Lisa Rowe Fraustino

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The Cat in the Hat Goes to Graduate School

Creative people tend to approach the ivory towers gingerly. (Or should that be garlicly?) True, nobody needs to hack through all that fancy-schmancy multi-syllabic critical theory to write or make art for children. Professors who tear apart the text and forget to put it back together for the reader do leave a bad taste. Still, I have found my forays into critical theory worth the frustration, and what I have learned about interpreting literature in my umpteen years of college and graduate school has definitely made me a better writer, critique-groupie, and editor.

Besides, I’ve found that reading literature from various theoretical perspectives can be a lot of fun. Here, I’ll prove it by giving you a quick, oversimplified gloss of the ten most common critical approaches found in college English classes nowadays, with examples from The Cat in the Hat. Though some individuals do align themselves with one theory primarily, keep in mind that most scholars mix and match different theories, using combinations that make the most sense with a certain text.

1. Formalist

The critic looks at the text as a unified whole espousing universal values, interpreted through analysis of plot, characters, setting, point of view, language, imagery, and structural pattern. Symbol and irony point to underlying meaning. Based on a “close reading” of details, the formalist critic may conclude that the Cat in the Hat was an imaginary playmate conjured by the children’s imagination to escape their boredom.

2. Biographical

Though some critics find details of authorship irrelevant to the interpretation of a text, others look for roots of story in the writer’s life. Students of children’s literature are interested to learn that Dr. Seuss was not a medical doctor nor a PhD but a pseudonym for a man named Ted Geisel who was proud to have had a part in the demise of Dick and Jane. Biographical critics also find interesting the number of rejections he received for his first book, To Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street—twenty-eight.

3. Historical

The critic interprets the text and examines its significance within the context of the time the work was written and published, taking into consideration the contemporaneous tastes, cultural practices, social attitudes, and power relations. A “new historicist” perspective would read the text against other documents produced at the time, such as diaries, court reports, medical records, etc. There was nothing else in the publishing world like the rhyming, fantastical, nonsensical work of Dr. Seuss, and when The Cat in the Hat came out to great success in 1957, a new trend was born.

4. Psychological/Psychoanalytical

Although some critics look at the text as a reflection of the author’s mental life and others look at the creative process, most psychoanalytic critics interpret through the lens of some school or theory of psychology. For instance, the characters of the cat, the fish, and the narrator can be read as showing Freud’s theory of human personality. The cat represents the wild “id,” the fish represents the perfectionist conscience or “superego,” and the narrator represents the “ego” in the middle that attempts to balance those two powerful forces.

5. Sociological

Critics focus on the values of society reflected in the text or criticized by it, especially the power relations. Marxist and feminist criticism are the two most influential branches. Marxist critics look at economic forces and particularly how the dominant class suppresses the underclass. They would probably be interested in the role of Thing One and Thing Two, who live in a box and create chaos upon their release. Feminist critics would look at the gender roles in the story—why is the brother the narrator and the sister silent? Why does the male cat get to be the active force while the absent mother serves as a source of criticism if she comes home while the cat is there?

6. Reader-response

Reader-response critics look at the process of reading and how readers understand intellectually and connect emotionally to what they read. As opposed to formalist critics who view meaning as objective and residing in the text itself, reader-response critics see meaning as constructed at least in part by readers based on what they bring to the text. The text lives only in the readers’ imaginations. The Cat in the Hat invites a reader-response approach in its last lines, “What would YOU do/If your mother asked you?”

7. Mythological

Critics analyze familiar story patterns of human experience, often placing their focus text in the context of others with similar themes. Birth, death, rite of passage, and journey are just a few common themes. Mythological critics also look at archetypes or universal symbols such as the damsel in distress, the rebel, the hero, the tyrant—or, as in The Cat in the Hat, the trickster character.

8. Structuralist

As opposed to formalist critics who may look at the arrangement of a work in parts and patterns, structuralists look at the system of language itself. This approach is based on linguistics and anthropology. Critics often look at the binary oppositions in a text; that is, the contrasts between opposites. The kids are inside looking outside; the cat stands on a ball and falls; the Things come and go; the house goes from chaos to clean; and why does Sally have a name while the narrator does not?

9. Deconstruction

Going beyond the binary oppositions analyzed in structuralism, deconstructive critics look for places where a text is ambiguous or contradicts itself and reveals cultural assumptions. They believe that these “gaps” in the text hold more meaning than authors intend or understand. Where is the father in The Cat in the Hat? Why are these kids home alone all day at their age?

10. Cultural Studies

Critics connect a text to a plurality of experiences, including perspectives of many ethnicities, many classes of people, many genres. Traditionally children’s literature and the culture of childhood were not considered worthy of study in academia except in support of teacher education. Now children’s literature is spreading in English departments, with academic courses offered alongside Shakespeare and Chaucer. Some universities even offer master’s degrees in the field. Critics can now look at The Cat in the Hat as a text that has had a wide impact on U.S. culture, teaching generations of children to love and read literature.


Author’s Note

Except for tweaking the format, this piece is reprinted as originally published in Once Upon a Time (Winter 2002). When I stopped teaching fifth grade to become a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University in 2002, my OUAT classes still taught about creative writing but also began to include more about how craft intersects with criticism. “The Cat in the Hat Goes to Graduate School” remains one of my all-time favorites.

©Lisa Rowe Fraustino 2002, 2010

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