The Cat in the Hat: In Which Sisters Aren’t Superfluous

 

As a literacy aid meant to compete with the then popular (but increasingly scrutinized) Dick and Jane primers, the great triumph of The Cat in the Hat was demonstrating just how much story can be squeezed out of a list of some 300 common words. More precisely, how 263 individual words used in 1,623 ways could provide a full narrative arch.

It’s a Freytag’s pyramid worth of conflict, evolving relationships, and—above all—good fun that is funny:

 

A satisfying story in limited, accessible language, colored by nonsense and the fantastic: The Cat in the Hat’s compressed complexity brought the Golden Age of children’s literature to picture books. If it seems obvious to contemporary readers that Seuss would win out over Dick and Jane, this is in no small part because the book was tapping into the Golden Age’s constructions of childhood—innocence, pleasure, fantasy—already naturalized by the gradual ascendance of “imaginative” over “didactic” literature in mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century classics.

Like the portal fantasies of our last networks, the plot moves from the recognizable to the fantastic and back again. Except, here, it’s an intrusive fantasy (1); magic arrives and leaves with the Cat. Giving a plot movement that is relational rather than spatial, which you can see in the network, which are as symbolically symmetrical as the portals’ networks.

Where the Wild Things Are gives us a line

 

whereas Cat in the Hat is a kite of conflicts.

Fish and Cat negotiate directly between Fish’s order and Cat’s chaos, but the purer forms of those regimes—Things 1 & 2 and Mother—negotiate with no one. It’s clear that Thing 1 & 2 can’t be bargained with—only removed by force. (What does this imply about Mother?) Both Mother and the Things are not spoken to, but about by Cat and Fish.

Dr. Seuss once called the Fish his version of Cotton Mather (2) — the literal Puritan remembered least fondly for his role in the Salem witch trials (and legally, for his inventive and deadly claims about spectral evidence). In neat classification systems, the Cat is the id, the Fish the superego, and the connection between them that we see in the network would simply be their integration.

It would seem though, that the superego and id would only need to be connected through the ego—creating a portal-like network. There is no question, though, that this kite is formed through direct interaction between the two:

The Cat, as the possessor of magic, appears to function as the portal in the narrative—breaching and then restoring the status quo ante. Pictures give the fish a similar role. The penultimate frames have the fish and cat wearing the identical expression of contentment, of a job well done.

 

And the final frame has the Fish, breaking the fourth wall to look at us with a smile that significantly undercuts the anxiety of the final question (“What would you do if your mother asked you?”).

Having had everything restored, Fish is revealed not to be a legal formalist but a realist: his fear was not the fact of disorder but its consequence. Having avoided the latter, he was satisfied in regard to the former.

“I’ve always had a mistrust of adults,” said Dr. Seuss, “The Cat in the Hat is a revolt against authority, but it’s ameliorated by the fact that the Cat cleans everything up in the end. It’s revolutionary in that it goes as far as Kerensky and then stops. It doesn’t go quite as far as Lenin.” (3) The children avoid punishment by giving the appearance of compliance.

It’s true that Dr. Seuss had a gender problem—boys predominate in his oeuvre and here Sally never speaks directly. If this bothers you on the page, it doesn’t in the network. If “I” were removed, Sally would preserve every connection. She makes the first-person narrator spatially dispensable. What the network gives us is a more complicated answer to role of everyone who isn’t Cat: the revolution needs Sally to provide the satisfyingly tight balance between all the revolutionaries (or, depending on your perspective, co-conspirators). None of the four prongs of the kite are unyielding in their stances; all work together to subvert and conceal. The network is a kite of conflicts and cooperation. Revolutions, after all, need all the help they can get.

 

  1. See Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008).
  2. & 3. See Jonathan Cott’s Pipers at the gates of dawn: the wisdom of children’s literature (1983).

Social Network Sunday features books made into networks. Characters become nodes connected by specific interactions, which, here, is direct speech; a line between characters is called an edge. How many edges a character has indicates her importance to the stability of the network, a structural centrality that doesn’t always match thematic centrality. The purpose of this feature is less interpretation than experimentation. For more on method, please see the first essay in this series.

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