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Margaret Atwood's Web site

Margaret Atwood feature on Bold Type, BDD's online literary magazine

Readers' Group Companion to Alias Grace

Readers' Group Companion to Bodily Harm

Readers' Group Companion to The Edible Woman

Readers' Group Companion to The Handmaid's Tale

Readers' Group Companion to Lady Oracle

Readers' Group Companion to Life Before Man

Readers' Group Companion to The Robber Bride

Readers' Group Companion to Surfacing

Other titles by Margaret Atwood:

Alias Grace

Bluebeard's Egg

Bodily Harm

Dancing Girls and Other Stories

The Edible Woman

Good Bones and Small Murders

The Handmaid's Tale

Lady Oracle

Life Before Man

The Robber Bride

Surfacing

Wilderness Tips

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Reader's Companion to Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

Anchor/Doubleday trade paperback, ISBN 0-385-49102-6, $12.00 US

Bantam/Seal paperback, ISBN 0-770-42334-5, $8.99 CAN

Reader's Companion to Cat's Eye © 1998 by Doubleday.



Contents:

1. An Interview with Margaret Atwood on Her Novel Cat's Eye
2. Selected Poems by Margaret Atwood
3. Some Suggested Topics for Contemplation or Group Discussion
4. Biography
5. Information



Considered to be her most autobiographical work, Cat's Eye, Margaret Atwood's critically acclaimed seventh novel, is the story of Elaine Risley, the daughter of a forest entomologist and controversial artist in her fifties who returns to Toronto for a retrospective of her work. In her moment of professional glory, she becomes consumed by vivid images of her past, especially those of Cordelia, her best friend and emotional counterpart who waged lavish cruelties on her as a girl. Atwood employs her wry humor, rich irony, and keen eye for detail in a brilliant exploration of the treacherous terrain of girlhood and the historical geography of Toronto from the 1940s to the 1980s.

 
An Interview with Margaret Atwood on Her Novel Cat's Eye

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 semiautobiographical elements than any of my other novels--the time period and the place, primarily. But in many other ways, it's fiction.

Q: What would you say is the novel's primary theme?

A: Cat's Eye is about how girlhood traumas continue into adult life. Girls have a culture marked by secrets and shifting alliances, and these can cause a lot of distress. The girl who was your friend yesterday is not your friend today, but you don't know why. These childhood power struggles color friendships between women. I've asked women if they fear criticism more from men or from other women. The overwhelming answer was: "From women."

Q: You now have over thirty books behind you. Could you have written this novel when you were younger?

A: By middle age you have a past with a discernible shape, whereas young people are driven by the present and the future. Cat's Eye is partly a coming-of-age novel--middle age--but judging from the response, it speaks to women of all ages and to men as well.

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.

Q: What are your thoughts on the future of the book?

A: Reading is far from defunct. Many people are turning away from full-time television, toward the more personal act of reading. Neurologists tell us that reading, in the intensity of the brain activity it generates, is second only to actual experience.

 
Selected Poems of Margaret Atwood

Against Still Life

Orange in the middle of a table:

It isn't enough
to walk around it
at a distance, saying
it's an orange:
nothing to do
with us, nothing
else: leave it alone

I want to pick it up
in my hand
I want to peel the
skin off; I want
more to be said to me
than just Orange:
want to be told
everything it has to say

And you, sitting across
the table, at a distance, with
your smile contained, and like the orange
in the sun: silent:

Your silence
isn't enough for me
now, no matter with what
contentment you fold
your hands together; I want
anything you can say
in the sunlight:
stories of your various
childhoods, aimless journeyings,
your loves; your articulate
skeleton; your posturings; your lies.

These orange silences
(sunlight and hidden smile)
make me want to
wrench you into saying;
now I'd crack your skull
like a walnut, split it like a pumpkin
to make you talk, or get
a look inside

But quietly:
if I take the orange
with care enough and hold it
gently

I may find
an egg
a sun
an orange moon
perhaps a skull; center
of all energy
resting in my hand

can change it to
whatever I desire
it to be

and you, man, orange afternoon
lover, wherever
you sit across from me
(tables, trains, buses)
if I watch
quietly enough
and long enough
at last, you will say
(maybe without speaking)

(there are mountains
inside your skull
garden and chaos, ocean
and hurricane; certain
corners of rooms, portraits
of great-grandmothers, curtains
of a particular shade;
your deserts; your private
dinosaurs; the first
woman)

all I need to know:
tell me
everything
just as it was
from the beginning.

From Selected Poems I: Poems Selected and New 1965-1975 by Margaret Atwood. Copyright © 1987 by Margaret Atwood. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


The Circle Game

i

The children on the lawn
joined hand to hand
go round and round

each arm going into
the next arm, around
full circle
until it comes
back into each of the single
bodies again

They are singing, but
not to each other:
their feet move
almost in time to the singing

We can see
the concentration on
their faces, their eyes
fixed on the empty
moving spaces just in
front of them.

We might mistake this
tranced moving for joy
but there is no joy in it

We can see (arm in arm)
as we watch them go
round and round
intent, almost
studious (the grass
underfoot ignored, the trees
circling the lawn
ignored, the lake ignored)
the whole point
for them
of going round and round
is (faster
      slower)
going round and round

vii

Summer again;
in the mirrors of this room
the children wheel, singing
the same song;

This casual bed
scruffy as dry turf,
the counterpane
rumpled with small burrows, is
their grassy lawn
and these scuffed walls
contain their circling trees,
that low clogged sink
their lake

(a wasp comes,
drawn by the piece of sandwich
left on the nearby beach
      (how carefully you do
      such details);
one of the children flinches
but won't let go)

You make them
turn and turn, according to
the closed rules of your games,
but there is no joy in it
and as we lie
arm in arm, neither
joined nor separate
      (your observations change me
      to a spineless woman in
      a cage of bones, obsolete fort
      pulled inside out),
our lips moving
almost in time to their singing,

listening to the opening
and closing of the drawers
in the next room

(of course there is always
danger but where
would you locate it)

(the children spin
a round cage of glass
from the warm air
with their thread-thin
insect voices)

and as we lie
here, caught
in the monotony of wandering
from room to room, shifting
the place of our defences,

I want to break
these bones, your prisoning rhythms
      (winter,
      summer)
all the glass cases,

erase all maps,
crack the protecting
eggshell of your turning
singing children:

I want the circle
broken.

From Selected Poems I: Poems Selected and New 1965-1975 by Margaret Atwood. Copyright © 1987 by Margaret Atwood. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

 
Some Suggested Topics for Contemplation or Group Discussion

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.

 
Biography

Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master's degree from Radcliffe College.

The daughter of a forest entomologist, Atwood spent a large part of her childhood in the Canadian wilderness. At the age of six she began to write "poems, morality plays, comic books, and an unfinished novel about an ant." At sixteen she found that writing was "suddenly the only thing I wanted to do."

Throughout her career, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and several honorary degrees including the Canadian Governor General's Award, Le Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, and the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature. She is the author of more than thirty volumes of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, including children's books, and short stories. Her most recent works include The Handmaid's Tale (1986), Cat's Eye (1989), and Alias Grace (1996), the story collection Good Bones and Simple Murders (1994), and a volume of poetry, Morning in the Burned House (1995).

Ms. Atwood's work has been published in more than twenty-five countries. She has traveled extensively and has lived in Boston, Vancouver, Montreal, London, Provence, Berlin, and Edinburgh.

Margaret Atwood now lives in Toronto with novelist Graeme Gibson and their daughter.

 
Information

To discuss this novel on-line visit our "Bold Type" Bulletin Board at http://www.boldtype.com.

The Margaret Atwood Web at site at http://www.io.org/~toadaly lists her speaking engagements in the United States and Canada.

The Margaret Atwood Society, whose main goal is to promote scholarly study of Atwood's work, publishes an annual newsletter with annotated bibliography, as well as a midyear issue; and, as an official MLA Allied Organization, it meets annually in conjunction with the Modern Language Association convention. For membership, contact Mary Kirtz, Department of English, University of Akron, Akron, Ohio 44325.