Alain Amparat (ah-LAN ahm-pehr-AH), the only son of the Amparats and heir to Amparat et Fils (Amparat and Sons), an old and respected Parisian silk manufacturing firm, which employs him as its figurehead director. Alain carries himself with the arrogant, slightly bored self-assurance that often accompanies both “old money” and natural good looks. He is twenty-four years old, tall, handsome, and very fair, with good teeth, long cheeks, a slightly equine nose, natural waves in his overly thick golden hair, and clear, grayish-green eyes framed by lush dark lashes. He is condescending toward his fiancée, Camille, whom he characterizes pejoratively as a “typical modern girl.” His commitment is shallow and perfunctory. He fully accepts and loves only his mother and Saha, his cat, the one thing in his life that he has chosen for himself. Soon after the wedding, Alain begins to feel restless, lose weight, and resent his wife’s corresponding heartiness. Because Camille outstrips Alain both sexually and in her ability to live life, he turns from her to Saha, whom he can dominate and who expects no more from him than love and sensuality. Only with Saha, Alain realizes, can he truly be himself. He begins to dread the day when Camille will move into his family home and is relieved when her attempted murder of Saha gives him an excuse to end the marriage and escape back to his childhood paradise with his beloved cat.
Camille Malmert (kah-MEEL mal-MAHR), Alain’s fiancée and later his bride, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a newly rich manufacturer of washing machines. Her family has more money but less social status than the Amparats. She is slim, healthy, dark, and attractive, with good teeth, white skin, small breasts, a resonant voice, stubby fingers, and large, almost black eyes surrounded by bluish-looking whites. She seems to Alain to be slightly commonplace because of her lack of modesty, her determination to speak her mind, and her love of jazz, slang, fast cars, and nightclubs. After Alain brings Saha to live with them, Camille views the cat as a rival, especially after Alain begins sleeping on the divan with the cat on his chest. She is both mystified by and jealous of Alain’s ability to empathize and communicate with Saha and irritated by his inability to understand and respect her. Her jealousy grows in direct proportion to her husband’s increasing indifference toward her. Camille forces a resolution to this strange love triangle by acting rashly. Her unsuccessful attempt to murder Saha by pushing her off their ninth-floor balcony gives Alain the excuse that he is looking for to leave Camille and return to his family home. The end of her marriage does not break Camille’s spirit. She leaves Alain, busily making plans for her life without him.
Saha, a three-year-old purebred Russian Blue cat that Alain purchased as a five-month-old kitten at a cat show. She is proud and suspicious, with deep-set golden eyes, big cheeks, a small body, a perfect face, and moonstone-colored fur. To Alain, she represents the nobility of all cats because of her natural dignity, innocence, modesty, and disinterestedness, as well as her ability to accept the inevitable, bear pain in silence, and love both freedom and order. He believes that such cats have affinities only with the finest type of human beings, those who can understand and communicate with them. Saha loves Alain, and she instinctively dislikes and distrusts Camille. After Alain and Camille marry, Saha is left behind at the Amparat family home, where she refuses to eat. Her...
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health deteriorates to such an extent that Alain brings her to live with him and Camille. She eats, but only enough to keep alive. After Camille’s attempt to murder her, Saha and Alain return to his maternal home, where she once again begins to play, hunt, and eat normally.
Mme Amparat, Alain’s widowed mother, an aging upper-middle-class society matron. She considers Camille her social inferior, judging her to be “not quite our type.”
Émile (ay-MEEL), the Amparats’ elderly, taciturn family butler, who has oyster-colored eyes and prominent whiskers. He reflects the Amparats’ condescending attitude toward Camille.
Mme Buque (byewk), Alain and Camille’s housekeeper and cook. She is a large, fat, red-cheeked woman who cooks food well and serves it badly.
M. Veuillet (vyew-YAY), Alain’s father’s oldest partner. He does most of the decision making at the Amparat silk firm.
Adele (ah-DEHL), another elderly family servant, who exhibits a patronizing attitude toward Camille.
To emphasize the incompatibility of husband and wife, Colette created them in sharp contrast to each other. Both are outstandingly attractive: Alain is blond, delicate, and introspective while Camille is dark, easygoing, and uninhibited. Alain comes from a highly respected manufacturing family. Fatherless since childhood, he has been spoiled and mollycoddled by his mother and by the servants, who refer to him as “the young Master.”
Camille is every inch a “modern girl” in the 1930’s mode. She drives fast cars, dresses immaculately, smokes to excess, and uses coarse language. Alain is wholly conservative, locked in the habits and emotions of his childhood.
The biggest contrast between them concerns their attitudes to lovemaking. Marriage gives Camille the freedom of legitimized sex (denied to single women of the period), and she wants to take full advantage of it. Alain, who has had casual affairs in the past, is repulsed and perhaps frightened by Camille’s open sensuality; he retreats from it into his relationship with the cat. The distance between the couple remains under the surface most of the time, emerging in the form of an occasional repartee.
Although Alain has the weaker personality, his self-absorption makes him more manipulative. He uses Camille’s crude attempt to get rid of the cat as an opportunity, rather than as a reason, for leaving her. Camille has no inkling of the way she is being manipulated. She takes things at face value. Bold and outgoing, she is too proud to show any outward signs of disappointment. “I sometimes wish...,” she begins to say, but she cannot finish the sentence. Her only strategy for regaining Alain’s affection is to tempt him physically, which she cannot resist trying even at their final parting: “She was going away, carefully avoiding holding out her hand to him. But under the arcade of clipped trees, she dared vainly to brush against him with her ripening breasts.”
Colette’s description of Saha’s feline movements and behavior is so vivid that it gives the animal the force of a third character in an eternal triangle. Throughout the book the cat is referred to as “she,” and there are incidents in which it does, indeed, appear to have its own free will. The cat is not only a “character” but also a symbol—to Camille, a symbol of an unfaithful husband and to Alain, of the privacy and serenity of a childhood which he hated leaving and to which he finally retreats.
The other characters are sketched impressionistically, with a few swift strokes. Madame Amparat emerges as an intelligent but preoccupied woman who would like to be relieved of the responsibility of an emotionally retarded son. The aging servants are obsequious to Alain and insolent to Camille. Emile, the butler, walks a fine line with double-talk which enables him to tear down Camille’s character while apparently praising it.