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Feline Fixation and English Literature

by Parth Sharma




The image of the Cat, the regal duality of its tamable yet predatory nature, has been repurposed throughout the literary arts by authors, poets, and artists worldwide. They became the premise of TS Eliot's poetry, the protagonist of Poe's prose and the precursor to the entire genre of gothic literature. 


It isn't often that we look at a furry little cat purring near our lap and assume that its place in history can be traced back to the first English novel's origin.


The Cat's position in political history gave birth to the first fictional piece in English literature with Baldwin's 1553 novel Beware the Cat, a satire piece held for nearly two decades before it saw the light of dawn. A giant cat of monstrous appetite served as an appropriate metaphor for the pope of Rome when Queen Mary ascended the throne. The image of a cat that Baldwin called Grimalkin, driven from Scottish mythology, took its own course. From the witches in Macbeth to the bloodthirsty kittens of Grimalkin's ghost seeking revenge on the master that drowned them, Cats soon became the antecedent for many such stories to come; and with this exquisite happenstance, our perception of a furry feline was cemented throughout English literature.  


The Cat predominantly stands out as a dark creature throughout English Gothic literature. It either serves as a primary motif to drive the plot or meets a gruesome death to work as a metaphor for the time it was written in. It all boils down to the perverse nature of the feline, where the terror of its stealthy stride and diabolical grimace around its little whiskers scream noir. At heart, gothic literature is about power, the drive to see the power in imagery, through the supernatural or in the vulnerability of the people struggling to make meaning out of life. Gothic literature gave a position to the untamable sexuality that enticed men's violent, perverse and incestuous desire while simultaneously rooting for the vulnerable young woman who was often at the chokehold of this beastly rendition of a man.


Poe's Black Cat here, is an instance that holds this dualism; the Black Cat, which is appropriately named Pluto (after the Roman god of the underworld), is brutally maimed and eventually killed by the narrator. The phantom image of the furry little beast drives the narrator to kill his wife and serves as the victimised wildling that was once considered a pet. Poe writes the Black Cat as the literary Double. With some idiosyncrasy in play, The Cat fulfils the role of providing the alcoholic human with a conflict to attain peace but eventually spirals him into committing homicide, as a mere replica of it alerts the cops about the same. This manifestation of The Double pushes The Cat to be both- a being that needed elimination at the hands of a perverse, while acting as the agent for the dead wife. The Black Cat embodied the power Gothic literature subsumed itself with.


The senseless killings of kittens as the opening dialogue of the 1914 story The Squaw by Bram Stoker extends on this thought. The unmistakable sexual subtext and masochism are a clear nod to Poe. The mother cat seeks revenge by clawing the American who killed her kittens, only to be then slashed into halves by the narrator. A Cat is taken as a motif of lost innocence for a story set in the same place where the Nazis tortured thousands many years later. Both the vicious mother cat that purred loudly as she wallowed in his gore and the masochistic American appear to be made for one another; in the same sense, the iceberg was fated for the ship.


Stephen King's 1983 novel, Pet Semetary, was bound to make an appearance as we move along with the feline fixation of literature. The revival of a buried cat takes a steer from the vindication and vengeful nature of the feline previously associated with goth and moves towards chaotic aggression as an overarching foreshadowing of dark romanticism and collective grief. The dualism within the subject position of the Cat is apparent as it reveals the intentional split of ambiguous morality within the characters themselves. 


The dominant image of a cat soon crept from the bounds of goth. It was diluted into many forms of noir fiction, counter romanticism and general folklore; more recently seen in Gaiman's Coraline. 

Throughout the book, the Cat accompanies Coraline to the Other World. The Black Cat is an omen taken from the mythology of past English literature where the presence of a black cat meant ominous danger and darkness. The black Cat here strays entirely away from the position of the perverse entity and shifts the image to that of the supernatural being, taking us back to the premise of Gothic literature where power was sought out from the supernatural. With Gaiman, the black Cat uses portals to enter and exit the Other World, helping Coraline. 


The Cat has symbolised the feral, vindictive, chaotic, supernatural and mysterious feline in our recent recollection, the presence of which can be felt throughout the history of the written English word. The question, however, still remains; to what do we owe this feline fixation? Is it the vivacious spirit they portray themselves with or the royalty of their stride as they demand time from us?

Parth is an enthusiast of the literary arts, who you can find cooped up, rereading dusty old books in a library.

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