Sanjib Das

Research scholar (M.phil), Dibrugarh University(Assam)
([email protected])


To understand the manifold responses to trauma, examining aspects of psychological functioning within the social or cultural environment is required. Fiction that depicts trauma incorporates varied responses and survival behaviours within the characterizations of survivors. Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer who often depicts characters as narrators of their own stories, after the fact, where they revisit their process of awakening. Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood takes up some social contexts to deal with trauma and for this it emphasizes the narrative and expressive tools of severe circumstances. Atwood charts the psychological process of memory as compulsion and memory as healing act through the character of Elaine Risley, an artist who returns to her home town of Toronto for a retrospective of her work. Fiction by providing various perspectives facilitates readers to understand the variety of peoples’ responses to shock, despite the fact that silence may accompany descriptions of the survivor’s experience. Therefore this study is carried out to examine how Margaret Atwood depicts some social agents to express the survivor’s testimony in her fiction. It takes up a multidisciplinary interpretive framework that acknowledges the composite nature of these depictions by shifting beyond the traditionalist Freudian perspective that primarilyfocuses on childhood traumas, repression, and repetition.

Keywords : Trauma, survivor, society, sympathy, healing, Margaret Atwood

Trauma is an individual’s response to events so intense that they impair emotional or cognitive functioning and may bring lasting psychological disruption. Survivors might live with a fragmented memory or a diminished sense of self, or might feel alienated (Herman 2009: 42–47). Traumatic responses may include shame, doubt, or guilt, or may destroy important beliefs in one’s own safety or view of oneself as decent, strong, and autonomous (Janoff-Bulman 1992: 19–22). It is associated with a dynamic process that might be of feeling, remembering, assimilating, or recovering from that experience. The various cause and effects of trauma have moved away from a traditional mode which focused more on the internalised isolated psychic elements toward a new trauma model that rather emphasises on the interaction of social and behavioural issues associated with trauma. Experts explain that  in order to accurately measure the behavioural causes, trait-driven conceptions of personality are less important than the individual’s personal history of conditioning, personal constructs, and their psychological circumstances.

The social environment, the severity of the event, and the individual’s characteristics and sense of control help to determine how someone copes with trauma (Root 1992: 248; MacCurdy 2007: 17). The causes and outcomes of traumatic experience is influenced by the social environment in a variety of ways. It is not only a source of causing trauma but can also provide or refuse the required healing support on the part of victim. The family responses to trauma and the cultural attitudes to it may either bring the victim together with healing connections, or may prevent them. The notions of expected behaviour, responses, and even symptoms are influenced by these attitudes and practices. Optimum circumstances for healing exist when a “society organizes the process of suffering, rendering it a meaningful mode of action and identity within a larger social framework”. (401–402) Individuals feel unprotected when cultures do not function this way and are forced to survive in isolation. Victims may respond to trauma in an unsympathetic environment by adapting as best they can with survival characteristics such as “egocentrism, quickness to anger, social and emotional withdrawal, rumination, or shutting down” (Root 1992: 248). Atwood has demonstrated these survival traits in her novels that chart the emotions attached to recovery on the part of victims.

Trauma can be many a times caused by the environment of social relations as well as the cultural values and it can further silence and traumatize the victims out of guilt. It can induce trauma by creating veils of illusion or by reinterpreting behaviours in many cases. Societies, communities, or families may prefer to keep stability or be willing to renounce victims for some other goals.  Atwood depicts these renounces and sacrifices in her work of fictions. In Cat’s Eye, the protagonist is portrayed with insights by way of other characters who are themselves victimized and keep their memories and remain unpersuaded by the interests of those who create or refuse to acknowledge traumatic events. Atwood creates the protagonist as narrator, who narrates her life in connection to the community. Some clues and pieces of memories are provided to the traumatized characters to re-examine survival and eventually engage in fresh ways of thinking and being.

Margaret Atwood highlights in her novel the various social aspects in connection to her characters’ minds and how they bear and go through trauma in adverse social environments. Atwood again in her characterisation illustrates what Root calls the “survival schema[s]” people develop that determine their personalities and are predicated on the individual’s “history of cumulative trauma, societal view of trauma, and preparedness for trauma” (Root 1992: 250). All these social and cultural variables are examined by Atwood as they influence inasmuch the behaviours, associations, and imaginations of her characters. An intricate social web of gender rigidity in the Canada of 1940s and 1950s is well depicted in the novel Cat’s Eye including from the rules of schoolgirls’ dress and conduct to enforcement of religious and the adult cultural ideologies, to the imposed surveillance on the domestic practices of females.

The protagonist Elaine Risley is a painter whom we meet in the novel reminiscing about her childhood. Elaine having a stable and supportive home life, atheistic in nature doesn’t suffice to the social conformities. Some extreme self-destructive symptoms and constant fear and anxiety are caused in Elaine by the daily surveillance and abusive commands of her three supposed “best friends”, particularly Cordelia, which leads her losing the sense of the independent identity her parents have tried to implant. Atwood here taking the help of the peer pressure suggests, the insistence on gendered, religious, and social conformity of the larger society. Atwood focuses that insistence becomes internalized on the part of women, considering men as privilege and blame them when they cannot maintain the standards set for them. Elaine, the protagonist is tormented by her “friends” to the point of almost losing her life— she is left in frozen water in a ravine – until her own imagined vision of a mother figure (the Virgin) and her actual mother come to save her and bear witness to the awful behaviour of the girls. This experience has influenced Elaine in such a way that it continues to formulate her relationships with others for the coming years.

Then she dissociates herself from the past and is unable to recall the painful childhood memories, eventually leads her ignorant of what her mother means when she refers to “That bad time you had. … I’ve forgotten things; I’ve forgotten that I’ve forgotten them. … Time is missing.” Amnesia makes her “happy as a clam: hardshelled, firmly closed” (Atwood 221). Elaine in her adolescence tries to stay away from any emotional attachments in order to protect her sense of ‘self’. She considers relationships as pure power struggles which she formulates out of her experience with Cordelia. She rejects sympathy and empathy: “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” (240).

Her relationship with Cordelia is both her closest relationship to anyone and also the most painful one that continues to haunt her. Cordelia again approaches Elaine for help at a low point in the latter’s life. She asks Elaine to help her flee a mental institution. Elaine at this imposition becomes much enraged, worrying for her daughter if Cordelia should attempt suicide.Though Elaine’s hesitation seems reasonable, her emotions are over-determined and her reference to want to“rub [Cordelia’s] face in the snow” recalls her own life-threateningexperience on a snowy day in the ravine in their youth. In order to reconcile with her own set of emotions and the context, she must finally return to the particular spot. As Elaine goes through her old things, she recovers some of her memories with her mother and she finds herself “Looking for something that’s been thrown away as useless, but could still be dredged up and reclaimed” (422).

Elaine in order to reclaim her past and not be unconsciously ruled by it must overcome her fears. Elaine because of the past dreads being back in Toronto, a place that she left decades before, where she feels “overwhelmed” by “old time.” It is the reminder of her childhood traumas and long- lost connections. To be honoured for a retrospective of her paintings, she must return to Toronto; the unconventional woman artist can now be appreciated by conservative, provincial Toronto. With a new perspective she must now face the past, the ravine is to be revisited and the past event that happened there and reunite with Jon, her first husband. Inasmuch she understands her past, what impacted her and her art, Toronto becomes drained of much of its traumatic force.

The protagonist’s development as an artist is very much dependent upon the early traumas’ impact on her imagination, with some disadvantages and advantages; the defensive narrowing and focus of her vision has protected her from harm. She is transformed into a gifted painter of physical details by the ability to see and focus in the minute details, and it created an emotional distance to her. However, the feelings from which she has been alienated for so long are carried by this range of paintings. The process of creating these paintings stems from anxiety that is a sign of emerging memory.

Before her marriage with Jon, she starts painting domestic items from her own and the homes of her friends during the early traumatic period. This becomes a kind of visual, reflexive memories with the characteristics of trauma as represented by the appearance of these paintings and her emotional contextsthat remained dissociated at that time. Elaine’s dissociation is turned on by her artistic creations and yet her emotions are expressed; such as Mrs. Smeath’s grotesque portraits by the protagonist, who disregarded the humiliations of Elaine by the girls. Toward the end Elaine must recognize a kind of revenge as well as her cruelty that is allowed by her own vision, in terms of understanding what might have motivated Mrs. Smeath and again Cordelia. Elaine while looking at her paintings again examines Mrs. Smeath’s eyes: “I used to think these were self-righteous eyes, piggy and smug inside their wire frames; and they are. But they are also defeated eyes, uncertain and melancholy, heavy with unloved duty. The eyes of someone for whom God was a sadistic old man” (443). Elaine is able to escape herself from some of this past baggage in her attempt to acknowledge these women’s flaws and vulnerabilities. Things that made her way to become a strong artist also in some other ways affected her ability to be compassionate, which she reiterates the ability to see life through a fresh vision at the end of the novel.

In contemporary fiction, the characters’ struggle with memory and avoidance that they go through is depicted which differ from the repetitive-performative image found in the classic model of trauma that imagined a fix state of forgetting. Atwood’s novel indicates that a sympathetic listener or an environmental variable can make ease of a trauma victim’s defensive patterns, by listening to his/her stories. It leads them to resituate themselves in connection to their traumatic event and the society. In this regard Cathy Caruth rightly says “trauma is never simply one’s own,” and that “we are implicated in each other’s trauma” (Caruth 24), To conclude, literature provides readers a wealth of thick description of the conditions and characteristics of traumatic experience.Fiction with its unique ability to showcase the interconnection between the environment and human responses, illustrates the creation of emotional and cognitive patterns resulting out of trauma that in turn formulate social attitudes and structures of living.The social receptions and the acts of witnessing or sympathy are very much crucial in the whole process of trauma, how it is caused and perpetuated and even the possibilities for healing.More truly, social opinions can traumatize and often re-traumatize or can subvert victims. Cat’s Eye is a fine specimen thatAtwood features adverse social environmentswhere trauma is ignored and healing is prevented.Margaret Atwoodin order to engage the reader’s empathy by closely examiningthe personal and social contexts of trauma and its psychological aftermaths demonstrates the scope and nature of trauma in literature.Cat’s Eye provides narrative means to articulate trauma’s effects even when dissociation may occur or when victims face denial and hostility in the social environment. Atwood represents trauma beyond the unspeakable and repetitive by depicting survivors as deeply interconnected to social networks.Trauma can be caused by these social networks by limiting victim’s expression and at the same time can offer healing support by providing a sympathetic listener.Atwood thus presents a social critique of suffering and scope of recovery by demonstrating the ties between individual trauma and larger social environment.

References :

Atwood, Margaret. Cat’s Eye. Virago Press, 2019.

Balaev, Michelle. Contemporary Approaches in Literary Trauma Theory. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Caruth, Cathy.  Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.

Herman, David.             “The Nexus of Narrative and Mind.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 4 Mar. 2009, onlinelibrary.

Janoff-Bulman, Ronnie. Shattered Assumptions: towards a New Psychology of Trauma. Simon and Schuster, 2010.

MacCurdy, Marian M. The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing about Trauma. University of Massachusetts Press, 2007.

Root, Maria P.P. “Reconstructing the Impact of Trauma on Personality.” Personality and Psychopathology: Feminist Reappra- isals, by Laura S. Brown and Mary Ballou, Guilford Press, 1994, pp. 229–265.

About Drishti: the Sight

Drishti:the Sight is a National refereed Bi-annual Research Journal in the disciplines of Arts and Humanities founded in the year 2012 publishing articles in the subjects of English Literature, Assamese Literature, Folklore, Culture.The journal has been enlisted in the UGC-CARE list (Sr.No. 42) in Arts and Humanities section.The journal is dedicated to the cause of young upcoming scholars of the nation.The journal publishes only authentic research articles. It tries to follow the research ethics to the core.