Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Cat is written with great stylistic economy; every sentence is redolent with meaning. Because, like most of Colette’s works, it is a novel of the senses—with exquisite evocation of sound, taste, color, fragrance, and texture—it does not sustain a cohesive interior argument but is open to varied interpretations. Its central drive is an exploration of incompatibility in marriage.

Although the gap between Alain’s and Colette’s expectations arises from the characters’ very specific disparate attributes, there are some implied generalizations. As in Le Ble en herbe (1923; The Ripening Corn, 1931; also as The Ripening Seed, 1955), the author notes the sexual maturity of women compared to that of men of the same age. Colette also points to the difference between the social demands placed on men, who are expected to have sexual experience before marriage, and those placed on women, who are supposed to remain “pure.”

On one of the rare occasions when the author uses her own voice, she hints at a more deep-seated and intractable gender difference. “Camille,” she writes, “could not understand that a man’s sensuality is brief and seasonal and that its unpredictable return is never a new beginning.”

The conflict between modern and traditional attitudes to marriage is part of a social process which is observed throughout the novel. The stolid conventions of the old-style middle class are being replaced by the brasher life-styles of the newly rich. The big old Parisian estates are being split up into smaller units; tall buildings are mushrooming where villas once stood. The contrast between the rambling old house at Neuilly and the glass and chromium construction of the cramped studio is a key symbol of change. Nostalgia for an idyllic past that can never be recaptured is a recurring theme for Colette.

Alain’s thoughts and feelings are given more prominence than Camille’s, but the author distances herself from both with a degree of analytical coldness, reserving her warmth and enthusiasm for Saha the cat. Her description of Saha’s movements and behavior is magnificent, a prime example of her ongoing exploration of the relationship between animals and human beings, which she once expressed in the proposition: “Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.”