The Cat is a short novel about the rapid decline of a marriage. Both the young people involved, Alain Amparat and Camille Malmert, come from prosperous manufacturing families. The novel opens a week before the wedding at Alain’s spacious but run-down old house at Neuilly, where he lives with his widowed mother and some ancient servants. Part of the house is being converted and modernized for the young couple. Until it is ready, however, they plan to live in a small studio at the top of a new nine-story apartment block. The apartment, lent to them by a friend, conforms to Camille’s taste for everything up-to-date, but it offends Alain’s fastidious and conservative nature.
It soon becomes evident that although Alain and Camille are physically attracted to each other, their engagement has more to do with family expectations than with a meeting of minds. Alain watches Camille nervously and is privately critical of her uninhibited manners and loud voice. He finds solace in the company of his beloved cat, Saha, a magnificent Russian Blue.
On the morning after the wedding, Alain, waking up in the ultramodern studio bedroom, is embarrassed to see Camille flitting about in the nude. He is nonplussed when she counters that he, too, is nude above the waist. This small incident is an early portent of the gap which is to widen between them. Later that day, Alain returns to Neuilly under the pretext of checking the building’s progress. Camille teasingly accuses him of going to visit her rival, the cat. Taking her seriously, Alain protests that Saha cannot be her rival because there is nothing “impure” about his relationship with it.
During the hot summer months, they make love frequently, always at Camille’s initiative. Alain becomes revolted by her open sensuality and longs for the sheltered security of his childhood home and for his cat, which is pining for him at Neuilly. Camille is annoyed when he brings the cat to live at the cramped top-floor apartment. Alain, however, lavishes all of his attention on the cat.
One day, Alain overhears Camille grumbling about that “filthy swine of an animal,” which sparks a quarrel. At a restaurant that evening, Alain notices that Camille has put on weight and wonders with alarm if she is pregnant. Camille tells him that the owner of the studio will soon be coming back. She dreams aloud about the family they will rear when they return to Neuilly and she proposes redecorating his old room for the child.
Alain is aghast. His revulsion for her becomes crystallized into a single determination: On no account must she be allowed to share his childhood home. He tries to persuade his mother of this, but she prefers not to listen. Camille is deeply hurt when Alain takes to leaving their bed in the small hours and stretching out on a bench in a corridor, the cat lying on his chest. She makes it a point of honor not to complain, but instead tries to woo him back with her body—which only makes the situation worse.
Matters come to a head when Camille, waiting for Alain, plays a silent and menacing game with the cat. She forces it to jump from one part of the parapet to another. Suddenly, on impulse, she pushes it off the parapet. Camille expects Alain to accepts its death as an accident. The cat, however, is not dead. Its fall was broken; it is shocked but unhurt. Alain brings it upstairs in his arms, ministers to it lovingly, and asks Camille to feel its head for bumps. As soon...
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as she stretches out her hand to it, it lets out a savage snarl and leaps away from her. Alain draws his own conclusions.
In the ensuing quarrel, Camille accuses him of loving the cat instead of her. He again insists that Saha is not her rival, but she continues the accusation: “I have seen you lying cheek to cheek....” Alain forces her to admit that she tried to kill Saha. Then he installs the cat in a basket and tells Camille that he is—“we are”—leaving. Camille conceals her despair and, with a few sarcastic parting words, lets him go.
The following day, Camille arrives at the house in Neuilly with a suitcase of Alain’s clothes. She finds him in the garden, disheveled, in torn pyjamas and in a state of near delirium. She tries obliquely to draw from him a hope for the future, but he is relentless. He calls her a monster for trying to kill a beautiful and defenseless animal. She replies that he is a monster to leave a woman for the sake of an animal. He does not deny it. Camille walks away and Alain is left—as he had contrived to be left—in the garden of his childhood, with his mother, his servants, and the cat.