Cat’s Eye Summary

Margaret Atwood

Cat’s Eye

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Cat’s Eye Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood.

Cat’s Eye is a coming-of-age narrative that tells the story of Elaine, a girl who must decide both who she is and who she wants to be in the eyes of others. The narrative deals with the issues of selfhood, self-esteem, bullying, abuse, and loss. Elaine must navigate her childhood, and then her adulthood, while taking each of these themes head-on. Her response to each of these issues will certainly change her, but it remains to be seen if this change is for better or worse.

When the narrative begins, the reader finds that Elaine and her family live away from the business of the city. Elaine is eight years old at the time and has no real friends aside from her brother, Stephen. When her father accepts a job as a university professor in Toronto, however, the family moves, thus changing Elaine’s quiet way of life forever. In Toronto, Elaine attends public school for the very first time. Not used to being around other girls, she nonetheless makes friends with a girl named Carol Campbell. Elaine eventually meets Carol’s friend, Grace Smeath, and the three girls soon become good friends.

Elaine’s life is soon changed again after returning from a summer vacation in the north. Elaine finds that a new girl has befriended her group of friends. The girl, named Cordelia, not only becomes the leader of the group, she begins to bully Elaine as well. In time, both Grace and Carol also join in on the bullying. Though Elaine does not like the taunting, she wants nothing more than to be accepted, and so endures the bullying. Elaine soon begins to develop anxiety over the cruel treatment, however, and it is not until she is almost freezes to death from one of Cordelia’s cruel games that she finally manages to separate herself from her former friends.

Though Elaine’s relationship with Cordelia is tenuous, Elaine suppresses the events surrounding their friendship’s ending. To this end, when Cordelia’s mother wants the two girls to walk to high school together, Elaine accepts, having successfully pushed the traumatic events out of her mind. The girls become friends again, and eventually are inseparable. In time, however, Elaine begins to change. She starts mocking Cordelia, and the dynamic in their friendship changes as well. Like Elaine earlier on, Cordelia soon begins showing signs that she might be suffering from things emotionally. Elaine does well in school, while Cordelia falters. It is when Elaine remembers something of her troubled past that she begins to withdraw from the friendship.

The next chapter in Elaine’s life finds her attending night classes at a local art college. While working on her drawing skills, she enters into an affair with Josef Hrbik, the teacher of her Life Drawing class. Mr. Hrbik is also having an affair with another student, Susie, though Susie knows nothing about Elaine. One day Susie finds out that she is pregnant by Mr. Hrbik and attempts to terminate her own pregnancy. Susie manages to botch the abortion, however, and with her life now in danger, she calls Elaine for help. Elaine is subsequently brought face-to-face with the results of a failed abortion. Her worries are increased when, after Susie recovers and leaves Mr. Hrbik, she finds herself growing tired of him. She eventually begins treating him horribly. In despair, Mr. Hrbik leaves Toronto.

Elaine has also seen her old friend Cordelia again when she finds out Cordelia is in a home for having taken pills. Though Cordelia implores Elaine to help her leave, Elaine refuses, and does not see Cordelia again after this fact. Elaine faces her own quagmire of conscience when she later finds out that she is pregnant by a classmate named Jon. She had been having an affair with Jon while still with Mr. Hrbik, and is afraid to tell Jon of the pregnancy. Given what she witnessed with Susie, however, Elaine does not want to attempt an abortion. In time, she tells Jon and he marries her, and she gives birth to a baby girl, Sarah. Neither of the two are ready to be parents, however, and Elaine eventually tries to take her own life due to the pressure. Though she is saved by Jon, she eventually leaves him, taking Sarah and retuning to Vancouver.

Elaine is recognized in the art world after her return to Vancouver, and feels that she can breathe again. When she finally makes it back to Toronto, she is a veritable star, given her art. Though happy, she continues to think about Cordelia while at an art event. The next day, Elaine actually misses her plane as she is so distraught at not seeing Cordelia the previous day. She goes for a walk and ends up in the same ravine where she had broken through the ice as a child, when she almost died. When she looks into the ravine, Elaine sees a vision of Cordelia, and is shocked. She also feels the same ominous grip on her, and realizes that this feeling is not hers, but Cordelia’s. With this revelation, she earnestly reaches out to her old friend.

Cat’s Eye is a powerful narrative that shows how every action has a reaction, even though some reactions might not come until much later in life. Seemingly trivial incidents like bullying in school can impact someone’s life and cause them emotional distress for some time afterward. Also, the desire to be liked can have devastating consequences for people. Atwood’s novel shows how it is better to understand oneself and to make attempts at genuine connection than to posture and connect to others by superficial means, or with superficial agendas. In the case of Elaine and the novel’s other characters, these superficial connections are troubling, and can indeed be life-threatening.