Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619

The narrator, a writer who is never identified by gender or name, lives in a world that is absurd: When a couple says they are breaking up, they mean it literally—the woman becomes a disassembled collection of body parts, hopping across the floor, then a tangled bundle of nerves, while the man is reduced to pieces trotting around, bouncing and cheeping like chicks. A tremendous grief parallels the absurdity of the action. The narrator admits to a struggle with writer’s block and complains of “Adam’s Disease,” a version of the Protestant work ethic curable only by total decapitation. There is a larger grief here, an unidentifiable longing for something that cannot be named. A musical note that keeps playing makes the narrator want to cry, but he or she does not know for what. With a stray cat asleep on his or her lap the grieving narrator dreams, hoping that somehow the cat will suggest what has been lost, what is being grieved for.

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The most obvious cause of grief should be the distemper of the world, which is heating up at an unbearable rate. Stoves give off waves of heat even when they are turned off, water comes scalding from the cold-water tap; even forks and pencils are too hot to touch. Unbearable heat radiates from other people, whose kisses burn like branding irons. Rational inquiry has been unable to diagnose the source of the heat, which threatens to melt the world.

In the midst of this disorder, a knock at the door announces the mailman, whose monosyllabic “Yah,” “Wow,” and “How,” so remind the writer of a dog that the writer promptly names him Rover. Rover drops a large knapsack on the floor. The narrator, who has fed the cat sardines, opens a can of pork and beans for Rover. When he sees the yellow cat calmly licking sardine oil off its whiskers, he growls, then recognizes that this particular cat belongs to the famous physicist, Erwin Schrödinger. Rover professes his delight, and reveals that the burden of his knapsack is a large box, with a gun attached. This and the cat are all that is necessary to complete Schrödinger’s experiment.

The experiment involves putting the cat in the box and shutting the lid. After five seconds, the box will emit a photon. That photon will strike a half-silvered mirror, and either pass through or not pass through. If it gets through the mirror, the gun will shoot silently into the soundproof box. The viewer, Rover explains, cannot know whether the cat is dead or alive until the box is opened. Two possibilities, life and death, are reduced to one certainty when the box is opened.

The narrator is disturbed by the closed system of thinking that Rover has represented. “But why does opening the box and looking reduce the system back to one probability, either live cat or dead cat? Why don’t we get included in the system when we lift the lid of the box?” Rover does not know, but he pleads for certainty. He needs to know for sure that God is playing dice with the world.

As the two argue over the morality of the experiment, the cat jumps in the box and flicks the lid closed with its tail, setting things in motion. The narrator and Rover wait in suspense, then lift the lid. The cat is not there.

The story ends with the house itself becoming a large box; the roof lifts off and lets in the light of the stars. The narrator finally identifies the note that brings such grief: “It is the note A, the one that drove the composer Schumann mad.”

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Themes