Analysis of Natsume Sōseki’s I Am a Cat

A satire on human foibles from the standpoint of a cat, I Am a Cat is one of the most original novels of the Wagahai wa Neko de aru, one of the best loved works by the Japanese writer Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916). The work chronicles the adventures of an alley cat as he recounts with disarming candor the details of his life story. Saved from starvation by de facto adoption into a middle-class family, the cat proceeds to comment in a learned and quizzical manner on his dealings with humans. Through him we meet various eccentric and engaging personalities. Mr. Sneaze, the head of the household, is a high school English teacher and also an exaggerated caricature of the author. He is lazy, stubborn, dilettantish (dabbling in poetry, drawing, and music), and greedy. He buys expensive foreign books, but his main use for them is narcotic, for once he starts reading he will invariably fall asleep.

We also meet the spirited Mrs. Sneaze, who fights a running battle with her husband over his masculine and pigheaded ways. From there the circle widens to include the friends who gather at the Sneaze household to while away the time with food and conversation. These include the scientist Coldmoon, a former student of Sneaze; the layabout Waverhouse, an aesthete who loves to make up tall tales to poke fun at pretentious people; and the poet Beauchamp.

The novel has no formal, fully developed plot or structure. The primary plot sequence concerns the possibility of marriage between Coldmoon and Opula Goldfield, the daughter of a prosperous businessman who lives nearby. At the close of the novel, Opula’s hand is won by the careerist Sampei; Coldmoon, coming to his senses, marries a girl from his hometown. Nevertheless, the essence of the book lies not in the development of story but in the humor and aptness of the cat’s mordant observations of social conditions and human relationships. The satire is sometimes biting and acerbic, as for instance when Sneaze and Waverhouse make fun of the new acquisitive, money-grubbing ways symbolized by the Goldfields. At other times wit is preferred, as when the cat muses on the irrationality of human actions compared to the superiority of cats, although this is quickly countermanded by his own misadventures when he bites into a piece of sticky rice cake and struggles to free himself from its demon clutches. We also get to see slices of Meiji life (the 45- year reign of the Meiji emperor from 1868 to 1912, during which time Japan modernized as a country). These images are presented with affectionate good humor: An episode in which a robber steals into the Sneaze house, finds nothing of value, and runs away with a box of yams is a skilled demonstration in the use of bathos. Another squabble between Sneaze and high school students underscores the generation gap: The students like to throw balls into his garden to goad him into anger—predictably he does not disappoint them.

In place of plot, the author offers a profusion of witty conversations between the protagonists at the Sneaze household; in fact, much of the novel’s interest comes from these conversations. With Waverhouse leading the way, the talk moves from reminiscence about student days to the details of ancient Greek athletic contests. Other topics include the origins and functions of noses, the possibility of new artistic genres (something called a “haiku-play” is facetiously discussed at one point), 14 different ways to use a pair of scissors, the dynamics of death by hanging, the direction of human civilization, and the correct way to eat buckwheat noodles.

While the satirical elements reflect the influence of Jonathan Swift, the digressive, irreverent, and occasionally self-referential asides in these conversations reflect the influence of Laurence Sterne’s visionary novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759). As the preeminent scholar of English literature of his time, Sōseki knew both authors well. He belonged to that generation that was the first to receive the new Western-style education and also the last to have a traditional Japanese one. Thus, the novel is peppered with a heady mixture of references to Oliver Goldsmith, William Thackeray, Thomas Carlyle, Socrates, Aristotle, Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as a number of Chinese and Japanese poets, Confucian sages, and Zen Buddhist philosophers.

The episodic structure adumbrated above also reflects the book’s publishing history. What was to later become the first chapter of I Am a Cat appeared in a literary journal in January 1905 as a story. However strange the idea, a talking cat proved so popular that Sōseki went on to write 10 more chapters, eventually producing an enormous work running more than 600 pages in its English translation. Over a century later, the novel still never fails to appeal or to engage; all in all, it is an impressive testimony to Sōseki’s immense learning and comic talent.

Gessel, Van C. Three Modern Novelists: Soseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata. Tokyo and New York: Kodansha, 1993.
Sōseki Natsume. My Individualism and the Philosophical Foundations of Literature. Translated by Sammy I. Tsunematsu. Boston: Tuttle, 2004.
———. Rediscovering Natsume Soseki. Translated by Sammy I. Tsunematsu. Folkestone, U.K.: Global Oriental, 2000.
Yiu, Angela. Chaos and Order in the Works of Natsume Soseki. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998.

Categories: Japanese Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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