Dr. Christopher Douglas

I am a cat

I read Natsume Sōseki’s first novel, I am a Cat (1905-06), while teaching in a costal community in Chiba Prefecture as a part of the JET Programme after completing my bachelor’s degree.  I tried to use my time in Japan learning more about the place where I was living and teaching.

One of the authors I turned to was Sōseki, and I read through several of his novels.  The one that haunted me the most was his first, as it featured a nameless cat who narrated the entire story.  It was this strange choice of narrator that kept his work in the back of my mind for years after I first read it.  I am not the only reader who has had this reaction, either.

One of the hidden gems of the Super Nintendo-era RPG Mother 2/Earthbound (1994/1995) is a nameless mouse whose introduction to the player alludes to the opening lines of Sōseki’s novel.  There is a lasting quality to this cat’s assertive personal narration.

Sōseki’s cat propelled me into my graduate studies into the eighteenth-century it-narrative upon my return to America, as this initial encounter with a non-human narrator shaped the research I undertook.  Reading I am a Cat alongside earlier, eighteenth-century novels narrated by non-humans brought Sōseki’s work into conversation with these British examples in ways few people, outside of Sōseki himself, would have been familiar with.

While earlier examples than these exist in world literature – Beware the Cat (1561) by William Baldwin has a large portion of its text narrated by a cat who provides observations on its London neighborhood, far predating the eighteenth-century examples I explore here – Sōseki had a professional interest in eighteenth-century British literature. In pairing Sōseki with these earlier examples, however, I am not implying that his work is derivative, but rather providing a framework for understanding his stylistic choices and the satiric critique of Meiji-era society that he provides.

It-narrators often cast a broad, satiric eye on the society they are enmeshed in.  In eighteenth-century Britain, the figures held up are often gamblers, fops, Methodists (seen as dangerous for their emotionality), social climbers, hack authors, and careless university students.  Many of these figures, for their original audience, in some way threaten the social order either by taking negative actions such as gambling and drunkenness, or engage in frivolous ones such as caring too much about fashion.

For Sōseki, his main characters are more suited to his own cultural context – an English teacher who barely understands English, a university student who studies frogs’ eyes via polishing glass marbles, a philosopher of Japanese thought incapable of following his own precepts when under stress – but provides a similar critique of late-Meiji-era Japan.  After I am a Cat, Sōseki would not return to the format of a narrating animal for his novels, but as I hope I have shown in my argument, his use of it here is fully realized and adapted to his own cultural setting.

Dr. Christopher Douglas's essay, "'Sideways-Written Words': Appropriations of the Eighteenth-Century British It-Narrative in Natsume Sōseki’s I am a Cat,"appears in JNT 50.2

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