(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Like all Colette’s novels, The Cat is about love. The relationship between the lovers is unhappy because Colette believed that no genuine communication between men and women is possible: Their needs are both different and mutually exclusive.

The major problem in the marriage is Alain’s inability to adjust to both adulthood and the post-World War I era, which he considers to be sullied beyond redemption. Alain is attracted to Camille in the only way that Colette’s lovers are ever attracted to each other—through sexual desire—but Camille’s modern attitudes, especially those toward sex, condemn even their conjugal relationship to failure. In Alain’s judgment, Camille is insufficiently impressed by his male presence, and her boldness in initiating sexual encounters dampens his ardor and offends his sensibilities. Camille’s robust sexual appetite makes Alain flee to Saha, setting up an unusual romantic triangle which not only pits one female against another but also contrasts adulthood and sensuality (represented by Camille) versus childhood and innocence (represented by Saha). For Colette, the purity of all animals is inherent in their being because they are ruled by instinct, and therefore act without duplicity or guile—qualities that Colette believed destroy innocence and characterize much adult human behavior. The suffering that both Alain and Camille experience in their futile attempt to find common ground makes the reader more sympathetic to them.

The ideal for which Alain yearns nostalgically is the innocence of his childhood experience in his mother’s home and garden, but his aspirations are in an unnatural form: Adult childhood and adult innocence are as unattainable in reality as their vision is seductive in concept. Thus, Alain’s marriage is doomed to failure,...

(The entire section is 744 words.)