Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Like his earlier novel, THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s THE TRACK OF THE CAT is a tragedy laid in Nevada, his adopted state. It is a long, psychological, and symbolic study of the effect of evil on a ranch family. The black cat means the end of everything to the Indian Joe Sam, whose animism, apparent in his recognition and acceptance of the primitive, mythic nature of Evil, affects the whole Bridges family for whom he works. Clark writes his story with his usual vivid contrasts between dream and fact, white man and Indian, tragedy and hope.

The novel falls into four parts: one for the testing of each of the brothers, and a fourth to show the state of life at the novel’s psychological center, the ranchhouse kitchen. The kitchen, too, becomes a proving-ground for Gwen and Harold’s love and, in a sense, a further test of Harold as a man.

The panther, the force against which each of the brothers is tried in turn, changes shape to meet the character of each antagonist. For Arthur, the mystic, it takes the form of malevolent reality, whose onslaught might easily have been parried by the most elementary precautions—reloading his gun and “keeping his eyes peeled.” Practicality, however, is foreign to a man whose interior life is richer, more beautiful, and more hopeful than reality. For Curt, the cat assumes the mythic shape of the “black painter”; it means despair, a sense of the death of gods, or,...

(The entire section is 469 words.)