Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The setting of the novel, contemporaneous with the Russo-Japanese War, in the late Meiji era, was a time of great change in Japan. New social classes were formed as the result of the rise of Japanese capitalism; the eagerness to adopt Western ways also led to social changes. Sseki’s personal experiences with the West convinced him that hasty changes motivated by the outside world were, if not dangerous, at least foolhardy. His own response, evident even in this early novel, is to achieve some balance between Eastern and Western cultures.

The choice of a cat narrator allows Sseki to handle these serious themes lightly. The cat refers to himself proudly as a Japanese cat, prepared to join with other Japanese cats to fight in the Russo-Japanese War. When the female cat dies, the narrator observes that her owners buried her with the proper Buddhist rites, just as if she were a human being. The conflation of the cat world with the human world thus suggests a similar synthesis of two separate cultures.

The conversations which make up the bulk of I Am a Cat show at least the intellectual’s attempt at this synthesis. References to the history and literature of both Western and Eastern cultures abound. The episodic nature of the novel and its satiric tone evoke the eighteenth century English tradition of Laurence Sterne in Tristam Shandy (1759-1767), Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and the Japanese...

(The entire section is 591 words.)