The Internet loves nothing more than cats, but it’s rare that we look beyond the cute photos and memes to more seriously consider their place in our world. Flavorwire’s Highbrow Cat Week is an attempt to remedy that, with a series of pieces devoted to analyzing their impact on the cultural realm.
Despite their endless dumbing-down at the hands of everyone with a wifi signal and a copy of Photoshop, cats have been rich symbols for thousands of years, commonly associated with intelligence, femininity, evil (more on that later this week), sin, and class. Themes like these prove that there’s a lot behind the surface of our culture’s most ubiquitous animal, and cats continue to be incredibly stimulating subjects in books, movies, and the like. The creators of the following feline characters expanded upon those themes, subverted them, or ignored them completely to create some of culture’s most interesting cats.
Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland
We’ll start with the obvious choice, though the Cheshire Cat still intrigues audiences with good reason. Alice in Wonderland was written during a time of big change in the world of mathematics, and a lot of the characters and their behaviors are Lewis Carroll reacting to the introduction of phenomena such as imaginary numbers. In a breakdown of the inspiration behind Alice in Wonderland, Melanie Bayley of Oxford University calls the Cheshire Cat “the voice of traditional geometric logic — say where you want to go if you want to find out how to get there, he tells Alice after she’s let the pig run off into the wood. He points Alice toward the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. ‘Visit either you like,’ he says, ‘they’re both mad.'”
Cat, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
The nameless cat of Truman Capote’s novel and Blake Edwards’ film is one of the most well-known cats in literature. Holly Golightly projects all of her fears and insecurities on her accidental sidekick, a creature she claims to neither care about nor control. Nevertheless, the cat is very blatantly Holly’s double, a lost animal with no history, wandering aimlessly until something steps up to take care of it. It’s telling when Holly attempts to dispose of the cat by throwing it into a strange neighborhood, and though she finds it almost immediately in the film, Capote understood that it’s much more interesting if she doesn’t.
Felix the Cat
It’s hard to imagine Felix the Cat as revolutionary now, but the iconic cartoon character was once held up as a pioneer of surrealism. The Charlie Chaplin-inspired Felix drew heavily from 1920s cinema, but used the freedom of animation to go beyond what a camera made possible. Thanks to quirks like an anthropomorphic tail, Felix won accolades from Aldous Huxley and MoMA film department founder Iris Barry. Barry called Felix “distinctly highbrow,” while Huxley argued that the fantastical elements of the Felix shorts were proof of how film could transcend the written word: “What the cinema can do better than literature or the spoken drama is to be fantastic.”
Noboru Wataya, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Haruki Murakami is famous for using cats as motifs in his stories, and they’re especially important in his novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It follows an unemployed man named Toru Okada through a strange chain of events that begins with the loss of his cat, Noboru Wataya. The cat is one of the novel’s most important symbols, as most of its themes can be traced back to Noboru and his departure. For starters, Noboru ties directly to Toru’s relationships with his family: the cat is begrudgingly named after Toru’s enigmatic brother-in-law, and Noboru’s departure foreshadows that of Toru’s wife. But there are several layers to the seemingly innocuous cat, as Murakami’s symbols never lend themselves to easy interpretation.
Cats are frequently used as a symbol of feminine sexuality, an idea taken to its extreme in the psychedelic horror movie Hausu. Fluffy Blanche is the vehicle of a widow who feeds on unmarried women, in this case, a group of comically one-dimensional schoolgirls named for their girlish characteristics. Blanche quickly goes from cute to grotesque, and the cat eventually spews an insane amount of blood onto the young, terrified girls (you can read into that however you want). As much as this crazy film eludes classification, an evaluation of symbols like Blanche makes Hausu pop culture’s most batshit allegory for female coming-of-age.
Fritz the Cat
While cats are frequently portrayed in a morally negative light, there’s usually an order to their behavior. This is not the case for Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat, a hedonistic, sex-crazed college student. Crumb is like a gross-out Richard Scarry, using the type of animation and characterization previously reserved for children’s stories to create something more in line with the grit of real life. There’s no morality or life lessons in the universe of Fritz the Cat — just nasty, literal animals screwing each other in various fashions. This makes the comic an interesting subversion of the usually innocent format of animal stories, as it’s fair for Crumb to say Fritz the Cat and company are “not unlike people in their manners and morals.”
The Germans, Maus
At first glance, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel presents the most extreme example of the “cats are evil” trope, as cats play the role of Germans in his factual retelling of the Holocaust. But the style of Maus is much less about the choice of animals themselves than it is about the ways in which humans continue to categorize each other. Spiegelman used the animal imagery of Nazi propaganda to call attention to the futility of putting people in separate boxes. The metaphor is never simply cat-and-mouse, as species is a constant question throughout the story. A character could appear to be a cat in one panel and a mouse in the next. Because of this fluidity, you never forget that the animals of Maus are humans.
“The Black Cat,” Edgar Allan Poe
Cats are a fixture of the horror genre, from the ominous screaming cat of scary movies to the black cats of superstition. Edgar Allan Poe created a textbook example of both with his classic short story “The Black Cat,” in which the narrator’s trapped cat leads police to discover the body of his murdered wife. The narrator frequently tortures the cat, who serves as an inescapable reminder of his guilt and latent insanity. At one point, the narrator’s wife expresses her belief that all cats are witches in disguise, which draws upon old superstition in a fairly disturbing way. The story’s combination of cats’ ties to both evil and femininity puts it in a creepy, gendered light, but considering Poe’s tendency for fridging his female characters, it’s not much of a surprise.
The Cat in the Hat
As silly and random as his subject matter may seem, it’s no secret that Dr. Seuss put a lot of layers into his children’s books, and scholars still spend a lot of time analyzing them. Seuss was both a brilliant satirist and a writer at the time of the Red Scare, and some believe The Cat in the Hat was a response to McCarthyism. There was a pretty strong fear that if kids were left to their own devices, the media would lead them to chaos and rebellion. The theory that the red-hatted cat and his “things” are Communist representatives is both a bit hard to prove and probably fairly accurate. Political allegory or not, one message of the story is immediately clear: kids can figure things out for themselves.
Puss in Boots
Another brilliant political cat character exists in the old folk tale Puss-in-Boots, in which a sophisticated cat helps an unfortunate man scheme his way into power. While it is the story of an underdog’s rise, the “moral” is not that good things happen to good people, but that charm and cunning can get you a long way. It’s a story that has played itself out in history over and over again, perhaps even a reminder that some of history’s cruelest politicians were once down-and-out young people who happened to learn the art of persuasion. While it may not be as well-known as Cinderella, there’s a reason this fairy tale has stayed in our memory.