Margaret Atwood, whose work has been published in thirty-five countries, is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. In addition to The Handmaid's Tale, her novels include Cat's Eye, short-listed for the Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; Oryx and Crake, short-listed for the 2003 Man Booker Prize; The Year of the Flood; and her most recent, MaddAddam. She is the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Innovator's Award, and lives in Toronto with the writer Graeme Gibson.
Q: What about your early life might have influenced you to become a writer?
A: I grew up in the north under rather isolated circumstances, spending most of my early life in a forest with no electricity, no running water, without any radio or movies, and before television. I was read to a lot as a child. There were always books in the house, and they were my entertainment. They were what you did when it was raining, they were the escape, they were the extended family. So it was a natural step from loving books to writing them.
Q: Cat's Eye is perceived as your most personal novel. Is there any truth to that statement?
A: In some ways, yes. Cat's Eye draws on more semi-autobiographical elements than any of my other novels--the time period and the place, primarily. But in many other ways, it's fiction.
Q: Do you consider Cat's Eye a novel that might advance your reputation as a feminist writer or one that might challenge it?
A: If by "feminist" you mean that I write about women--though not exclusively--the answer is yes. Cat's Eye is about the underside of little girlhood and about the intricate ways adult women's attitudes evolve from our ambiguous childhood friendships. But if you mean that I see all women as good and all men as bad, then the answer is no. Feminists haven't attacked Cat's Eye much; they too were little girls.
1. What does Margaret Atwood's novel Cat's Eye say about the nature of childhood and the development of adolescent friendships? Is there a gender influenced difference in cruelty between boys as opposed to cruelty as expressed by girls? At what point does adolescent meanness become pathological?
2. In the opening line of the novel, the narrator, artist Elaine Risley, who returns to the city of her birth for a retrospective of her painting, observes: "Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space . . . if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backward in time and exist in two places at once." How do you interpret this statement? Why does Elaine return to Toronto and what does she hope to accomplish? Was the trip necessary? If so, why? What role does this return play in the structure of the novel?
3. Elaine is haunted by Cordelia, her "best friend" and the tormentor of her childhood. All predators must have a motive. What benefit did Cordelia receive out of tormenting Elaine? What weakness in Elaine made her particularly vulnerable to Cordelia? Why did she continue to play such importance in Elaine's adult life?
4. Discuss the impact of the type of parenting received by Elaine, Cordelia, and their third friend, Grace. At one point Elaine's mother tells her that she does not have to be with the girls that are tormenting her. Is her mother in any way responsible for what happened to Elaine? What role do you feel parents should play in helping resolve childhood conflicts or in protecting their children?
5. Early in the novel, Elaine is warned by her first new friend, Carol, not to go down into the ravine: "There might be men there." Discuss the significance of this warning, taking into account the later incident between the girls at the ravine. What does this say about our ability to apprehend danger? In what other Atwood novels does she explore the nature of evil and its relationship to gender?
6. Why do you think Elaine became an artist? What is the significance that she did so? Do artists use life experiences in ways nonartists do not?
7. Many of Atwood's themes are first explored in her poetry. We have included two poems from The Circle Game, her award-winning first volume of poetry, published in 1966. How are some of the themes of these poems later developed in Cat's Eye? Atwood is one of the few writers who is successful as both a poet and a novelist. Can you think of others?
8. A review of Cat's Eye by Judith Thurman suggests that a connection exists between sex and childhood games. Discuss this, as well as the significance of the book's title.