Neglect. Hallucinations. Paranoia. Theodor Geisel expertly weaves together these elements in his 1957 psychological thriller, The Cat In The Hat. Told by an unnamed narrator of questionable reliability, readers are encouraged to subscribe to his hallucinations of domesticated creatures that run amok during the appalling absence of parental authority.
Geisel’s story centers on two young, unsupervised children who become the unwilling victims of a home invasion. Confused and alone, they helplessly stand by as the intruder, an alleged feline, destroys the home with the aid of two accomplices. The children are notably more fearful of their mother’s reaction to the destruction, and upon noting this anxiety, the cat restores order and disappears just as mysteriously as he arrived. The narrator, his sister, and their fish are left to ponder the meaning of it all amidst the relief of not having to endure their mother’s wrath.
Over the years, much has been made of the utter fear displayed by the children in regards to their mother’s reaction to this crime. While not at fault for the incident, the narrator’s chronic fear indicates a history of neglect and even abuse. Geisel does not reveal much about the mother, only that she is “out of the house/ For the day” (8). The fact that her children are unfazed by this lack of supervision only fuels the theory that they are consistently left alone.
Scholars are also quick to take note of the absentee father and what implications this has in terms of the mother’s line of work. With an impressive home and a plethora of possessions ranging from a “little toy man” (18) to a high quality “rake” (18), there is only one logical explanation: the mother is clearly involved in a suburban prostitution ring. The key evidence here is the value placed on the new gown that is soiled during the Things’ tirade:
Thing Two and Thing One!
They ran up! They ran down!
On the string of one kite
We saw Mother’s new gown!
Her gown with the dots
That are pink, white and red
Then we saw one kite bump
On the head of her bed. (l. 210-17)
It is the potential destruction of the gown that finally pushes our young protagonist to take control of the situation, leading to speculation that “gowns” are a vital component of the mother’s professional attire. Moreover, the vivid description of the polka-dotted and colorful gown lends to the notion that this is a particularly special garment, and its ruination will assuredly incur the wrath of this potentially malevolent woman:
And I said,
“I do NOT like the way that they [the Things] play!
If Mother could see this,
Oh, what would she say!” (l. 222-225)
Our narrator is terrified of his mother’s response, so much so that he finally speaks up against the intruders, putting himself, his sister, and the fish at considerable risk.
The lack of a parental figure paired with a largely absent and controversial mother ultimately leaves readers to question the mental state and thereby the reliability of the narrator. We are asked to trust a traumatized child’s assertion that a bipedal feline capable of speech breaks into his home and openly converses with a crate full of “things” and a fish.
Perhaps the entire incident is merely a hallucination: the tragic outcome of years of parental negligence. Our narrator’s young mind can only handle so much, and he finally suffers a break from reality. The other option is that a cat legitimately put on a hat and strolled into the narrator’s home. If the latter is true, we are unfortunately left with more questions than answers: Where did this being come from? Why did he restore order to protect the children from their hostile mother? Where did he get that hat? The conclusion of The Cat In The Hat is ambiguous at best, but both options are disturbing. This haunting work will stick with readers long after it has been finished. I sped through it in a single sitting, and I am still pondering over the implications of this intricate piece of literature.