Mysterious, clever, and a bit magical, the unnamed cat from Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasy (and awesomely creepy) children’s book Coraline is a paragon for black cats everywhere. Throughout the book, he serves as an aloof guide for eleven-year-old heroine Coraline—he’s kind of like the Cheshire Cat if the Cheshire Cat were actually helpful.
He appears in the 2002 novella by Gaiman (both in Gaiman’s text and in illustrations by Dave McKean) and in Henry Selick’s 2009 stop-motion film adaption. While the book is wonderfully creepy, no matter your age, the movie is really great too, with its gorgeous animation and perfectly cast voice acting, including Keith David, the enigmatic and dark voice of the cat.
When Coraline Jones and her parents move into a new apartment, she explores the grounds and occasionally sees a black cat around who she describes as haughty and avoidant of her attempts to interact with it. But when she discovers a secret portal in her house to another world through a small door in the parlor, she encounters the black cat again, and this time, he sticks around for a chat.
It seems that whatever space Coraline enters through her parlor door lends some magic to cats, or at least this one. When she spots him on the grounds in the other world, he greets her with a casual “Good afternoon.” Coraline thinks the cat’s voice sounds like the voice at the back of her head, “the voice she thought words in, but a man’s voice, not a girl’s.”
They have a conversation about names, and he insists that cats do not need them (T. S. Eliot has left the chat) while proceeding to disappear and magically reappear behind various things in the garden, demonstrating his comfort and familiarity with this mysterious place.
Despite his occasional sassiness, he’s pretty reasonable, as far as magical cats go, and he helps Coraline multiple times, giving her information about the world she’s walked into, the evil entity—the other mother, who looks like Coraline’s mother with buttons for eyes—she must defeat, and dropping clues on how, exactly to defeat it.
It’s even thanks to him, in the end, that the two are able to escape the other mother’s clutches and get back to the real world.
Once safely home, Coraline explores the garden with newfound fervor for real life, giving her new friend belly rubs when she runs into him, and even without his being able to talk in this world, they manage to converse.
Here’s to mysterious, fictional cats, who know all the answers but can’t always be be bothered to share them.
“You must be the other cat.”
The cat shook its head. “No,” it said. “I’m not the other anything. I’m me.” It tipped its head to one side; green eyes glinted. “You people are spread all over the place. Cats, on the other hand, keep ourselves together. If you see what I mean.”
“I suppose. But if you’re the same cat I saw at home, how can you talk?”
Cats don’t have shoulders, not like people do. But the cat shrugged, in one smooth movement that started at the tip of its tail and ended in a raised movement of its whiskers. “I can talk.”
“Cats don’t talk at home.”
“No?” said the cat.
“No,” said Coraline.
The cat leapt smoothly from the wall to the grass near Coraline’s feet. It stared up at her.
“Well, you’re the expert on these things,” said the cat dryly. “After all, what would I know? I’m only a cat.”
It began to walk away, head and tail held high and proud.—Neil Gaiman, Coraline
This scrappy fuzzball from The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins belongs to heroine Katniss Everdeen’ sister Prim. He appears in all three novels (and four films) as a comforting companion to Prim and an annoyance to Katniss, with whom he’s not on the friendliest of terms due to her (expositional) attempt to drown him in a bucket—bad Katniss! Eventually, though, she accepts Prim’s attachment to him.
Buttercup is said to be a good mouser and even catches the occasional rat. He’s described in the novels as looking a little worse-for-wear with a mashed-in nose and half of one ear missing—which tracks, considering his rough life in the impoverished District 12. His name comes from Prim insisting that his muddy yellow coat matches the bright buttercup flower.
In fact, the makers of the Hunger Games films tried to pull a fast one by casting a black-and-white cat as Buttercup in the first movie. Collins and fans (rightfully) demanded he be changed to a yellow-haired cat for the rest of the films to stay true to the novels and his namesake.
When the Everdeen family moves into a new, much larger house in Catching Fire, Buttercup and Katniss slowly bond over their shared dislike of their new home. Katniss even starts sharing scraps from her hunting kills with him and deigns to give him the occasional behind-the-ear rub.
In Mockingjay, when the resistance moves into what’s essentially a massive underground bunker in District 13, Katniss finds Buttercup while on a venture to the now-destroyed District 12 and brings him back for her sister, even though pets aren’t allowed.
At one point when 13 is on lockdown during a bombing from the Capitol, Buttercup helps ease the tension by entertaining the troops, so to speak, chasing a flashlight beam and giving Katniss an epiphany about how her enemy is taunting her. And making everyone LOL. (Even in wartime, people can still laugh at cat antics—call it a testament to the human spirit.)
We don’t get to see a ton of Buttercup, since he lives in District 12 (and eventually 13) and our POV character Katniss is usually off fighting for her life somewhere else, but he makes his few appearances count.
Case in point: this passage from Mockingjay, which I’ll let close. Now that I’ve typed it out, I need to go find whoever’s chopping onions around here…
My head snaps around at the hiss, but it takes awhile to believe he’s real. How could he have gotten here? I take in the claw marks from some wild animal, the back paw he holds slightly above the ground, the prominent bones in his face. He’s come on foot, then, all the way from 13. Maybe they kicked him out, or maybe he couldn’t stand it there without her, so he came looking.
“It was a waste of a trip. She’s not here,” I tell him. Buttercup hisses again. “She’s not here. You can hiss all you want. You won’t find Prim.” At her name, he perks up. Raises his flattened ears. Begins to meow hopefully. “Get out!” He dodges the pillow I throw at him. “Go away! There’s nothing left for you here!” I start to shake, furious with him. “She’s never ever coming back here again!” Out of nowhere, the tears begin to pour down my cheeks. I clutch my middle to dull the pain. “She’s dead, you stupid cat. She’s dead.” A new sound, part crying, part singing, comes out of my body, giving new voice to my despair. Buttercup begins to wail as well. No matter what I do, he won’t go. He circles me, just out of reach, as wave after wave of sobs racks my body, until eventually I fall unconscious.
But he must understand. Because hours later, when I come to in my bed, he’s there in the moonlight. Crouched beside me, yellow eyes alert, guarding me from the night.—Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay
Socialite Holly Golighty in Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s has a cat. Or, not really. It’s more like they cohabitate. Sometimes. He comes and goes as he pleases, and she simply calls him Cat, not presuming to claim him with a name: In her eyes, he’s an independent creature, like her.
He appears in Capote’s 1958 novella as well as the 1961 film adaptation that famously features Audrey Hepburn as New York City café society girl Golightly. He’s described as a red, tiger-striped tomcat, and Holly often takes him on her fire escape with her while she plays guitar and sings.
While he merely pops in and out of the narrative to serve as a loose metaphor for Holly’s independent spirit, he ultimately plays an important role in the story’s ending.
In the final act of both the novella and the film, Holly is leaving New York for Brazil, incidentally also leaving the protagonist, who’s fallen in love with her. Defiantly trying to prove to herself that she doesn’t need sentimental attachments, she takes Cat on a cab ride and leaves him in a neighborhood far from her building.
Which she immediately regrets. She feels deeply sad moments after leaving him, realizing that she did have a bond with the cat, and she goes back to look for him in a fit of desperation.
In the novella, she never finds him. She moves to Brazil. She travels the world. She stays true to herself and her free spirit. She learns, like the protagonist does, that you can love something and let it go. The protagonist hears tell of her later in life and wonders what adventures she might be on.
In the film, she finds Cat, while also realizing she loves the protagonist back, kissing him in the rain, and deciding to (presumably) settle down with him in New York.
So, the movie and the book end on two very different notes, one of wistfulness and one of predictable romance. The book ending seems more on-brand for Holly. I can only guess why the filmmakers decided to change it, and in turn, stifle the most important part of Holly’s character—her brazen independence—but even Capote biographer Gerald Clarke agrees with me that, “The book is more authentic.”
In any case, Holly’s cat represents that we inevitably grow attached to others as we go through life, often without even realizing it. Try as you may to be self-reliant, it’s nearly impossible not to form bonds with people (and cats) as you move through the world, no matter how you live your life.
She was still hugging the cat. “Poor slob,” she said, tickling his head, “poor slob without a name. It’s a little inconvenient, his not having a name. But I haven’t any right to give him one: he’ll have to wait until he belongs to somebody. We just sort of took up one day, we don’t belong to each other: he’s an independent, and so am I. I don’t want to own anything until I know I’ve found the place where me and things belong together. I’m not quite sure where that is just yet. But I know what it’s like.” She smiled, and let the cat drop to the floor.—Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
If you’re a character in a Poe story, chances are your fate is doomed. Such is the case for Pluto—aptly named for the Roman god of death—from Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Black Cat.”
Pluto is a large, friendly black cat who belongs to the (unnamed) narrator and his wife. They’re both very fond of him, and vice-versa. Everything is great, until the narrator gradually sinks into alcoholism and, with that, becomes a lot more contentious.
One night coming home very drunk, he thinks Pluto is avoiding him. Offended, he finds the cat and uses his pen-knife to remove one of its eyes. Pluto slowly recovers over time, but as our unreliable narrator slips further into the bottle he becomes irrationally enraged once more, fashions a noose, and hangs his once-adored pet from a tree.
Then things start to get really messed up. (Sarcasm.)
(But also, they do.)
The night our inebriated narrator commits this heinous deed, he wakes to a mysterious fire in his house. The next morning, he sees an impression on the wall of a “figure of a gigantic cat” with “a rope about the animal’s neck.” Henceforth, he’s haunted by thoughts and visions of Pluto, even succumbing to guilt over what he’s done.
Some time later, he comes across another black cat in a tavern who acts and looks exactly like Pluto. Becoming quick friends with the cat, he takes him home and he and his wife dote on him. But soon, the pattern repeats.
Once again, the narrator becomes moody, easily enraged, and intolerant of the cat, ultimately failing in an attempt to kill the creature and—oops—killing his wife instead. It just so happens the murder takes place in a cellar, where he can conveniently hide her body by removing a portion of the wall and resealing her inside it.
Everything is great again (well, relatively speaking) until the cops come to investigate and—oops—a howling, yowling meowing comes from behind the wall, screaming the narrator’s guilt. You might as well call this story “The Tell-Tale Cat.” In fact, it was published the same year as Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” in 1843.
It’s no leap to conclude that Pluto and his successor (who, for all we know, due to our unreliable, drunken narrator, could be one and the same cat) aren’t cats so much as nasty reminders to the narrator of his destructive alcoholism. He tries to kill it, but it always comes back to haunt him.
Poor Pluto didn’t do anything wrong except be a metaphor. A metaphor for a thing that haunts and stalks the narrator. A neutral entity that takes on a malevolent aura when filtered through the wrong perception, that turns into something evil, intent on bringing bad luck and ruin.
This latter was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree. In speaking of his intelligence, my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured with superstition, made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise. Not that she was ever serious upon this point—and I mention the matter at all for no better reason than that it happens, just now, to be remembered.—Edgar Allen Poe, “The Black Cat”
Clever Crookshanks belongs to none other than Hermione Granger, Brightest Witch of Her Age™ from the Harry Potter series. He’s half-Kneazle, half-cat, and fully adorable. (Harry would say that’s a matter of opinion, but I would say he’s wrong.)
He’s described as having a thick, fluffy ginger coat, a bottlebrush tail, a squashed, grumpy face, and slightly bandy legs. Per the Harry Potter Lexicon, his name is taken from the surname Cruikshank, which means “crooked legs.”
He bursts into the Potterverse for the first time in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban at the Magical Menagerie pet store in Diagon Alley when he yeets himself at Ron and nearly kills him.
Hermione sees this and thinks, “I need this creature in my life.”
“Okay,” said Ron. “How much—OUCH!”
Ron buckled as something huge and orange came soaring from the top of the highest cage, landed on his head, and then propelled itself, spitting madly, at Scabbers.
“NO, CROOKSHANKS, NO!” cried the witch, but Scabbers shot from between her hands like a bar of soap.
It took them nearly ten minutes to catch Scabbers, who had taken refuge under a wastepaper bin outside. Ron stuffed the trembling rat back into his pocket and straightened up, massaging his head.
“What was that?”
“It was either a very big cat or quite a small tiger,” said Harry.
“Probably getting her owl.”
Hermione came out, but she wasn’t carrying an owl. Her arms were clamped tightly around the enormous ginger cat.
“You bought that monster?” said Ron, his mouth hanging open.
“He’s gorgeous, isn’t he?” said Hermione, glowing.—Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
As Potterheads know—and as his fictional humans did not at the time—Crookshanks was only trying to attack a Death Eater in disguise, like a good boy. Hermione obviously made a smart choice in her familiar, but Crookshanks was smart to choose Hermione too. Throughout all his prowlings of the Hogwarts grounds after Hermione took him to school with her—when he could’ve dipped out forevs—he always wound up back home in front of the fire in Gryffindor Tower.
I’m of the mind that cats are like wands: they choose the wizard.
Other things Crookshanks was smart about in Prisoner of Azkaban include knowing that Sirus Black was always to be trusted and how to calm the Whomping Willow by touching a knot in the trunk.
“He’s the most intelligent of his kind I’ve ever met.”—Sirius Black
Not only that, he managed to single-pawedly orchestrate Sirius’ break-in of Gryffindor Tower by stealing the portrait passwords from Neville’s bedside table. I’ll say it again. A CAT. Helped the most WANTED criminal in Britain break into Hogwarts. Good job, school.
J. K. Rowling’s decision to give Hermione an unusually intelligent cat was inspired by a real-life, large, fluffy ginger cat that hung around the square where she ate lunch when she worked in London. The cat, who “looked as though it had run face-first into a wall,” prowled around with a disdainful look, avoiding peoples’ attempts to stroke it. Rowling never got close but became “distantly fond” of the cat.
In the Harry Potter series, Rowling made Crookshanks a bit friendlier than his IRL counterpart—he purrs loudly and curls up in laps often, Harry’s included. Even Ron, who seems to be yelling at or about Crookshanks on every other page in Azkaban, comes around to sort of liking him, offering his new pet owl Pigwidgeon to him at the end of the book for the Crookshanks Seal of Approval Sniff Test™.
This bushy-haired boy may have been a little misunderstood throughout his page-time in the books because of his intelligence, but as I’m sure his bushy-haired mom would agree, intelligence is a trait worth being misunderstood for.
The common room was almost empty; nearly everyone was still down at dinner. Crookshanks uncoiled himself from an armchair and trotted to meet them, purring loudly, and when Harry, Ron and Hermione took their three favorite chairs at the fireside he leapt lightly on to Hermione’s lap and curled up there like a furry ginger cushion.—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
This is the first in a series of literary cat shout-outs I’ll be doing here, because we love cats here at The Book Broad (me. I love cats.), and there are a lot of wonderful fictional ones. And who better to start with than the OG:
A cat so famous he transcends his source material, the Cheshire Cat is known for his disappearing body and mischievous grin—the latter a representation of how all cats feel on the inside when they get one over on us, I would imagine.
Per Wikipedia, a possible origin of the phrase “grinning like a Cheshire Cat” is one favored by the people of Cheshire, a county in England that has a lot of dairy farms; hence the cat’s grin because of the abundance of milk and cream.
I’d also connect Cheshire’s smile to the “cat that ate the canary” idiom that means to look very smug and self-satisfied about something (naughty) you’ve done.
He debuted in the 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, which included illustrations by John Tenniel, and he’s made appearances in the 1951 Disney animated adaptation, Tim Burton’s 2010 live-action remake, and Burton’s Through the Looking Glass in 2016—not to mention countless other Alice adaptations, including television, video games, and comic books.
Cheshire first meets Alice at the Duchess’s house, and later he’s found in the branches of a tree, where he engages her in confusing conversation, raising philosophical points that sometimes annoy or perplex her. But in the end, when the Queen of Hearts sentences her to death, he has her back by creating a diversion with his floating head.
To be fair, he framed Alice for the prank that put her on trial for execution in the first place—make of that what you will.
He may be a little mad, but he knows something we don’t, and his biggest trick might be hiding the fact that he’s the sanest one of all.
“And how do you know that you’re mad?”
“To begin with,” said the Cat, “a dog’s not mad. You grant that?”
“I suppose so,” said Alice.
“Well then,” the Cat went on, “you see, a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.”―Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland