Volume XV, Number 1, 2019

"'Risley in Retrospect': Intermedial Storytelling in Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye" by Melinda Túry

Melinda Túry received her Master’s Degree in American Studies from University of Szeged in 2020. As a BA and later MA student, she was most interested in American literature and culture, comparative literature, adaptation and intermediality. Email:

Abstract: This paper demonstrates that Margaret Atwood’s 1988 novel Cat’s Eye challenges concepts of space and time, and blurs the line between visual and verbal arts, as its narrator-protagonist (re)contructs and represents her own self and past. The paper argues that the painter Elaine Risley’s memoir has three narrative layers, and it explains how notions of time, space, identity and the (dis)similarities of verbal and pictorial representations are contested and depicted in each of them. While on the first layer, Elaine’s self and memories are regarded as narratives questioning obsolete concepts of time, space and identity, on the next level, Elaine’s paintings are considered to be narratives on what have been studied as the first narrative layer. Finally, on third layer, Cat’s Eye is studied as Elaine’s collection of paintings inspired not only by memories, and ideas regarding time, space and identity, but also by dreams, pictures, photographs and comics described in her memoir. In sum, the paper proves that Cat’s Eye shows and tells Elaine’s memories, identification and healing process combining pictorial and verbal media and challenging concepts of time, space and identity on various levels.

Keywords: Cat’s Eye, ekphrasis, identity, intermedial storytelling, Margaret Atwood, memoir, memories, narrative, painting, space, time, trauma, verbal and visual arts



Margaret Atwood is one of the most famous and prolific writers of contemporary literature. Throughout her literary career, Atwood has tried herself in many different genres – she has published books of poetry, non-fiction, short fiction, children’s books and graphic novels as well. However, it is her dystopic novels that seem to have brought her much fame. As far as I can see, today, she is known for her works often classified as speculative fiction (MaddAddam-trilogy, and novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel The Testaments) primarily, but also her novels categorized as historical fiction (Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin) are being reprinted, republished and even adapted to highly successful television series (The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace). However, in this paper, I am going to analyze an Atwood-novel that is neither dystopic, nor historical, and unfortunately, has not gained global attention comparable to the works mentioned previously. Cat’s Eye (1988) is a remarkably complex novel dealing with many of Atwood’s recurring topics such as power play, identity, gender and religion.

Cat’s Eye is the life-story of the narrator-protagonist Elaine Risley, a Canadian painter in her fifties who returns to Toronto, the city of her childhood and teenage years, for the retrospective show of her art (Atwood 2009). As she revisits the scenes of her youth and reviews her collection of paintings, she reconsiders several painful and occasionally long-repressed memories, comes to understand and forgive characters of her past and (re)creates her identity as a woman and an artist. Elaine’s stories on her past and self are not chronologically ordered; moreover, her narratives are interrupted by her descriptions of her paintings, which, this way, “offer counter-discourse to the memoir narrative” (Howells 2000, 146). Since Elaine articulates her and ideas, emotions, childhood memories and traumas by way of painting first, her canvasses, similarly to the narratives, tell stories of her past and often refer to scientific theories regarding time and space as well. Therefore, I argue that Cat’s Eye challenges concepts of space and time blurring the line between visual and verbal arts, as its narrator (re)contructs and represents her own self and past.

In this paper, I am going to demonstrate that in Cat’s Eye, notions of time, space, identity and the (dis)similarities of verbal and pictorial representation are tested and represented on three narrative layers. First, I am going to focus on Elaine’s memories and traumas, theories and experiences regarding time and space as well as her troublesome identification process, arguing that Elaine’s memories and identity are narratives created by herself. Then, in the second section, I am going to analyze Elaine’s paintings as narratives. Elaine manages to express her feelings and repressed memories by painting first; she starts painting about her memories and struggles in spite of herself, thereby taking the first steps toward psychological healing. Therefore, Elaine’s canvasses can be considered as her stories on her past and self which also imply her ways of conceptualizing time and space, and help her reconstruct her memories and identity. Finally, in the third section, I am going to regard Cat’s Eye as Elaine’s collection of paintings and examine intermedial references among paintings, dreams, (moving) pictures, photographs and comics described in the novel. Elaine’s act of narrating her stories, psychological and artistic processes she has gone through imply her ability to face her past, forgive those who hurt her, accept herself and turn memories into art intentionally. Consciously or not, both the novel and Elaine’s paintings show and tell a woman’s story of coming to terms with her past and acquiring a sense of self, supporting progressive ways of conceptualizing time, space and modes of representation.

Elaine’s identity and memories as narratives

Since “Elaine’s paintings rework in symbolic form the elements of the past which her narrative reconstructs” (King 2000, 90) by means of which she finally “creates a complete sense of herself” (Osborne 1994, 95), it is necessary to examine her memories and the question of identity, first. Therefore, in this section, I am going to focus on what inspired her paintings; more precisely, her memories connected to childhood traumas (some of which have been repressed for decades), theories of time and space she learns from her brother, her own experiences in connection to the latter concepts, and also her troublesome identification process. Considering both memories and identity as narratives, I am going to analyze what I identify as the first narrative layer of the novel Cat’s Eye – that is, Elaine’s memories and identity as narratives created by (and for) herself.

According to Carol Osborne (1994), the structure of the novel models the nature of memory. Since all sections of the book start “in the present tense with Elaine in Toronto” but continue in “past tense when the surroundings spark a particular memory of Elaine’s childhood” to finally switch back to present tense but keep on narrating past events (Osborne 1994, 97), the structure supports Elaine’s idea that “nothing goes away” (Atwood 2009, 3). Elaine considers time as “a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing” (3), which approach sounds strikingly similar to that of the acclaimed 20th century writer Marcel Proust who, as Jens Brockmeier explains, uses “the pool of time as an allegory for our simultaneous existence in different temporalities” (2009, 116).

This way of conceptualizing time opposes the standard or “Newtonian” view that considers time as “an objective and absolute system” (Brockmeier 2009, 117). Brockmeier who advocates the narrative view of time, mostly focusing on Proust’s works demonstrates that “both memory and time, as well as their fusion” which he calls “autobiographical time” are narrative phenomena (117), for they “only become intelligible in as far as they exist in linguistic form” (117). The narrative view assumes that “our concepts of time are (…) outcomes of symbolic constructions” – the sight of which, however, is language (118). Hence, according to Brockmeier, “narrative discourse is our most advanced way to shape complex temporal experiences, including remembering” (118).

Atwood (2009) urges readers not to consider Cat’s Eye as her autobiography, nevertheless, it is undoubtedly written in the form of an autobiography. Hence, in accordance with Brockmeier’s explanations regarding narrative theory, I suggest that the novel’s protagonist/narrator, Elaine “give[s] meanings to experiences of present and past” and “also unfold[s], explicitly or implicitly, temporal scenarios” by means of telling stories about herself. These temporal scenarios do “not only align events (…) in time, but (…) also define and evoke ‘time’ and its meaning in the first place” (Brockmeier 2009, 118). Moreover, Elaine constructs her very self out of the stories she tells about herself, since narrative has a huge role in identity construction, too (Baldwin 2007, 223).

Martin Fougere asserts that today, the concept of identity is widely accepted to be “best understood as being continually constructed” rather than fixed and unchanging (2008, 188). According to Clive Baldwin, we are “narrative beings who find our Selves in the stories we tell about ourselves and that others tell about us” (2007, 223). In Cat’s Eye, Elaine tries to “re-establish her own identity, to integrate past experience into her present sense of self” (Osborne 1994, 99) as she uncovers memories (many of which have been repressed for ages) by revisiting the sites of her childhood and as she reviews her own paintings. She manages to “realize [her] identity by filling the void” she feels inside “with memories she has blocked out earlier in her life” (99) – that is, by means of retelling (often already forgotten) stories about herself. Being an autobiography – even if a fictional one –, Cat’s Eye is, first and foremost, is “about the project of self-understanding and the activity of self-examination itself” (Brockmeier 2009, 121). Although by the end, Elaine feels to have found a “sense of herself”, Cat’s Eye “offer[s] variant versions of a self” (Howells 2000, 144) according the idea that “there is never only one, of anyone” (Atwood 2009, 6), as expressed by Elaine herself.

Therefore, I find Brockmeier’s argument with regards to In Search of Lost Time that the “multiple times of memory” (2009, 120) are strongly related to the multiple selves of the protagonist to hold true in case of Elaine’s memoir as well. For structural reasons, the remembering self and the remembered self inevitably get interwoven in autobiographies (Brockmeier 2009, 121). As Marta Dvorak insists, in Cat’s Eye “the narrative voice of the older, wiser narrating ‘I’ (…) crosses and overlaps the limited point of view of the narrated ‘I,’ Elaine as child, adolescent and young adult” (2001,301). This issue gets even more complicated considering that many of Elaine’s memories have been repressed for decades. As Nicola King argues, “although the past as narrated to us has been supposedly ‘forgotten’ by the self who narrates it, nevertheless it is already marked by a degree of retrospective interpretation which creates the effect of the narrator knowing and not knowing about the past at the same time” (2000, 67). Moreover, Elaine’s (reconstructed) memories reveal that in case of her memoir, the question of multiple selves has a personal aspect to it as well.

Osborne (1994) demonstrates that Elaine, throughout her life, loses and/or multiplies her identity several times. Her long struggle to find herself as an individual and as a female artist proves to be triggered by her childhood traumas. The first time Elaine feels lost and “finds herself an outsider” (1994, 101) is when her family, after a long period of “nomadic life in Northern Canada” (101) settles down in Toronto. In school, Elaine realizes that she is “not used to girls, or familiar with their customs” (Atwood 2009, 55), for up to that point, she has never had anyone to play with but her brother, Stephen. Then, befriended by Carol, Grace and Cordelia, Elaine admits, “I know the unspoken rules of boys, but with girls I sense that I am always on the verge of some unforeseen, calamitous blunder” (55).

Among her so-called friends, the nine years old Elaine becomes the victim of “subtle and devastating psychological bullying by Cordelia” (Jones 2008, 31). Although she “adopts Carol and Grace as role models” for they “represent the pathway to the acquisition of her own femininity” (30), it is Cordelia who has the biggest impact on and power over her. Since the two girls “become inextricably bound and interchangeable” (31), Carol Ann Howells refers to Cordelia as Elaine’s “tormentor and her own dark double” (2000, 145). Indeed, Elaine claims that Cordelia and her “are like the twins of old fables” (Atwood 2009, 408). Also King notes that Cat’s Eye “dramatises the doubling of the self” (2000, 74); however – since in high school, it is Elaine who “plays the power part” (de Jong 1998, 100) in their relationship –, King talks about the process of “Elaine’s internalization of Cordelia” (80) too. As an adult, in connection with her painting on Cordelia entitled Half a Face, Elaine confesses that “[she is] afraid of being Cordelia. Because in some way [they] changed places, and [she has] forgotten when” (Atwood 2009, 267).

Nevertheless, during the first phase of their friendship, Elaine is tormented by Cordelia which makes her identification process especially difficult. Being harassed, the child Elaine “learns to protect herself by not being, not feeling, not talking” and start to use fainting as a means to survive bullying (Osborne 1994, 104). According to Elaine, “fainting is like stepping sideways, out of your own body, out of time or into another time” (Atwood 2009, 203). Thus, I consider fainting as Elaine’s unique experience regarding time and space which suggests her desire to disappear too. As a result of the “psychological abuse” (Jones 2008, 33) she goes through as a friend of the three girls, she “loses her identity” (Osborne 1994, 104) and starts “to negate herself” (104) by means of committing several (minor) “act[s] of self-mutilation (Jones 2008, 32). As a result, throughout her childhood and teenage years, Elaine identifies with people who “share with Elaine an outsider status in Toronto” (Osborne 1994, 103): the Indian Mr. Banerji, the Jew Mrs. Finestein, or the Scot Mrs. Stuart. Later, in art school, she has an affair with her teacher Mr. Hrbik or Josef, an Eastern-European refugee also “alienated from the [dominant] culture” (Osborne 1994, 106).

In art school, having lost touch with Cordelia and free of her negative influence, Elaine befriends Susie. However, Susie seems to become Elaine’s new double: she also dates Josef, and is “conflated with [Cordelia] in Elaine’s dream” (Osborne 1994, 106). In addition, Josef’s short movie “about a man being in love with two women,” in which “it is hard to tell the girls apart” (Atwood 2009, 429) also suggests Elaine and Susie being parallel. In my view, Elaine creates a new double for herself because at this point, she still needs someone in relation to whom she can define herself. Indeed, Josef describes Elaine as “an unfinished woman” (Atwood 2009, 320) to justify his efforts to “[rearrange]” Elaine (Atwood 2009, 358). However, Elaine can fit neither “into the female world of little girls” nor “into the roles defined by the men in her life” (Osborne 1994, 106). For this reason, as Osborne argues, Elaine gets even further from acquiring a better sense of self when, “conforming to [their] expectations” (106), she dates Josef or gets married to her classmate, Jon.

As it can be seen, in Cat’s Eye, Atwood challenges the concept of identity on two levels; firstly, with the help of the structural characteristics of autobiographies, and secondly, by means of emphasizing the personal, psychological work and hardship human beings (may) face with in search of their own sense of selves, negotiating the multiple identities they have and have acquired throughout their lives. Regarding structure it is important to emphasize that while “conventional life-writers work toward a seamless unification between the ‘double referent’” (Davies 2017) by means of “following a linear plot” (Osborne 1994, 94-95), Atwood employs a double structure with “alternating sections in which Elaine tells the story of her childhood with sections describing her visit to Toronto some forty years later for her ‘retrospective’” (King 2000, 66). This nonlinear narration draws attention to the complexity of the concepts of place and time as well, which are, again, further problematized on the personal level.

Therefore, I shift my focus to science and its role in Elaine and her family’s life, now. Elaine’s father is a biologist, thus, throughout their childhood Elaine and her brother Stephen inevitably acquire some scientific knowledge at home. Moreover, as Janine Rogers explains, before settling down in Toronto, the family lives a nomadic life “in intimate proximity with the outdoors” (2017, 6), where “the children’s play – collection, observation, experimentation, and imaginative theorization – merges with the scientific method” (6). Science affects Elaine and Stephen so much that he himself becomes physicist, while Elaine a painter who often turns to science for inspiration (2). Scientific arguments pronounced by Stephen – such as “time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimension of space” or “… at that point space would become time and time would become space and we would be able to travel through time, back into the past” (Atwood 2009 3, 260) – “shape Elaine’s imagination as an artist, for this theories and her painting occupy the same area of speculation on the mysterious laws which govern the universe” (Howells 2000,145).

Moreover, Elaine’s interest in the concepts of time and space seems to increase with her revisiting Toronto. As Elaine walks the streets of the city, specific places and sights remind her of particular events of her past. Rogers insists that “mentally, she is split between her adult self and her nine-year-old self” (2017, 179) supported by Elaine’s following thoughts: “I can see through the houses, to what they used to be (…) What time do they really belong in, their own or mine?” (Atwood 2009, 454). Moreover, visiting her old school, she says: “I climb up the wooden steps, stand where I used to stand. Where I am still standing, never having been away (…) I’m locked in. I don’t want to be nine years old forever” (471). Indeed, Elaine seems to perceive past situations and scenes just as vividly as her present state and environment. As mentioned before, Elaine likens time to a “series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another” (Atwood 2009, 3) implying that past and present, and the scenes attached to them, are intermingled not only by the double narrative structure of the novel, but also in Elaine’s mind, supported by her brother’s theories.

Besides the notions of time and space, Elaine also reflects on the complexity of identity – she believes “there is never only one, of anyone (Atwood 2009, 6) – as well as on that of stories, and more precisely, memories. Regarding Josef’s movie she says “he was entitled to his own versions, his own conjurings; as I am” (Atwood 2009, 430) indicating that memories are constructions. Elaine argues that the story of their relationship would probably be very different if told by Josef instead of Elaine. Later, she wonders whether her memories concerning Cordelia and the time they spent together gave justice to what Cordelia remembers arguing that “perhaps she’s forgotten the bad things, what she said to me, what she did. Or she does remember them, but in a minor way (…). She will have her own version. I am not the centre of her story, because she herself is that” (Atwood 2009, 485). Thus, in my view, Elaine seems to be conscious about the plurality of “truths” and that her identity and memories are mere constructions, that is, narratives she tells about and for herself.

Since “Elaine’s myopic understanding of what happened to her at nine has obscured her understanding of her adult self” (Rogers 2017, 12), it is essential for her to rediscover her past. As Osborne puts it, Elaine is “undergoing her own form of psychotherapy in gradually uncovering for the reader and for herself, the scenes of childhood” (1994, 100), with the aim of (re)constructing her identity. Hence King asserts that Cat’s Eye is “predicated on the assumption that memory of childhood trauma can be repressed and (almost) completely recovered,” highlighting that “the preserved and rediscovered past only emerges as an effect of narrative itself” (2000, 61, 62). King suggests that the “novelistic device” which entices Elaine’s stories of her past is her “rediscovery of the cat’s eye marble” (2000, 64). When Elaine finds the marble in her mother’s cellar, she claims “I look into it and see my life entire” (Atwood 2009, 467) which already indicates the extent to which her narratives of the past and identity are connected to the visuals (de Jong 1998).

In this first section, I have analyzed the first narrative layer of Cat’s Eye, considering Elaine’s identity and memories as narratives. As I have demonstrated, concepts of space, time and identity are already challenged on this layer, both on the structural and personal levels. Touching upon the topics of Elaine’s memories and traumas, theories and experiences regarding time and space as well as her struggles to find herself is essential in order to recognize that Elaine’s paintings are her own narratives on her memories and self. As I am going to demonstrate it in the following section, the first narrative layer serves as a source for the second one namely Elaine’s paintings as narratives about herself and her past. Therefore, before studying how Elaine tells her life-story by means of painting, first, I needed to prove that Elaine’s identity and her memories are also already narratives.

Elaine’s paintings as narratives on her identity and memories

Now, I am going to study the second narrative layer of Cat’s Eye, that is, Elaine’s paintings as her narratives on her past and self. Since “Elaine communicates with pictures [and] finds herself often without words” (Osborne 1994, 97), she articulates her ideas and feelings regarding her past and self by way of painting first. In accordance with W.J.T. Mitchell who challenges the long-held idea that time and space are “antithetical modalities” (1980, 297) expressed by the two opposing ways of representations – verbal and visual –, I suggest that Elaine’s pictures are actually narratives. I am going to analyze paintings of her early, middle and late period (as described by her) and their relations to Elaine’s memories, grouping them according to topics – family and science, childhood traumas, and identity and gaze – in order to prove that Elaine’s canvasses can be considered as her stories on her past and self which also imply her ways of conceptualizing time and space, and help her reconstruct her memories and identity.

According to James Heffernan, “the most famous of all essays on the difference between literature and visual art” (2015, 39) is Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laocoon in which Lessing argued that although both poetry and painting “work with sings, we normally take to be arbitrary or conventional”, “they differ because the signs of each are naturally suited to represent different things” (39). Lessing’s main argument was that while poetry, using verbal signs, can only express actions, paintings only represent bodies, that is, “forms and colors that coexist in space”(40). However, even Lessing admitted that occasionally literary works can “suggest the body that performs and action” and conversely, “painting can represent the body in action by choosing the (…) the ‘most suggestive’” moment of an action (40). Nevertheless, considering poetry and arts as essentially different structures – poetry as temporal, arts as spatial –, he was definitely against “literary pictorialism” (39), that is, ekphrastic writing.

Ekphrasis – which, to put it simply, is “a kind of writing that turns pictures into storytelling words” (Heffernan 2015, 38) – clearly demonstrates the cooperation between and strong relation of verbal and visual media. Putting ekphrastic passages, that is, descriptions of real and imaginary artworks 1 into prose can already be considered as Atwood’s way to oppose the strict distinction between time and space. Mitchell, considered as one of the most important advocates of poststructuralist American history of art (Szőnyi 2004, 182), also argues against regarding the two modalities as “antithetical” pointing out that “we cannot experience a spatial form except in time; we cannot talk about our temporal experience without invoking spatial measures” (Mitchell 1980, 276). There is no point in differentiating between literature and plastic arts on the ground of their ways of expressing space and time since the relationship of the two modalities is “one of complex interaction, interdependence, and interpenetration” (276). Therefore, it is inaccurate to speak about plastic arts as static and purely spatial structures – firstly, because we experience paintings, statues, buildings, etc. with our eyes scanning them, and secondly, because we do need time to decode them. Accordingly, it is fallacious to consider literature as “’really’ temporal” (274) since a text itself is spatial form having some sort of material existence and strict linear tracks (lines) for our eyes to follow. To summarize Mitchell’s argument, paintings can express actions unfolding in time and they need to be apprehended in time; and literature, having a spatial aspect itself, can suggest forms, bodies and images as well. Hence it is appropriate to examine Elaine’s paintings as narratives – as much as to consider the entire novel as a series of paintings which I am going to do in the third section.

Now, I shift my focus on the first group of Elaine’s paintings, the main topics of which are science and family, which are very much connected due to the importance of science within her family. As I mentioned before, her brother “Stephen’s preoccupation with the nature of the universe” as well as Elaine’s “experiences of being in (…) a space that is closely connected to time” (de Jong 1998, 103) – that is, fainting which Elaine likens to “stepping sideways, out of your own body, out of time, or into another time” (Atwood 2009, 203) – have an important role in shaping Elaine’s artistic imagination and sense of self. Many of Elaine’s paintings include clear references to science and theories of time and space. The paintings Picoseconds and Unified Field Theory already suggest strong connection to physics with their titles, but One Wing and Three Muses also need to be mentioned here as pictures that tell stories about the child Elaine’s family – their way of living and relations to science and to one another – most explicitly.

According to Rogers, Picoseconds is a “painting of her scientist parents in the north” which “reflects the universe that Elaine was born into” and thus demonstrates that “science is part of the foundation of her existence” (2007, 19). Elaine describes Picoseconds as a “landscape, done in oils, with the blue water, (…) and heavy impasto of the twenties and thirties” (Atwood 2009, 478) which, however, in its “lower right-hand corner”, also shows her parents making lunch at the fire, “painted in another style: smooth, finely modulated, realistic as a snapshot” (478). Her mother “bends over, stirring, [her father] adds a stick of wood to the fire”. In the background is their car, and “underneath them (…) is a row of iconic-looking symbols” which are “in fact the logos from old gas pumps of the forties” (478). I suggest that the picture is an account of the times which the family spent in the north. With details from the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, it covers a rather long period of time and expresses the actions of travelling and living a family life. The fact that the “landscape takes up much of the painting” (478) implies the central position that wilderness and science play in the family’s life – Elaine’s enthusiastic biologist father works in nature and the children observe, play with and live within nature with joy. Moreover, according to Rogers, by painting her parents in a realistic style, Elaine alludes to his biologist father’s “scientific idealism” (2007, 17) which he shares with his son and Mr. Banerji.

Mr. Banerji is from India and is a student of Mr. Risley. When the child Elaine first meets him, she immediately feels that he is “a creature (…) like [her]self: alien and apprehensive” (Atwood 2009, 153). Apart from Banerji, it is Mrs. Finestein and Miss Stuart whom Elaine includes in Three Muses, since “as a child, not only is she treated kindly by each one, but she identifies with all of them in their alienation from the dominant culture” (Osborne 1994, 103). The picture shows the Jew Mrs. Finestein as a fashionable woman with a huge orange in her hand; the Scot Miss Stuart as an older, grey-haired woman with a handkerchief tuck in her sleeve and nurse’s mask on her face, holding a globe of the world; and Mr. Banerji, a thin man in oriental clothing in the center, with budworm eggs on the plate he holds. Three Muses can be considered as a collection of stories of Elaine’s short but repeated encounters with persons she found inspiriting during her childhood and teenage years.

Firstly, it tells about Elaine’s babysitting for Mrs. Finestein, who “always has a bowl of oranges out, on a table” (Atwood 2009, 160) and who – being the first and only who calls Elaine “honey” (160) and whom she can turn to for fashion advices – serves as a “mother substitute” (Osborne 1994, 104) for Elaine. Secondly, the painting recounts the classes of Miss Stuart, who often wears mask being allergic to chalk dust, and who not only makes Elaine interested in painting, but – showing “images of wonderful foreign places where she may be able to escape the stifling atmosphere of Toronto” (104) – gives her hope when she feels “too numb, too enthralled” under the influence of her tormentor, Cordelia (Atwood 2009, 184). And finally, the picture also tells about the visits of Banerji, whom Elaine considers so similar to herself being a feminine, seemingly nervous and miserable young man (Atwood 2009), “never totally accepted” (Osborne 1994, 103). “The arrangement of the figures recalls that of classical Graces,” (Atwood 2009, 479) but Elaine paints them “facing out” to “hold their gifts forward” (497), so as to articulate their generosity as well as her gratitude for all what they – intentionally or not – have given her.

As I have already suggested, Stephen is also an influential person in Elaine’s life. She paints One Wing for her brother, after he dies in a terrorist attack on a plane. This work is a triptych, “a form used commonly in medieval and renaissance paintings of divinity, and which recalls the ‘trinity’ of scientists in Elaine’s life” (Rogers 2007, 19) comprising of Mr. Risley, Dr. Banerji and Stephen. Although it is a “portrait of Stephen” (19), it also alludes to her father and Banerji with its title – on Christmas evening when Elaine first meets Banerji, discussing scientific issues, her father says to Banerji, “you can’t fly on one wing” (Atwood 2009, 152). Well, in the central panel of One Wing, Stephen “is falling and not flying” wearing a soldier’s uniform, without parachute, and holding “a child’s wooden sword” (480). One of the smaller panels shows “a World War Two airplane, in the style of a cigarette card; in the other is a large pale-green luna moth” (480). Thus, Elaine presents the adult Stephen “suspended in mid-air”, surrounded by what “fascinated him as a child” (Rogers 2007, 19). As Rogers argues, Elaine eternalizes his brother by means of painting a triptych on which “he is a child and a man, flying and falling, alive and dead, all at the same time” (19). In other words, this painting also condenses a long period of time, that is, Stephen’s whole life from his childhood up to his death. In my view, One Wing can be regarded as Stephen’s biography, the creation of which helps the grieving sister to mourn and let him go.

As it can be seen, Elaine’s paintings connected to family and science challenge time and space due to the facts that they do not only represent given periods of time, but also allude to Stephen’s scientific theories that has challenged our ways of thinking about time and space. I have also listed Unified Field Theory among the paintings explicitly related to the topics of family and science since its title is already a reference to the lecture Stephen gives as an established scientist, entitled “The First Picoseconds and the Quest for a Unified Field Theory” (Atwood 2009, 388).2 However, Elaine’s Unified Field Theory gives justice to its title being remarkably complex, merging many symbols and allusions to different spheres and phases of her life – therefore, it is more sensible and effective to observe it later, with Elaine’s pictures of domestic appliances and those of Mrs. Smeath which I regard to be her narratives on childhood bullying and traumas.

While an art student, Elaine prefers to paint “things that were actually there” (Atwood 2009, 394) but later, having realized that she is pregnant, she instinctively starts painting “things which aren’t there” (394): mainly household appliances from her childhood such as the toaster, a coffee percolator, or a wringer (394-5). These objects all convey and make Elaine re-experience the anxiety she attached to them as a child. Dvorak argues that the narrator never claims that the child Elaine’s is being deeply unhappy, but suggests it by making her fantasizing about putting her finger into the toaster or going through the wringer (as well as gnawing her hair, peeling her skin from the feet) (2001, 301). As Osborne (1994) points it out, when, as a young woman, Elaine gets married and pregnant, she falls into an emotional state familiar for her from the time she was bullied by Cordelia, and consequently, her memories start to manifest themselves. In other words, her process of recovering her past and recreating her identity begins by itself.

Elaine says the objects she paints “arrive detached from any context; they are simply there, in isolation” (Atwood 2009, 394). However, in opposition to Elaine, readers can immediately recognize the simple domestic items depicted as childhood memories emerging unexpectedly and “see the sensations” and know the stories behind them (Dvorak 2001, 305). Her paintings articulate what Elaine herself cannot put into words: when painting, Elaine is only conscious about their being “suffused with anxiety” (Atwood 2009, 395) but claims that she has “no image of [her]self in relation to them” (395). Besides the already listed appliances, she paints three sofas – “one of them is chintz, in dirty rose; one is maroon velvet, with doilies. The one in the middle is apple-green. In the middle cushion of the middle sofa is an egg-cup, five times life-size, with a broken eggshell in it” (394). This painting entitled Three Witches obviously implies childhood memories – more precisely, it retells stories of Elaine’s time spent with her friends Grace, Carol and Cordelia at their homes and (together with its title) it also indicates how significant (and negative) figures the girls’ family members and the atmosphere of their homes were in her development.

The character of Mrs. Smeath, Grace’s mother, is particularly important when it comes to Elaine’s childhood traumas. As Gadpaille puts it, Mrs. Smeath “epitomizes a peculiarly Torontonian narrow-mindedness, an amalgam of religion, prudery, philistinism, and rigid respectability that is presented by Atwood as mean spirited” (1993, 222). Elaine’s first picture depicting a person is of Mrs. Smeath – she starts to paint her unintentionally, “her white, sparsely haired legs without ankles, then her thick waist and potato face, her eyes in their steel rims. The afghan is draped across her thighs, the rubber plant rises behind her like a fan. On her head is the felt hat like a badly done-up package that she used to wear on Sundays” (Atwood 2009, 395). Elaine calls this painting Torontodalisque: Homage to Ingres which clearly shows its reference to Ingres’ odalisques. As Gadpaille suggests, by means of juxtaposing the “lush eroticism of the 19th-century odalisque with the arid prudery of” the evidently unattractive Mrs. Smeath, Elaine attempts to take revenge for Mrs. Smeath’s rude and hateful behavior toward her – indeed, Elaine herself admits she “went for vengeance” (Atwood, 456). However, she would need to forgive her in order to let go of the pain and shame of old memories.

After her period of painting still lifes recounting past stories, Elaine unintentionally lets out her feelings of memories regarding or caused by Mrs. Smeath and creates a whole series of her. In the picture called Erbug, The Annunciation for example, Mrs. Smeath is “bare naked, flying heavily through the air. The church spire with the onion on it is in the distance. Mr. Smeath is stuck to her back like an asparagus beetle, grinning like a maniac; both of them have shiny wings, done to scale and meticulously painted” while on the Empire Bloomers she is depicted “with a sickle-moon paring knife and a skinless potato, unclad from the waist up and the thighs down” (Atwood 2009, 266). Painting such satirical and ironic pictures of Mrs. Smeath whom she finds to be hypocritical, repulsive and malicious character of her past, she gradually gets closer to understand and forgive her. The act of forgiveness eventually occurring when the retrospective in Toronto takes place is an essential and final part of Elaine’s resolving past traumas and recreating her own self – and concerns Cordelia as well.

Cordelia may be called the biggest “witch” of Elaine’s past – as I have already explained, she is the most responsible for Elaine’s psychological struggles. From the very beginning of their friendship (which in fact is based on power-play and processes of searching for identity), Cordelia treats Elaine as if she was abnormal and worthless. She oppresses and harasses Elaine, always keeping an eye on her. However, Elaine gets much attached to Cordelia and sees her as her double (Howells 2000) or her own dark side (King 2000) or, as Osborne (1994) suggests, a mother substitute. Although these ways of characterization sound completely different first, I find them corresponding – all the three arguments highlight and are based on Elaine’s tremendous need for Cordelia in relation to whom she defines herself. It is after the most traumatic event of Elaine’s childhood – at the age of nine, she almost freezes to death at the ravine, abandoned by Cordelia, Grace and Carol – when Elaine “finds the strength to break with Cordelia” (Osborne 1994, 105). It is the painting I have already mentioned as one of Elaine’s most complex work called Unified Field Theory that gives an account of this traumatic memory. Unified Field Theory shows

a wooden bridge. To either side of the bridge are the tops of trees, bare of leaves, with a covering of snow on them, as after a heavy moist snowfall (…)
Positioned above the top railing of the bridge, but so her feet are not quite touching it, is a woman dressed in black with a black hood or veil covering her hair (…) She is the Virgin of Lost Things. Between her hands, at the level of her heart, she holds a glass object: an oversized cat’s eye marble, with a blue centre.
Underneath the bridge is the night sky, as seen through a telescope. Star upon star, red, blue, yellow, white, swirling nebulae, galaxy upon galaxy: the universe in its incandescence and darkness. (…) But there are also stones down there, beetles and small roots (…)
At the lower edge of the painting the darkness pales and merges to a lighter tone, the clear blue of water, because the creek flows there (…). (Atwood 2009, 481-2)

Now, my reason for having regarded the picture related to science and family memories is clear – Elaine articulates not only her physicist brother Stephen’s arguments regarding universe and space, but also her biologist father’s habit of collecting beetles. In addition to this, the painting accurately expresses the whole traumatic scene as experienced by the child Elaine. Thinking back on what happened to her, the child Elaine decides she has seen and was rescued by Virgin Mary, which empowers Elaine “to break free of Cordelia’s domination” (Osborne 1994, 105).

However, Elaine does not get ready to truly understand Cordelia and/or Mrs Smeath and let go of past grievances concerning them until the end of the novel, that is, until she reviews her own canvasses as well as the memories expressed by them during her exhibition. At that point, she realizes that Mrs. Smeath was a stranger, a “displaced person” in Toronto as much as she herself, and that her “self-righteous (…) piggy and smug” eyes were “also defeated eyes, uncertain and melancholy, heavy with unloved duty” (Atwood 2009, 477). She also realizes that the emotions she finds to be descriptive of her childhood – shame, fear, loneliness, a feeling of “wrongness, awkwardness, weakness,” and a “wish to be loved” (495) – are/were not even hers – instead, “they are Cordelia’s; as they always have been” (495). In other words, Elaine understands that Cordelia was not simply a traitor but also a victim – the way Cordelia treated Elaine was a result of the “familiar subjugation” Cordelia was going through, her insults and commands were direct quotes from her father (Jones 2008, 38).

Having analyzed Elaine’s painting on traumas and the topic of forgiving essential for her recreating her identity, I move on with two more highly important paintings – Cat’s Eye and Life Drawing – which express that until she gets to the realizations above, Elaine’s identity is defined by Cordelia and men she had affairs with. I am going to start with the picture entitled Cat’s Eye which is at least as complex as the Unified Field Theory – it provides the title of the novel itself, recounts Elaine’s memories regarding her cat’s eye marble, and suggests her struggles for identity as well as her approach to art and development as an artist. However, before focusing on the painting, I need to examine the cat’s eye marble, first.

As a child Elaine uses it as a talisman with the help of which she can distance herself from the hardship she goes through next to Cordelia. Elaine thinks of the marble as an eye that can see everything with pure objectivity, thus, it helps her to distance herself from the world. Then, as Nicole de Jong (1998) explains, Elaine gradually adopts the marble’s alienated way of seeing, and as a young adult, buries the marble together with her memories – both material and mental ones. However, years later, when – in a “Proustian moment” (Howells 2000, 146) – Elaine finds the marble in her mother’s attic, she claims: “I look into it, and see my life entire” (Atwood 2009, 468) – which suggests that the marble helps Elaine “recover the memory of the forgotten and traumatic past” (King 2000, 64) and “come to a more satisfying definition of self” (de Jong 1998, 106).

The marble as an object as well as its representations do not only represent Elaine’s memories – stories of the little Elaine, Stephen and their fellows collecting and playing with marbles and her way of coping with psychological bullying, in particular –, but can also be regarded as the symbol of her artistic vision (de Jong 1998). As Howells argues, Elaine adopts the marble’s objectivity – indeed, Elaine claims that the marble enables her to “see the way it sees”, that is, “without feeling anything” (168) —, therefore, she paints pictures that show more than “she consciously registers” and thereby “offer a counter-discourse to the memoir narrative” (2000, 146). Moreover, the marble as a pier glass also alludes to her years as an art students when, fascinated by Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Marriage, she paints distorting mirrors, pier glasses and all sorts of light-reflecting surfaces. Cat’s Eye does not only show another pier glass, but can be considered as another painting of Elaine that references a real-life painting – that of van Eyck, to be more precise (de Jong 1998).

Elaine describes Cat’s Eye as follows:

It is a self-portrait, of sorts. My head is in the right foreground, though it’ s shown only from the middle of the nose up (…) I’ve put in the incipient wrinkles (…) A few grey hairs. (…) Behind my half-head, in the centre of the picture, in the empty sky, a pier glass is hanging, convex and encircled by an ornate frame. In it, a section of the back of my head is visible; but the hair is different, younger. At a distance, and condensed by the curved space of the mirror, there are three small figures, dressed in the winter clothing of the girls of forty years ago. They walk forward, their faces shadowed, against a field of snow. (Atwood 480-1)

According to de Jong, Elaine alludes to and distorts the Arnolfini Marriage at the same time (1998, 101). Now, I need to study this Renaissance painting in order to clarify the significance of Elaine’s referencing it. In the center of the picture, above the couple, there is a convex mirror reflecting the room around the couple in a reversed and distorted way. As Ana Peraica explains, the painting demonstrates the breaking up with the medieval spatial ideologies as well as the Renaissance painter’s recognition of himself as an individual artist (2017, 33). It may even be called a “hidden self-portrait” (de Jong 1998, 102), since van Eyck has painted himself inside the frames of the medieval mirror. In other words, both The Arnolfini Marriage and Cat’s Eye are examples of unique self-representation and doubling of vision. Moreover, as Peraica suggests, the convex mirror in the van Eyck-painting indicates the Catholic idea determining the medieval mindset that “God observes and sees everybody and everyone” (2017, 34); thus, it functions as a controlling and omnipresent eye, similarly to Elaine’s objective and all-seeing cat’s eye. However, by means of showing a pier glass (that is, the marble) that demonstrates characters of Elaine’s past (apparently Carol, Grace and Cordelia) in a distorted way, Cat’s Eye disrupts not only space but also time, and, also in opposition to van Eyck’s painting, it shows its painter in the foreground and centers around the question of identity as well.

Elaine paints herself – or at least, half her face – with wrinkles and grey hairs, demonstrating that her identity as a middle-aged woman and artist is still much defined by childhood memories and traumas connected to or caused by her so-called friend(s), and also expressing her troubles concerning womanhood and aging3. As I have mentioned before, Cordelia always keeps an eye on her, using her friends as spies, correcting, despising Elaine regardless of what Elaine does, thereby forcing her to feel constantly worthless and deficient. Elaine expresses many times that she feels under surveillance – the stars that “look watchful” (119), the Watchbird drawings, her doll that may watch her if without a “tissue paper around it, over the face” (152), the photograph of the King and Queen in the classroom that makes her feel “watched from behind” (92), or Cordelia’s “glossy photos of movie stars and singers” (246) that she likens to a watching crowd all fill her with anxiety. Using the Lacanian terminology I argue that first, the little Elaine dreads Cordelia’s look, however, having the impression that that was omnipresent, she ends up feeling that she was “always being watched” (Atwood 2009, 143), that is, gets (conscious and anxious about being) subjected to the gaze. As Zoltán Dragon (2008) explains, the gaze is “an unattainable and unlocalizable” agency, an “imaginary look” that “cannot be allocated to anybody” (43).

As an adult, Elaine proves to have troubles fitting among women, and also with accepting the “roles defined by the men in her life” (Osborne 1994, 106). De Jong draws attention to that while other Atwoodian characters seek to find a definition of “a self that is not dependent on men”(98), Elaine’s main struggle is to resist the influence other women (try to) have on her personality. However, men do have “obvious part in ascribing [Elaine] the role of Other, Object” (98), which Elaine clearly expresses in Life Drawing. This painting is a recount on the times when Elaine as an art student attended life drawing lessons and had an affair with the professor Mr. Hrbik (Josef) and her classmate Jon both of whom interpreted and altered Elaine’s self according to their own preferences. The picture shows Josef – whose expressed aim to make the young Elaine “finished” by way of “rearranging” (Atwood 2009, 320, 358) – and Jon, her first husband, the expectations of whom make Elaine feel “silent”, “vacant” and “empty” (Osborne 1994, 106) – as they are painting Elaine. Josef represents her as “a voluptuous but not overweight woman” with a “Pre-Raphaelite, brooding, consciously mysterious” face (Atwood 2009, 430), while Jon shows Elaine as “a series of intestinal swirls, in hot pink, raspberry-ripple red and Burgundy Cherry purple” (430). Putting herself between the men as the model whose “head is a sphere of bluish glass” (430) Elaine indicates her identification with the cat’s eye as a “third eye that sees everything” (de Jong 1998, 102) and also as an object. To put it differently, she shows herself objectified and subjected to the gaze.

Atwood seeks to question and undermine the long-held notion of a consistent subjectivity, and does not make Elaine to realize a coherent self (de Jong 1998, 97-98). However, her pictorial narratives about family, science, childhood traumas and identity do enable her to accept her past and self. As I have explained, Elaine’s paintings challenge the notions of time and space not only by representing and condensing long periods of time, but also by alluding to progressive scientific theories and/or problematizing vision and perception. Re-experiencing and retelling the stories of being maltreated by her friends (Cordelia in particular), and Mrs, Smeath, she “undergo[es] her own form of psychotherapy” (Osborne 1994, 100) – she becomes able to “reconnect with the abusive figures of her childhood” (110) and let go of her traumatic childhood memories as well as their effects on her sense of self. Moreover, regarding the idea of (female) subjectivity, Elaine also creates and reconsiders her narratives on her love affairs in order to gain a self-definition unaffected by men’s opinion. In sum, Cat’s Eye’s painter protagonist/narrator is searching for and manages to find an adequate definition of self by creating pictures that retell stories of her past that challenge notions of space, time and identity.

Cat’s Eye as the collection of Elaine’s paintings

In this last section I am going to focus on the third narrative layer of Cat’s Eye arguing that the novel can be considered as a collection of paintings, that is, Elaine’s retrospective. As I have indicated, in the novel, “Elaine’s detached, ironic narrative” is contrasted with (descriptions of her) paintings (Palumbo 2000, 82), which, this way, “offer a counter-discourse to the memoir narrative, figuring events from a different perspective” (Howells 2000, 146). However, Cat’s Eye does not only demonstrate the cooperation of literature and painting – many of Elaine’s work refer to photos (taken by/of or provoking emotional response in Elaine), pictures, comic books, and her dreams, all of which are accurately and frequently described in the novel. Therefore, in what follows, I am going to study relations among Elaine’s memoir, her paintings, various sorts of images, comics and Elaine’s dreams in order to demonstrate the “conjunctive interplay between verbal and pictorial media” (Dvorak 2001, 304) in Cat’s Eye.

As mentioned before, long-held notions of time and space are challenged not only by the novel’s characters – by Stephen’s scientific arguments and Elaine’s related thoughts and paintings –, but also by the ekphrastic passages inserted into the text. Being “a kind of writing that turns pictures into storytelling words” (Heffernan 2015, 38), ekphrasis clearly undermines the idea of verbal and visual media being antithetical. As György E. Szőnyi explains, the relation of words and pictures has been concerning man since the antiquity – and the western, logocentric culture has considered the two media as radically different, highlighting texts’ superiority over images (2004, 182). I have already drawn attention to Lessing’s highly influential argumentation regarding the question of ut pictura poesis – that is, the (dis)similarities of words and pictures – and ekphrastic writing, written in 1766 (Szőnyi 2004, 5). In Laocoon, Lessing argues that verbal signs are temporal and therefore only capable of expressing actions and images being spatial can only suggest bodies (Heffernan 2015, 39-40).

However, as W.J.T. Mitchell points out, the western world’s practice of positioning verbal and pictorial media as opposing and competing has always been ideologically grounded and today – in our world inundated by images – it is highly outdated too (Szőnyi 2004, 184). Opposing Lessing and his classicist and modernist advocates, Mitchell proves that the modalities of space and time are not contradictory but strongly connected and that words and pictures are not only equals but actually inseparable (1980, 276). Furthermore, he asserts that all media include both verbal and visual codes, meaning that media are heterogeneous, and art can never be purely verbal or purely textual (Szőnyi 2004, 184). Hence, it is possible to regard the novel Cat’s Eye as the collection of Elaine’s paintings as much as it was possible to consider Elaine’s paintings as narratives.

In the first section, I argued that Elaine’s life-story is narrated in a non-linear fashion, drawing attention to the complexity of concepts of memory, time and space. As King puts it, Cat’s Eye consists of “alternating sections in which Elaine tells the story of her childhood with sections describing her visit to Toronto some forty years later, for her ‘retrospective’” (2000, 66). Being a (fictional) autobiography, Elaine’s narrative is about the formation of her self, that is, her process of (re)constructing her identity by means of unearthing “layers of her past” (de Jong 1998, 97). However, initially, as a young painter, Elaine “communicates with images” – “only later in her development” does she become able to put her memories and past traumas into words (Osborne 1994, 98). But as she recounts her memories, she also describes her paintings; therefore, “image and acoustic image” are joined in her narrative (Dvorak 2001, 308). Not only is it a memoir narrative, its painter protagonist also has a retrospective toward its end – therefore, de Jong calls Cat’s Eye a “double retrospective” (1998, 99). In addition, the fact that (all but two) chapters bear titles identical with those of Elaine’s paintings also suggests the novel’s being comparable to a set of paintings.

Since the majority of Elaine’s paintings evoke various photos, comic books and/or her dreams (considered as movies), there is a wide range of intermedial references in Cat’s Eye. As Irina O. Rajewsky explains, intermediality “designates those configurations which have to do with a crossing of borders between media” (2005, 46). However, since the term in its broad sense cannot be employed “to cover and to uniformly theorize specific intermedial manifestations, more narrowly conceived (…) conceptions of intermediality have been introduced” (46). Defining her own, literary conception of intermediality, Rajewsky suggests that ekphrasis, references among film, painting, and photography and so on constitute a group in which intermediality is considered in the sense of intermedial references. In this category, the “given media product thematizes, evokes, or imitates elements or structure of another, conventionally distinct medium through the use of its own media-specific means”, without “combining different medial forms of articulation” (53).

Now, I start examining intermedial references in Cat’s Eye by focusing on (fictional) photographs implied by the narrative. When the adult Elaine goes to her dying mother’s cellar, where family’s memories are stored she finds her photo album, scrapbooks, magazines, comic books, her old purse and the cat’s eye marble inside it (Atwood 2009, 466-468). As Elaine and her mother “go down through the layers, unearthing discoveries,” (466) she discovers objects she locked in the cellar before going to high school which are connected to and make her reveal repressed childhood memories. This highly important scene ends with her looking into the marble and claiming she can “see [her] life entire” (468) – which is the first step of her becoming able to articulate her repressed memories and traumas she has only been able to express in her paintings and unintentionally. Therefore, here, the cellar can be interpreted as Elaine’s unconscious, and the process of discovering memories alludes to her recovering and recounting her life-narrative. Among other things, she finds her “high school pictures, [her] lipsticked mouth unsmiling” (466), “pictures of little girls [she] now remember[s]”, and some “unfamiliar pictures cut from magazines: women’s bodies, in clothes of the forties” glued into her scrapbook. She also finds her photo album, with pictures probably taken by her: one of the child Stephen “poised with a snowball”, another of her friend Grace “crowned with flowers”, and some photos of “large boulders” (467). Moreover, there is a photo of her on her 8th birthday, “in a jacket with the sleeves too short, standing against a motel door” (467).

Before getting a closer look on photographs evoked, I need to say a few words concerning photographic representation. As Allan Sekula explains, for a long time after the birth of photography, the photographic image was considered as “re-presentation of nature itself, (…) an unmediated copy of the real world” (86). The twentieth-century French critic André Bazin, writing about the “objective nature of photography” still claims that a “photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it” (Bazin 1960, 8). However, the idea of photographs being neutral and demonstrating an objective truth has already been challenged. In Sekula’s view, “every photographic image is a sign” (87) or an “utterance, of some sort, it carries, or is, a message” (85) meaning that photographs, just like other ways of communication and representation, are ambiguous and open to interpretation. From the myth of photograph’s being an “unmediated agency of nature” (86) follows the idea that it eternalizes what/who is shown by it. However, according to Siegfried Kracauer, “the photograph does not preserve the transparent aspects of an object but instead captures it as a spatial continuum from any one of a number of positions” (1993, 428). Regarding the relation of memory and photography Kracauer argues that while a photograph “grasps what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum, memory-images retain what is given only insofar as it has significance” (425). Hence, a photograph “neither refers to, nor encompasses (…) a memory-image” (428) but is “essentially associated with the moment in time at which it came to existence” (428).

Consequently, photographs taken by/of Elaine are as far from being objective as her paintings. Similarly to her artworks, these photos “function as encrypted snapshots of her repressed unconscious” (Davies 2017) and indicate Elaine’s own versions of past events and interpretation of her past self. Madeleine Davies asserts that the “direct connection between photographs and [Elaine’s] paintings” is implied by herself too, since she “refer[s] to both as ‘pictures’” (2017). Both her portraits and the pictures cut out from Eaton’s Catalogue and magazines are primarily connected to her troubles with finding herself and fitting among girls/women, and the photos of Stephen and Grace allude to her familiar relations and friendships. Other important photographs described in the novel – the picture of the King and the Queen hanging on the wall of the classroom and the “glossy photos of movie stars and singers” (Atwood 2009, 246) in Cordelia’s room – relate to the topic of the gaze. As I have demonstrated in the previous section, all these above-listed topics are elaborated in the narrative and expressed by Elaine’s paintings too.

According to Elaine, in the photo that was taken of her on her eighth birthday she “look[s] like old photos of immigrants. [She] look[s] as if she’s been put there in front of the door and told to stand still” (Atwood 2009, 30) which alludes to her feeling of alienation as well as the resignation and detachment she learns to respond to harassment with. The pictures of women cut out from magazines and catalogues imply the little Elaine’s attempts to be part of the “world of girls” (62) which she feels completely unfamiliar with, having spent all her time with Stephen and other boys before starting primary school. Girls and boys, their ways of thinking and playing are contrasted several times in Elaine’s memoir – she is surprised, for example, how easy it is for her to cut women and “other things – cookware, furniture – and paste them into scrapbooks” (62) as opposed to “keep up with [boys], run as fast, aim as well, make loud explosive voices, decode messages, die on cue” (63). However, finding girlish games rather silly and “tiring” (62), she ends up feeling an outcast among both boys and girls. Observing and making collages from pictures of women “dressed in puffed sleeves and full skirts, and white aprons” doing housework and beautifying themselves, or “doing things they aren’t supposed to do” with “Watchbird beside them” (164), the little Elaine learns about womanhood. She perceives and is already familiar with women’s hopeless fight for perfection4 since Cordelia keeps on affirming that she is inept and worthless.

Although Elaine feels awkward among little girls (Atwood 2009, 55) she realizes that boys do not treat her as an “ally” but rather as another girl.5 Also later, as a young adult, Elaine feels stuck somewhere between the male and female worlds, which is also indicated by (the way Elaine describes) the flyer of her retrospective she sees on her way to the gallery. “RISLEY IN RETROSPECT, it says; just the name, like a boy. The name is mine and so is the face, more or less. It’s the photo I sent the gallery. Except that now I have a mustache” (Atwood 2009, 21). Instead of feeling hurt or angry, she considers the mustache drawn on her photo “an accomplishment” (22): she says, “I have achieved, finally, a face that a mustache can be drawn on (…) A public face, a face worth defacing (…) I have made something of myself, something or other, after all,” (21-22). I find Elaine’s portrait photo with its caption and the mustache drawn on it to allude to her questioning gender roles and boundaries and to her process of coming to a definition of herself as a painter. As indicated before, the topics of womanhood and identity are implied by many of her paintings as well, for instance Life Drawing, Cat’s Eye or pictures of Mrs. Smeath and an early one called Our Lady of Perpetual Help.6 Life Drawing is particularly relevant with regards to the flyer and her thoughts cited above – in it, Elaine’s “head is a sphere of bluish glass” (430) suggesting that when painting it, she has not felt as someone having “achieved” a face yet.

I have already mentioned Watchbird, the “red and black bird like a child’s drawing, with big eyes and stick feet” (Atwood 2009, 164) that Hike regards as “an icon (…) of gaze” (141). The bird and the text “This is a Watchbird watching YOU” (164) appearing on advertisements suggest that “the role of Watchbird is explicitly corrective” (Hite 1995, 142). I have mentioned several times that the little Elaine always feels under surveillance because Cordelia is spying on her and orders their friends to do the same. Cordelia’s role (she puts herself into) is similarly corrective as that of the Watchbird – she scolds Elaine for whatever she is doing, highlighting her need for improvement. Accordingly, describing the photograph of the King and Queen in the classroom and Cordelia’s “glossy photos of movie stars and singers” (246) Elaine alludes to her feeling watched and uncomfortable. However, adopting her cat’s eye marble’s objective way of seeing, Elaine – already as a child but also as a painter – seeks to have some control over the gaze she feels subjected to. Elaine’s description of cat’s eye marbles as “the eyes of something that isn’t known but exists anyway” (73) clearly implies the Lacanian gaze which is an “imaginary look” that “cannot be allocated to anybody” (Dragon 2008, 43). Bearing in mind that the gaze is omnipresent, the act of observing and representing individuals, objects and events (of the past) with the help of her “impartial” (Atwood 2009, 184) marble can be regarded as Elaine’s desperate endeavor to “reverse the direction of gaze” (Hite 1995, 140) and “disengage seeing from being seen” (140). As I have explained, Elaine alludes to the gaze rather explicitly in her painting Life Drawing, which means that the painting and her photo portraits refer to one another as well.

Before moving on, I would like to say a few words about the rest of the photographs she finds in the cellar. High school pictures showing Elaine “unsmiling” suggest her unhappiness in an indirect way, as done by her paintings about household appliances (cf. 13) As for her photo album she got for Christmas, there are only a few pictures in it. Although photo albums “give (…) people the opportunity to represent their autobiographies in artful combination of words and pictures” (Batchen 2004, 57), Elaine does not use her album for such purposes – instead, she represents herself and gives account of her life by painting (and later, in a narrative). Inside the album, next to the picture taken of her in her eighth birthday, there is a picture of Stephen with a snowball. This photo shows no relation to One Wing that Elaine paints of and for him; however, it is still of importance considering that (besides Elaine,) the only person represented both in a painting and a photograph is her brother, which shows his (and Stephen’s scientific arguments’) significance in Elaine’s personal and artistic life. Finally, the portrait of Grace inside the album may make one wonder why it is Grace and not Cordelia photographed by Elaine. Despite Cordelia’s being a central figure in Elaine’s past and identity formation, she does not appear in photographs, and there is only one painting of her. Since Cordelia’s portrait entitled Half a face explicitly refers to a comic strip that Elaine and Cordelia read together, now I shift my focus to comics appearing in the novel.

Descriptions of comics are particularly curious and complex instances of “crossing of borders between media” (Rajewsky 2005, 46) because comics are phenomena of intermediality themselves. Of the three subcategories of intermediality proposed by Rajewsky, comics belong in the one where intermediality is understood in the sense of media combination – in this case, at least two media or forms of representation are combined in a way that the different “forms of articulation are each present in their own materiality” (52). Hence, a narrative evoking a comic strip does not only depict the pictures, but also summarizes the story and possibly quotes parts and dialogues of the comic. Although as a child Elaine’s brother collects comic books, only those that the teenager Cordelia “pinches” (Atwood 2009, 249) from a drugstore and reads with Elaine are described in detail, and only one of the stories has great significance regarding Elaine, her memories and paintings. It is

about two sisters, a pretty one and one who has a burn covering half her face. The burn is maroon-coloured and wrinkled like a dead apple. The pretty one has a boyfriend (…), the burned one hates her and loves the boyfriend. The burned one hangs herself in front of a mirror, out of jealousy. But her spirit goes into the mirror, and the next time the pretty one is brushing her hair in front of that mirror, she looks up and there’s the burned one looking back at her. (…) she faints, and the burned one gets out of the mirror and into the pretty one’s body. She takes over the body and fools the boyfriend (…), but although her face is now perfect, her reflection in that one mirror still shows her real, ruined face. (249)

The ideas of “magic mirror and disfigured face return” (de Jong 1998, 100) in her paintings Leprosy and Half a face as well. Leprosy is a picture of Mrs. Smeath – it shows her sitting “in front of a mirror with half of her face peeling off, like the villain in a horror comic [she] once read” (Atwood 2009, 412). The painting’s allusion to the comic strip cited above is clear and even commented on by Elaine. As for Half a face, it “is the only picture [she] ever did of Cordelia” (267). Despite its title, the picture shows “Cordelia’s entire face”; what is more, there is even “another face” behind it, “hanging on the wall like emblems in the Renaissance (…) covered with white cloth. The effect is a theatrical mask” (267). With its title, Half a face explicitly alludes to the comic strip. Moreover, Half a face implies Cordelia’s love for theatre and habit of acting (both on-stage and off-stage) as well as Elaine and Cordelia’s complex friendship (Atwood 2009). Considering the child and teenager Elaine and Cordelia “inextricably bound and interchangeable” (Jones 2008, 31), I find it appropriate to interpret the face in the background – the other “half” – as Elaine’s. Thus, “implying that the face in the foreground has been drastically reduced by the insistent presence of its shadow” (31), the painting expresses the unusually strong (but not necessarily loving) relation and power-play between the girls.

In order to further demonstrate the complex interplay among verbal and pictorial media in Cat’s Eye, in what follows, I am going to analyze Elaine’s dreams. Sigmund Freud argues that there is a strong relation between dreams and memories which is definitely supported by Elaine’s narrative. Freud insists that our memory “retains what is of any importance and drops what is unimportant” (1973, 237). However, childhood memories often seem “commonplace and insignificant”, because through the processes “of condensation and more especially of displacement, what is important is replaced in memory by something else which appears unimportant” (237). Freud calls these childhood memories “screen memories” (237), which is relevant here not only because the concept suggests the (primarily) visual nature of memories, but also because many of Elaine’s childhood memories have been “pushed into the unconscious” (Freud 1908, 425) before becoming uncovered and expressed. I think the concept of screen memories highlight the possibility of Elaine’s being an unreliable narrator whose story does not represent an objective truth, but Elaine’s own version of the past. In fact, also Elaine acknowledges several times that there are multiple versions of reality and truth, and the past can be told from many different perspectives, resulting in different stories (Atwood 2009, 272, 430, 485).

Freud connects childhood memories to fantasies, claiming that phantasies run through “past, present and future” (1908, 424). A wish is provoked by a “current impression”, but “harks back to a memory of an earlier experience (usually and infantile one) in which it was fulfilled” and “creates a situation relating to the future which represents a fulfillment of the wish” (424). Then, Freud draws parallels between dreams and wishes too, arguing that “night dreams are wish-fulfilments in just the same way as day-dreams” (424). In other words, dreams, phantasies and childhood memories all contain fragments of the past, or are condensed, displaced versions of past events. In Cat’s Eye, Elaine gives account of her memories (many of which have been repressed for decades) and also describes her paintings which, as demonstrated in the second section, are symbolic, condensed versions of her memories. Her paintings are likely to refer to dreams which contain the elements of the past distorted by mental processes pertaining to dreaming. Then, Elaine expresses the contents of different mental or real, sometimes moving images – that is, her memories, paintings and dreams – by words. Therefore, Elaine’s uncovering memories, retelling her past, reviewing her paintings and thereby getting a better sense of her self and finally giving an account on all these processes proves to be an exceptionally complex and creative project. As Dvorak puts it, “both the narrator’s canvasses and the author’s novel are hymns (…) to the artist’s powers of transformation and control” (2001, 308).

As for Elaine’s dreams, many of them are actually nightmares in which her emotional responses to being bullied become translated into moving pictures. These short nightmares – such as the one about the dead raven, another about nightshade berries filled with blood, the dream of her red purse full of dead frogs or the one of being in iron lung (Atwood 2009, 172, 295, 296) – convey dark, threatening, malicious atmosphere with fictitious and factual details mixed in them. Their descriptions – occasionally containing clear expressions of feeling “ashamed” (172) and of having “done something wrong” (227) – enable readers to be more aware of Elaine’s psychological struggle caused by Cordelia’s way of treating her. Other dreams suggest her relation to her parents and her need for more of their attention and love (which she never puts into words): she has a dream of her mother having another baby, of their house having burnt down (197), and of her parents being “dead but also alive (…) looking up at [her] sorrowfully as they recede” (198). In an another dream, she stands on the wooden bridge above the ravine – the spot where Elaine once almost froze to death – and while the bridge “is falling apart” and she struggles to survive, she sees her mother “on the hill, but she’s talking to other people” (172). Other dreams are strongly connected to some of Elaine’s painting, which suggest that Elaine’s paintings are influenced by not only memories, images and comics, but also her dreams.

Related to her lack of parental love, for instance, she has a dream of Mr. Banerji and Mrs. Finestein being her real parents. As mentioned before, the Indian Mr. Banerji and the Jew Mrs. Finestein (together with the Scot Mrs. Stuart) reappear in Elaine’s painting entitled Three Muses which indicates how inspiring these persons of different backgrounds in Toronto are to the child Elaine. Elaine keeps on feeling alienated from the culture and society of Toronto and unfit in both the female and the male world. For this reason, however, she does feel attached to people who “share with Elaine an outsider status” (1994, 103), such as the characters painted on Three Muses or the Eastern-European refugee Mr. Hrbik or Josef. Although the professor never appears in her dreams, Elaine does dream about Sophie, her classmate. As I have suggested earlier, during Elaine’s years in art school, Susie seems to take Cordelia’s role as her double. In a dream, Susie appears “sly-eyed, calculating,” “on a street [Elaine] knows but do[es] not recognize, (…) holding a coiled skipping rope, licking one half of an orange popsicle” and making Elaine feel that she has “done something wrong” (Atwood 2009, 378). As I have mentioned in the first section, besides that Susie is clearly “conflated with [the child Cordelia] in Elaine’s dream” (Osborne 1994, 106), Josef’s short movie also supports the argument that Elaine and Susie are parallel.

I would like to touch upon Josef’s short movie which demonstrate a situation similar to his having an affair with Elaine and Susie at the same time. Remembering Josef’s movie Elaine says “it was about two women with nebulous personalities and cloudy hair. They wandered through fields with the wind blowing their thin dresses against their thighs” (429), doing “things [that] wouldn’t have been appealing if [they] had been ugly” (429). They tried to harm and ruin themselves and different objects in rather surprising and occasionally repulsive ways. According to Elaine, “except for the colours of their hair, it was hard to tell them apart” (429), and the reason for their “craziness” (429) was that a man “was in love with both of them and couldn’t make up his mind” (429). Elaine’s description of Josef’s movie implies his feelings toward Elaine and Susie and his considering Elaine and Susie as doubles. In my view, giving an account of Josef’s short movie, Elaine shows how she believes to have been seen by Josef, just like when painting Life Drawing, which means that interpreting Josef’s movie is a stage in her difficult process of self-construction.

Returning to Elaine’s nightmares, many of them relate to Cordelia, in one way or another. In two dreams, Cordelia’s acting ambitions are alluded to rather explicitly. In high school, Cordelia has minor roles in Macbeth performed by The Earle Grey Players. Since she is responsible for the props too, and realizing that the cabbage used as Macduff’s cut off head has become rotten, she replaces the rotten one with a new cabbage. When Macbeth cuts Macduff’s head off, the cabbage “wrapped up in white tea-towel” (Atwood 2009, 290) is supposed to be thrown “onto the stage where it hits with an impressive, flesh-and-bone thud” (290) However, during the first performance, the cabbage, being fresh, “bounces, (…) right across the stage like a rubber ball” (290) which results in laughter and makes Cordelia “mortified” (291). In Elaine’s first dream implying this instance, Elaine is “given a head wrapped up in white tea-towel. [She] could unwrap the cloth to see whose head it is, but (…) she knows that if [she] do[es] the head will come alive” (296). The second dream is about “a mannequin statue (…) wearing nothing but a gauze costume, covered with spangles. It ends at the neck. Underneath its arms, wrapped in a white cloth, is Cordelia’s head” (423).

In a dream Cordelia is “falling, from a cliff or bridge (…) her arms outspread, her skirt opens like a bell, making a snow angel in empty air. She never hits or lands” (Atwood 2009, 422). This dream evokes the traumatic event when the child Elaine almost freezes to death at the ravine – before which she makes snow angels with Cordelia, Grace and Carol –, and the painting entitled Falling Women evokes the dream. Falling Women shows three women “falling as if by accident off a bridge, their skirts opened into bells by the wind, their hair streaming upward” (315). Elaine also dreams about herself “trying on a fur collar in front of the mirror (…). There’s someone standing behind [her]. If [she] move[s] so that she can see into the mirror, [she]’ll be able to look over [her] own shoulder (…) to see who it is” (296). This dream is strongly connected to Cordelia again, since it makes reference to the comic strip Elaine reads with her entitled Half a face, and is also implied by Elaine’s painting of Cordelia bearing the same title.

I would like to highlight that the bridge over the ravine – as a symbol of her traumatic experience – reappears not only in Falling Women, her dream of Cordelia falling and another dream I have mentioned relating to Elaine’s need for more attention from her parents, but also in Unified Field History.7 This painting renders the incident at the ravine the most obviously, showing Virgin Mary of whom the child Elaine has a vision when she almost dies abandoned by her friends, lying in the snow. As de Jong asserts, “the vision resembles the picture she had seen of this Virgin Mary, (…) depicted with a long blue robe and the heart outside of her chest. This vision stays with her for the rest of her life (1998, 105). Indeed, Elaine “keeps looking for ‘her’ Mary during her art studies” (105) – inspired by the Renaissance Mary-representations she studies about in art school, she paints a Virgin Mary “with the head of a lioness” and another “carrying two brown paper bags full of groceries” (Atwood 2009, 404). The Mary in the center of Unified Field History is similar to the one she envisioned at the ravine – she is “dressed in black with a black hood or veil covering her hair” (481) but, instead of her heart, this figure holds “an oversized cat’s eye marble, with a blue centre” (481). As can be seen, images of Mary also inspire and are alluded to by Elaine’s paintings.

In this last section, I have demonstrated that in Cat’s Eye, there is a complex web of intermedial references. Most of Elaine’s paintings do not only evoke certain memories in a condensed, distorted way, but also imply and/or are implied by some other kind of visual representation. As I have argued, in Cat’s Eye, Elaine’s memories are paralleled with descriptions of her paintings, both of which are narratives on her past and self, and challenge notions of time, space and identity. Rendering Elaine’s life by combining verbal and pictorial media, the novel draws attention to the “to the multiplicity of things to be grasped by language, and to the polysemy of signs” (Dvorak 2001, 308). The narrative blurs the line between texts and different sort of images which is also supported by corresponding chapter- and painting-titles. Therefore, Cat’s Eye can be interpreted as a collection of paintings inspired by memories, dreams, pictures, photographs and comic


The goal of this paper was to demonstrate that Atwood’s Cat’s Eye challenges concepts of space and time and blurs the line between visual and verbal arts, as its narrator-protagonist (re)contructs and represents her own self and past. I identified three narrative layers and explained how notions of time, space, identity and the (dis)similarities of verbal and pictorial representations are contested and depicted in each of them. In other words, I aimed to prove that the novel’s structure and way of using time as well as its protagonist’s stories and paintings draw attention to the unfixed and constructed nature of identity and memory, support progressive ways of conceptualizing time and space, and celebrate the diversity and power of (artistic) representations.

In the first section, I studied Elaine’s memories and self as narratives. Drawing on narrative theories I suggested that Elaine’s identity and memories are constructions, that is, they are (re)created by her own self, by the very act of narration. I studied Elaine’s memories and traumas, theories and experiences regarding time and space as well as her struggles to find herself in order to demonstrate that past and present are intermingled not only by the double narrative structure of the novel, but also in Elaine’s mind, supported by her brother’s scientific theories. I also explored how being bullied by her so-called friend, Cordelia, feeling an outsider in both Toronto and among girls/women, and growing up in a family interested in science affect her way of conceptualizing and search for identity.

Focusing the second narrative layer, I drew attention to the inadequacy and irrelevance of regarding time and space as well as verbal and pictorial ways of representation as antithetical. Studying ekphrastic writing in Cat’s Eye, I analyzed Elaine’s paintings in detail, arguing that they can be regarded as narratives on her past and self. I demonstrated that – although she starts expressing her (repressed) memories, traumas and ideas concerning time, space and identity unconsciously – Elaine’s paintings prove to be condensed, symbolic versions of what constitutes the first narrative layer of the novel. Also, I explained that telling her stories about family, science, childhood traumas and love-affairs by painting, Elaine manages to re-experience and reconsider her past, forgive those who have hurt her, and get a better sense of her self.

Finally, in the last section, I suggested that the novel can be interpreted as Elaine’s collection of paintings, since both pictures and narratives (are able to) tell stories and in Cat’s Eye, titles of the chapters and those of Elaine’s canvasses are identical (with very few exceptions). Exploring the third narrative layer, that is, Cat’s Eye as Elaine’s retrospective, I also explored the complex web of intermedial references in the novel. I pointed out that Elaine’s memories and ideas on time, space and identity refer to and/or are referred to in her dreams, various pictures, photographs and comics – all of which are alluded to in her paintings. To sum up, Cat’s Eye is a retrospective in both senses of the word, showing and telling the narrator-protagonist’s occasionally traumatic memories, identification and healing process, combining pictorial and verbal media and challenging notions of time, space and identity on various levels.


Works Cited

  • Atwood, Margaret. 2009. Cat’s Eye. London: Virago Press.
  • Baldwin, Clive, and Group, B. D. 2008. “Narrative (,) citizenship and dementia: The personal and the political.” Journal of Aging Studies, 22 (3), 222-228.
  • Batchen, Geoffrey. 2004. Forget Me Not : Photography and Remembrance. 1. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
  • Brockmeier, Jens. 2009. “Stories to Remember: Narrative and the Time of Memory.” StoryWorlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies 1: 115–32. https://doi.org/10.1353/stw.0.0013.
  • Davies, Madeleine. 2017. “Self/Image : Reading the Visual in Atwood’s Fictive Autobiographies.” Contemporary Women’s Writing 11 (3): 373–90.
  • De Jong, Nicole. 1998. “Mirror Images in Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye.” NORA 6 (2): 97–107.
  • Dragon, Zoltán. 2008. “Dream On: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema.” In Encounters of the Filmic Kind: Guidebook to Film Theories, 35–48. Szeged: JatePress.
  • Dvorak, Marta. 2001. “Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye: or the Trembling Canvas,” 299–309.
  • Fougere, Martin. 2008. Adaptation and identity. In H. Spencer-Oatey ed., Culturally speaking, 187–203. London: Continuum. ISBN-13: 978-0826466365
  • Freud, Sigmund. 1908. “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming.” (J. Riviere trans.) In Collected Papers, 4. New York: Basic Books.
  • Freud, Sigmund. 1973. Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Edited by James and Angela Richards Strachey. London: Pengiun Books. https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.273302/2015.273302.Introductory-Lectures_djvu.txt.
  • Gadpaille, Michelle. 1993. “Odalisques in Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye.” Metaphor and Symbolic Activity 8 (3): 221–26.
  • Heffernan, James A. W. 2015. “Ekphrasis: Theory.” In Handbook of Intermediality, 38–50. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110311075-003.
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  • Howells, Coral Ann. 2000. “Transgressing Genres : A Generic Approach to Margaret Atwood’s Novels.” In Margaret Atwood : Works and Impact, edited by Reingard M. Nischik, 1., 139–54. New York: Camden House.
  • Jones, Bethan. 2008. “Traces of Shame: Margaret Atwood’s Portrayal of Childhood Bullying and its Consequences in Cat’s Eye.” Critical Survey 20 (1): 29–42. https://doi.org/10.3167/cs.2008.200104.
  • King, Nicola. 2000. “‘A Life Entire’: Narrative Reconstruction in Sylvia Fraser’s My Father’s House and Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye.” In Memory, Narrative, Identity: Remembering the Self, 61–92. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
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1 Since most of the paintings described in the novel do not actually exist, I find it important to clarify that ekphrasis can be the description of both real and imaginary artworks (Szőnyi 2004).

2 The first painting I have examined called Picoseconds also alludes to this talk.

3 As a middle-aged woman, she proves to be rather worried about the passage of time – “I’d use anything if it worked – slug juice, toad spit, eye of newt, anything at all to mummify myself, stop the drip drip of time, stay more or less the way I am” (Atwood 133), she admits.

4 She says “I see there will be no end to imperfection (…). Even if you grow up, no matter how hard you scrub, whatever you do, there will always be other stain or spot on your face, or stupid act, somebody frowning” (164).

5 Elaine claims that “boys are my secret allies” (193).

6 Our Lady of Perpetual Help shows Virgin Mary “carrying two brown paper bags full of groceries. Several things have fallen from the bags: an egg, an onion, an apple. She looks tired (404). For descriptions of the other paintings see the previous section.

7 Moreover, the title of the last chapter is “Bridge” (Atwood, 2009).