“Knowing too much about other people puts you in their power, they have a claim on you, you are forced to understand their reasons for doing things and then you are weakened.”
This musing appears in Chapter 40, when Elaine describes how learning about her father’s past forced her to see him as a whole person. Elaine finds it extremely uncomfortable that she can no longer see her father as just her father but now understands him as an individual with a history that influences his present actions. Although this quotation describes her father, Elaine doesn’t appear to have a fraught relationship with him, which hints that she may be thinking of someone else—perhaps Cordelia, with whom her relationship is extremely complicated. When Elaine meets up with Cordelia as an adult, Cordelia often segues into how lonely she felt as a child, but Elaine always stops the conversation in its tracks. At dinner at Cordelia’s house, Elaine notices that Cordelia fears her father, but Elaine revels in this information as proof of her own strength. Elaine knows the reason why Cordelia behaved as she did at age nine, but she refuses to acknowledge it.
This quotation also brings up the idea that having empathy for someone is an inherently weak position. For most of the novel, Elaine believes that relationships between women must always be a power struggle. In addition, she wants revenge and justice for her childhood suffering to the extent that she stops saying the Lord’s Prayer in order to avoid forgiving Mrs. Smeath. Elaine therefore acts as if only one of them can be the wronged party in their relationship because any other outcome would disrupt the binary, hierarchical model she lives by. In other words, Elaine believes that seeing Cordelia as a whole person with a traumatic past would make her subservient to Cordelia because she would have to let go of the ways Cordelia hurt her. At the end of the novel, Elaine acknowledges Cordelia’s victimhood and even imagines her in the same vulnerable position at the bottom of the ravine Elaine once occupied. In blurring what roles they played in the past, Elaine disrupts her binary, allowing herself to forgive Cordelia.