe just something she has not noticed earlier – after introducing him to her friend Len, a single man whose only goal is to woo younger, “virginal” women. Their encounter is significant and sets up the event that follows: a humorous scene all for the sake of metaphor.

“I was running along the sidewalk. After the first minute I was surprised to find my feet moving, wondering how they had begun, but I didn’t stop.

The rest of them were so astonished they didn’t do anything at all for a moment. Then Peter yelled, ‘Marian! Where the hell do you think you’re going?’

I could hear the fury in his voice: this was the unforgivable sin, because it was public. I didn’t answer, but I looked back over my shoulder as I ran. Both Peter and Len had started to run after me. Then they both stopped and I heard Peter call, ‘I’ll go get the car and head her off, you try to keep her out of the main drag,’ and he turned around and sprinted off in the other direction. This disturbed me – I must have been expecting Peter to chase me, but instead it was Len who was galloping heavily along behind me.” (74).

This passage is one of the first times we are introduced to Marian’s struggle of body vs. self. As mentioned above, she sees that her feet are moving, but cannot stop them. Her subconscious is in control of her body and she cannot make conscious decisions to counteract it.

Marian’s chase is a representation of two contradicting ideas: longing for Peter to step up and acknowledge his feelings for her, but also wanting to escape from the possible confinement these feelings may bring.

Peter’s laid-back personality is reflected in the way he acts in a relationship. He may care for Marian, but he does not express his emotions to her in the way she would like. When she runs away, she expects him to chase her; she wants to see if he can be that “knight in shining armor” every girl longs for. When she looks back and sees Len “galloping” towards her on his invisible horse, she is “disturbed” and disappointed – perhaps more so with herself for wanting this stereotype to be present in her relationship.

Her own disappointment is contrasted with the “fury in his [Peter’s] voice.” It is the first time we see this side of his character, but the reader is not surprised; to us, it is a typical male reaction. When out in public, Peter becomes conscious of his surroundings and what others see and how they perceive him and the people he is affiliated with. It is an “unforgivable sin” for Marian to reject his authority and damage his image as a man. Public approval again arises as a prominent theme.

Marian and Peter’s relationship creates more apparent conflict once Peter asks for her hand in marriage. Instead of the convenient relationship we see at the beginning of the novel, it becomes a fight for freedom and a way to end the separation of body and self. Marian’s eating habits deteriorate before her eyes as she slowly stops eating meat, eggs, and vegetables, until eventually, she cannot eat at all. Her lack of food consumption symbolizes the rejection of her gender role. Subconsciously, she does not want to assimilate into a socially acceptable feminine figure that she sees in the “thick Sargasso-sea of femininity” (181) around her, but consciously she still has no idea why her body is rejecting such an important function. She shrugs it off as a need for "something solid, clear: a man" while looking at herself as a "liquid amorphous other."

Both Marian and Peter are strong characters. Marian strays away from the typical female stereotype by being educated and able to fend for herself, while Peter adheres to his male stereotype for the same reasons. They are committed, but never hold the other back; the relationship is convenient and typical to those of young men and women, but what happens when they decide to settle down together? Who gives up their current role and submits to the other?

[A.S. 2008]