Winter 2013-2014

Leftovers / Blood, Language, and Voom

The second coming of the Cat in the Hat

Yara Flores

“Leftovers” is a column that investigates the cultural significance of detritus.

I take as my text Theodor Seuss “Dr. Seuss” Geisel’s 1958 The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, the less-beloved (indeed, frankly somewhat eclipsed) sequel to the author’s epochal The Cat in the Hat of 1957.[1]

Both books center on domestic intrusions by the eponymous trickster-feline in the candy-striped stovepipe chapeau.[2] In each work, this ambivalent figure insinuates himself—with disconcertingly autistic goodwill, and equally bad judgment—into the latchkey home of a pair of unattended siblings who are forced to confront his disruptive antics. Though apparently without malice, the Cat invariably creates chaos, and the plot dynamics lie both in the children’s efforts (primarily those of the male narrator) to reestablish order and in the Cat’s own manic-ludic, just-in-time resolutions of the crises for which he is responsible. In the case of the original Cat in the Hat, much of the actual trouble is caused by a queer pair of slave-hermaphrodite-clowns named “Thing One” and “Thing Two”; a deus ex machina dénouement descends in the form of a snake-handed tractor-octopus-cum-housekeeping-cyborg. The Cat in the Hat Comes Back is much stranger.

I aim, below, to make a critical intervention in the literature that deals with this vexing latter work, so a close synopsis is in order.[3]

The tale opens in winter. Sally and her unnamed narrator-brother have been left with a maternal command that they shovel the walk after a heavy snow. The Cat appears (on belled snowshoe-skis) as they are at their chore, and he slips insouciantly into the house, where the children find him eating an entire heavily icinged cake in the bathtub (beneath a running shower). The brother enters, orders the Cat to leave, and huffily drains the bath, revealing a heavy reddish stain—presumably of confectionary, though this is never made explicit—ringing the tub.

The whole of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back centers on the shifting problem of this pink stain, which must be effaced, cleansed, or somehow rendered not-unsightly. This proves very difficult, though not because the ruddy tache is indelible (in the sense of “impossible to remove”), but rather because it is highly labile: lifted from the walls of the tub, the stain transits through the house, appearing sequentially on a dress, a wall, a pair of shoes, a rug, and eventually (persistently) on the sheets of the patriarchal bed.

The agent of these charged translations is, of course, the Cat in the Hat, who, confronting the original stain, promptly reassures the children that the traces of his bathtub indiscretion can be easily tidied, and blithely sets to the task of wiping down the tub with “MOTHER’S WHITE DRESS” (all caps in original). This bit of bridal regalia emerges besmirched with hymeneal gore, much to the children’s dismay. Begged to make clean what he has inappropriately soiled, the Cat laughs heartily and begins to beat the dress against the wall, successfully transferring the blot. “What a mess!” mourns the boy, standing dumbstruck before the incarnating streaks, and the Cat is again charged to address the situation. Reaching for “DAD’S $10 SHOES,” the Cat obligingly smears father’s footwear with the residue, leaving the wall pristine. The tainted shoes are in turn wiped on the long rug of the hall, where they leave a series of scuffing footprints (interestingly, the Cat walks the shoes down the hall backwards, wearing them on his hands). These telltale tracks can only be scrubbed off onto, as the Cat explains, “the right kind of bed”—which, conveniently, can be found in “Dad’s bedroom.” The Cat in the Hat goes to work, and the coverlet is left festooned with a lurid rosy splat.

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