The Inevitability of Aging
For most of the novel, Elaine approaches the inevitability of aging with anxiety, believing that growing old represents irrelevance. Her distaste for growing old first appears in her cynical assessment of the old women she and Cordelia used to admire. Elaine is also angry about the disposability of material culture, as she worries that she, too, may find herself disposed of. Elaine desperately tries to preserve as much as she can but recognizes the futility of her attempts. For all her desire to capture people and moments in artwork, Elaine realizes that everything eventually succumbs to time.
Elaine’s obsession with youth goes beyond a fear of death. Elaine is mentally trapped in the past, and her desire to stay young symbolizes her unwillingness to move beyond her traumatic childhood. Elaine cannot enjoy her successful career because, mentally, she still finds herself trying to best Cordelia in an adolescent game they’re no longer playing. Cordelia not appearing at the exhibition signals to Elaine that Cordelia has walked away from their contest. This realization causes Elaine to return to the ravine, but this time, she imagines herself in the role of the Virgin Mary, embracing the adult role in her story. This moment marks the first time Elaine associates her age with strength instead of weakness. Elaine’s longing gaze toward the old women at the end of the novel then reverses her cynical assessment of old women at the beginning.
Although Cat’s Eye focuses on the ways girls bully each other, patriarchy lurks behind the cruel women of the suburbs. We see this idea laid out in the women’s magazines Elaine reads while ill. Although these magazines are presumably by women for women, they sell images of femininity that make women more pleasing to men: more attractive and better housekeepers. These magazines function as a “watchbird” that calls out women for misbehavior. The word “bird” can be slang for “woman,” meaning that this “watchbird” is a distinctly feminine form of surveillance, designed to police other women who don’t conform to patriarchal standards. These watchbirds and the men who lurk behind them appear throughout the novel. Mrs. Smeath’s ungenerous piety stems from her image of a masculine, judgmental God. Cordelia’s attempts to improve Elaine replicate her own father’s anger at Cordelia for not living up to his standards. Elaine herself participates in the policing of other women in her judgment of Susie as a vapid siren. In all these cases, women strictly enforce the dictates of the patriarchy amongst themselves.
The artificiality of life in the Toronto suburbs creates a frightening environment for Elaine because it disconnects her from the natural world and forces her into an world of pretension and manmade rules, such as gender roles. For example, Elaine notes that boys are teased for having sisters, although she and Stephen genuinely enjoyed the games they used to play together. The school’s separate doors for boys and girls emphasize the artificiality of gendered socialization because the doors lead to the same place and therefore have no functional purpose. Suburban values also separate people from the truth of their own bodies. The Campbell family’s perfect twin beds, for example, paint a confusing picture of Mr. and Mrs. Campbell’s marriage. They presumably had sex because of Carol’s existence, but their bedroom has been set up to attempt to disguise this reality. Elaine’s high school health teacher cannot bring herself to say the word “blood” aloud when discussing menstruation and instead writes it on the board. Suburban life’s separation from the natural world thus has traumatic effects on Elaine’s development, encouraging her to deny who she naturally is.