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In my previous post, I considered how the exclusion of the cat lady from society becomes the site of an inter-species companionship that is subversive of this regime of biopower, particularly in Doris Lessing’s short story ‘An Old Woman and Her Cat’. Continuing my series of posts on the figure of the cat lady, I will examine the particular forms of solidarity between species that this companionship represents, and look at how this solidarity operates through gender.

As I had mentioned previously, one of the ways in which the cat lady is an inverse of Giorgio Agamben’s figure of the wolf-man is that she represents different regime of biopower, one which marginalises and undervalues the labour of women. Cats are in a similarly marginal position compared to other companion animals because the kinds of labour that they perform and the traits that make them suited to this labour are also gendered[1]. A horse’s labour, for example, is valuable because the horse demonstrates a ‘masculine’ trait of physical strength. Likewise, dogs are useful for herding, hunting, or security because of their loyalty, aggression or ferocity[2].

The gendering of a dog’s labour is salient in J.M. Coetzee’s recent story in The New Yorker, ‘The Dog’. It follows a foreign woman in a French-speaking country who menaced by a stranger’s dog — a characteristically aggressive Rottweiler or German shepherd — every day during her commute to and from work. She feels, from the dog’s eyes, ‘hatred of the purest kind shining upon her,’ a hatred which is also acutely gendered: the dog is ‘a male, uncut’, and his aggression for her, she suspects, is ‘two kinds of satisfaction at once—the satisfaction of one beast dominating another beast, the satisfaction of a male dominating a female’ as she ‘gives off the smell of fear as a bitch gives off the smell of sex’ (61). It is precisely for this gendered aggression that the dog’s owners keep him and, along with a subtle and unspoken xenophobia, condone this kind of behaviour.

Picture of Cecil the Cat


Cats, however, are known for their independence, aloofness, cleanliness and small size. They are kept as companion animals, along with other small creatures like hamsters or rabbits, or they help with domestic cleanliness by killing vermin, but they do not perform physical labour or guard property. This feline labour, just like ‘feminine’ labour, is undervalued because of its lack of immediate exploitability by capital. This is true in Lessing’s short story, where Hetty’s selling old clothes is seen, by her friends, family and neighbours, as unrespectable. Meanwhile, Tibby, though male, not display behaviour characteristic of male cats (spraying, killing off male offspring to reduce competition and rivalry, et cetera). Instead, he eschews masculine behaviour and bringing her prey as female cats would, making this feminine labour of caring for Hetty the basis for companionship between them. The gendering of the cat is not as overt in Jane Campbell’s ‘Cat Brushing’, but the old woman and the cat are both seen as dispensable because their labour is no longer seen as useful along similar lines. The coinciding of these two forms of exclusion of the feminine and feline makes the cat lady doubly outcast within society.

(Video of J.M. Coetzee reading ‘The Old Woman and the Cats’)

In contrast to the way in which the gendering of the dog and the protagonist motivates a mutual hatred and hostility as well as a form of oppression in ‘The Dog’, in Coetzee’s other story, ‘The Old Woman and the Cats’, it is the gendering of Elizabeth Costello and the cats whom she encounters that forms the basis of solidarity between species. The cats in the rural Spanish town where Elizabeth lives are treated as vermin, hunted or killed at any opportunity. Elizabeth decided to start looking after the cats when she saw a stray female giving birth in a culvert who could not flee because she was in the act of giving birth, but snarled at Elizabeth. She describes the incident as follows:

A poor, half-starved creature, bearing her children in a filthy, damp place, yet ready to give her life to defend them. I, too, am a mother, I wanted to say to her, but of course she would not understand, would not want to understand. That is when I made my decision. […] I would, there and then, turn my back on my own tribe — the tribe of the hunters — and side with the tribe of the hunted, no matter what the cost.

Her son, John, misunderstands this as an instance of what Immanuel Levinas calls a face-to-face encounter with the Other, a view he summarises in a mocking tone: ‘the appeal that we dare not refuse when we meet the other face-to-face unless we deny our own humanity’, an appeal that precedes ethical reflection. But the problem with this Levinasian ethic is that it is fundamentally anthropocentric, predicated on the need for a human-like face. John is aware of this critique of Levinas and puts it to his mother, that Levinas did not want to be interpellated by the face of animals. Timothy Morton would also object here that the human subject is still the decider, and it is still based on the Kantian assumption that the human subject structures the Other as per concepts of its own making.

However, Elizabeth’s ethical consideration of the cats moves beyond this need for a face. She responds sharply:

What happened to me at that moment had nothing to do with an exchange of looks. It had to do with motherhood. I don’t want to live in a world in which a man wearing boots will take advantage of the fact that you are in labour, unable to escape, to kick you to death, nor do I want to live in a world in which my children or any other mother’s children will be torn away from her and drowned because someone else has decided that there are too many.’

In both her initial account of her encounter with the cats and in her later riposte to her son, the shared experience of motherhood becomes the basis of her solidarity with the cat. It also motivates her to reject the masculine violence of both hunting and ‘a man wearing boots […] kick[ing] you to death’, and instead care for and protect the victims, who are not just female (the female cat, all mothers giving birth), but feminised by the patriarchal biopower of society (children or other species who are being culled).

Picture of a cat whose name I don't know

Cat on a street whose name I don’t know

What is crucial in her account of the cats is that she does not recognise herself in the cat because the cat has a face and she condescendingly bestows upon it an ethical status, rather she acknowledges that the cat has ethical autonomy and value because of its capacity for motherhood — something which cuts across species barriers and unites her with the cat — and because of the acute and humbling awareness of the complexity of the cat’s world and the consequent vulnerability that they share. Elizabeth and the cat are ontologically equal: she encounters the cat when it is in the act of giving birth. The implication here is that the cat would have continued to give birth and carry on with its life independently of Elizabeth’s regard. It does not make an appeal to her in the Levinasian sense, but confronts her to protect its kittens. It is the embodied experience of motherhood and the specific gendering of both the cat and Elizabeth as women who are marginal within their society that becomes the basis for the solidarity between them.

The form of Coetzee’s story, moreover, is inflected by the contradiction between the equalising ontology and ethics of seeing the cat and the human as equal, and the broader phenomenological and epistemological problem of how we can encounter and know of the cat’s world in a way that does not privilege the human subject as exceptional. The story highlights the limitations of knowledge, either through John’s failure to understand Elizabeth’s views, or Elizabeth’s acknowledgements that these beings have a mode of life that is ‘more unlike [hers] than [her] human intellect will ever be able to grasp’. It focalises narrowly through John’s perspective, and it does not give the cats a name. While it gestures towards the complexity of the cat’s world, it never speculates, as Lessing’s story does, what the cat’s world will be like. So it remains an open question, then, how we as human beings can know of other creatures and their being in a way that does not merely anthropomorphise them or render them as subsidiary to concepts within our intellect.

In the next and final post in this series, I will consider the shared vulnerability between species that this kind of companionship represents, the way in which the figure of the cat lady is attuned to this vulnerability and the duty and labour of care that permeates the overlapping worlds of humans and cats.

Works Cited

Campbell, Jane. ‘Cat Brushing.’ London Review of Books 39.21 (2 Nov. 2017): 22.

Coetzee, J.M. ‘The Dog.’ The New Yorker 4 Dec. 2017: 60-1.

—. ‘The Old Woman and the Cats.’ Jaipur Literature Festival, 23 Jan. 2011, Diggi Palace, Jaipur. Reading.

Lessing, Doris. The Temptation of Jack Orkney: Collected Stories, vol. 2. London: Jonathan Cape, 1978.

Morton, Timothy. Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People. London: Verso, 2017.

Acknowledgements: This post is dedicated to my teachers from school who took me along as part of a school trip to the literary festival where J.M. Coetzee read his story. I would also like to thank, once again, Katy Lewis Hood for her invaluable comments, and also Julia Lewis for further remarks on the subject.


[1] While this was something I was considering in this post on Coetzee’s two stories, my thanks nevertheless to Katy Lewis Hood for emphasising this point further.

[2] This is not to say that all of a dog’s labour is masculine. Dogs also can fulfil roles like companionship, or acting as guide animals, but unlike cats, whose labour is solely domestic, dogs are able to contribute to human capital in ways that are masculine, and are hence represented as such.