Literary cat shout-out: the cat from Animal Farm

Literary cat shout-out: the cat from Animal Farm

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 appears 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?

I’ve read a lot of different interpretations 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
Literary cat shout-out: Cat from Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Literary cat shout-out: Cat from Breakfast at Tiffany’s

©Paramount Pictures

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.

©Paramount Pictures

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.

©Paramount Pictures

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