By the second half of Margaret Atwood’s novel, her heroine has escaped her bullies. But their stinging unkindness is the story’s signature note
There’s a moment in Cat’s Eye when reading it became too much for me. The narrator Elaine, wandering the house of one of her bullies, overhears her tormentor’s mother, Mrs Smeath, describing Elaine to her sister Mildred as “exactly like a heathen”. It’s a moment of ear-burning agony. “What can you expect, with that family … The other children sense it. They know,” says Mrs Smeath. Are the girls being too hard on Elaine, Aunt Mildred asks. Mrs Smeath replies simply: “It’s God’s punishment … It serves her right.”
At this, Elaine flushes with shame and hatred:
I hate Mrs Smeath because what I thought was a secret, something going on among girls, among children, is not one. It has been discussed before, and tolerated. Mrs Smeath has known and approved. She has done nothing to stop it. She thinks it serves me right.
She doesn’t flinch, she isn’t embarrassed or apologetic. She gives me that smug smile with the lips closed over the teeth. What she says is not to me but to Aunt Mildred. ‘Little pitchers have big ears.’