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What defines a human being? Are the defining characteristics which compose an individual genetically coded into his or her consciousness prior to birth? Or is a person defined through the events which occur during oneï¿½s existence? Psychologists have long debated the question of nature vs. nurture with no clear winner emerging from the fray. However, the majority of psychologists believe it is a combination of both nature and nurture which eventually determine who a person turns out to be. In Margaret Atwoodï¿½s novel, Catï¿½s Eye, the reader is treated to an inside perspective on the character development of artist Elaine Risley.
Risley, as an adult, has been invited back to her home town of Toronto for a retrospective of her lifetimeï¿½s work. Upon returning to the streets on which she used to be intimately familiar, forgotten emotions and memories begin to wash over her, making her trip more than a retrospective for the art which she had created and more of a look back into the events defining her present perspective on life. Risleyï¿½s childhood memories were dominated by her interaction with three young girls. These girls were Risleyï¿½s introduction into the world of women. Prior to settling in Toronto, her family had been very mobile because her father worked as an entomologist and his occupation kept her family uprooted. After taking a job as a professor at a university, Risleyï¿½s young life changed dramatically. She finally was able to attend school regularly which led to her establishing friendships with females for the first time. This was, to say the least, an eye opening experience.
ï¿½So I am left to the girls, real girls at last, in the flesh. But Iï¿½m not used to girls, or familiar with their customs. I feel awkward around them, I donï¿½t know what to say. I know the unspoken rules of boys, but with girls I sense that I am always on the verge of some unforeseen calamitous blunderï¿½ (52). The sentiment expressed within this quote is the overarching sentiment which laid the foundation for Risleyï¿½s relationship with the three girls to whom she would attach. She expresses the feeling of being a part of the group, but never really being a member. She was always on the fringe, like a privileged outsider who was actually not very privileged at all. Her early relationships were defined by inordinate regulations regarding the pomp and circumstance of her friendï¿½s lives. She befriended fairly well -to-do young ladies who treated the young Risley with an arrogant pretense as if they were doing her a favor by spending time with her. However, no girl was more conniving and condescending, leaving the most lasting and painful impression, than Cordelia.
There are several sentinel events which occur in Risleyï¿½s young life. These events have several common elements. First, each peels the veil of innocence from Risleyï¿½s viewpoint especially in regard to the inner workings of the relationships of women. Second, these events cast a different and more cynical hue on the rest of Risleyï¿½s life. Thirdly, these events come at the hand of Risleyï¿½s antithesis, Cordelia. Cordelia is always cruel and self-serving even when she is operating under the guise of feigned kindness. She has no regard for anyone other than herself, but there is an aspect of her personality to which Risley attaches. In fact, she spends the rest of her life trying to prove herself to the trumped up idealization of worth which has become embodied within Risleyï¿½s memories of Cordelia.
While the adult Risley is taking her introspective journey into the elements of her past which have come to shape her life, she often thinks of Cordelia. She hopes that Cordelia will see something which she has done independently of the domineering Cordelia that has lent self-worth to her life. It is as if she must prove to her inner memory of Cordelia that she is worthy of fair and respectful treatment. Within the novel, Cordelia became the representative of every insecurity which Risley felt about herself. Many of these insecurities are a direct result of the horrendously cruel treatment which she experienced at the hands of Cordelia.
The most significant childhood event occurring during Risleyï¿½s childhood nearly ended her life prematurely. Cordelia, in a revolting stroke of inhumane brutality, threw Risleyï¿½s winter hat over the railing of a bridge into a forbidden ravine. Her hat landed on the frozen surface of the creek. When Risley carefully strode to get her hat, the ice gave way. Somehow, she made her way to the side of the creek. She looked to the bridge for the support of her companions only to discover she had been left alone. She was left alone to die. First, she experienced pain as her tissue slowly began to freeze. Pain finally gave way to numbness and the overwhelming desire to sleep. Before closing her eyes for the final time, she glanced back up to the bridge upon where she noticed a woman standing watching her. This woman descended through the air and enveloped young Risley in an aura of warmth and comfort. The specter encouraged Risley to stand and make her way home ensuring her all would be well.
This event was the most significant childhood event which Risley experienced. Through it, she developed an utter lack of trust for those around her and a staunch reliance on her inner spirit. Risley identifies the spectral being as the Virgin Mary whom she had limited exposure to during a few visits to mass with one of her friends. Atwood uses this picture to personify the inner spirit of woman to overcome even in the direst of circumstances.
Throughout life, a person will experience many cogent events which are momentous enough to color the rest of his or her existence. These happenings can be either positive or negative. In the case of Elaine Risley, the appalling treatment which she experienced at the hands of people who were supposed to support her caused her to distrust those around her and to experience issues regarding her perceived self-worth for the rest of her existence. A summation of Risleyï¿½s feelings toward the formative relationships which provided the lens through which she viewed the rest of her life culminated in her self-portrait which was on display at her retrospective. The painting depicted the top of her head with a pier glass behind her. The foreground is solely occupied by the half-face of the present day image of Risley. The background depicts the pier glass which contains the reflection of Risleyï¿½s head, although, the reflection is much younger. Also in the reflection are three indiscernible little girls dressed in winter clothes. This represents the dichotomy of Risley physically leaving the girls in the past following the incident at the bridge, but being unable to move beyond the cruelty which she experienced at their hands that forever tainted the way in which she would view the world.
Within the pages of her Novel, Atwood lays a strong foundational argument for the argument of nurture. Many times in life, critical events happen which have the potential to damage a person beyond foreseeable repair. This is the picture that Atwood eloquently paints for her readers. This piece stands as a warning for all to consider the lasting effects of their actions on those around them. What one might see as an insignificant speed bump on the journey of life might completely derail another sending the person spiraling into oblivion far from tangible recovery. If the populace would adhere to the concept of doing unto other as we would like done to ourselves, the world would be a much better place