Childhood: How Cruel it is
It is all around us, on television mostly. More often of not it will appear on a Talk show of ill
repute. “I was abused as a child, therefore I am the way I am.” It is popular to admit to childhood traumas
and talk about them on a stage in front of strangers with millions of viewers watching from their living
rooms; However, in literature it is less common. In particular authors rarely examine the childhood woes of
little girls. In the book Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood explores the politics and formalities that Elaine must
conform to as a child, the cruelty of friends at a young age, and the immediate and long term affects this has on her life.
In her early years, Elaine learns that there are certain rules and formalities to the friendships of young girls. Some friends are made through need, they exist because there is no one else: “A girl called Carol Campbell made friends with me. In a way she has to, because she’s the only school bus girl in my grade” (Atwood 50).
It is logical that Carol and Elaine should become friends, but their friendship is made for the wrong reasons. Carol sees Elaine as a ticket to adoration. She makes attempts at showing Elaine off to the other children to make herself look important: “Carol tells everyone at school that our family sleeps on the floorâ€¦that I don’t know what church I go to, and that we eat off a card table. She doesn’t repeat these items with scorn, but as exotic specialtiesâ€¦.she wants me to be marveled at. More accurate: she wants herself to be marveled at” (Atwood 52).
Have you ever had someone in your life who helped you figure out who you were? Someone who showed you the right path? Someone who stayed there right next you even if you did not take that path? Someone who always seemed to be right, but never held it against you when you were wrong? Someone whom without being in your life, you know you would be entirely different. I have. Her name was Linda. Linda ...
Carol introduces Elaine to the selfish side of friendship and the silent rules that must be followed. Grace and Carol use each other to gain praise and attention. Elaine sees that her friends lie to one another to make each other feel important: “‘Oh yours is so good. Mine’s no good. Mines awful.’ They say this every time we play the scrapbook game. Their voices wheedling and false; I can tell they don’t mean itâ€¦.I begin to say it too” (Atwood 57).
Because Elaine has not had many female friends she begins to believe that she must play along and indulge them. This to her is now what friendship is. Sometimes the lying is not enough to please her friends: “[Grace] watches everything I do on Sundays, and reports on meâ€¦to Cordeilaâ€¦.I got ten out of ten. Again and Grace only got nine. Is it wrong to be right? How right should I be to be perfect? The next week I put five wrong answers, deliberatelyâ€¦. ‘She’s getting stupider,’ Cordeila says. ‘You aren’t really that stupid. You’ll have to try harder than that!'” (Atwood 131).
Elaine finds herself in a no win situation. Children’s friendship can be bought because their love for each other is so fickle: “I buy licorice whips, jelly beans, many-layered blackballs with the seed in the middle, packages of fizzy sherbet you suck through a straw. I dole them out equallyâ€¦.into the waiting hands of my friends. In the moment just before giving, I am loved” (Atwood 145).
This seems to be an important rule for Elaine because she can get the one emotion she needs from her friends: love. The most important rule in early childhood is; do not be a “tattletale”. Elaine is accused of this and is therefore set apart from her friends. Regardless of how cruel the abuse inflicted on Elaine might be, she knows it is against the unspoken rules of friendship to tell on them: ” ‘I think Elaine Should be punished for telling on us, don’t you?'” (Atwood 207).
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To “Tattletale” is seen as the ultimate offense in early childhood circles. Elaine risks not only jeopardizing her present friendship if she tells, but also her opportunities for future friendships.
Along with examining childhood politics, Margaret Atwood depicts the harsh reality of childhood cruelty. The cruelty that the girls subject Elaine to is done, it seems, for no reason or at least the reason is unknown to Elaine: “they aren’t speaking to me. It’s something I said wrong, but I don’t know what it is because they won’t tell meâ€¦.When I have guessed the right answer, then they will speak to me again. All of this is for my own goodâ€¦they are my best friends and they want to help me improve” (Atwood 123).
Cordelia treats Elaine in such a way that she believes that what they are saying is true; what they are doing to her is for the best and they are only trying to help her become a better person. This makes the cruelty seem even worse. They make Elaine believe that she is not as good as they are and that she needs them. Cordelia speaks to Elaine in a tone that resembles that of a parent: ” ‘How could you?’ [Cordelia] saysâ€¦.. ‘You know what this means, don’t you? I’m afraid you’ll have to be punished” (Atwood 124).
This belittles Elaine further and she does not question the authority that the girls have over her. In time Elaine sees the cruelty before it occurs. She can sense it in Cordial and knows things between them are worse now that she has returned home from the summer vacation: “Before summer she would alternate between kindness and malice, with periods of indifference; but now she’s harsher, more relentless” (Atwood 165).
The methods Cordeila uses to control Elaine seem ridiculous, but to Elaine at this point, they are real and scary: “Cordelia says, ‘Think of ten stacks of plates. Those are your ten chances.’ Every time I do something wrong, a stack of plates comes crashing down. I can see the plates. Cordeila sees them too, because she’s the one who says Crash!” (Atwood 183).
Elaine permits this control, this cruelty, because she has come to depend on them for companionship. Mind games and cruelty that is hard for Elaine to prove, are not the only ways the girls torment her: “Up above, outside, I can hear their voices, and then nothing. I lie there wondering when it will be time to come out. Nothing happens. When I was put into the hole I knew it was a game; now I know it is not one. I feel sadness, a sense of betrayal. Then I feel the darkness pressing down on me; then terror” (Atwood 112).
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This act of leaving a so called friend in a dark deep hole until she is terrified is unjust and has no purpose. Elaine laughed at Cordelia for falling in the snow, this made Cordelia mad:
Cordelia reaches out and pulls off my knitted hat. She marches the rest of the way down the hill and out onto the bridgeâ€¦and throws my hat down into the ravineâ€¦. ‘Come here,’ she saysâ€¦..’There is your stupid hat,’â€¦.and there it is, far down, still blue against the white snowâ€¦. ‘Why don’t you go get it?’â€¦.She wants me to go down into the ravine where the bad men are, where we’re never supposed to go. (Atwood 200)
Because of such a simple thing like laughing Cordelia sends Elaine to a dangerous place where she almost dies, she falls in the ravine and is near froze to death when her mother finds her.
By conforming to the politics of childhood, and by allowing herself to be treated with cruelty, Elaine is forced to deal with the physical and psychological effects that result. Because Elaine is never sure which of her actions are wrong, she worries that any minor thing will be offensive to her friends: “I lie with my knees up, as close to my body as I can get them. I’m peeling the skin off my fee; I can do it without looking, by touch. I worry about what I have said today, the expression on my face, how I walk, what I ware, because all of these things need improvement” (Atwood 125).
Elaine worries a lot and it can be seen on her face: ” ‘Look at yourself! Just look!’ [Cordeila’s] voice is disgusted, fed up, as if my face, all by itself, has been up too something , has gone too far. I look into the mirrorâ€¦.It’s just my face, with dark blotches on the lips where I have bitten off the skin” (Atwood 169).
Elaine bites skin off her lips, and peels the skin off her feet. At times she even “[tears] at [her] fingers” (Atwood 192).
The Role of Women in Things Fall Apart In society, both males and females take distinct roles. It is those roles that keep “life” functioning; but which role is more important? Often times, women are degraded and forced into the roles viewed “unnecessary”. This is what happened in the Ibo society during Chinua Achebe’s book, Things Fall Apart. The presence of women ...
These forms of self -mutilation are mirror images of the emotional pain she feels. Elaine remembers the things she did to herself in those years and watches her own daughters for these signs of unhappiness: “This is how it goes. It’s the kind of thing girls of this age do to one another, or did thenâ€¦.As my daughters approached this ageâ€¦.I watched them anxiously. I scrutinized their fingers for bites, their feet, the ends of their hairâ€¦.I scanned their faces for signs of hypocrisy” (Atwood 125).
This has affected her so much, it is etched in her mind and she wants to protect her daughters from it. The psychological effect can be seen in the way Elaine views women when she is an adult: “Women collect grievances, hold grudges and change shapeâ€¦.Women know too much, they can neither be deceived nor trusted” (Atwood 400-401).
Elaine has never had a good friendship with a female. This strongly effects her; she cannot seem to create a close bond with any of the women in her adult life: “I have several women friends, not very close ones” (Atwood 401).
Because of the tragic friendship she had with Cordelia, Elaine has a tainted view of women, and has a hard time getting close to them.
The events of early childhood have both immediate and long term effects on the life of Elaine. Margaret Atwood demonstrates this through the politics, formalities, and cruelties that Elaine survives. Despite the harsh realities of her childhood, Elaine is able to look back at her life and realize that she has always had value.
“Cordelia, I think. You made me believe I was nothing” (Atwood 213).