Margaret Atwood once wrote “Does feminist mean a large unpleasant person who’ll shout at you or someone who believes women are human beings. To me it’s the latter, so I sign up.” This clearly shows that Atwood believes that feminism is not about depicting a woman as a strong and macho character but a real one with admirable traits and some imperfections. Cat’s Eye, one of Atwood’s acclaimed novels, is distinctively a feminist novel that shows two different kinds of women in society. The first being the stereotypically traditional woman, who is weak and submissive to man. She illustrates this type of woman through her minor characters – Ms. Smeath and Susie, both of whom play weak and traditional women who face tragedy in life. Her second kind is the heroic and feminist character that while being admirable and strong has some human weaknesses. She presents this with two unconventional protagonists – Elaine Risley and Cordelia.
She depicts Elaine and Cordelia as two tough but insecure women who fight to create their unique identity in the society. During the time frame of the book (1940- 1980), society was extremely male dominated especially the literary aspect of it. Most of the famous authors were male and most of the highly regarded books were written in a chauvinistic manner, depicting women as weak, vulnerable, disloyal, unimportant and narrow minded. On the other hand, men were portrayed as heroic, overly strong, and perfect in every sense.
Feminist novels, throughout this time, were novels that portrayed women as the “hero” and protagonists rather than as women. Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, however, differed from the typical feminist novels as it illustrated the women as admirable “heroines” who were strong and proud but flawed. This brought a realistic touch to the characters as readers were able to understand them better as they seemed more humanlike – with strengths and weaknesses. Margaret Atwood cleverly proves her book uniquely feminist through her portrayal of characters as she explores the struggles of dual level of women in society; the stereotypical and vulnerable woman and the strong and unconventional feminist.
Ms. Smeath is first introduced as a woman with a weak heart and someone who needs constant rest due to her illness. Already, readers pity her and have a mental image of a weak and frail mother who is in need of help. In contrast, if a novel of the same era were to depict a man with the same condition, he would be shown as someone who is internally very strong and despite his physical illness, he would be fighting to save himself. This is a clear example of the sexist views of society during that time. Through the description of her physical appearance, one can see that Ms Smeath believes that women should dress in a plain and conservative fashion. She is shown as wearing print housedresses which are especially saggy around the chest and Oxfords- which are very plain leather shoes.
She also does not wear make-up or make fancy hairstyles and is perceived to be strict, straight and upright. This perception of her is later proven true as Atwood describes her as someone who doesn’t laugh, goes to church every week and does not stand for things she does not like – like the time she was told that Carol’s mom and dad slept on two different beds. “Mrs. Smeath is not like Mrs. Campbell. For instance, she has no twin sets and views them with contempt.
I know this because once, when Carol was bragging about her mother’s twin sets, Mrs. Smeath said “Is that so”, not as a question but as a way of making Carol shut up.” In the novel, Mrs. Smeath is depicted as a narrow-minded mother who believes that Elaine deserves to be punished by God because she comes from a family that is not as religious as the Smeaths. “It’s God’s punishment”, says Mrs. Smeath. “It serves her right”. This shows her high-self esteem and her belief of superiority over others. Mrs. Smeath represents the dark and evil side of women in society during that time period.
Another stereotypical woman, fragile and defenceless, is presented in the form of Susie, a fellow classmate of Elaine’s in night school. Susie is seen as someone who puts on a lot of make-up and jewellery, wears skin-tight clothes, and has a quiet voice. To Elaine, she is just a fake and dumb girl who’s just fooling around in class. Elaine also suspects Susie of having an affair with their art teacher Mr. Joseph Hrbik, as she is the only one who sticks up for him when the rest of the class taunts him. In the beginning, Elaine thinks that Susie is incapable of love – as she is too superficial; another stereotype of women in that society, she believes that Susie is just playing with Mr. Hrbik’s feelings for personal benefit. “Susie herself is incapable of love, she’s too shallow, I think of her as the conscious one, the one in control: she’s toying with him” Susie represents the other side of the stereotypical woman in society – the opposite of Mrs. Smeath.
She is seen as a dependant person as she seems to be in awe of Mr. Hrbik at all times. Another proof of this is the time Susie comes to visit Elaine one last time in Swiss Chalet. “Have you seen Josef?” she asked. I lied not well “No why would I?” “I just thought you might know where he was”, she said.” This shows that not only is Susie aware that Elaine and Josef are having an affair; she can do nothing about it, as she is too dependent on Josef. This also proves her to be weak and with a low self esteem. However, Elaine later discovers that Susie was in fact pregnant and knew that Josef would refuse to marry her and so she decides to abort the baby – herself. This shows her helplessness, as she is unable to defend herself against the pain of Josef leaving her. Even in her weakest moment, the time she was in the ambulance she pleads with Elaine not to tell Josef. Together, Mrs. Smeath and Susie represent the stereotype of women as either evil and dark or weak and vulnerable in society at that time period.
On the other hand are Atwood’s two uniquely feminist characters – Cordelia and Elaine. Cordelia and Elaine represent the reality of women rather than the supposed roles represented by Mrs. Smeath and Grace. Cordelia represents a very strong but victimized woman of society and Elaine is the unusual central character that is a very passionate and talented with a traumatic childhood, which influences her entire life. Cordelia is first introduced in the beginning of the novel in one of Elaine’s first memories. Straightaway, the reader gets the impression of a rebel when the narrative voice says, “We’re impervious, we scintillate, and we are thirteen”. Through the way they express their likes and dislikes, and the power they thought they had, one can easily make out they are feminists.
Atwood uses symbolism when she writes “Cordelia sits with nonchalance, nudging me with her elbow now and then, staring blankly at the other people with her grey-green eyes, opaque and glinting metal. This symbolizes Cordelia’s eyes as cold and sharp as metal to show Cordelia’s attitude towards others. Cordelia has many traits fit for a heroine – for example her outer self-confidence – she presents herself in an extremely confident manner despite her real feelings inside. Her independence- she is never dependant on anyone to guide her and despite having two sisters and mother to look up to, she lives life her own way almost struggling to create her own place, her own identity in the world. Her intelligence-she got promoted to a higher grade despite being younger than the rest. Her strength to become what she wants and not what the society wants her to be. And her leadership skills, which even though used wrongly, were powerful enough to ensure she was always leader.
However, Cordelia has some obvious weaknesses – her family. Throughout the book, Cordelia shows that she has a certain discomfort with her family, especially her father – who beat her- and her sisters who were the perfect girls thus, creating a lot of pressure for Cordelia to do well. But no matter how well Cordelia did, her dad paid no attention to her. She later on reveals to Elaine that as a child she would swallow mercury so she wouldn’t have to go to school, and she would dig holes in her yard so she could be safe in them and how she used to get into a lot of trouble with her dad and that she hated moving to the new house because she didn’t have any good friends except for Elaine. At that moment, readers see the broken and hidden child behind the hard and cold exterior. Readers see a young girl who has been a victim to many pressures and responsibilities. Another instance of this is when Perdi says to Cordelia “Pull up your socks, Cordelia, or you’ll flunk your year again.
You know what Daddy said last time.” Cordelia flushes and doesn’t respond. This shows Cordelia’s fear of disappointing her dad and again readers see this young child just stuck in cruel and cold world, wanting to come out, but never given the chance. Another weakness of Cordelia is her self-esteem, which is very low. When Elaine and Cordelia are in high school, Elaine manages to get more attention from guys than Cordelia as Cordelia comes across as a fake person to most guys since she lacks the self-confidence to behave naturally. One more example of this is when Cordelia looses her job and tries to kill herself at home and gets sent to a mental hospital. Readers can make a connection between Susie and Cordelia, as both in times of trouble resorted to self-harm. And this proves the genuineness of Cordelia’s character as she has strengths of a hero and weakness of the female stereotype, which form her personality – both powerful and vulnerable
Elaine Risley, the main unconventional protagonist of the book when first introduced, is a successful 50 year old painter back in Toronto (her home town) to do an exhibition. She is first seen as an insecure woman with a tormenting past but as the book progresses one can fully appreciate Elaine’s heroic traits. One can see the journey Elaine takes the struggles she faces, the obstacles she overcomes and the memories she leaves behind. Elaine, though not the conventional heroine and perfect, is someone most women will admire as she has a lot of inner strength. There are many times where Elaine shows her inner strength – especially when she walks away from Cordelia, Grace and Carol, and when she finds the inner strength (through Virgin Mary) to go back home instead of loosing consciousness at the freezing riverbank. She also finds the inner strength to walk away from a failing marriage, while having no concrete plans.
Elaine also has a thirst for finding a place where she belongs, her own identity, which is why she struggles to please people- so she can fit in. She is very unique in her thoughts and actions – for example when she runs past her poster and she has moustache, instead of feeling hurt or breaking down as the stereotypical women would, Elaine likes the moustache because she thinks she has “achieved, finally, a face that a moustache can be drawn on, a face that attracts moustaches. She is also a proud feminist who stands up for women, when she goes to “consciousness raising” meeting for women, in which feminine issues are raised. She also feels bitter towards the Art Gallery of Ontario as they refused to hold her exhibit in their gallery because as she says, “Because they have a bias towards old dead men”.
She is also seen as someone who cares for others as she is shown giving money to the poor on more than one occasion and is also seen doing things to please people even if she does not want to – for example the interview with Andrea. She also shows her caring side when she finds out Grace’s mother has a weak heart and so she goes and checks everyday to see if Mrs. Smeath is fine. However, Elaine also has her human weaknesses like her habit on putting on masks and faking things to please people. She also develops neurotic habits such as biting her skin, pulling her hair and peeling her skin so she can feel pain and her existence. She also develops fainting fits and has suicidal impulses.
She has moments where she is lost and needs help, she is afraid of galleries, and is afraid to express her emotions and all in all she hold a lot in from her past that she needs to let out in order to move on. She is also self-doubting as she has no confidence in her abilities and she is paranoid as to what other women think and say about her. She is always afraid she is going to end up like someone and so takes pleasure in knowing she’s stronger than others. She struggles her entire life to create her own identity that is not pre-determined by society. Elaine and Cordelia represent the unique and real female protagonist Atwood creates to represent the true role of women in society.
Through her clever way of portraying characters to represent a society much like a normal one rather than a fake one, Atwood explores the detailed struggle in the lives of all four characters, which at a first glance seem very distinct but are interconnected in their roles in the society. Atwood brings forth an unconventional protagonist, who despite being susceptible to weaknesses and flaws manages to gain the admiration of many readers through her actions in life.