Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 744
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, his hopes are deluged by frustration, and his existence is reduced to impotence.
The Cat is a concise work of literature written from the woman’s point-of-view in dialogue that is lean and incisive. Colette skillfully structures her words so that the reader empathizes not with Alain, whose thoughts and experiences are recounted, but with Camille, whose point of view is focused on only during the scene in which she attempts to murder Saha.
Colette believed that the way to make abstract concepts intelligible to readers was to avoid lush prose and to focus on precise descriptions of physical objects. She also thought that ideas could be emphasized and explained by presenting them in dialectical contrasts. As in Colette’s novels Chéri (1920; English translation, 1929) and La Fin de Chéri (1926; The Last of Chéri, 1932), the most obvious of these contrasts are the newlyweds themselves, who are almost mirror opposites. Alain is the last scion of an ancient silk-manufacturing firm whose roots in antiquity and connection to wealth and luxury help to give him both an abiding love for the past and lofty social status. Camille’s family are newly rich manufacturers of washing machines, a product closely linked with the postwar era that Alain despises and considers meretricious. Moreover, the personalities of Alain and Camille are as antipodal as their family origins. She is dark and energetic; he is fair and lethargic. He dreams of the past; she embraces the present and looks toward the future. He prefers a quiet, genteel lifestyle; she adores the pleasures and excitement of postwar culture. Such contrasts make their incompatibility obvious and help to explain the choices that each of them makes during the novel.
Another technique that Colette employs in The Cat to convey her ideas is the use of symbols. Purity, for example, is transmitted by the color blue and by the dawn, which also is described as having a grey-bluish cast. In addition to colors, the number three serves as a major symbol in The Cat. In fact, the novel’s unusual love triangle is echoed by a plethora of threes. Most notable are the strange three-cornered bedroom of the Wedge, the apartment’s three terraces, and the three poplar trees that grow in the garden below. Finally, body size serves as a symbol for the ability to adjust to adulthood. After their wedding, Camille’s healthy weight gain is counterpoised by Alain and Saha’s dramatic weight loss. It was not sexuality per se that Alain could not embrace—the text clearly indicates that he had successful sexual experiences before meeting Camille—but adult responsibility, which his body subconsciously rejected by denying him the food that would provide the energy necessary to lead a normal adult life.
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