Cats in Literature: Seuss, King, and Everything in Between
The intentional and clever use of cats in literature dates back to ancient lithography and other dated forms of storytelling. As long as humans have been telling stories, we’ve been telling stories about cats (or at least using cats to tell our stories). Perhaps this is a mere by-product of their accessibility as characters - or maybe it’s much, much more than that. The symbolic nature of cats in literature is embedded with an other worldliness that transcends form: from simple children’s stories to complex works of mystery, the use of cats give each work a mysterious undertone. This leaves one to wonder: if the placement of cats into works of literature is as intentional as it is meaningful, what are these authors trying to say? Are they simply expressing their broad love of cats by placing feline characters in their stories? Or are these cats used as mystifying - albeit captivating - symbols that foreshadow an unfolding of the story’s deepest mysteries later down the line? (Hint: we think the latter.)
Symbolism of Cats in Literature
Traditionally and into modern representations, cats seem to represent something beyond the material world that we see and experience on the surface. They symbolize a latent power, one that the reader may begin to sense as soon as the character of the cat is introduced for the first time. Usually, the character of the cat takes the story from an otherwise “normal” work of fiction to something imbued with hints of fantasy, allegory, or science fiction. While you may be asking yourself, “oh, sure, do cats in literature really symbolize all of that?” The simple answer is: yes, yes they do. Even dating back to Greek and Roman civilizations, cats have been seen as powerful and mystic forces. The presence of a cat was not only a symbol of status, but a symbol of otherworldly (at times, even Godly) connection. It’s no wonder that this classic symbolism has crept its way, slowly and consistently, into modern storytelling as well.
Cats in Children’s Literature
It’s rather obvious that cats are - quite frankly - some of the cutest creatures possible and are consequently used in children’s literature for the “aw” factor. However, what’s less obvious is that these cats are smartly placed in children’s books to symbolize so much more. Take Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat. Perhaps the most notable and widely recognized children’s story, this tale follows a pair of children as they spend a rainy day at home. In what begins as a pretty straightforward story, there is initially no magic or fantasy involved. However, as soon as the cat enters the story, dressed in a red bow tie and a very tall hat, the story changes tone. Now, all of a sudden, this story is about so much more. There is imagination and there is creativity in a world where cats can rhyme, fish can banter, and creature twins can appear out of a random box. And what was the catalyst for all of this fantasy? You guessed it - a cat!
In other children’s stories, too, cats take on a similar role in terms of what they mean for the overall story. In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat is the main philosophical spearhead for the book. While the entire story is fantastical in nature, it is the Cheshire Cat who provides the inquisitive nature that takes the story from a straightforward fantasy to one that is symbolic, metaphorical, and even politically allegorical. The Cheshire Cat is known for his mischievous nature, marked notably by a creepy smile that adorns his face at all times. He is able to disappear and reappear, but always the last thing lingering behind is his knowing grin. He speaks in complex philosophical statements, almost riddles. Through this, he adds a distinctly perplex - yet purposeful - element to the story of Alice.
In the wildly famous Harry Potter series, Hermione owns a cat named Crookshanks. While the entire series is full of magic, wizards, witches, curses, flying, and everything in between - the animals in Harry Potter provide an even further symbolism of the other worldliness involved in the books. For example, Crookshanks represents intelligence, wit, and even supernatural intuitiveness. After all - here’s a spoiler - she does spend the entire series chasing around Ron’s rat, Scabbers, who turns out to be the wicked Peter Pettigrew. It’s almost as though Crookshanks knew the truth the entire time…
Cats in Adult Literature
While the presence of cats in adult literature seems more symbolic right away (we can’t always reason it away as an “aw” factor anymore), the depth to which these cats are representative or foreshadowing in nature is usually much deeper than one might think. Perhaps the most famous instance of this is in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. While the author’s name alone is bound to send chills down anybody’s spine and forebode darkness and supernatural decay, the story starts off just like any other. A family moves into a new house when the father gets a new job in town. They have an older man as a neighbor who takes an active interest in the family. They have a pet cat and two kids. Everything sounds pretty normal, right? That is - until their family cat gets run over. With the help of the older neighbor, the father buries the cat in a pet cemetery in the woods - an old Indian burial ground. And that’s when the story gets truly wild: the cat… comes back. But he’s not really the same cat. (No further spoilers here!) The cat in this story launches the book from kinda creepy to downright frightening. As such, Church (the cat) can be seen as the ultimate symbol of otherworldly reincarnation. Just what are the consequences of bringing the dead back to life? Can the newly revived being ever truly be the same? From that point on, the story only devolves into further horror and madness. But how did it start? With a cat, of course!
In several of Haruki Murakami’s works, cats play a pretty big role. After all, the main plot line of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the search for a lost cat. In all of these works, the presence of cats indicates something much larger at play. Specifically, we’ll focus on a lesser known work of his: Kafka on the Shore. In this story, by all accounts, the plot begins in a world fairly grounded in reality. There is some mystery involved, some things shady and unclear, but still fairly explainable within the confines of normal reality. That is - until somebody starts talking to cats. It’s at the point in the novel when one of the main characters, Nakata, an aging simpleton, begins conversing freely with cats that the story officially crosses the line into fantasy. Clearly, here, the presence of these cats indicates that the novel is now of an otherworldly nature, no longer grounded in the reality that we know and are comfortable in.
Who better to wrap up our discussion of cats in literature than Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia series? While the entire world of Narnia is imaginative and fantastical, the character of Aslan - a beautiful, large, majestic lion - takes it up several notches. In the stories, Aslan is the King of Beasts, the King above all High Kings in Narnia. He is arguably the central protagonist of the series, as he guides the children in their noble pursuit to end the rule of the White Witch. Cats in other works of fiction may represent otherworldly connections, sure, but Aslan is the holy grail of otherworldly symbols. In fact, according to the author of this series, C.S. Lewis, Aslan represents Christ himself. The Chronicles of Narnia is a biblical allegory, and the large feline friend of Aslan ties the entire story together by symbolizing a figure of Christ. Is this perhaps the grandest instance of a cat symbolizing something bigger than itself? Perhaps - but we think every cat in literature is pretty cool, too.
Since the dawn of time, or at least the dawn of life as we know it, cats have been pretty cool. Don’t believe it? See all of the reasons above. Cats in literature can be some of the most powerful and profound symbols for otherworldly influences, eerie foreshadowing, or simply an element of intangible mystery. And the best part? You likely have one of these cool cats living under the same roof as you.
Do you have a favorite story with a foreboding cat character? Let us know in the comments below!
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