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Critical Essay by Nathalie Cooke
SOURCE: "Reading Reflections: The Autobiographical Illusion in Cat's Eye," in Essays on Life Writing: From Genre to Critical Practice, edited by Marlene Kadar, University of Toronto Press, 1992, pp. 162-70.
In the following essay, Cooke explores Atwood's use of a fictional protagonist and an autobiographical form in Cat's Eye.
I have been told by friends, relatives, colleagues, and teachers—in fact, by everyone I know who has read it—that Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye is 'more autobiographical than her other books.' And, of course, they are right. It is more autobiographical—or, anyway, it is more obviously about self-representation—than her other books. But it is autobiographical in the same way that Lady Oracle is gothic: it speaks to the form as much as it speaks from or within it.
The fascinating part about all this is that those experienced readers who would be embarrassed to classify Lady Oracle as just another costume gothic, or Surfacing as a simple unironic quest narrative, are the very same readers who seem to dismiss this novel by describing it as 'autobiographical.' They have been fooled by Atwood—yes—but also by the literary conventions she is exploring in this novel, those of autobiography itself. Most important, they have been fooled into looking at the autobiographical illusion that Atwood creates, and into overlooking the deft sleight of hand involved in its creation.
My argument is that autobiography is not so much a generic category as it is a literary strategy. Atwood's readers must do more than classify Cat's Eye in terms of autobiography; they must focus their attention on the way autobiography is used in the novel. Accordingly, the emphasis of my discussion of the autobiographical elements in Cat's Eye lies more on Atwood's artistry than on the links between Atwood's life and her art.
I am choosing my terms carefully because as critics have come to question their confidence in the 'referentiality of language' and the 'authenticity of the self' they have become increasingly uncomfortable about classifying autobiography at all, particularly about differentiating between autobiography, on the one hand, and fictional autobiography, on the other. After all, the project of categorizing various kinds of autobiographical writing places limits on a form that seeks to challenge limits—those between expression and experience, in particular. Northrop Frye, for example, traces autobiography back to 'a creative, and therefore fictional' impulse. And Paul Jay argues that 'the attempt to differentiate between autobiography and fictional autobiography is finally pointless. For if by "fictional" we mean "made up," "created," or "imagined"—something, that is, which is literary and not "real"—then we have merely defined the ontological status of any text, autobiographical or not.' However, by conflating forms of autobiography and fiction, Jay ignores the invitation that autobiographical fiction sends to its readers, to be read as both fiction and nonfiction—at the same time. Readers of autobiographical fiction, that is, are asked to read with a kind of double vision. I am by no means suggesting that such writing is any less fictional than fiction itself, just that we are invited to believe it might be. Herein, to my mind, lies all the difference.
What reason do we have to identify autobiographical elements as distinguised from fictional ones? I think we suspect that autobiography reads differently from fiction. Before we open the cover, for example, we find ourselves wanting to know whether a book is fiction or non-fiction. To be sure, when we say that a work is autobiographical we suggest that it has a claim to truth. This is why, as Alice Munro attests, those who classify a work as autobiographical go on to comment on its validity, and its author's 'good faith' or 'honesty.' In spite of ourselves, then, we readers check to see what shelf a book is on in the library; we read the dust jacket; we watch for markers within the text.
When we do these things with Cat's Eye we find quite a bit of evidence to suggest that it is autobiographical. Briefly, it is a first-person narratives about an artist who sanctions autobiographical readings of her own work. Then there is Margaret Atwood's dust-jacket biography that bears striking resemblances to the events of Elaine's narrative: the entomologist father, the brother, the summers in the countryside, the Toronto childhood, to name only a few things. Further, some of the episodes in Elaine's life cannot help but remind us of episodes in the lives of her fictional sisters. Take that Toronto ravine, for instance. It haunts Joan of Lady Oracle just as it haunts Elaine. And, by now, it has made a deep and lasting impression on all of Atwood's readers.
Ironically, too, Atwood's disclaimer only makes us focus our attention on the autobiographical elements within the novel. 'This is a work of fiction,' she tells us. 'Although its form is that of an autobiography, it is not one.' But we all know enough not to take Atwood's comments at face value, so we pursue the issue. In what way does Cat's Eye have the form of an autobiography? In what way is it fiction? Can we not assume that the incidents in Cat's Eye, as well as the first-person narrator, are grounded in Atwood's own life? I think we can; but how does that help us?
One answer is that Cat's Eye is both fiction and autobiography: a 'fictive autobiography,' to coin my own term, an autobiography composed by a fictional protagonist, which draws attention to its own problematical status as a fictive construct. As a result, we expect more from this book, and from Atwood herself: entertainment and honesty, craft and good faith. But that does not solve the problem. It is not enough for me to classify this as a fictive autobiography (as I have), as autobiography, as fiction, or, as Douglas Glover writes in his review (for Books in Canada), Atwood playing 'hide-and-seek at the place where autobiography and fiction meet, always ensuring there is a back door open for quick escapes.' More important than our trying to define Cat's Eye in relation to those two terms, fiction and autobiography, is our exploring the implications of Atwood's challenging us to try.
That is, Atwood is deliberately using the autobiographical form in her fiction. But why? I can think of at least three reasons for this: there are probably many more.
First, Atwood has always forced us to explore our assumptions as readers. When she writes, 'You fit into me / like a hook into an eye,' we are certain we understand the kind of relationship she is talking about: the solid, comfortable, close male-female kind. But then she makes us take another look. 'A fish hook,' she writes. 'An open eye' ('Epigraph,' Power Politics). What she is doing in Cat's Eye is an expanded version of this kind of pulling-the-rug-out-from-under-us. By now, in this post-Saussurean, post-post-modern literary era, we probably think that we can no longer be taken in by anything that has the ontological status of a literary text. However sophisticated we are as readers, though, we can all still be caught on the autobiographical hook. We think of ourselves as 'sophisticated readers,' after all, precisely because we enjoy reading; it satisfies an insatiable curiosity, a desire to solve questions, to find things out. And autobiographical fiction offers the lure of a particular individual's answers (in good faith) to the questions that concern him or her.
Further, when the writer is a woman, the temptation to ignore the distance between the text and the events represented in it seems to be even greater. Women have long been credited with the dubious honour of best being able to understand and communicate their emotions and personal experience. Mary Jacobus calls this the 'autobiographical "phallacy,"'—with a "ph"—'whereby male critics hold that women's writing is somehow closer to experience than men's, that the female text is the author, or at any rate a dramatic extension of her unconsciousness.' But it is not only male critics who give credence to the 'autobiographical "phallacy"'; so too do feminists. Sylvia Plath proudly proclaims that women have long been associated with the 'blood-hot and personal.' And as Molly Hite quite rightly notes, 'many of the Anglo-American feminist critics who began with the intent of doing justice to women's fiction as a chronicle of female experience seem to have found themselves in the process purveying an exaggerated theory of mimesis in which authors are simply mirrored in their own texts.'
In fine, when we read Cat's Eye we are drawn by the prospect of the author within the text, of finding out about Atwood, or perhaps by having those stories we have heard about her confirmed, by her. It is not that this book is any less fictional than her others, but rather that the autobiographical elements in it suggest that it might be.
Atwood knows this. She has recognized that autobiographical fiction, by its very definition, forces its readers to do a kind of double-take—the same kind of double-take she has always demanded for her readers. At first glance, that is, generic classification seems to be a central issue. On closer inspection, however, it becomes apparent that this is no more than a red herring. When we read Cat's Eye, we are forced to redirect our attention from Atwood's presence or absence in this seemingly autobiographical text to ourselves and, in particular, to our assumptions about autobiographical fiction itself. This is indeed a book about self-reflection; and the reader's role is to reflect upon the various reflections of the self contained within it.
Another reason why Atwood uses the autobiographical in her fiction is that it provides one alternative to the narrative closure that seems to make her so uncomfortable. Cause of much critical anxiety, you will remember, was the absence of closure in Atwood's novel Surfacing. Hiding silently at the end of the novel, the still-unnamed protagonist is unable to move, let alone set about reintegrating herself into society. The conclusion of Atwood's next novel, Lady Oracle, is still more unstable. Not only do we find out that a stranger has probably recorded what we have so far taken to be Joan's first-hand account of her life, but we find that Joan is unable to impose closure on the book she herself is writing. If closure is anywhere to be found in this novel, it is in the opening lines, where Joan describes the death she has orchestrated for herself. As soon as we read further, though, we find that this ending, like all closure within the novel, has been exploded. Other endings are problematic as well: think of The Handmaid's Tale or The Edible Woman. Certainly, Atwood resists the two endings frequently reserved for a novel's heroine: marriage or death. This limited option, as Rachel Blau du Plessis has pointed out, is inadequate for any female writer. Instead, du Plessis argues, some women writers choose to 'write beyond' the traditional endings they inherit as a way of illustrating their problematic nature. And Atwood, in particular, has consistently shown her discomfort with narrative conventions by 'unwriting' the novelistic forms she takes up—the quest in Surfacing, the gothic in Lady Oracle, to name just two examples.
Of course, that Cat's Eye is a fictive autobiography would seem to eliminate the problem of closure: since the future is unclear to the autobiographer as well as to his or her audience, the ending of any autobiographical work is often ambiguous. And Cat's Eye is no exception in that the ending points to the limited nature of human perception:
Now it's full night, clear, moonless and filled with stars, which are not eternal as was once thought, which are not where we think they are. If they were sounds, they would be echoes, of something that happened millions of years ago: a word made of numbers. Echoes of light, shining out of the midst of nothing.
It's old light, and there's not much of it. But it's enough to see by.
But the autobiographical elements in Cat's Eye serve to challenge closure in a different way. As we recognize material from both Surfacing and Lady Oracle, we realize that Atwood draws upon and uses the autobiographical in these novels too. And surely, this is a way of forcing us to look beyond the text—to the unwritten world of Atwood's own experiences, perhaps, but certainly to other texts.
Finally, Atwood used the autobiographical as a tool in her ongoing challenge of classification, literary and otherwise. In her earlier novels, discomfort with rigid schemes of classification was voiced by the novel's heroines. Joan Foster, for instance, fights against the gothic as it begins to encroach upon her life and her art, seeing herself as a kind of 'escape artist.' Offred, too, attempts to escape from the prison-house that her society has created around biblical words and phrases. And even such an early protagonist as the Surfacer is uncomfortable with the restrictions society imposes upon women. To be sure, by alerting us to the fact that women in the Quebec countryside have no names, she emphasizes her—and yes, Atwood's—discomfort with naming. Neither the Surfacer nor the protagonist of The Handmaid's Tale have names (although Connie Rooke argues very convincingly that she has discovered Offred's 'real' name). Generally, though, Offred is called 'The Handmaid' by the academics of the text and within it who piece together her story. And, as they suggest, the name 'Offred' is itself only a 'patronymic, composed of the possessive preposition and the first name of the gentleman in question.'
For an Atwood heroine, though, Elaine Risley seems curiously resigned to the ways in which she and her art are classified. When Charna, one of the capital 'f' feminists in the book, describes The Three Muses as 'her disconcerting deconstruction of perceived gender and its relationship to perceived power, especially in respect to numinous imagery,' Risley agrees—up to a point. 'If I hold my breath and squint,' she says, 'I can see where she gets that.' As readers, though, we cannot help seeing that Charna's description of the painting is inadequate. It is not wrong, exactly; it is just limited. Because we see the paintings through Elaine's eyes, we are able to see more in them than feminist concerns.
What is happening, then, is that the heroine no longer has to battle against the hegemony of rigid classification precisely because the reader does it for her. Whereas, we readers are now very comfortable suggesting that the parodic elements in novels such as Surfacing, Lady Oracle, and The Handmaid's Tale are motivated by Atwood's 'feminist' concerns, we are suddenly uncomfortable with the term. Somehow that vexed tag 'feminist'—which means something different to Charna, Jody, Carolyn, Zillah, and Elaine, to name just a few examples—is more problematic than descriptive. And yet it is still necessary: for Cat's Eye is a book about the thoughts and images that make up Elaine's reflections—feminist, humanist, and personal.
To be sure, reviewers have already shown that they are uncomfortable putting any labels to Cat's Eye. Just as in the past they have been quick to categorize—and recategorize—Atwood's work, they are now hesitating. Even more surprising than this resistance to classification, however, are the grounds upon which that resistance is based: the sense that this is more than a feminist tract, more than a postmodern exploration of literary self-reflection, precisely, because it speaks from and about the autobiographical form.
In other words, Atwood is forcing us to rethink our position—again. Just as we had become comfortable with the idea that a biographical reading is a reductive one, Atwood shows us that it is quite the opposite. It is precisely the autobiographical aspect in and of Cat's Eye that makes us resist our temptation to master the text. We want to say that Cat's Eye is all of fiction and autobiography, feminist tract and personal meditation, contemporary metafiction and classical narrative precisely because it is more than these. But to say that would be to admit that Atwood has restored our faith in story and in the magic of literary illusion; and we are surely much too experienced as readers to say that.
This section contains 2,667 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)