Kater Murr represents Hoffmann’s fanciful autobiography, intended by virtue of its fantastic and satirical elements no doubt as a romantic counterpart to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Confessions of J.-J. Rousseau (1783-1790), which Kreisler is depicted as having read enthusiastically in early adolescence, and as a contrast to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s somewhat self-glorifying autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit (3 vols., 1811-1814; The Autobiography of Goethe, 1824), published only several years before the first volume of Kater Murr. Unlike Rousseau and Goethe, Hoffmann makes his confession through veiled, ironic, humorous depiction. He takes his pet tomcat as the vehicle for portraying the more prosaic aspects of his life experiences and his realistic existence as a writer. To depict his other life as a romantic dreamer, he uses as poetic alter ego the musician Johannes Kreisler, whom he had created earlier in contributions to the leading music periodical Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung. He confesses a third self-image in the figure Master Abraham, that of the older, married man as a romantic dreamer vicariously reliving the transcendent yearnings of his younger years.
Hoffmann was forty-three years old when the first volume of Kater Murr appeared, some dozen years older than its romantic hero Kreisler, who is thirtyish, the age at which Hoffmann first met the Julia—his voice pupil Julia Marc—who became the object of a rather romantic passion over which Hoffmann felt some guilt and embarrassment. Unlike Kreisler, Hoffmann was already a married man.
Given that Kater Murr is an autobiography in the form of a novel, it is not surprising that love is the dominant theme. The work, however, is also about the society of Hoffmann’s day. That society is depicted satirically, with farcical humor in the tomcat part and with resentful bitterness in the Kreisler story. Particular targets of the satire in the Murr story are hypocritical pretenses in academic life and polite society; the Kreisler biography targets the arrogant condescension among aristocrats whose claim to power had been called into question by the French Revolution. Kater Murr was valued by contemporary critics for its satirical portrait of the times, its poetization of platonic love, its romanticization of musical experience, and its insight into the life of a poetic genius. More recently it has been acclaimed for its narrative technique, employing and advancing the playful caprice pioneered by Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy (1760-1767).