The Cat in the Hat part 2

Preamble: When my son Sam (6) first began to read, I handed him a copy of The Cat in the Hat and asked him to read the cover. He went for the “Beginner Books” logo in the lower center of the cover and read aloud, “I CAN READ IT ALL BY MYSELF.” Then he looked up, amazed, and said “How did they know that?”

Anyway. To review:

The kids (Sally and I) are All Humanity, and they have been abandoned by God (Mom). They sit and stare out the windows of their house (that is, out the eyes of their skull, or the “windows of their perception” [The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley, 1954, The Cat in the Hat, 1957]).

The kids, however, are not alone. No, Geisel has given them a companion — a fish. The fish, we will see, functions as their superego. When the Cat encourages the kids to be bad, the fish instructs them to be good. When I first started reading a spiritual metaphor into The Cat in the Hat it seemed flat-footed and obvious that the spiritual superego would be conveyed by a Christ-like fish, but then Geisel is working on a literal level too, and what else would kids have around the house? A gerbil? Would it make sense for a gerbil to pontificate about right and wrong? What’s more, a fish is the natural prey of a Cat (and a black cat is the traditional companion of the witch) (and “gerbil” was probably not on the list of permissible words).

So: kids, house, absent God, Christ-fish. Let’s move forward.

“And then Something went BUMP!”

The Cat arrives.  Walks in the door, nice as you please.

Why does this not surprise us? Why has no one, of any age, in all humanity, ever in the past 50 years reached this point of the book and said “What? A six-foot-tall talking cat?! With an umbrella?! Fuck this shit!” We buy it. We buy that the Cat is six feet tall, we buy his clown-like outfit of hat and bow tie and gloves, we buy his umbrella.

We buy the Cat because we, like the kids, are waiting for something. That’s why we picked up the book — to be entertained. God is dead and so our lives are meaningless, we live in a state of anxiety, out of balance, waiting for something, anything, to give us some kind of answers about, well, about anything at all.

“I know it is wet and the sun is not sunny. But we can have lots of good fun that is funny.”

The Cat, master con man, magician and trickster (and lame jam-master — honestly, that’s your opening line, dude, is “fun that is funny” the best you can come up with? Is this how you make an impression?) is all too ready to fill this void, the void God’s absence has made. Obviously, the Cat must be the Devil.

Or is he? Maybe, maybe not — it depends on your definition of the Devil.

“‘I know some new tricks,’ said the Cat in the Hat.”

Tricks, not truth. The Cat has nothing meaningful to offer the kids. Not yet, anyway. And he adds subversion and divisiveness to his offer — “Your mother will not mind at all if I do.”

“Then Sally and I did not know what to say. Our mother was out of the house for the day.” The kids are lost, directionless. They cannot stop the Cat from walking in, they don’t know what to make of him, they don’t think twice about a six-foot-tall cat in a clown outfit with an umbrella (the umbrella shows that the Cat can move in a Godless world and not be affected by it — a skill the kids are keenly interested in). Some kids might react strongly at the sight of a six-foot-tall cat in a clown outfit (the hat, gloves and tie are a parody of being “dressed up,” ie “adult”) who can talk, in rhyme, in anapestic tetrameter, but not these kids — they act like it’s the most normal thing in the world.

Why? Why don’t they run screaming? Why don’t they hide? Why don’t they call the police? Because, as I say above, they are living in a world absent God and are looking for something, anything, to fill that void. They don’t run, they don’t scream — check out their faces — they gaze at the Cat with dumb acceptance. They look exactly like children watching television (which is maybe why Geisel did not put a TV in the house — the Cat is “evil entertainment” enough for one story).

The fish, of course, sets them straight, saying, essentially, “HEY! SIX-FOOT TALKING CAT! HEL-LO?

(The kids don’t react to the talking fish either — why should they? He’s just a fish, a normal, life-sized, unclothed fish. Once you’ve seen a six-foot talking cat, a normal-sized talking fish [one who’s a wet blanket, at that] isn’t going to raise your pulse much.)

The Cat’s first trick is to humiliate the fish, just as the Devil’s first trick is to force you to cast doubt on your faith. Then he goes into his circus act — the ball, the ball, the book, the fish — as the kids look on in mute helplessness. They’re helpless, entranced by the Cat’s shenanigans. They could probably watch him balance a book (the Book?) and a fish (Christ) while balancing on a ball (the Earth) all day long. I know I could.

But the Cat seems to get bored and restless by his own act, and starts adding to it. He adds a boat, a birthday cake, another book and some milk.

The boat seems to signify Christ again, the fisher of men, while the birthday cake perhaps indicates a “new birth” that has taken place, or will soon. The milk is perhaps that of human kindness, but what could the second book be?

In any case, the Cat is not just juggling household crap, he’s juggling signifiers. And doing so masterfully. As one would expect from the Devil.

The act keeps growing — growing, I’m afraid, into the realm of ridiculousness. A rake, a little man, a Japanese fan, a third book, a cup. I could probably find significance in this yard-sale collection of objects, but I think it’s just household crap now. The string is broken — the Cat, not knowing when he’s ahead, has piled too much stuff into his act.

And so he does the only thing he can — he falls. He falls and all the crap falls with him. If it was losing meaning before, it’s lost all meaning now. Now it’s just household crap all over the floor — a mess. The Cat has failed. He’s failed to entertain, he’s failed to provide meaning, he’s failed to replace God.

The fish scolds him and the Cat, instead of eating the fish like a real cat would, picks himself up, dusts himself off and, undaunted, announces a new game.

And here’s where it gets interesting.

The Cat brings in a box, a big red box (I wonder if the big red box is any relation to the “small red box” of David Bowie’s song “Red Money.” Or the small blue box of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.) “In this box are two things I will show to you now,” says the Cat. The “two things” turn out to be, of course, literally Two Things: Thing One and Thing Two.

And this is where I must pause. This is very peculiar. What is going on here? Two things? Two things? The work of Dr. Seuss overflows with imaginatively-named creatures, from Cindy-Lou-Who to Dr. Terwilliger to Gertrude McFuzz, why are these creatures Thing One and Thing Two? They’re not Frick and Frack, they’re not Gary and Jerry, they’re not Wizzer and Wuzzer, they’re Thing One and Thing Two. They’re not even described as creatures, only as things. Dr. Seuss has not only refused to give them names, he’s drained them of all possible personality.


Well, let’s look first at what they do. What do Thing One and Thing Two do? They introduce themselves to the children (who are helpless to resist), then they trash the house in the name of “play.” They fly kites, they knock over a vase, they push over an end-table, they endanger Mother’s dress and teapot and bed (Dr. Seuss, have you met Dr. Freud?). Come to think of it, Thing One and Thing Two don’t hurt the kids and they don’t damage anything that belongs to the kids — only Mom’s things are endangered.

It is only here that the narrator (“I”) puts his foot down. He realizes, finally, what is at stake here and says “I do NOT like the way that they play! If Mother could see this, oh what would she say!”

When I behave in a moral fashion, I occasionally stop and wonder why. A little voice inside me tells me don’t steal that newspaper, don’t throw that wrapper in the gutter, don’t kick that animal. Who does that little voice belong to?

It doesn’t belong to Jesus, and it doesn’t belong to a talking fish. It belongs, inevitably, I think, to my mother. It is our mother’s voice I believe we inevitably hear when we’re tempted to do something immoral. It’s not Dad’s voice, that seems clear. It is, in fact, probably just the opposite for Dad — if Mom is the one who says “Look both ways before crossing the street,” Dad is the one who says “What, you gonna be a pussy your whole life?”

So maybe the missing Mother isn’t God after all. Or if she is a God, she’s a secular, post-war, atomic-age God. A humanist God. God is absent, the humanists say, and therefore we must be moral, for the good of humanity. There is no punishment or reward that awaits us after life in the godless postwar era, only the world we create here on earth through our actions. What are the kids doing? Waiting for Mom to get home. What are Thing One and Thing Two doing? Destroying Mom’s stuff. This bugs the kids (or the boy, anyway — Sally doesn’t seem to have much of a say about anything in this story — Seuss somehow lived through the entire sexual revolution without ever getting around to writing a feminist book).

Okay. Thing One and Thing Two. Let’s take a step aside for a moment and talk about Bruno Bettleheim. In his book The Uses of Enchantment (which I strongly recommend to anyone who wishes to become a storyteller) Bettleheim instructs us that there are always fewer characters in a story than there appear to be. The Wicked Stepmother in “Hansel and Gretel” isn’t really a wicked stepmother, she’s merely the children’s mother when she’s in a bad mood. There is also no “strange woman who lives in the woods” — that too is Hansel and Gretel’s mother, and the story is how Hansel and Gretel feel threatened by their mother and so kill her (which is why she is magically gone at the end of the story when Hansel and Gretel get back from their adventure). In children’s stories, we kill the mother and replace her with a wicked stepmother so that the child can revel in the negative feelings they have about their mother without actually endangering their relationship with her. The proliferation of characters by proxy is a powerful and elementary device in storytelling and Seuss employs it beautifully here.

Why, I ask, Why are they named Thing One and Thing Two? They are named Thing One and Thing Two because they are not real creatures — they are empty signifiers — they are the physical manifestation of the children’s worst selves.

That is the trick, the truth that the Cat in the Hat brings into the house. The Cat allows the children to see their worst selves. The things that Thing One and Thing Two do are exactly what a couple of bored kids would do if they were feeling devilish enough while mother is out. “Good” kids will sit and wait and watch for Mother’s feet coming up the walk (we don’t see Mother’s face, of course — how does one put a picture of God in a children’s book?), “Bad” kids will run around and engage in horseplay and knock stuff over and break things.

Finally, I know why the kids don’t react to the Cat in the Hat. The kids don’t react to the Cat in the Hat because there is no Cat in the Hat. The kids made him up — they created him. They threw the stuff all over the house, they put the boat in the cake, they put the fish in the teapot, they knocked over the lamp. They made up the Cat to take the blame, like children have done since the beginning of time, but then they took it too far — or just far enough, because when the boy is confronted with the physical manifestation of his worst self, he recognizes it for what it is and demands that it leave.

The superego fish says “Here comes your mother now! Do something, fast!” And the boy catches Thing One and Thing Two in a net amid the rubble of his ruined house and orders the Cat to take them away. Now the house is still a mess and there’s no way the kids can clean it up, but the Cat magically returns with a machine of some kind (the deus ex kind, I’m afraid, now that I think of it) and effortlessly cleans it up.

He does all this while Mother is still walking up the walk. Which is, of course, an impossibility. But that’s okay, because in all probability, none of this ever happened. Not content to push the story into the realm of psychology, Seuss now pushes it even further — there was no Cat, there were no Things, there wasn’t even an eventthe boy made it all up, a story, to pass the time while waiting for Mother to get home, exactly like the protagonists of Beckett’s late work (Rockaby, Ohio Impromptu, Company, etc.) “It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows” begins part 2 of Molloy, “It was not midnight. It was not raining” is how it ends.

So there is no Cat, there are no Things, and there is no destruction of the house. What there is is a boyand a girl alone in the house on a rainy day, and the boy tells the girl a story, a story about a giant cat who shows up and wrecks the place, who shows the children their worst selves, so that they may then, with the help of their superego fish, know how to act when their Mother is gone.

Now that the kids have cleared this psychological/spiritual hurdle, Mother does indeed return. The children don’t ask her where she’s been or why she was gone, they only light up like Christmas (sorry) trees upon seeing her.

“Did you have any fun?” asks Mother. “Tell me. What did you do?” To which the boy asks “Should we tell her about it? What SHOULD we do?” Well, indeed, what should he do? The children have taken their first step into a moral life; they’ve fantasized about destroying the house, they lived that fantasy to the fullest, but they have then thought better of it. They now have a secret — some part of them wanted to destroy their Mother’s house. If they tell their Mother, they run the risk of losing her trust (unless they’re Catholic,of course — confession is always forgiven). If they don’t tell her, if they keep their secret, they take a step toward adulthood, a step toward a moral life independent of their mother. Which is, of course, the whole point of good parenting, to get to the point where your children are capable of making their own decisions. Which is, of course, the story of God and humanity — God leaves us alone, refuses to show himself, so that we can learn to make decisions on our own, exercise our free will. In that regard, Mother (God) and Cat (Devil) are part of the same bargain — Mother sends the Cat in as a test of our will, our faith, our sense of duty.

Finally, The Cat in the Hat is not about the Cat, or the hat, or the fish, or the Things, or the mess.  It’s about the boy creating a narrative, to entertain himself and his sister (maybe that’s why he has a sister at all, to be an audience).  The boy is Seuss, most likely, and he creates a narrative because that’s what storytellers, and all of us, really, do in order to make sense of the world.  We make up stories about God and the Devil, or the Cat and the Fish, or Hamlet and Claudius, or Harry and Voldemort, or James Bond and SMERSH, so that we might have a roadmap to guide our life.

The Cat, as cats will, comes back. But that’s a story for another day.

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6 Responses to “The Cat in the Hat part 2”
  1. sheherazahde says:


    Excellent and insightful as usual.

  2. curt_holman says:

    “They are named Thing One and Thing Two because they are not real creatures — they are empty signifiers — they are the physical manifestation of the children’s worst selves.”

    I’ve never seen the Mike Myers Cat in the Hat film (and certainly hope that I don’t), but I think I heard that the kid actors playing the children also played Thing One and Thing Two, which struck me as an interesting idea.

    • mattyoung says:

      “I heard that the kid actors playing the children also played Thing One and Thing Two, which struck me as an interesting idea.”

      Hmm. The first time I’ve heard something that, third-hand mind you, could be construed as a positive feature about that flick.

    • greyaenigma says:

      One of my favorite phrase reviews of any movie was given to Cat in the Hat: “Asshole in fur”.

  3. medox says:

    It’s going to look weird to people next time I’m in the library, sitting in one of those tiny chairs in the children’s section, deeply immersed in “The Cat in the Hat” and nodding sagely from time to time. But now I have to do it.

  4. popebuck1 says:

    You’re wasted on screenwriting – you should be teaching Semiotics In Literature at Yale.