Old Women and Cats: Exclusion as a Space for Companionship

Friday, 8 December 2017 8-minute read

What does it mean to have a cat? Timothy Morton describes living with a cat as a mutual intersection of porous worlds, that the ‘cat isn’t a guest in my house […] we are both guests of each other’ (93). He has in mind a prose poem by Charles Baudelaire which he quotes earlier on (68). While cats are for us a domestic pet, they have also, as Morton adds, ‘figured out how to talk with humans—in our company they develop a whole range of miaows’ (94): they have learnt to mimic the cry of human infants and thereby to get humans to feed and shelter them, let them in or out of our houses, empty their litter tray. They have become what Donna Haraway would call a ‘companion species’ in that we exist in a reciprocal relationship of mutual dependence and transformation: humans are part of a cat’s extended phenotype[1]. There is one trope which distils this companionship, albeit in ways that are often pejorative, comical and exclusionary, and that is the trope of the cat lady. Morton’s remark about cats led me to think about three short stories about old women and their relationship with cats, Jane Campbell’s ‘Cat Brushing’ in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, J.M. Coetzee’s ‘The Old Woman and the Cats’ which he read at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2011, and Doris Lessing’s similarly-titled ‘An Old Woman and Her Cat’. The marginality that these women occupy becomes the space for interspecies companionship with their cats. In a series of three posts, I will read each of these stories in turn and consider how they imagine not just how these cats are part of these women’s lives, but also how these women fit within the cats’ worlds.

The cat ladies in Lessing, Coetzee and Campbell’s stories are marginal figures who are excluded from their society or from their family by virtue of their age, failing powers and financial circumstances. The unnamed protagonist of Campbell’s story is living with her son and his wife in Bermuda and is acutely aware of her waning autonomy, independence and sexual desire. Elizabeth Costello, in Coetzee’s story, retires to rural Spain, removed from what her son John considers ‘civilisation’, in light of her ill health and failing powers. Hetty Pennefather, the old, widowed protagonist in Lessing’s story, is ignored by her children and estranged from her friends because she is ‘not respectable’, as she begs for and sells second-hand clothes (138-9). She is also forced out of her dwellings twice: the first time from the council flat as the neighbours and council object to her keeping the cat, and the second time she is evicted from a condemned building where she and a community of old women were squatting because the neighbourhood is being gentrified. Hetty is neglected by her family because of her age, cast out from her society because her labour is not valued, and then she falls through the cracks of capitalism and urban development in London. In the midst of this poverty, loneliness and exclusion, Hetty adopts a cat. She and the cat Tibby begin looking after each other as they develop a relationship of mutual companionship.

Picture of Billy the Cat


Because of her relationship with her cat, Hetty is portrayed as a liminal figure on the threshold between the human and non-human. This further alienates her even further when this cat draws the objections and ire of her neighbours and the council, who describe her as having ‘gone savage’ (140). This judgment characterises the anthropocentric hegemonic binary between the human and non-human and the civilised and savage that forms the basis of Western society since the Enlightenment. Hetty becomes an abhorrent figure to society because she threatens this binary logic. Her liminality renders her similar to Giorgio Agamben’s figure of the wolf-man[2]. The wolf-man, for Agamben, is ‘the figure of the man who has been banned from the city’ existing at a ‘threshold of indistinction and of passage between animal and man’ (105). However, the cat lady is an inverse of the wolf-man in two ways: firstly, a cat lady is not just a metaphor, but characterises a material and embodied relationship between species. Rather than being branded as wolves as symbolic of their outlawry and uselessness, they seek companionship with cats of their own volition. Secondly, a cat lady’s exclusion embodies a regime of biopower that is organised along the lines of gender and age, rather than the patriarchal domain of the law, outlaws and sovereigns. These women’s state of exile is more ambiguous as, rather than being explicitly cast out, they are left behind and merely tolerated in the fringes by their society as their labour is no longer useful or valued. While by virtue of their age, gender, poverty and social exclusion the cat lady occupies a marginal position within a patriarchal, capitalist society, the inter-species relationships that they embody from within this marginality subvert this regime.

Despite being ostracised and left behind, Hetty shows heroic resilience in the face of this poverty and loneliness. In order to save her cat’s life, and avoid having him put down, she chose to remain invisible to the state’s bureaucracy and to live on the fringe of society, turning down the place in the old people’s home that she was offered by the council, and declining to take her pension. The cat becomes one form of this resilience as it gives her a new way of living in the fringe of this society: Tibby begins hunting for her, bringing her pigeons to cook and eat. He also nestles with her to give her warmth in a cold winter. It is because Tibby was providing for her that she is able to survive her poverty and homelessness longer than the other nameless squatters whom she finds dead in her building. There is, however, a tragic futility to her struggle against the inevitability of her fate, as it is revealed in the opening of the story that she dies of malnutrition and exposure to the cold, and the poverty, homelessness and inequality ultimately take her life.

Picture of Zoozoo the Cat


Yet it is through this interspecies companionship between Hetty and Tibby that the story further resists the anthropocentric hierarchy of biopower of post-Enlightenment Western society. The marginal space that Hetty shares with Tibby becomes the locus for a new, trans-species solidarity that undermines the separation of human and non-human beings. Moreover, the story imagines what the cat’s world would be like, and how Hetty is a guest in Tibby’s world just as he is a guest in hers. The cat’s world is most salient in a brief section at the end of the story after Hetty’s death, where the perspective shifts to focalise through Tibby instead. Tibby starts living in a churchyard alongside other stray cats in the city. These cats also lived on the fringe, often invisible to people and evasive of any method of managing their population. Tibby is eventually caught and put down by the council officials because he is too friendly, suggesting perhaps that the companionship that enabled both Hetty and Tibby to survive for so long was weakened by her death. Nevertheless, this close observation of the cat’s life following Hetty’s death imagines the possibility of it having its own, autonomous world. While the city officials treated the stray cats as a menace to be killed, Hetty and Tibby coexisted in a mutual relationship of care and companionship.

The marginal space occupied by the cat lady becomes the site for new inter-species companionship that undermines the anthropocentric, patriarchal logic of Western capitalist society. In my subsequent posts, I will consider the precise forms that this companionship takes, looking at trans-species solidarity and the ethical responses to it in Coetzee’s story, and shared vulnerability and shared dying in Campbell’s. In all of these stories, the lives of the cat ladies urge us to reconsider where the boundary between species lie, and what forms our companionship with other animals take.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.

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

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

Dawkins, Richard. The Extended Phenotype: the Long Reach of the Gene. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1982.

Haraway, Donna. The Haraway Reader. Routledge: New York and London, 2004.

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 is dedicated to all of the cats I have had the good fortune to have known, and all of the people who allowed me to be a guest in their worlds. My sincere thanks, also, to Katy Lewis Hood who, despite not having any pets, still is forthcoming with insightful feedback on this subject.


[1] For a basic definition of the term, see Dawkins. For an analysis of how these phenotypes extend to interspecies relationships and interactions with inorganic matter, see Haraway 306 and Morton 62.

[2] The edition of Agamben that I read used the term ‘werewolf’, but I am avoiding that because of the other connotations. Also, the term ‘wolf-man’ makes the inverted relation with cat lady more salient.