MARGARET ATWOOD'S NOVEL CAT'S EYE                       

AND THE NIHILIST TREND IN MODERN SOCIETY        

 

                        By You-Sheng Li

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            Margaret Atwood is one of today's most acclaimed novelists in Canada. Her imagination and mordant wit are impressive to all readers, and her examination of a woman's shifting role in the modern world remains a major achievement in English literature. In one of her novels Cat's Eye which is considered the most autobiographical one, Atwood conveys nihilism: she disdains all her characters and their lives with contempt but praises no one.  It is a reflection of the nihilist trend in modern society, which is so widely spread and profoundly rooted in all walks of people that it has become a unique system with its own values.

            In this novel, the protagonist figure, painter Elaine Risley, at age 50, returns from Vancouver to Toronto, to attend a retrospective of her work being shown in the city. Elaine is obsessed with memories of her childhood and adolescence, which are interwoven with her current life and events.

            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.                                                                                                             

            In her life, Elaine grows up in a scientist’s family, ends up with a career as an artist but finally marries a businessman in Vancouver. The novel demeans the values of friendship, family, religion, and so on. The last chapter, when Elaine is on a plane back to Vancouver, gives Elaine a chance to search for the meaning of life. Oriental religions such as Buddhism and Taoism see the emptiness and worthlessness of human secular life, which, in a way, is similar to Elaine's nihilist view of life. The book ends with the description of two childlike happy old women: They have forgotten worldly care, shed off all responsibilities, obligations, hates, and grievances, and have returned to nature, the happy innocence of childhood. To live as a child or even as an infant is one of the goals of Taoist religion. Elaine finally realizes that such a happy innocence is what she has been lacking in her life. But sadly enough, Elaine decides that such a happy innocence is something she will never be able to obtain but will miss dearly for the rest of her life. Thus, the meaning of Elaine Risley’s life is nothing but absolute emptiness.

            In the 1970s in Britain, punk movement started among certain young people who were opposed to the values of money‑based society and mark themselves by loud music. Those youths were not aware of their own system of values. Therefore they did not form any parties or make any speechs to express themselves. However, their attitude toward life deeply influenced every one of us. Some scholars think they will eventually prevail in the world.

            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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