Analysis of Colette’s The Cat

The popular author Colette (1873–1954) was born on January 28, 1873, in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, Burgundy, France. Author of more than 50 novels and numerous short stories, and articles for periodicals, she wrote from her early 20s through her mid-70s. This acclaimed 20th-century French writer was known for blurring the lines of fiction and autobiography, describing the modern teenager, and being one of the fi rst modern women to live in accordance with her sensual and artistic inclinations. As in Colette’s other novels, animals play a crucial role; in this case, the principal character is a cat. Of her more slender novels, The Cat focuses on purity and impurity as the tragic struggle.

The Cat tells the story of 19-year-old Camille, who is to marry 24-year-old Alain. Alain is blond and beautiful and the heir to a family business which is slowly declining. Camille, a brunette with stubby and unattractive fingers, is the daughter of a family who has recently acquired a great deal of wealth. On one level, The Cat is a murder mystery ignited by jealousy. However, this novel also touches on themes from Colette’s other novels: the incompatibility of women and men and the desire for the past rather than the present.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in Paris, 1935. Photograph: Imagno/Getty Images

Alain fears what will happen to his cat if he marries. Alain and Camille decide to marry, but they must fi rst to move into the Parisian apartment of a friend who will be away for three summer months while their home is built. One motif in The Cat is the number three. Camille and Alain live on the ninth fl oor. They can see the top of three poplar trees that grow in the garden below from their three terrace windows. Their bedroom has three walls and is referred to as the triangular bedroom.

These two lovers are exact opposites, which greatly complicates their life. Camille prefers modern inventions such as fast sports cars, Parisian apartments, and jazz. She is materialistic and uninhibited about her sexuality. Alain is attached to his parent’s home and a shady garden where his cat, Saha, resides. Camille is contemptuous of the servant Alain has had since he was a child. Alain is appalled when Camille walks around their apartment nude. Camille has a voracious appetite for sex, and she begins to put on weight from their lovemaking. Alain, on the other hand, loses weight. The only dimension of their relationship that is satisfying is their sexual activities together.

For Alain, the cat is his way back to the past. Saha is graceful, beautiful, and mysterious, moving through the world in purity. Alain reveals that he is going to visit his parent’s house to see his cat. Camille insists on joining him to meet her feline rival. During his absence, Saha has lost weight and appears listless. Alain decides to bring the cat to the apartment, unknowingly creating a ménage à trois. Alain dines at home to be with his cat. The couple argue, and Camille calls Alain a monster, for she has become increasingly jealous of Saha. Camille decides to push Saha off their balcony when Alain is out one evening. She paces back and forth across the narrow balcony, forcing the cat to jump from the railing to the fl oor. The cat lets out an anguished cry, but then grows silent. When Saha relaxes her guard, Camille thrusts her arm forward and pushes the cat off the railing. The cat survives after its fall is broken by an awning. Alain brings Saha back up to the apartment, and the cat stares accusingly at Camille. When Alain realizes what has occurred, he leaves Camille to return to the old family house.

Bidder, Jane and Phil Powrie. “Lesbian Speculations on/in Colette’s Claudine Married.” Women’s Studies 23, no. 1 (1994): 57–68.
Ladimer, Bethany, and Mary Evans. “Colette, Beauvoir and Duras: Age and Women Writers.” Women’s Studies International Forum 23, no. 4, (July–August 2000): 517.

Categories: French Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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