Literary criticism, Satire

The cat sat on the mat: a review

The cat sat on the mat is a prime example of the hyper-compressed novel. Unlike its children’s book namesake, it compresses its narrative into only six words, laden with meaning.

On the face of it, the story is simple: it tells us of a cat who sat on a mat. The cat is anonymous, non-descript and thus, could represent any of us. Its position on the mat indicates dominance. The imagery evokes a feeling of contendedness, but also of vigilance. The resting cat is ready to spring into action at the slightest sound.

But a “cat” is also a person. Over the centuries, the meaning of the word has swung from an angry woman, to a prostitute, to a cool man, to a jazz lover. Embodying both feminine and masculine aspects in a single word, the cat is a symbol of gender transgression. It is also a symbol of independence, both by virtue of its own animal nature, and the prostitute’s and the jazz movement’s breach with social norms.

The mat also has hidden meanings. A doormat is someone who surrenders, who lets him- or herself be dominated. Through its gender-ambiguity, the cat tells us that the male and the female can be equally dominant. The cat’s contentedness indicates it takes this for granted, while its vigilance tells us it closely guards against opposition, much like the feminist movement.

But more important than its feminist message, are the story’s social implications. The mat is woven, knitted or otherwise manufactured. It reminds us of the conditions of the workers in the textile industry, which was the base for the initial industrial revolution. The jazz-loving “cat” engages in cultural pleasures, while the mat supports it. For the working class, the middle class’ love of fine culture and discourse in gender theory may seem like a mockery in the face of its very real material needs. The text is steeped in self-criticism.

But the most brilliant stroke is to make the body of the text identical to its title, word for word. This identification of the symbol to the symbolised, of the name to the named, connects the narrative to the world of the supernatural. Just like the “word has become flesh”, the author brings the spiritual (the logos, the name, the title) into the material (the flesh or body of the text).

Is the cat then a symbol for Jesus? Well, obviously, but it is so much more than that. Its contemplative position and serenity also makes it the Buddha, and its insurrectuous nature makes it into a political leader, who, like so many, sadly fails to realise its ideals once it gains a dominant position, and merely becomes the new ruling class.

Symmetry also plays a large role in The cat sat on the mat. There is of course the symmetry between the title and the body of the text as explained above, but also symmetry within the text. The structure of the beginning (“The cat”) exactly mirrors the structure of the end (“the mat”). This is hardly a coincidence. Just as the spirit has descended into the flesh, the alpha (the beginning) has become the omega (the end). The cat has transformed into the mat.

This makes the novel’s message surprisingly revolutionary. Since the cat represents us all, it tells us not only that we are all able to transcend, that we are all, in a sense, God, but also that the working class should switch places with the middle class. It is no wonder the cat is vigilant.

Far from presenting the calm and static image it at first seems, The cat sat on the mat is a story teeming with class tensions, social criticism, and, some would say, heresy. Through innovative use of symbols, symmetry and self-reference, it tells us a complex story the mere words cannot convey.

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