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1 Cat’s Eye: the portrait of the artist as a young woman ACL1001: Reading Contemporary Fiction Dr Jenny Lee Semester one, 2010.

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Presentation on theme: "1 Cat’s Eye: the portrait of the artist as a young woman ACL1001: Reading Contemporary Fiction Dr Jenny Lee Semester one, 2010."— Presentation transcript:

1 1 Cat’s Eye: the portrait of the artist as a young woman ACL1001: Reading Contemporary Fiction Dr Jenny Lee Semester one, 2010

2 2 Outline Overview of Atwood’s background A brief look at the structure of the novel and it’s focus on the influence of the past on the present The relationship between the trauma and the art. To do this, we’ll look at:  After-effects of trauma in the ‘present day’  The bullying when Elaine was a child that led to the trauma  Ripple-effect of bullying, including how Elaine behaves later  The relationship between memory, the unconscious, dreams and her art This will lead to the question:  Is Elaine’s art influenced by her trauma, or is she an artist because of her trauma?

3 3 Margaret Atwood Born in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1939 Daughter of a forest entomologist Spent part of her early years in the bush of North Quebec Moved, at the age of seven, to Toronto Studied at the University of Toronto Masters degree at Radcliffe College, Massachusetts, in 1962 Prolific novelist and poet, and also writes short stories, critical studies, screenplays, radio scripts and books for children Her works have been translated into over 30 languages Full-time writer since 1972 Won many writing awards Cat’s Eye is her most autobiographical novel ( Picture on this page is by one of the artists who Atwood acknowledges, and who is famous for exploring childhood memories: Louis de Niverville (

4 4 Structure of Cat’s Eye Cat’s Eye is about the effect of the past on the present. The narrative is told from ‘the present’ and from various points in Elaine’s past (from a young age, gradually getting older). The structure is like a minute and a second hand on a clock – the two stories happening at the same time, one moving faster than the other. Structured in that way to accentuate the effect of the past on the present.

5 5 Trauma after-effects in ‘present day’ In order to look at the relationship between the art, the artist and the trauma, we will first look at the trauma and the after-effects of this. In Chapter 8, ‘present day narrative’, Elaine says: There are days when I can hardly make it out of bed. I find it an effort to speak. I measure progress in steps, the next one and the next one, as far as the bathroom. These steps are major accomplishments. I focus on taking the cap off the toothpaste, getting the brush up to my mouth. I have difficulty lifting my arm to do even that. I feel I am without worth, that nothing I can do is of any value, least of all to myself. What do you have to say for yourself? Cordelia used to ask. Nothing, I would say. It was a word I came to connect with myself, as if I was nothing, as if there was nothing there at all. (47) This sounds like depression. It is linked with low self-esteem; feeling ‘without worth’. There are echoes throughout the novel of Elaine feeling like ‘nothing’. There’s more evidence of her disconnection with her body in Chapter 21: When I’m by myself I revert to the times when I would forget about eating, stay up all night working, go until I felt an odd sensation I’d identify after some thought as hunger then I’d go through the refrigerator like a vacuum cleaner, sucking in whatever there was. Leftovers. (131) This indicates that she is not fully in touch with her body. This is often the case with people who have experienced trauma and feel distanced from their bodies:  Not eating until starving hungry, then over-eating beyond becoming full  Staying up late and not listening to the body’s need to go to sleep

6 6 First major trauma: dissociation In Chapter 20, Cordelia digs a hole and locks Elaine in. This is the first instance where she would have experienced trauma at the hands of Cordelia, and dissociated: Cordelia and Grace and Carol take me to the deep hole in Cordelia’s backyard. I’m wearing a black dress and a cloak, from the dress-up cupboard. I’m supposed to be Mary Queen of Scots, headless already. They pick me up by the underarms and the feet and lower me into the hole. Then they arrange the boards over the top. The daylight air disappears, and there’s the sound of dirt hitting the boards, shovelful after shovelful. Inside the hole it’s dim and cold and damp and smells like toad burrows. Up above, outside, I can hear their voices, and then I can’t hear them. I lie there wondering when it will be time to come out. Nothing happens. When I was put in the hole I knew it was a game; now I know it is not one. I feel sadness, a sense of betrayal. Then I feel the darkness pressing down on me; then terror. When I remember back to this time in the hole, I can’t really remember what happened to me while I was in it. I can’t remember what I really felt…I have no image of myself in the hole; only a black square filled with nothing, a square like a door. Perhaps the square is empty; perhaps it’s only a marker, a time marker that separates the time before it from the time after. The point at which I lost power. Was I crying when they took me out of the hole? It seems likely. On the other hand I doubt it. But I can’t remember. Shortly after this I became nine. I can remember my other birthdays, later and earlier ones, but not this one. (125-126)

7 7 Definition: dissociation A dissociated state is described as ‘depersonalised, numbed, trance state, robotic state, dream-like state’ (Weber, 2008: 210). Recent evidence: ‘The thesis that trauma leads to dissociation is strongly supported by the literature and in fact is stronger than ever’ (Bremner, 2008: 5). About Elaine and dissociation: ‘Her lost sense of competence to act or live in the world is evident in Elaine's self-destructive behaviour (pulling off her skin) and in the dissociative tactics of avoidance, fainting, and splitting off from her own body by which she creates a provisional sense of control to alleviate her suffering.’ (Vickroy, 2005: 13)

8 8 More info on dissociation Weber states (emphasis added): Children and adolescents may present with a variety of dissociative symptoms that reflect a lack of coherence or integration in the self-assembly of mental functioning, including the following typical characteristics: Inconsistent consciousness may be reflected in symptoms of fluctuating attention, such as trance states or “black outs.” Fluctuating moods and behavior, including rage episodes and regressions, may reflect difficulties in self-regulation. Depersonalization and derealization may reflect a subjective sense of dissociation from normal body sensation and perception, or from a sense of self (Schore, 2001). Dissociative symptoms have been found to correlate with traumatic histories of significant sexual abuse or physical abuse (Coons, 1996; Dell & Eisenhower, 2000; Hornstein & Putnam, 2002; Macfie, Cicchetti, & Toth, 2001; Trickett, Noll, Reiffman, & Putnam, 2001)…Dissociative symptoms in children have also been associated with parenting styles described as severely neglectful (Brunner, Parzer, Schuld, & Resch, 2000; Ogawa et al., 1997; Sanders & Giolas, 2001), severely rejecting, and highly inconsistent (Mann & Sanders, 1994). Reference: Weber, S (2008) ‘Diagnosis of Trauma and Abuse-related Dissociative Symptom Disorders in Children and Adolescents’, Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, 21(4), 205–212.

9 9 Memory The memory of how Elaine felt when she was in the hole is patchy. This implies that she dissociated. The reading for this week talks about Elaine doing this. Dissociation is an unconscious coping mechanism, or in this case, Elaine’s unconscious is getting her to find techniques so she can escape what she is feeling. Her memory of what happened after this is also patchy. Is she truly conscious at the time of these events? It’s unlikely. She doesn’t remember them properly because she dissociates at the time they happen. This means she’s focused on certain aspects or drifting into a trance. Although Elaine doesn’t consciously remember what has happened, she experiences feelings she doesn’t understand. As James argues, in ‘Traces of Shame: Margaret Atwood’s Portrayal of Childhood Bullying and its Consequences in Cat’s Eye’: The other girls prey on her supposed weaknesses: weaknesses that they conjure in the interests of inflicting abuse, but which Elaine feels she actually possesses. The acute awareness of these weaknesses, and the ensuing lack of self-worth, arise unconsciously through contact with the perpetrator of the bullying. Thus, although the past actions associated with shame and disgust have been blotted from the conscious mind, the mere recollection of Cordelia still triggers the same reaction: the onset or trace of shame. (32) The only way for Elaine to deal with past ramifications is first to become conscious of what happened.

10 10 Elaine’s art in primary school In primary school, when Elaine is told to draw what she does after school, she draws her bedroom with herself in bed. Then she colours in the night until the picture is almost black. Elaine thinks, ‘I look at this picture with dismay. It isn’t what I meant to draw. It’s unlike everyone else’s picture, it’s the wrong thing.’ (192) Elaine doesn’t draw Cordelia, Carol and Grace. How would she draw what they do to her? She can’t articulate what they do to her, or draw it at this point. Instead she draws herself, alone, enveloped by blackness. Not unlike the hole they put her in, not unlike how she feels – isolated, alone, in darkness. We see this relationship between her art and her experiences when she is a child. The link is made, and it continues when she paints as an adult.

11 11 Cordelia Later, when Elaine is thirteen, she observes Cordelia: ‘I have seen her, sometimes, when she thinks I’m not looking: her face goes still, remote, unreflecting. It’s as if she’s not inside it. But then she’ll turn and laugh.’ (262) Cordelia seems to be similar to Elaine with her dissociation. That indicates that Cordelia has also been traumatised. Why did Cordelia do what she did to Elaine? Let’s look at Elaine’s observation: Dinners at Cordelia’s house are of two kinds: those when her father is there and those when he isn’t. when he isn’t there, things are slapdash… But when Cordelia’s father is there, everything is different. There are flowers on the table, and candles. Mummie has on her pearls, the napkins are neatly rolled in the napkin-rings instead of crumpled in under the edges of the plates. Nothing is forgotten. There are no pin-curls, no elbows on the table, even the spines are straighter.’ (294) Cordelia talks about wanting to feel safe when she was little, then says: ‘When I was really little, I guess I used to get into trouble a lot, with Daddy. When he would lose his temper. You never knew when he was going to do it. “Wipe that smirk off your face,” he would say. I used to stand up to him. (299) There is evidence in the text that Cordelia has been traumatised by her father’s treatment of her. She then bullied Elaine to regain power. Elaine is ‘different’ enough, and not socialised to be like the other little girls, so she becomes Cordelia’s target.

12 12 The disparity of power Whose fault was it that Elaine was bullied? Cordelia was young, and comes from a dysfunctional background and was ‘acting out’ So, if people of 10 years of age aren’t responsible, who is?  Grace’s mother had knowledge of it – Mrs Smeath.  Elaine’s own mother speaks of the ‘bad time you had’.  Elaine’s father was remote from reality. Why does she blame Mrs Smeath and not her own mother? Mrs Smeath has full knowledge of what is happening to Elaine, she consciously acknowledges it, she endorses it. Elaine tells her mother than things are OK, so her mother is not fully aware of what is happening. A victim hopes to be rescued, but Elaine overhears from Mrs Smeath that it’s her own fault. This is arguably the most traumatic thing – no one is going to help me, rescue me, they think I deserve it.

13 13 Bullying and the family We’ll talk about how bullying is passed on – in terms of both Cordelia and Elaine The rippling effect of a single abusive relationship:  Cordelia’s father abusing her  Cordelia abusing Elaine  Elaine being mean to Cordelia, eg in graveyard – ‘second friendship’ Cordelia – probably assumes that all is forgiven and forgetten. But Elaine ‘doesn’t remember’.

14 14 Elaine torments Cordelia When Elaine is in Grade 10, she and Cordelia are at the cemetery. They’ve been making fun of Grace and the Smeaths. Then Elaine claims she is a vampire: ‘You’re not,’ says Cordelia, standing up, brushing off the snow. She’s smiling uncertainly. ‘How do you know?’ I say. ‘How do you know?’ ‘You walk around in the daytime,’ Cordelia says. ‘That’s not me,’ I say. ‘That’s my twin. You’ve never known, but I’m one of twins. Identical ones, you can’t tell us apart by looking. Anyway, it’s just the sun I have to avoid. On days like this it’s perfectly safe. I have a coffin full of earth where I sleep; it’s down in, down in’ – I search for a likely place – ‘the cellar.’ …’You can stop playing that,’ says Cordelia sharply. I’m surprised at how much pleasure this gives me, to know she’s so uneasy, to know I have this much power over her. (274)

15 15 Why does Elaine torment Cordelia? Cordelia is trying to shift some of the horrible things that happened with Elaine in the past, by making fun of Grace and the Smeaths. This is satisfying to Elaine; recasting the experience in a way that doesn’t make her a victim. For Cordelia – it’s about guilt, so she can think ‘what we did to you isn’t any worse than what we’re doing now to Grace’. Cordelia is seeking some kind of forgiveness and approval from Elaine. Cordelia wouldn’t have anyone in her family who’d give her this. Elaine is the main person she has and she knows she’s treated her badly in the past. Immediately after they make fun of the Smeaths, Elaine scares Cordelia with the vampire story – unconsciously, she knows she was bullied by Cordelia, and she takes a childish revenge.

16 16 The picture Elaine paints of Cordelia Elaine tells us: This is the only picture I ever did of Cordelia, Cordelia by herself. Half a face, it’s called: an odd title, because Cordelia’s entire face is visible. But behind her, hanging on the wall, like emblems in the Renaissance, or those heads of animals, moose or bear, you used to find in northern bars, is another face, covered with a white cloth. The effect is of a theatrical mask. Perhaps. I had trouble with this picture. It was hard for me to fix Cordelia in one time, at one age. I wanted her about thirteen, looking out with that defiant, almost belligerent stare of hers. So? But the eyes sabotaged me. They aren’t strong eyes; the look they give the face is tentative, hesitant, reproachful. Frightened. Cordelia is afraid of me, in this picture. I am afraid of Cordelia. I’m not afraid of seeing Cordelia. I’m afraid of being Cordelia. Because in some way we changed places, and I’ve forgotten when. (267) The end of this quotation demonstrates the changing dynamic between the two of them at different ages. When Elaine is thirteen she develops a ‘mean mouth’ and says:  The person I use my mean mouth on the most is Cordelia. She doesn’t even have to provoke me, I use her as target practice’ (277).  Elaine is mean to Cordelia but she doesn’t know why - can’t remember the unconscious reasons that are pushing her to be mean: ‘I wonder, for an instant, how I can be so mean to my best friend. For this is what she is.’ (291)

17 17 How have Elaine’s experiences affected how she relates to: other women? other men? The ‘feminist’ movement? We’ll look at how she relates to the men in her life, her daughters, and some of the women.

18 18 Elaine and her relationships with men Relationship with her drawing teacher, Josef – she has an affair with a man who she knows is sleeping with another woman. At a crucial point, when Josef is needy, there’s a role swap and Elaine starts being quite cruel to him. She is mirroring what happened with her and Cordelia. Reflect on what happened with Cordelia – at first Elaine is the victim where Cordelia defines the terms of the relationship, and then when Cordelia needs something from Elaine and she becomes dissociative and cruel. When Elaine is leaving her first husband, Jon, she states, ‘I’m good at leaving. The trick is to close yourself off. Don’t hear, don’t see. Don’t look back.’ (442) This is what Elaine did when she walked away from the three girls, and repressed the memory of what had happened in those two years. She repeats this behaviour, by cutting off her emotions and walking away. This behaviour is not just directed towards women – she’s been socialised to behave in a certain way in relationships with people in general However, she has less empathy for women on the whole than she does for men

19 19 Elaine’s daughters Elaine gives us some insight into her parenting of her daughters – that she did her best not to take out her past on them: I remember thinking when the girls were born, first one and then the other, that I should have had sons and not daughters. I didn’t feel up to daughters, I didn’t know how they worked. I must have been afraid of hating them. With sons I would have known what to do: frog-catching, fishing, war strategies, running around in the mud. I would have been able to teach them how to defend themselves, and what from… As for the girls, my girls at any rate, they seem to have been born with some kind of protective coating, some immunity I lacked…They amaze me, they always have. When they were little I felt I had to protect them from certain things about myself, the fear, the messier parts of the marriages, the days of nothing. I didn’t want to pass anything on to them, anything of mine they would be better off without. At those times I would like on the floor in the dark, with the curtains drawn and the door closed. I would say, Mummy has a headache. Mummy’s working. But they didn’t seem to need that protection, they seemed to take everything in, look at it straight, accept everything, ‘Mummy’s in there lying on the floor. She’ll be fine tomorrow,’ I heard Sarah tell Anne when one was ten and the other was four. (135-136) Elaine confesses that she was afraid of having girls, even of being afraid of hating them Were her girls born with some kind of immunity? Probably not. They were raised differently and had more confidence. Perhaps fitted in better. She tried to hide her depression from them but they accepted it. She wanted to protect them from the ‘days of nothing’ – this refers back to what she calls those difficult days when every tiny step is an effort. Depression.

20 20 Elaine’s behaviour Elaine doesn’t remember all the bullying that happened when she was younger, but she acts unconsciously to scare Cordelia and feel powerful. How else does Elaine act badly when she’s not conscious of her behaviour?  Her ‘mean mouth’ in late high school, which others were afraid of  Very little empathy for Susie (Josef’s other lover) when she conducts a ‘backyard-abortion’ and hurts herself  Elaine sleeps with both Jon and Josef at the same time, in secret  She does this again in Toronto – sleeps with Jon, her ex- husband, while she is married to Ben, and justifies it easily

21 21 Memory and repression The cat’s eye marble – how did Elaine repress her memories? Elaine narrates: It’s marble season; everyone has marbles in their pockets. Cordelia lets it pass. She doesn’t know what power this cat’s eye has, to protect me. Sometimes when I have it with me I can see the way it sees. I can see people moving like bright animated dolls, their mouths opening and closing but no real words coming out. I can look at their shapes and sizes, their colours, without feeling anything else about them. I am alive in my eyes only (168). The cat’s eye marble has power for Elaine. She uses it to give her strength and to focus on something other than her pain: I keep my cat’s eye in my pocket, where I can hold onto it. It rests in my hand, valuable as a jewel, looking out through bone and cloth with its impartial gaze. With the help of its power I retreat back into my eyes… I think about becoming invisible. I think about eating the deadly nightshade berries from the bushes beside the path. I think about drinking the Javex out of the skill-and-crossbones bottle in the laundry room, about jumping off the bridge, smashing down there like a pumpkin, half of an eye, half of a grin. I would come apart like that, I would be dead, like the dead people (184-185) It is when she finds the cat’s eye marble years later that she finally remembers her entire past. The object is the trigger for her memories because she used it at the time of the events to protect her and give her comfort.

22 22 Maintaining repressed memories When Elaine is at risk of remembering what Cordelia has done to her, it is described as: Cordelia’s face dissolves, re-forms: I can see her nine-year-old face taking shape beneath it. This happen in an eyeblink. It’s as if I’ve been standing outside in the dark and a shade has snapped up, over a lighted window, revealing the life that’s been going on inside in all its clarity and detail. There is that glimpse, during which I can see. And then not. A wave of blood goes up to my head, my stomach shrinks together, as if something dangerous has just missed hitting me. It’s as if I’ve been caught stealing, or telling a lie; or as if I’ve heard other people talking about me, saying bad things about me, behind my back. There’s the same flush of shame, of guilt and terror, and of cold disgust with myself. But I don’t know where these feelings have come from, what I’ve done. (299) At the start of the next chapter, Elaine states, ‘I begin to avoid Cordelia. I don’t know why.’ (300). She’s not ready to ‘remember’.

23 23 Mrs Smeath When Elaine is about 12, she overhears Mrs Smeath and realises that Mrs Smeath knows what is going on. ‘It’s God’s punishment,’ says Mrs Smeath. ‘It serves her right.’ A hot wave moves through my body. The wave is shame, which I have felt before, but it is also hatred, which I have not, not in this pure form. It’s hatred with a particular shape, the shape of Mrs Smeath’s one breast and no waist…A heavy thick hatred. I stand there on the top step, frozen with hate. What I hate is not Grace or even Cordelia. I can’t go as far as that. I hate Mrs Smeath, because what I thought was a secret, something going on among girls, among children, is not one. It has been discussed before, and tolerated. Mrs Smeath has known and approved. She has done nothing to stop it. She thinks it serves me right.’ (213)

24 24 Drawing Mrs Smeath Elaine forgets what has happened after she walks away from the girls. ‘I’ve forgotten things, I’ve forgotten that I’ve forgotten them. I remember my old school, but only dimly, as if I was last there five years ago instead of five months.’ (237) Elaine doesn’t have access to these memories, or doesn’t want to allow them access. She avoids conversations that could bring them to light. Her mother mentions ‘That bad time you had,’ but Elaine is puzzled. Later: I paint Mrs Smeath. She floats up without warning, like a dead fish… She looks out at me from the flat surface of paint, three-dimensional now, smiling her closed half-smile, smug and accusing. Whatever has happened to me is my own fault, the fault of what is wrong with me. Mrs Smeath knows what it is. She isn’t telling.’ (395) Elaine paints a whole series on Mrs Smeath – she paints her naked, with a diseased heart, half her face peeling off, as a bug – in quite demeaning positions. (412)

25 25 The relationship between the dreams and the art Many of Elaine’s dreams are summarised in the novel, and can be linked back to what has happened to her. Here is an example: I dream that I can’t move. I can’t talk, I can’t even breathe. I’m in an iron lung. The iron is clenched around my body like a hard cylindrical skin. It’s this iron skin that is doing my breathing for me, in and out…I’m looking up at the ceiling on which there is a light fixture like yellowish cloudy ice. (296) There are two occasions when Elaine can’t move and feels powerless:  the first is at the beginning of the bullying when Cordelia and the others put her in a hole and leave her there.  The other is when she is in the ravine, freezing, and bordering on unconscious. This powerlessness is conveyed in her dreams. There are other example of dreams during the time when Elaine can’t remember what has happened to her – her dreams indicate what has happened. The unconscious drives her dream life. Her unconscious also drives the content of her artwork.

26 26 Self-portrait Elaine describes this picture, Cat’s Eye, as her face in the foreground, from the middle of the nose up, the eyes looking outwards. She added some wrinkles and grey hair. Behind her half-head is the reflection of the back of her head, younger, with different hair. In the distance there are three small girls, their faces shadowed, in the snow. This painting uses what happened to Elaine:  being looked at and critiqued from behind by Cordelia and the other girls  The notion of what is hidden behind the current adult – the past and its influences

27 27 Elaine’s other influences Elaine shows skills in art all through her childhood:  a love of colour and precision in drawing biological specimens  enjoyment of collage (the magazines)  a love of her brother’s comic books  Elaine is influenced by her father’s drawings of biological specimens She decides to become an artist whilst sitting her biology exam. She studies painting techniques used in the Renaissance eg Egg tempera She is influenced by Leonardo da Vinci – artist and architect Stephen’s theories of physics influence her thoughts about art Elaine is interested in the technique and style of her work: ‘What I want instead is pictures that seem to exist of their own accord. I want objects that breathe out light: a luminous flatness’ (326)

28 28 Why is Elaine an artist? This tells us that Elaine has the interest and skills of an artist. Did her trauma make her an artist? Does the unconscious drive the production of all art, and in this case it was what she had repressed? Was she more drawn to expressing herself in art because of her trauma?

29 29 Conclusion All of this leads me to conclude: It is not trauma that made Elaine a painter – there are plenty of other interests and reasons she became a painter. However, the artist is often influenced by the unconscious mind, and creates from it. But Elaine was drawn to art from different areas of her life. Perhaps her early isolation and sense of being different contributed to the development of her interest in art. Remember - art is not just self-expression, it is formed, crafted, and sometimes discarded by the artist.

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