Old Women and Cats: Attunement to Shared Worlds

Friday, 22 December 2017 8-minute read

In my two previous posts, I considered how the exclusion of both cats and old women from society and the gendering of cat ladies and feline behaviour become the locus of solidarity between species. In this, the final of this series, I will draw all of these strands together and examine the ways in which these inter-species companionships reveal a shared vulnerability between cats and humans and the extent to which both worlds permeate each other.

Just like Hetty from Doris Lessing’s ‘An Old Woman and Her Cat’, the protagonist of Jane Campbell’s story ‘Cat Brushing’ is a marginal figure because of her age, gender and eroding autonomy, as she is ‘judged too old to live alone’ (22). She is excluded from her family and, by extension, a wider capitalist system that her son, a wealthy financier living in Bermuda, comes to represent. She shares this marginality with her son’s old Siamese cat, crucially not her cat but a cat which is, like her, ‘being housed and fed by [her] son’. But what makes her acutely aware her relationship with the cat is that the family regards the cat as dispensable. The story culminates in her daughter-in-law expecting a baby, and wanting to get rid of the cat out of a concern that it carries germs. Although the protagonist would then be lonely and without the companion on whom she came to depend, she would be expected to knit for the baby, making herself useful to the family by providing some kind of labour. The son and daughter-in-law do not see the value or purpose of the cat or the kind of labour it performs for the old woman, just like how they do not see the old woman’s value except in instrumental terms for when she can help with the baby. The protagonist and the cat’s shared dependence on her son, their ageing and their declining powers are not just the basis of their exclusion from society, but also a site of kinship between them.

Picture of Bagheera, a cat on my street

Bagheera, a cat on my street

The relationships between characters operates through contradictory modes of love and care. When reflecting on her relationship with the cat and her duty to care for it, the old woman doubts ‘as with all love relationships, how much altruism is in it’. While she brushes and grooms the cat, she does not look after it, suggesting that the nature of her love and regard for the cat are ostensibly an extension of her own being, a cure for her loneliness, rather than necessarily for the welfare of the cat. In contrast, though he does not groom the cat, her son is its primary carer as he shelters and feeds it. His relationship with the cat is at its thickest when he cleans up the cat’s vomit, as Donna Haraway remarks that a key question in a companion species relationship is ‘who cleans up the shit?’ (308). Despite this, however, he is willing to get rid of the cat in the interest of his own family, as he does not love the cat as he does his wife and expected child. The story implies a similar relationship with his mother, and he would get rid of her as well if she did not have her uses around the house. Love, altruism and care are rendered paradoxical. While the son cares for the cat, he does not have much of a relationship with it, whereas while the old woman does not feed, shelter or look after the cat, she has an abiding love for it. It is perhaps because this love is not purely altruistic — that it is as much about her own self as it is about the cat — that it leads her to realign her own being, a reconfiguring of her self that makes her more attuned to the interspecies companionship with her cat.

This attunement is characterised in the form of the story, particularly the way in which it focalises through the old woman and foregrounds the ennui that she feels. Ennui, for Timothy Morton, is a mode of ecological awareness. Morton sees the encounter with ecology in Lacanian terms, as he considers the human-correlate reality as an ‘imaginary’ that is separated from the ‘symbolic real’ of ‘ecological symbiosis of human and non-human parts of the biosphere’ (13)1. The spectral presence of this symbolic real within the human imaginary renders the self’s experience evacuated of depth and enjoyment, resulting in a feeling of ennui (69). The protagonist of the story experiences a similar sense of ennui, evident in the morose tone of the story, its slow pacing and its hazy flashbacks to the old woman’s youth and sexual prime in a lamenting tone. She derives no enjoyment in her present whether it is from the views or the activities in which she indulges, and even her brushing the cat, an activity which fills her with longing and emptiness. Her present is permeated by her and the cat’s shared vulnerability of ageing and the proximity of death. As her world becomes evacuated, she becomes more attuned towards the larger ecological symbiosis that her companionship with the cat represents.

Nevertheless this attunement is tempered by the awareness of the rift in understanding between them. She asks about the cat whom she has been brushing a question similar to what John in J.M. Coetzee’s ‘The Old Woman and the Cats’ would wonder, ‘was it only the moment with her [the cat], or was there a reflective pleasure as well?’ (22). The protagonist, an old woman who is acutely aware of her waning powers and sexual desire, projects herself in the cat’s experiences through analogy, that ‘seeing her [the cat] respond like this to the strong smooth strokes, I could see myself in bed with one of the lovers, and my own arching and offering’. Yet despite this analogy, she is aware of the difference in their ways of seeing as they both look out over the sea, and she ‘know[s] of course that we [she and the cat] do not see the same thing. Her perception is different in every respect […] But she sits and watches it with me with just the same degree of satisfaction’ (22). There are two different kinds of knowledge at work: the protagonist is aware that she and the cat conceptualise the world differently, yet this difference in their respective phenomenological apprehension of the world does not stop her from having an empathetic kinship with the cat. The tension between this difference and kinship is clearest when the protagonist describes herself and the cat as a single yet differentiated unit in their relationship to her son, that ‘The cat and I have known him for much longer […] Well, I have known him all his life and the cat for many years’ (22).

Picture of Rory


The story does not speculate what the cat’s world would be like as Lessing’s does. Nevertheless, as the protagonist projects herself into the cat through their shared experiences, the form of the story emphasises this paradox of shared yet different perspectives. What the story does imply, however, is an equal ontology: even though the cat is dependent upon the son and is dispensable, it nevertheless exercises some kind of agency within a reciprocal companionship with the old woman through its behaviour, like when it makes her brush below its throat by raising its head. The has adapted ways through which it can have the old woman look after her, while it provides the old woman with company and companionship. They both become part of each other’s extended phenotype. The story implies that the cat has its own world, even though knowing this world may not be accessible to the human intellect as represented by the old woman’s speculation. Nevertheless, the ontological status that the old woman gives this cat through her love with it and her attunement to its world and its desires renders this inter-species companionship a form of heightened ecological awareness. That is not to say that the protagonist of ‘Cat Brushing’ is more ecologically aware than Hetty or Costello, rather she is merely more ‘attuned’ to the cat’s world through her ennui, and this ennui is one of multiple forms of awareness (as is Costello’s shared sense of motherhood). But all three cat ladies give the cats an equal ontological and ethical status as human beings, which forms the basis of this inter-species companionship and a more equal ethics between humans and non-humans.

The figure of the cat lady comes to represent a form of inter-species companionship from the margins of society, a companionship that is made possible because of specifically gendered and capitalist forms of exclusion as well as gendered forms of solidarity between species. This solidarity between species and the attunement to the cats’ worlds render the relationship between these old women and cats a sophisticated form of ecological awareness, one where the knowledge or understanding of non-human species might be curtailed by the epistemic or phenomenological limitations of the human subject, but forms of love and care nevertheless cut across these boundaries. Both the old women and the cats occupy each other’s worlds and all their selves are reconfigured in light of this companionship as they are both entangled in these complex, reciprocal relations.

Works Cited

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.

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.

Acknowledements: As before, I’d like to thank Katy Lewis Hood and Julia Lewis for their valuable feedback on a draft of this post, and for their consistent support throughout this entire series and all other posts on similar subjects.


1 For a concise introduction to the work of Jacques Lacan, see Adrian Johnston’s article on Lacan in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.