Perhaps my dislike of cats can be traced back to The Cat In The Hat.
My adult self can appreciate the punchy rhymes, solid story arc, and gorgeous pen and ink drawings. But a big part of me can’t help but consider Seuss’s most popular book to be a misfire of sorts. Seuss didn’t write for adults, he wrote for kids, and, as a kid, I found The Cat In The Hat to be terribly unsettling.
Think about it. Two children, perhaps seven years old, are home alone. That’s a vulnerable situation to be in. I had firsthand knowledge of this; I was a latchkey kid and was allowed to be home alone at about that same age. I liked having the house to myself because it made me feel very grown up, but those feelings of maturity were tempered by…was it anxiety? I’m not sure. But when I was alone, a teensy little thought sometimes niggled around in the back of my brain: “What if something happens?” I didn’t know what that something could be, but I did know that some somethings could be very dangerous. Would I be able to handle it? Would I know what to do? Could I keep safe?
The Cat In The Hat seemed engineered to tap into that fear. Without warning, or even a knock on the door, a cat, the size of an adult male, bursts into the house and demands that the children take part in reckless and destructive games that aren’t really games at all.
And this cat is a bully. At the first sign of protest – courtesy of a fussbudget fish – he retaliates with a game called “up-up-up with a fish,” perching the finned fellow’s glass bowl on the handle of his umbrella. When the fish protests further, the cat goes out of his way to make him even more alarmed, by grabbing and balancing more household objects until they all inevitably crash to the floor.
For the young me, that fish was The Cat In The Hat’s lonely bright spot. I loved that little guy. Even after a terrifying fall; even though he had to endure the humiliation of swimming in a pot; even though he was in direct conflict with a natural predator; that proud, brave little guy ripped that cat a new one.
Just take a peek at the fish’s post-fall rant:
“Now look what you did!”
Said the fist to the cat.
“Now look at this house!
Look at this! Look at that!…”
And on it goes. It’s a fabulous “I told you so” moment. Oh, I loved it so.
As a child I loved neatness and order. I liked to play by the rules. Because of this, I tended to gravitate toward wet blanket characters in children’s literature. My favorite Sesame Street Muppet? Bert. My favorite animal from Winnie the Pooh? Rabbit. I identified with characters who existed only to be tormented by the act-first-think-later Ernies and Tiggers of the world.
Fortunately, in Bert and Rabbit’s case, the worst punishment either character received was exasperation. That fish, however, was being threatened with bodily harm.
But the little guy still fought, God bless him!
The fish’s moral victory is a fleeting one, of course. A few moments later, the cat unleashes the Things, and the situation goes from bad to much, much worse.
At least the cat didn’t try to destroy the items he balanced on his umbrella. It was an accident. A stupid, selfish, dangerous, and entirely avoidable accident, but an accident nonetheless. Those Things, on the other hand, were wired differently. The destruction they wrought was deliberate. They delighted in it. I found it awful.
Yes, yes, I know. The boy in the story eventually springs into action and traps the Things in a net. Yes, the Cat cleans up the mess before the mother gets home. But that, in my view, did not make everything OK. That self-absorbed interloper created a lot of undue stress for the kids and that fish, all in the name of “fun” – fun that only he was having.
Not cool, cat. Not cool at all.
Dr. Seuss wrote a lot of stories with similar types of mayhem built in, but The Cat In The Hat was the only one I didn’t enjoy. It was a book that knew exactly how to push my buttons.
That said, I did, eventually, learn to appreciate The Cat In The Hat‘s charms. When my older sister was pregnant with her first child, I offered to paint a mural in the new nursery.
What I chose to paint was that confident cat, locked in eternal conflict with that marvelous, underappreciated fish.