Gothic glimpses in Margaret Atwood's "Cat's Eye" or representations of art and media and mysterious twin ship

Term Paper, 2005

27 Pages, Grade: 2.0



I Introduction

II A Short Definition of the Gothic Novel

III Representation I
III.1. Representing Elaine’s Dreams
III.1.1. The Dream of the Deadly Nightshade
III.1.2. The Dream of the Falling Woman
III.2. Representing Art and Media
III.2.1. Representing Film
III.2.1.1. Elaine as Artwork
III.2.1.2. The Notion of the Past
III.2.2. Representing Comic
III.2.2.1. Mirror-situations
III.2.2.2.The Divided Face
III.2.3. Representing Fictive Feminist Works of Art
III.2.3.1.Store Mannequins and Dolls
III.2.4. Representing Non-Fictive Art
III.2.4.1. Mirror-situations
III.2.4.2. The Notion of Rivalry
III.2.4.3. Elaine as Vampire
III.2.5. Representing Elaine’s Paintings
III.2.5.1 Cat’s Eye
III. The Three and Shakespeare
III.2.5.2 Unified Field Theory
III. Gothic Places I: The Cemetery
III. The Gothic Paradox
III. The Converted Virgin Mary

IV Representation
IV.1. Representing Art and Media: Elaine as Artist
IV.1.1. Creating as Revenge
IV.1.3. Gothic Places II: The Madhouse
IV.1.4. The Notion of Decay
IV.1.5. The Gap of the Grave
IV.1.6. The Gap of the Ravine

V Gothic Post Modernity

VI Works Cited

VII Table of Figures

I Introduction

Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye is a novel that certainly covers plenty of discourses and touches several genres. At the head of all it can well be considered to be a bildungs- or künstlerroman in the guise of the fictive autobiography. Many critics have pointed out that it is one of Atwood most personal novels, a piece that undoubtedly turns “the tables on their own kind”[1], that has many autobiographical features. But that will not be the concern in my following reflections which will rather deal with the gothic elements of the novel. My readers may argue that it is rather Atwood’s Robber Bride, The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace that are obliged to the gothic theme.[2] But it is actually Cat’s Eye that offers the vast range of gothic elements that correspond to each other and to the various levels of representation the novel offers.

I regard it as necessary to deliver a short definition of the gothic novel in the first place. However, I want to point out that I do not see Cat’s Eye just in the dark illumination of the gothic. I rather pick up and explain different gothic gatherings and “gothic games” Atwood plays with the reader than devote my analysis to the issue completely.

II A Short Definition of the Gothic Novel

The name ‘gothic’ which originally referred to a Germanic tribe became a term applied to a style of the architecture of the Middle Ages, in particular to “the pointed arch typical of medieval architecture.”[3] There was a revival of the gothic style in the 18th century and it was thus this century that was obsessed with the medieval period, reflected in the movement of romanticism which was one decendant of the gothic genre. It was associated with an objection of reason and logic since it`s form indicates the appreciation of the joys of extreme emotion and the sublime. The ruins of gothic buildings gave rise to these emotions by referring to the inevitable decay and collapse of human creations. 'Gothic' came to be applied to the literary genre precisely because the genre dealt with such emotional extremes and dark themes, and because it found its most natural settings in the buildings of this style: Castles, Mansions and Monasteries, often remote, crumbling and ruined. It was a fascination with this architecture and its related art, that inspired the first wave of gothic novelists: Horace Walpole`s seminal The Castle of Otranto is often regarded as the first true gothic novel. It`s form originated from the medieval romance, featured a threatening mystery and an ancestral curse, as well as countless trappings: hidden passages, often-fainting heroines, etc. Remarkably enough, it is our heroine Elaine Risley “who begins to be known as the girl who faints”[4] at school. In Cat’s Eye I am about to analyse, that the heroine or better the protagonist is contrasted to her antagonist Cordelia, who is not the villain in the “traditional” sense but a counter-figure of Elaine but more about that later.

However, it was Ann Radcliffe who introduced the brooding figure of the gothic villain and created the gothic novel in its standard form. Eventually, it is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein that stands out as one of the most important literary triumphs of the period. Bram Stoker’s Dracula may have become the “gothic goliath” of the genre at the fin de siècle. The gothic genre may have developed in various directions but may have it’s modern equivalent in the contemporary horror movie.

III Representation I

The gothic ideas Atwood’s novel works with are expressed on several levels of representation, i.e. the expression of the gothic themes and traces happens on different levels of representation. The rather complex network that is created that way becomes more multiple when the different expressional levels correspond to each other as they do in Cat’s Eye. I will now try to analyse these different levels of representation and explain how these levels correspond to each other.

III.1. Representing Elaine’s Dreams

The first level of representation is Elaine’s dreams. It can well be called “world of dreams” because it is in itself very complex. All her ideas and all her fears resurface in her dreams but take on different forms. Not only do her dreams express her fears, they sometimes also provide the material for her later paintings.

III.1.1. The Dream of the Deadly Nightshade

In her dream of the deadly nightshade berries the poisonous fruit is bursting with blood.[5] The image of the bursting fruit is endowed with sexuality, with suppression but since the berry has to be filled with blood, the representation seems highly surreal. It could well have become one of Elaine’s paintings that at one point of the novel are classified to belong to a “naïve surrealism.” Maggie Kilgour writes in her reflection upon “The rise of the gothic novel” that “Surrealists claimed to be the true heir of the gothic”[6] while Montague Summers argued surrealism to be its gothic double, its antithesis.[7]

So one could say that Elaine’s dreams represent an early stage of surrealist expression that is chaotic, mysterious and in a way unfinished. “You are an unfinished woman, […] but here you will be finished”[8] says Joseph as well after having a glance at Elaine’s early pictures. He involuntary declares that Elaine’s expression will be completed in her paintings, in her art, because her individuation as a woman is a coming of age and a “coming of art”.

III.1.2. The Dream of the Falling Woman

Elaine’s dream of a falling Cordelia[9] inspires the painting Falling Woman and thereby connects those two different levels to each other. Atwood names her eleventh chapter “Falling Woman” as a sure reference to the title of Elaine’s painting although the chapter “Falling Woman” does not mention the production or the description of the painting. By naming the chapter after the title of the picture, Atwood relates two medial levels -the constructional level of the novel and the painting- to each other and thereby constructs a self-referential circle.

III.2. Representing Art and Media

Next to the paintings Elaine creates there are a whole lot of paintings Elaine does not produce as well as other forms of art occurring in the Novel. In these artistic forms bits and pieces of Elaine’s persona are reflected although she is not creating them. Elaine studies the paintings of the Old Masters and the paintings of her fellow feminist artists. Cordelia and she read comics together[10], comics which very vividly mirror the relationship of the two. Eventually there is one film the novel brings up, a film by Joseph that reflects upon the relationship he had with Elaine and Susie. It throws light on parts of Elaine’s life and again relates to Elaine’s persona although she is not involved in their creation.

So one could say that Cat’s Eye ranges different forms of art occurring in different medial shapes.

III.2.1. Representing Film

There is only one film explicitly mentioned in the novel which is a film by Joseph Elaine happens to see at a film festival. The figural constellation presented by the film (a man who is in love with “two women of nebulous personalities”[11] ) surely reminds the reader of Joseph’s affair with both Elaine and Susie. The images the film gathers strongly recall Victorian, Brontë-esque scenery that is sexually charged. It shows the “ethereal”[12] women wandering “through fields with the wind blowing their thin dresses against their thighs.”[13] The femininity that is presented seems ghostly and insubstantial, the women seem to resemble the fragile heroines of gothic novels Although Elaine’s attitude towards the film is quite ironic the novel here again shows its advanced structural principle namely to relate different medial levels to each other. The constructed reality of the novel is converted into the plot of the film. Elaine and Susie appear in the disguise of the two fragile women. The medial level of the film is embedded in the medial level of the novel and therefore one could argue that the medium film relates to the novel itself.

III.2.1.1. Elaine as Artwork

Although the film is not Elaine’s creation but Josephs, it shows how Elaine was partly Josephs “creation” at the time of the “ménage à trois”:

“Joseph is rearranging me: “You should wear your hair loose,” he says, unpinning it […] to make it fluff out. […] and I see for an instant what Josephs sees: a slim woman with cloudy hair, pensive eyes in a thin white face. I recognize the style: late nineteenth century. Pre-Raphaelite.”[14]

Elaine seems to look like the women in Joseph’s film or to put it differently: Joseph wants her to be a “Pre-Raphaelite”-Beauty and she turns into a picture, she becomes a peace of art, a medial expression. This is beautifully rendered by Atwood by letting Elaine watching herself “in the smoke-mirror wall of the elevator.”[15] It is a smoky, a blurred picture Elaine sees, a picture that fits perfectly in Josephs cloudy, nineteenth century point of view.

Coming back to Joseph’s rather unsuccessful film that seems pretentious and quite “trashy” although its author intended it to be artistically demanding and sophisticated, it becomes clear that one of the women the film presents is Elaine and it is Joseph’s version of Elaine.

III.2.1.2. The Notion of the Past

At the time of the relationship between Joseph and Elaine, Elaine is partly Joseph’s creation but it she is an Elaine of the past. The narrating Elaine, the “old one”, the “last one” we encounter as readers, dissociates from the film. However, a shadow of the past lies over the woman Joseph sees in Elaine and presents in his film. She is late nineteenth century, the century of the gothic novel, she is Pre-Raphaelite.

This quality to be related to the past is also a quality that the symbolism of the gothic novel possesses. The ruins which are not among the spaces and places of Cat’s Eye may serve as a label for the gothic novel because their iconography represents the notion of the past that enters the present. For Victor Sage the decaying ruin (and decay is an idea I will come to later in my paper) “appear suddenly so full of significance in that they express the collapse of the feudal period; the inevitable ghost which haunts them indicates a peculiarly intense fear of the return of the powers of the past.”[16] He also points out that civilisation and therefore culture as well “is a ‘gigantic memory of rotten stone’, and the past is always returning into the present

The notions of haunting and of decay which indicate that the fear of the past or for the return of the past is something Elaine is possessed by and the whole novel is attached to. While Joseph’s film is disguising Elaine and Susie as historical heroines she shares his point of view when she is in love with him. When the narrating Elaine points out towards the end of the novel that Joseph “was entitled to his own versions, his own conjurings; as I am”[17] it seems that Josephs version is also part of the whole picture and therefore transports parts of Elaine’s voice. However, Joseph’s film is about two women and it is not said, that those have to be Elaine and Susie. It is also possible that the pair of women symbolize Elaine and Cordelia, the “sisters in fate.”

III.2.2. Representing Comic

The medium that focuses on the relationship of Elaine and Cordelia, the “two sisters is the comic. There are two horror comics of a certain significance Elaine and Cordelia read together. One is the comic of the two sisters, “a pretty one and one who has a burn covering half her face.”[18] The ugly sister’s soul crouches into the body of the beautiful sister and thereby the comic repeats the motto of the novel that says that “anyone who kills receives in his body, without wanting or knowing it, the soul of his victim.”[19] And that is what happens metaphorically in Cat’s Eye: Elaine is possessed, haunted by Cordelia’s ghost. By letting Cordelia read the sister-comic to Elaine, Atwood strengthens the relation between Cordelia and the uncanny, i.e. the figure of Cordelia embodies one of the key images of the gothic novel, the spectral.


[1] Anita Brookner, “Unable to Climb Out of the Abyss,” In Spectator 28 Jan, 1989: 32.

[2] Atwood is considered to be a representative of the Southern Ontario Gothic, a genre that various writers like Marian Engel and Alice Munro are obliged to.

[3] Martin Gray, A Dictionary of Literary terms, Beirut/Essex 1984: 94.

[4] Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye, London 2004: 145.

[5] Cat’s Eye: 173.

[6] Maggie Kilgour, The Rise of the Gothic Novel, London/New York 1995: 219.

[7] Montague Summers, The gothic quest: A History of the Gothic novel, New York 1964: 409.

[8] CE: 145.

[9] CE: 360.

[10] At the beginning of the Novel the reader learns that Elaine and Stephen as well as his friends spend many hours in front of the Comics.

[11] CE: 364.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] CE: 304.

[15] CE: 304.

[16] Victor Sage, Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition, Houndmills/Basingstoke/Hampshire/London 1988: xi.

[17] CE: 365.

[18] CE: 211.

[19] CE: Motto.

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Gothic glimpses in Margaret Atwood's "Cat's Eye" or representations of art and media and mysterious twin ship
University of Constance  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Seminar: The Nature-Culture Paradigm in Canadian Literature
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ISBN (Book)
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Gothic, Margaret, Atwood, Seminar, Nature-Culture, Paradigm, Canadian, Literature
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Maria Blau (Author), 2005, Gothic glimpses in Margaret Atwood's "Cat's Eye" or representations of art and media and mysterious twin ship, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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