Literary cat shout-out: the cat from Animal Farm

Literary cat shout-out: the cat from Animal Farm

The flag described in Animal Farm with a hoof and horn symbol, meant to mimic the hammer and sickle of the communist flag

All of the animals in George Orwell’s allegorical novella Animal Farm come in groups: the pigs, the dogs, the cows, the horses, the chicken, the sheep—but there’s only one cat.

While she may not have a name or any spoken dialogue and only appear six times in the book, the cat manages to be one of the most curious and mysterious characters in Animal Farm.

She’s generally shown to be apathetic, elusive, and somewhat manipulative, but also kind of amusing. Most mentions of the cat read almost as punchlines, like, The dogs did X, the pigs did Y, the horses did Z, and meanwhile the cat did whatever TF she wanted. And, since Animal Farm is a pretty bleak book, the cat, bless her, adds a little bit of fun.

©Halas & Batchelor

Her first appearance in the story shows her personality right out of the gate: All the animals are gathered in the barn for a meeting, and the cat is the last to arrive. She looks around for the warmest place to sit, finally settles, and purrs contentedly throughout Old Major the pig’s speech “without listening to a word of what he was saying.”

The 1954 animated film shows the cat in this scene, too, only she makes even more of a grand entrance as all the animals go silent and wait for her to strut across the barn and find a seat. She then immediately takes a nap. (The cat is not featured in the 1999 live action film adaptation, but we don’t talk about that one anyway because it’s—how do you say?—bad.)

©Halas & Batchelor

Throughout the story, the cat is seen to be shirking off work, though conveniently returning in time for dinner, and once, when the animals take a vote, she votes on both sides. She makes clever excuses and purrs her way out of things, and the other animals can’t help but be taken in.

For only a few days, she joins the Re-education Committee to teach other animals about human-less society, telling the sparrows that all animals are equal so they should come right over and perch on her paw. She actually does help defend the farm once by attacking a human with her claws, but notably only joins the fray after seeing that all the other animals are fighting.

Almost every character in Animal Farm represents a figure from the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, so who is the cat supposed to be?

Well, Orwell didn’t really elaborate, so we can make of her what we want. I’ve found a lot of different interpretations online of what the cat represents: the Russian elite (who lived luxuriously and didn’t care about the plight of the working man); the educated (who didn’t believe communism was the right path but were also wealthy and did not work); the thieves and criminals of society (who freeload without contributing anything themselves); and opportunists (who are only interested in what will serve them most)—the one I tend to agree with.

Cats are self-sufficient, independent creatures. The Animal Farm cat doesn’t want to be tied down to any kind of society, but she’ll also take what she can get from it, if it doesn’t cost her. She’s intelligent, but self-serving. Her attitude and work ethic I think can best be summed up by something lawyer Jeff Winger says in the TV show Community: “The funny thing about being smart is that you can get through most of life without ever having to do any work.”

And the behavior of the cat was somewhat peculiar. It was soon noticed that when there was work to be done the cat could never be found. She would vanish for hours on end, and then reappear at mealtimes, or in the evening after work was over, as though nothing had happened. But she always made such excellent excuses, and purred so affectionately, that it was impossible not to believe in her good intentions.

—George Orwell, Animal Farm
“I think I’m in a tragedy.”

“I think I’m in a tragedy.”

©Columbia Pictures

Have you seen 2006’s Stranger Than Fiction lately? It’s really cute.

So here I am, giving it a shout-out.

(It’s on Netflix, if you’re interested.)

IRS agent Harold Crick starts hearing a voice in his head narrating his life and thinks he might be a character in someone’s book. He seeks the help of a literature professor who tells him he needs to figure out whether he’s in a comedy or tragedy.

Harold, who lives a very routine, boring, and lonely life, starts branching out of his comfort zone to put this question to the test and see what might happen, good or bad. He learns guitar, pursues an unlikely love interest, and slowly loosens his rigid way of life in favor of some chance and fun.

Once he hears the voice narrate about how he will die soon, along with learning that the author narrating his life has a penchant for killing off her protagonists, he’s saddened by his impending death, mourning the life he could have had now that he’s learned to truly live.

I won’t say how it ends.

The cast is great—Will Ferrell should do more subdued roles like this. His Harold is super sweet and you can’t help but like him a lot. He and love interest Maggie Gyllenhaal have a lovely chemistry; I actually said aww out loud a couple times. Add Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and Emma Thompson as the glum, chain-smoking, death-obsessed author, and it’s a solid ensemble.

©Columbia Pictures

And it’s got lit. jokes.

When Harold tells the literature professor that the author narrated the line, “Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death,” about him, the professor is intrigued. The phrase “little did he know” tips him off that this is a third-person omniscient narrator—meaning one that knows more than the characters—and Harold might be telling the truth about the voice he hears. Because if the protagonist were just narrating what he knows of his own life, i.e. if Harold were making the voice up, he wouldn’t use an omniscient phrase such as this.

“I’ve taught classes on little did he know,” Hoffman’s professor says, smiling knowingly. This seems like a jokey stab at how absurdly granular lit. theory can get, and I know from countless college lit. analysis classes that it’s wildly accurate.

Another funny stab at the lit. world: the author has an assistant whose sole job is to GET THE WRITER TO WRITE THE DAMN BOOK. It’s a trope based in (some) truth that (some) authors drag their feet finishing a project after having accepted the advance; they feel trapped and locked in by the deadline, lose their creative mojo, and come down with the dreaded writer’s block.

Seeing Queen Latifah calmly but sternly hound Emma Thompson into actually writing something instead of brooding and pondering death made me LOL, and it made me want a similar assistant of my own to keep me on task.

While it might not dive super deep, and while you do have to suspend your disbelief a bit, Stranger Than Fiction is a charming film about our relationship with fictional characters.

Fiction is based in reality. Characters are often based on or inspired by real people. We want our fiction to have an element of realness, and sometimes we want our lives to have a spark of fiction. This movie blurs those lines, trying to answer the question from each side: “What if characters in books existed in real life?” and “What if I was a character in a story?”

It’s a love letter to writing, storytelling, and how fictional characters can seem so very real to us.

Harold Crick: You have to understand that this isn’t a philosophy or a literary theory or a story to me. It’s my life.

Professor Hilbert: Absolutely. So just go make it the one you’ve always wanted.

Stranger Than Fiction