Cat’s Eye: Elaine Risley’s Retrospective Art



This passage from Margaret Atwood’s prose poem with its questioning of the reliability of modes of visual perception and of language might serve as preface to Cat’s Eye, her autobiographical fiction which is itself a challenge to life-writing, that ambiguous literary genre which Shirley Neuman claims lacks any generic unity and which Paul De Man asserts is no genre at all.2 Incidentally, the hybrid form of the prose poem would seem to prefigure the transgressive form of the novel itself, with its combined discourses of fiction and autobiography, painting and science, in its attempts to represent the subject of/in the text. Arguably we could read Cat’s Eye as Atwood’s own retrospective glance back at the imaginative territory of her earlier fictions,3 but I do not want to pursue that exploration here. Instead, I shall focus on Cat’s Eye as Atwood’s version of life-writing in the feminine, where her middleaged protagonist Elaine Risley struggles to define herself as a subject through figuring out her life-story in different versions. Who is she? And what is the significance of the Cat’s Eye of the title? Elaine is a painter; the story is littered with references to her pictures and culminates in her first retrospective exhibition in Toronto.


Conscious Mind Unify Field Theory Textual System Canadian Literature Female Subjectivity 
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  1. 1.
    Margaret Atwood, ‘Instructions for the Third Eye’, in Murder in the Dark (Toronto: Coach House, 1983) pp. 61–2.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Shirley Neuman, ‘Life-Writing’, in W. H. New (ed.), Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, vol. 4, 2nd edn (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990) pp. 333–70; Paul De Man, ‘Autobiography as De-facement’, MLN, vol. 94 (1979) pp. 931–55. See also K. P. Stich (ed.), Reflections: Autobiography and Canadian Literature (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1988). All page references will be to this edition.Google Scholar
  4. 20.
    Dennis Lee’s definition, quoted by Helen Tiffin, ‘Post-Colonial Literature and Counter-Discourse’, Kunapipi, vol. 9, no. 3 (1987) pp. 17–34.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1994

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