English Advanced: Cat's Eye

Table of Contents
SPOILERS!!! (duh)

Plot Summary

Cat’s Eye is the story of a girl, Elaine, whose life is scarred by the cruel treatment she recieves at the hands of her friends.

The story follows the girl from childhood into middle age, tracing the effects of her early traumas on her adult life.

The story shifts back and forth in time to tell Elaine’s story, intercutting the girl’s childhood with scenes from her later life.

Early Life

  • As a young child, Elaine lives in relative isolation with her parents and brother (Stephen) in Canada
    • Her father works in entomology, the study of insects


  • At age 8, the family settles in Toronto, where Elaine interacts with girls her own age for the first time
    • During her interactions with Grace Smeath and Carol Campbell (her first two friends), her confusion of social customs, as well as her desire to fit in, are extremely apparent
    • However, when a fourth girl, Cordelia, joins the group, she begins to criticise and be cruel towards Elaine, convincing Grace and Carol to follow suit

If you read the post on King Lear, you know things are about to go south

  • Cordelia takes advantage of Elaine’s social ignorance, claiming that she is trying to “improve” Elaine, devising elaborate rules for her to follow, and emotionally destructive and humiliating punishments for violating those rules
    • As a result, Elaine enters a deep depression, experiencing illness, fainting, and self-mutilation
  • The situation reaches a peak when Cordelia throws Elaine’s hat into a frozen ravine, and orders her to retrieve it
    • Elaine falls through the ice, and in her state of delirium, imagines that the Virgin Mary has descended from the overhead bridge to save her
    • She imagines that the Virgin Mary has told her to go home and confront the three girls
  • After recovering from this episode, Elaine returns to school, defies Cordelia, and breaks of her “friendship” with all three girls

High School

  • The story picks up 2 years later, when Elaine encounters Cordelia again
  • Elaine has repressed much of her memories of the events, and the two girls become friends throughout high school

The Stockholm Syndrome here is INSANE

  • In this section, the narrative is flipped
    • Elaine does extremely well in school, winning a university scholarship
    • Cordelia has an emotional slide, which starts with declining grades and ends in a complete breakdown
    • In order to repress her own lack of self-esteem, Elaine has developed a sharp tongue and brittle exterior
    • Elaine criticises Cordelia, seeing her distress as a sign of weakness, and pulling away from her friend


University for you non-Americans đŸ™„

  • Elaine is encouraged in her work by Josef Hrbik (her drawing teacher), who she ends up having an affair with
  • At the same time, she also meets and has an affair with Jon, who she marries after they get pregnant
  • After their daughter is born, Elaine joins a woman artist group, whose first exhibit establishes her as a painter
    • Her work is dominated by images from her childhood, although she continues to repress her friends’ cruelty to her

    Sidenote: I refer to Cordelia, Grace, and Carol as Elaine’s friends, only because they are referred to as such in the story.

    • Elaine has 2 more encounters with Cordelia, the second time in a sanitarium (a center for people with long-term illness, also known as a sanatorium), where Cordelia is being housed after a suicide attempt


  • Elaine and Jon separate, and Elaine moves to Vancouver, where she meets Ben and has a second daughter
  • Stephen (Her brother, last seen in Early Life) has become a renowned physicist, and is killed in an airplane hijacking, followed by their parents a few years later
  • In the weeks after her mother’s death, Elaine finds a blue cat’s eye marble, which she had held during Cordelia’s childhood attacks, and her childhood memories overwhelm her

Toronto (Round II)

  • Elaine walks around Toronto, waiting for the start of one of her art exhibitions
  • She is disturbed by the changes in the city since her childhood, and traces her old routes through the city
  • During the exhibition, Elaine sees her old paintings, into which she had poured her anger towards her childhood friends, and towards the adults who had failed to protect her
    • Elaine realises that by repressing her traumas, she has become more and more like Cordelia over time
  • Elaine expects Cordelia to come to the exhibition, but she doesn’t show up
    • Elaine returns home, drunk and disappointed
  • The next day, Elaine, goes to the bridge over the ravine in which she fell as a child, imagining nine-year-old Cordelia below her
    • Elaine acknowledges that the fear and loneliness she used to feel were the same emotions Cordelia felt
    • In her mind, she tells Cordelia that she can go home

    Foreshadowing AND Symbolism!!!

  • On her flight home, Elaine sits next to 2 old women playing cards
  • She realises that she misses this experience, and wished that she had the opportunity to grow old with Cordelia


The End



  1. Atwood, M. (1998). Cat’s Eye. Bantam. ↩︎

  2. SparkNotes. (n.d.). Cat’s Eye: Plot Overview | SparkNotes. SparkNotes: Today’s Most Popular Study Guides. Retrieved July 19, 2020, from https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/catseye/summary/ ↩︎

  3. LitCharts. (n.d.). Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood Plot Summary | LitCharts. LitCharts. Retrieved July 19, 2020, from https://www.litcharts.com/lit/cat-s-eye/summary ↩︎

  4. Kellman, S. G. (2000). Masterpieces of American Fiction - Cat’s Eye. eNotes.com. https://www.enotes.com/topics/cats-eye ↩︎

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