The Familiar and Wild Seed – Why Cats?

A majority of the books I’ve been reading in English class this semester have to do with the human/animal relationship. While they all deal with said relationship in varied and unique ways with complex sets of characters there have been at least 3 books I recall that have used cats as the animal of focus in these interactions. The two books in which this interaction stuck out the most to me were The Familiar and Wild Seed. Despite the fact that both novels feature interaction with more than just cats, felines appeared to me to be the most prominent animals employed in the plots of these novels.

In Danielewski’s The Familiar a majority of the plot, characters, and even motifs within the novel focus on cats. The term “familiar” has traditionally been used to refer to cats that serve as pets/partners to their human masters, and cats are referred to many times within the text to the point that two of the credit pages at the end of the novel show two definitive, slit feline eyes. Regardless of the types of animals employed in individual character stories, such as Luther and his dogs and even the dog that was originally meant to be bought as an aid for Xanther and her seizures, cats make their way into every character’s life and even into the format of the novel and the title. The sound of a yowling cat can be heard at least once in every major character’s story, and the novel ends with a cat’s presence allegedly bringing peace and order into Xanther’s life after the wild and confusing ride we go through alongside her. This cat also happens to bring death to another character, Tian Li, when it appears to leave the woman to saunter into Xanther’s story. So my question is…why cats?

Cats are also involved quite centrally in Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed when considering the nature of Anyanwu and her animal forms. From the get go one of the first animals we see Anyanwu shift into is a leopard. Anyanwu turns to her leopard form in trying times, times when she feels that her life is in danger as well as at times when she wants to take revenge. She makes it clear that her leopard form is one that she has started to feel natural in over time, a form that she now has little to no trouble shifting into considering the amount of times she has done so as well as her deep understanding of the feline’s body after having consumed a part of it. Although Anyanwu does shift into other animals throughout the course of the novel, her leopard form is a central one that she returns to in climatic moments of threat to her life and the lives of those she cares for again and again. Again I pose the question…why cats?

Both individual cats in these stories play considerably different roles in their respective stories. Danielewski’s cat serves as a bringer of both the literal and figurative life and death of the characters it directly interacts with while Anyanwu and her leopard form play a mostly protective and fierce role within the events of Wild Seed. Do you think that these separate interpretations of cats and the utilizations of their different yet similar roles in these novels say anything about our interpretations and views of domestic versus wild cats today? Is it significant that the wild cat is used to portray defense and protection while the assumedly domestic cat serves as a harbinger of life and death? Also, why do you think cats in various forms are such popular animals to use both physically and symbolically in literature? What is it about cats that make them both appealing to write about and flexible enough to write in a number of various genres and plotlines, although their basic forms remain quite the same?


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