67 pages 2 hours read

Margaret Atwood

Cat's Eye

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1988

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Cat’s Eye is a 1988 coming-of-age novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood that centers on Elaine Risley, a successful painter who is returning to Toronto for a retrospective show of her work. Throughout the novel, she has vivid recollections of her childhood and adolescence in the city during the postwar years—particularly of her friendship with Cordelia, who persecuted her in a way that had an indelible impact on her life. The novel was a finalist for the 1988 Governor General’s Award and the 1989 Booker Prize. This guide refers to the 1989 Seal Books edition of the novel.

Content Warning: Cat’s Eye and this guide contain references to bullying, abuse, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and illegal abortion.

Plot Summary

Elaine is a successful painter living in Vancouver who has returned to Toronto, where she grew up, for the opening of a retrospective of her work. She recalls her childhood in vivid vignettes, and the narrative alternates between her childhood and the present.

When Elaine is eight years old, she, her parents, and her brother, Stephen, travel frequently for Elaine’s father’s work as an entomologist. They camp or stay in motels, and Elaine and Stephen are close friends, playing war games and helping their father with his work. When WWII ends and her father gets a job at a university in Toronto, Elaine’s life transforms. She attends school for the first time, gaining the chance to make friends with other girls. Elaine’s first friend is Carol Campbell, who teaches Elaine all about conventional femininity and is quickly joined by another girl, Grace Smeath. The three develop a close friendship, playing girlish games unlike those Elaine played with her brother.

In the summer, Elaine travels outside the city with her family and reconnects with her old, wild existence. When she returns, Grace and Carol have a new friend, Cordelia. Cordelia’s family is wealthy and she is authoritative and judgmental, quickly taking control of the girls’ games. After Elaine’s ninth birthday, the girls begin excluding her, ostensibly as punishment for some wrongdoing. Grace and Carol watch her and report back to Cordelia. Elaine begins to peel the skin off her feet until they bleed every night, chewing her hair and biting her fingers too. She tries to avoid the girls, but they always find her. She is often ill and longs to leave the city for the summer.

When she returns, Cordelia is worse than ever and Elaine contemplates suicide. Her mother tells her to stand up for herself, but instead Elaine teaches herself to faint so that she can spend time outside of her body. When Elaine laughs after Cordelia slips in the snow, Cordelia throws Elaine’s hat into a ravine and forces her to climb down after it. Elaine falls into the freezing water. Her mother finds her, but Elaine does not reveal Cordelia’s actions. Once she has recovered, she refuses to play with her former friends and forgets about them.

By high school, Elaine has suppressed the memories of these events and reconnects with Cordelia through their mothers. They become friends again, and Cordelia starts shoplifting. Cordelia’s life deteriorates while Elaine excels in school—especially biology, as she loves drawing anatomical diagrams. Elaine starts to feel uncomfortable around Cordelia and withdraws from their friendship. In the middle of her botany exam, Elaine realizes she wants to be an artist.

While studying at university, Elaine begins an affair with her life drawing instructor, Josef Hrbik, although he is already sleeping with another student, Susie. Cordelia visits Elaine in the restaurant where she works, having run away from home. Elaine is reluctant to reminisce about their childhood. Susie gets pregnant and attempts to terminate her own pregnancy, calling Elaine for help and ending up in the hospital. Josef’s reaction causes Elaine to lose interest in their relationship, and she treats him so badly he eventually leaves Toronto. She continues a relationship with another art student, Jon, instead. He openly flirts with other girls, believing monogamy to be a bourgeois idea.

Elaine starts to paint objects from her childhood. She gets pregnant, marries Jon, and gives birth to Sarah, whom both she and Jon love despite their own intense and sometimes violent fights. Elaine attends feminist meetings where she feels isolated as a married mother. However, she is included when the women put on a radically successful feminist art show.

Elaine sees Cordelia once more in a psychiatric hospital where she is living, sedated, after attempting to overdose on pills. Elaine refuses Cordelia’s request to help her escape. When she later writes to her, the letter is returned unopened.

Elaine discovers Jon is having affairs and cuts herself with an Exacto knife. She ends up in the hospital, although she denies it was deliberate. She leaves Toronto with Sarah and divorces Jon. In Vancouver, she meets a man named Ben, and the two marry and have a daughter, Anne.

Elaine becomes a successful and well-respected artist, returning to Toronto for the first time for her retrospective, where the novel begins. In Toronto she stays in Jon’s studio apartment, wanders the streets to see what has changed, and is interviewed by a young journalist who questions her on her feminist background—which she denies—and the motivation for her paintings. She and Jon have dinner at the restaurant she used to frequent with Josef and end up having sex.

At the gallery opening, Elaine looks at each of her paintings and waits to see if Cordelia will arrive. She does not. The next day, Elaine travels to the ravine where she almost died as a child. She imagines she sees Cordelia again, realizes that she has the power now, and reaches out to her old friend. The woman is not Cordelia, though, and Elaine realizes there is nothing left there for her. On the plane home, she sits next to two elderly women together and misses a future that she never will have with Cordelia.