The Boy Who Drew Cats

by Lafcadio Hearn
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Last Updated on August 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 322

The story is written in the simple style that characterizes most fairy tales or folktales. There is not an abundance of description or detail; even the characters are nameless. As a result of this, the reader is free to focus on the message of the tale. Given the prevalence of sentient animals in the story, we could even call it a fable: a short story that conveys a moral and usually has animal characters. However, there is also a magical element to the story, especially with the cats the boy has drawn which come to life to kill the goblin-rat.

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But what is the moral of this fable? The boy is different from all of his brothers and sisters, but rather than try to eliminate or ignore his difference, his parents actually recognize and embrace it, seeking to find him a more suitable path in life.

The boy also comes from a poor family in a small village of farmers. Given his humble and inauspicious beginnings, it hardly seems likely that he is destined for greatness. So many elements could have quashed his talent or denied his differences—his parents, the priest, the family's poverty, even the boy himself, who does not want to fail or disappoint his mother and father—yet everyone seems to accept him for who he is. In the end, he becomes a famous artist whose work is shown all over Japan as well as to people who come to the country to visit.

We see, then, how everyone has a contribution to make; everyone—whether they are wealthy or poor and whether they meet or defy expectations—should be valued and accepted for who they are, because unique talents are worth pursuing. In this case, the boy's artistic genius not only results in the death of the goblin-rat—a monster that not even warriors could slay—but the saving of his own life and his successful career.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

Lafcadio Hearn has described his style as simplicity, and he worked to touch readers with simple words. He hoped that his writing style would reveal meaning as a glass transmits light. His subjects were often the favorite folktales and legends of common people, which he told in a brief and direct way to capture their mood and meaning without adding extra elements. The story reveals this direct style in a passage describing the boy: “He was very clever, cleverer than all his brothers and sisters; but he was quite weak and small, and people said he could never grow very big.” Such description reminds readers of a childhood time when they heard folktales remembered and told by elders during quiet evenings or read and reread in favorite childhood books. A childlike mood of honesty and directness is echoed in the simple, direct writing style.

Another childlike element captured in Hearn’s writing style is fantastic, vivid imagery. Consider the scene of death the boy finds in the morning: “The first thing he saw was that all the floor of the temple was covered with blood. And then he saw, lying dead in the middle of it, an enormous, monstrous rat—a goblin-rat—bigger than a cow!” This impossibly large rat surrounded by a huge pool of blood on the temple floor invites readers to suspend their knowledge of actual rats and enter a lurid world of horrible possibilities. The scene vividly portrays the dangerous situation the boy unwittingly entered.

The same fantastic kind of imagery ends the story. “Suddenly the boy observed that the mouths of all the cats he had drawn the night before, were red and wet with blood.” The realm of the two-dimensional cats and the magical world of goblins have intersected in conflict, leaving evidence of victory as well as defeat. Invisible goblins bleed, and paper-and-ink cats bite with weapon-sharp teeth.

While the naïve simplicity of style and vividness of fantastic imagery lead readers to see the story events in a childlike way, Hearn includes narrative details that give the story a realistic tone. An example is the fact that after priests prudently abandoned the haunted temple, the goblin made a light shine in the temple to tempt weary travelers to rest there. A light shining at the window is a signal quickly recognized and understood by weary travelers everywhere. In another instance of realism, the story ends with a comment that the boy’s cat drawings can still be seen by travelers in Japan, adding a note of seeming historical evidence to the fantastic tale. These realistic details offer a comforting flavor of the familiar, everyday world to the eerie story.

Hearn’s storytelling style evokes a mood in which the reader sees and understands the world as children do. It also evokes a feeling for a more ancient mythical time, when humans lived in an exciting primitive world populated by giants, dragons, and warrior heroes.

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