Discourses in a novel often allow people in the know, to understand particular meaning within certain topics or issues. For instance, a discourse of Calculus in a novel would be relevant to those who study and know the subject. They would pick up on the meaning conveyed within this discourse, whereas people not familiar can only make uneducated guesses. In Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, there are many discourses on offer. Atwood focuses on fictional, autobiographical, scientific and artistic discourses. Which are subtly included in all aspects of the text, mainly in literary devices and the structure of the novel itself.
The discourses of fiction and autobiography are juxtaposed in Cat’s Eye with the intention of allowing insiders to know, and outsiders to assume meaning contained by the subtle presence of discourses. Cat’s Eye is set in Toronto where Atwood grew up, and the attitudes towards the picturesque capital of Canada are somewhat bitter and full of nostalgic reflection. The main character, Elaine, states on page 14 of the book;
‘Underneath the flourish and ostentation is the old city, street after street of thick red brick houses… their watchful, calculating windows. Malicious, grudging, vindictive, implacable. In my dreams of this city I am always lost.’
Just the building of a character cannot account for the heavy and distinct feeling of resentment directed at the city and everything in it. Atwood’s father, was a forest entomologist, just as Elaine’s father was, Atwood spent her childhood in Ottawa during the winters and the rest of the year in northern Quebec and Ontario. In 1946, her father took up a position as professor at the University of Toronto, and the family moved to there. The parallels between the lives of the author and the main female character, Elaine, are undeniable.
The reader cannot know for certain that Atwood herself experienced bullying, but it is obvious not just in Cat’s Eye but in some of her other works that she represents gender in an original way, subverting often used stereotypes. When the book was written, Atwood was 49, teetering towards middle age, coming to terms with her years past, and her years to come. In the novel, the present Elaine was also middle aged, and struggling with her identity, as she slowly becomes invisible. Elaine suffered constantly with the pain of imperfection, near the beginning before the retrospective in Toronto, Elaine goes into the gallery;
‘I know immediately that I should not have worn this powder-blue jogging outfit. Powder-blue is lightweight. I should have worn nun black, Dracula black, like all proper female painters.’
Elaine feels outdated, and out of touch, it is possible that Atwood herself was finding herself in these situations, and readers going through this stage of their life or for that matter, anyone who is in a process of change, would identify with the content on ageing. This is but few of the many examples of links between fiction and autobiographical features in Cat’s Eye, this is a powerful combination that takes full advantage of the juxtapositions it makes available within these discourses.
The subject of femininity and the identity of the main character can be explored through discourses. Fictional and autobiographical features juxtapose and merge so as to more accurately represent femininity in Cat’s Eye showing it in a more precise way. Because words are only representation, the means by which they are presented can alter how readers perceive particular aspects of the story. Novels need things such as discourses, among other things, to bring more meaning and background to an otherwise two dimensional story.
Women, need to be attractive, smart, but not too smart. Women need to walk straight, and answer just the right amount of questions, either be humble or domineering, in being female, there is no middle ground. The female identity has long been constructed as the more delicate and demure of the sexes, Elaine, who grew up away from the definition between masculinity and femininity was amazed by the grace of ‘real’ girls. ‘I draw them in old fashioned clothing, with long skirts, pinafores and puffed sleeves… this is the elegant, delicate picture I have in my mind, about other little girls. I don’t think about what I might say to them if actually met some. I haven’t got that far.’
Elaine’s transition from country to city life is looked at through interaction between Elaine and Cordelia, Elaine’s never ending strive for perfection, and Cordelia’s need to be loved by her father. Autobiographical features in Cat’s Eye further back up the plot, and make it seem more plausible because it incorporates an added factor of reality, it also effects how Elaine is viewed because readers assume some truth in the plot. Discursive constructions are placed upon the female subject in the text. This conveys a large amount of information, to the knowledgeable, which in this case is all women and men who know what it is like to live a life amongst all of society’s expectations and divisions.
The discourses of science and painting are combined in Cat’s Eye in an effort to epitomize the female subject in the text. Elaine was brought up surrounded by science, her father was a biologist and the bigger picture of science fascinated her brother. Science and the arts, namely painting appear to be on opposite ends of the spectrum, but in the text the line between them is proved to be reasonably undefined. At the start of the novel Atwood clearly states Elaine’s point of view, highlighting her stance on people who call themselves artists.
‘ The word artist embarrasses me; I prefer painter, because its more like a valid job. An artist is a tawdry, lazy sort of thing to be.’
Science seems to business like and structured in comparison to art, however in the text they co-habit well. The discourse of science was mainly addressed in Elaine’s family life, at one point, she realised that science wasn’t feminine enough for her ‘friends,’ Cordelia, Grace and Carol. During Elaine’s final biology exam, she realised she didn’t want to be a biologist as she had intended to be. Her outlet became painting just as her brothers had become science. Each of these choices are a way of coping with the human experience and assessing ones own feelings in a creative way before even the conscious mind can address the issue.
The discourse becomes a means of conveying a large amount of information to the reader by appealing to their prior knowledge in a particular topic. Elaine is introduced to a new world, through Cordelia, a world where the oppression of women is the cultural norm, inside suburban boundaries. This is demonstrated in how she gains an understanding of her experiences through art, particularly the roles of women in society, she moves from science as an outlet to art and painting to deal with her repressed memories. The discourses of art and science represent the female subject in Cat’s Eye.
A discourse in a novel allows insight and speculation on behalf of the reader. Explanations do not usually occur and the audience is encouraged to make judgments based on their knowledge. These discourses can easily affect the main themes in a novel by portraying positive, negative or neutral assumptions. In Cat’s Eye readers are able to bring so much of their own experience to the novel due to the inclusive and mostly well known discourses that feature in the text.