MARGARET ATWOOD'S NOVEL CAT'S EYE
AND THE NIHILIST TREND IN MODERN SOCIETY
By You-Sheng Li
Atwood is one of today's most acclaimed novelists in
this novel, the protagonist figure, painter Elaine Risley,
at age 50, returns from
The novel is a first person narration and thus everything is in the protagonist's view. In Elaine's world, everybody is either eccentric or vulgar. Nothing is worth admiration but numerous figures serve as laughingstocks. Elaine herself has the habit of biting her fingers and nails, peeling the skin of her feet until she is barely able to walk. Elaine disdains all the characters around her especially those females. The author ridicules women at all ages from more traditional mothers to teenagers. One noticeable scene is the one in which Elaine is victimized by her only life long girl friend Cordelia, who abandons her in the symbolic locale of the sexually threatening ravine in a bitter cold winter evening.
The beauty and unadulterated sincerity of a teenager’s first love affair can be regarded as sacred. But in this novel it becomes an affair between teenage students and their married and 15‑year‑senior teacher. Only physical attraction remains on the girls’ side and only dirty licentiousness on the teacher’s side. When the girls chat about their affairs, it is self‑demeaning gossip:
...They egg her on: "Listen, I don't blame you! I think he's cute as a button!" "I could eat him up! But that would be robbing the cradle, eh?" In the washroom the two of them sit side by side in separate cubicles, talking over the noise of gushing pee, while I stand in front of a mirror, listening in...
Although you can put any words on paper, most people still have the concept of taboo. Such description of girls’ gossip "talking over the noise of gushing pee" would be considered as taboo by many authors.
Elaine claims she has problems with girls but not with boys. But all the male characters turn out to be just as bad: The art teacher Josef has affairs with his two girl students at the same time, and ignors the fact that one of them is bleeding profusely because of a miscarriage. Elaine's first husband Jon is hardly able to make a living, and furthermore, his careless attitude toward his wife and daughter often exasperates the reader. Elaine's brother, a brilliant scientist, is so absurd and absent‑minded that he is once arrested for chasing a butterfly into a military zone.
Elaine comes from a nonreligious family that never goes to a church. Therefore she finds it hard to believe in God and does not know how to appreciate the value of Christianity. Elaine, as an artist, does not show the slightest love toward nature either. She never admires the beauty of nature or the countryside scenery. Elaine's own paintings impress the reader as grotesque rather than beautiful.
her life, Elaine grows up in a scientist’s family, ends up with a career as an
artist but finally marries a businessman in
the 1970s in
Paralleling to the movement of punks, a group of jobless adults is called tramps. An article writes,
They ( tramps ) have nothing to sell and require nothing from others. In seeking independence, they do not sacrifice their human dignity. His few material possessions make it possible for him to move from place to place with ease. By having to sleep in the open, he gets far closer to the world of nature than most of us ever do.
In ancient times, life was very vulnerable and frail in a hostile environment. People built pyramids and made heroes to look up to, and they also worshiped gods for protection. In modern commercialized society, life has become safe, stable, and more predicable. Religion provides a retreat, an escape from the money‑oriented society. But to many people, religion has lost its mysterious, awesome nature. A major part of our population rarely goes to church or to other religious facilities to worship gods. Modern nihilism has seized this gap, taking control of millions of our minds. One phenomenon is so called massive junk culture: rock music, soap opera, comic shows, and all bizarre horror mystery novels and so on. They have created a fantasy doped world where neither the traditional values of morality, nor the secular values of money, nor religious values count. But we all live in this fantasy world by watching TV, listening to music, or reading a book.
A famous writer such as Atwood may look our life and our world from a high vantage view point. Thus, a critic writes:
A novel is like a single breaking ocean wave, its waters gathered from faraway coasts, diverted by channels and chance winds, yet moving inexorably toward a crashing silver moment that peaks and breaks on a designated shore. Cat's Eye gathers its many streams, sends them flowing forward in wash after wash of rich detail and observation, but disappointingly no wave forms.
Thus the author sees no waves but waters, as if one were looking at the ocean from an airplane. Nihilism offers the author a numb mind of indifference toward the sufferings of her characters. Elaine recalls her brother's death, being killed by hijackers in an emotionless objective way as if the author is offering us admirable scenery behind mist, a beauty behind a veil. “Now I will get older, I thought. And he will not.” It is as if Elaine is praising the hijackers’ killing of innocent people.
In summary, Atwood expresses her nihilist view toward life in her novel Cat's Eye and in the heroine character, Elaine Risley. This is a direct reflection of the nihilist trend in the modern society, where the author lives and which the author tries to impart to her readers. They disdain all the traditional values but have not found their own values yet. Thus it fits in the definition of nihilism. On the other hand, the modern nihilism is so widely spread and deeply rooted in our society that it can well be called a unique system with its own values, which means absolutely nothing in the conventional view.
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