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In an interesting variation on the traditional romantic triangle, The Cat examines the intense relationship between Alain Amparat; his bride, Camille; and Saha, his cat. The story begins one week before their wedding, the event that sets up the tension between the three protagonists. The marriage is endorsed by Mme Amparat even though she quietly laments that Camille is “not quite our type,” a politely condescending attitude which is reflected in Alain’s tacit characterization of his fiancée as “a typical modern girl,” a phrase which subtly reveals both the shallowness of his commitment to her and his belief that the prewar era was superior to his own.

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One key to interpreting the novel is Colette’s discussion of Alain’s childhood socialization. He was brought up to live in idle luxury by an adoring mother and an obsequious phalanx of family servants. Although Alain is the titular director of his family’s firm, he has little interest in business. Camille aptly characterizes his attitudes and behavior when she comments, “How awfully eighteen-thirty you are.”

Approximately three years before he married Camille, Alain changed his life forever when he purchased a five-month-old pedigreed Russian Blue cat at a cat show. He sometimes mused wryly that Saha was the only thing he had ever chosen for himself. He believed that through his ability to communicate with her, he had an entry to the entire animal kingdom. Alain’s uncanny capacity to understand, explain, and predict Saha’s behavior, needs, and motives mystifies Camille, who finds it unnaturally intimate.

After their marriage, the young couple sublets a high-rise apartment, which they quickly dub the Wedge because of its peculiar shape, until a wing can be added to the Amparat family home for them. Alain not only dislikes the apartment but also finds that married life is not what he had expected it to be. Even their lovemaking disquiets him because Camille does not behave with the reticent decorum that he assumed previously unmarried young women should exhibit. Camille not only is enjoying sex more than Alain deems seemly but also thrives on it, gains weight, and becomes stronger while Alain’s body becomes thinner and his expression more strained.

Soon after the newlyweds move into the Wedge, Alain begins to yearn for his pampered life with Saha at the Amparat home. Despite his frequent visits to Saha, the cat refuses to eat and grows increasingly gaunt until Alain takes her home with him, where something resembling a love triangle emerges. Camille’s jealousy escalates sharply when Alain leaves their marital bed and begins sleeping on a narrow divan with Saha on his chest.

Alain gradually develops an antipathy to the idea of Camille moving into his family home which escalates into an obsession as the dysfunctional nature of their marriage becomes apparent. Camille’s frustration with her husband’s adolescent behavior also increases until she impulsively pushes Saha off the terrace of their penthouse. The cat survives only because its fall is cushioned by an awning. Alain forces Camille to confess her culpability, and this act gives him the pretext that he needs to take Saha and return to his mother’s home, where he can truly be himself. After a few days, Camille visits them, learns that Alain intends to end the marriage, and leaves undaunted, busily planning a productive future alone. The book ends with Alain and Saha bonding so closely that they exchange species characteristics: Saha watches Camille’s departure with a human expression, while Alain holds the palm of his hand like a paw.

Context

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Colette is often considered to be the greatest woman writer in French literature. Her literary canon is replete with a wide variety of female characters, and her style of writing, which emphasizes interior monologues and inner impressions, gives a point of view even to women whose marginality in society would otherwise depersonalize them. Moreover, in The Cat, as in most of her novels, it is women who move the action in the story; in this case, Camille’s attempt to kill Saha brings about a resolution to the palpable tension that accompanies the dysfunctional marriage. The Cat also illustrates Colette’s belief not only that men and women are incompatible but also that hostility represents the normal relationship between the sexes.

A theme closely connected with gender hostility is Colette’s belief that women have both a much better capacity for surviving and greater talent for living than men because they are well centered, more closely connected to nature, and more adaptable. Camille adjusts well to marriage, while Alain scarcely makes an attempt to do so. At the end of the novel, Alain retreats to his mother’s home in a futile attempt to recapture his idyllic adolescence, while Camille faces the collapse of her life, absorbs the shock, and begins making plans for the future. Only Colette’s female characters display this capacity to adjust and adapt to reality.

On the other hand, in Colette’s novels there is a corollary quality which sometimes accompanies this female resilience, a type of coarseness that seems to preempt the instinctive empathy and understanding that she also considers to be a vital part of a woman’s nature. In The Cat, it is Saha who displays the maternal succor and sympathetic nature that Camille does not, and it is precisely these qualities that draw Alain to his cat. Therefore, because Saha both embodies the innocence that Alain seeks and displays the sensitivity to his feelings that Camille cannot, he chooses his cat over his wife. Yet, while both Camille and Saha represent different aspects of what Colette considers to be women’s nature, neither of them is depicted as incomplete. Instead, it is Alain who is shown to be incomplete, as he lacks the qualities necessary to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. To Colette, most women are heroes despite their imperfections.

Bibliography

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Cottrell, Robert D. Colette. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1974. One of the best general works on Colette. Cottrell emphasizes the superiority of Colette’s women, but he argues that she is not a feminist in the contemporary meaning of the term.

Crosland, Margaret. Colette: The Difficulty of Loving. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973. A good introductory work because it emphasizes the connection between Colette’s writing and the events of her life. Although some of her arguments are dated, this book contains some excellent insights into Colette’s work.

Eisinger, Erica, and Mari McCarty, eds. Colette: The Woman, the Writer. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981. Most of this excellent collection of scholarly essays are feminist in orientation, but the work includes a number of approaches to a wide variety of topics concerning Colette. The book’s introductory article, written by the editors, argues that Colette’s primary importance for women’s literature is that she wrote from a woman’s point of view and created independent female characters.

Marks, Elaine. Colette. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1960. Still an excellent introduction to Colette’s life and work, recognizing her achievements specifically as a woman writer. Marks emphasizes the difficulty of separating biography from fiction in her works. She is one of the first critics to understand that many of Colette’s female characters view men as sex objects in the same way that much traditional French literature views women.

Sarde, Michele. Colette: Free and Fettered. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: William Morrow, 1980. An interesting, though overly adulatory, biography written from a feminist point of view. Sarde presents her arguments in a thought-provoking manner despite her tendency to oversimplify.

Stewart, Joan Hinde. Colette. Boston: Twayne, 1983. One of the best books written about Colette, especially in its meticulous argumentation and well-written, scholarly discussion of her literary works. Stewart’s literary analysis is much stronger than her biographical discussion of Colette.

Ward Jouve, Nicole. Colette. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. This perceptive and interesting interpretation of Colette and her works is written less from a scholarly than from an intuitive point of view. It is dangerous to accept Ward Jouve’s conclusions without further documentation.

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