Formalist and Archetypal Interpretations of The Cat in the Hat

Formalist and Archetypal Interpretations of
The Cat in the Hat
By Lindsey Zachary
It might seem as if the scholarly realm of literary theory could have nothing to do with a
children’s book such as The Cat in the Hat. However, by applying formalist criticism to Dr.
Seuss’s story, the reader can see how elements of punctuation, meter, rhyme, and repetition
work together to create a sense of constant action and spontaneity, paralleling the events of the
story and the unpredictable character of the Cat himself. Secondly, when Seuss's story is viewed
through the lens of archetypal criticism, it becomes clear that The Cat in the Hat is not just a
simple tale for children. Rather, it is a story which presents the playful Cat’s revolt against
authority and subversion of traditional societal values and subtly affirms that insurrection.
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This paper explores Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat through two lenses of literary theory.
The first half of the paper follows in the tradition of formalism, employing a close examination
of the text to demonstrate the ways that the structure of the playful poetry underscores the themes
and events of the story. The second half of the paper explores The Cat in the Hat through the
lens of archetypal criticism by using Northrop Frye's theory of the mythos of satire to reveal the
ways that Seuss's story subtly affirms the satirical subversion of authority.
For m alis m
Dr. Seuss undertook the creation of The Cat in the Hat in order to create a primer which
would be more interesting for children to read than the boring books from which they had been
learning (MacDonald 107). The textbook division of Houghton Mifflin gave Seuss a limited
vocabulary list for primers. With a vocabulary list of less than three hundred and fifty words to
draw on, Seuss ended up writing The Cat in the Hat with a total of only two hundred and thirtyseven different words, though the book is sixty-one pages long and contains over fifteen hundred
words total (132). The composition of The Cat in the Hat was a huge struggle for Seuss, and it
took him over a year to write it, though he had expected that it would just take a few weeks
(MacDonald 107). The time and effort that he gave to creating this new “children’s primer” was
well worth the effort, however, because his book has come to be revered as a classic of
children’s literature. While the story and illustrations make the tale delightful, the more subtle
characteristics of Seuss’s poetry are also a crucial element of the book’s success. The elements
of punctuation, meter, rhyme, and repetition in The Cat in the Hat work together to create a sense
of constant action and spontaneity, paralleling the events of the story and the playful and
unpredictable character of the Cat in the Hat himself.
The punctuation throughout The Cat in the Hat plays a large part in shaping the tone of
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the text, primarily through the use of exclamation marks. Out of the two hundred and twenty-six
total sentences, one hundred and twelve end with exclamation marks. The fact that almost half
of the sentences in the entire book end in this way is an unusual occurrence in any text, and it
might seem as if they have been overused. They play a crucial role in the text, however. Like all
poetry, The Cat in the Hat does not have its full impact unless it is read aloud. When read aloud,
one notices that the exclamation points at the end of sentences cause the tone to go up when it
would usually go down. Since there are so many exclamations throughout the story, the tone of
the text goes up and down in a song-like fashion, conveying a whimsical mood and continual
variation which parallels the playful, capricious nature of the tale.
In the beginning of the story, the sentences spoken by the narrator and the fish rarely end
with exclamation marks and the tone drones on--orderly, downcast, and subdued. However,
when the Cat enters the house exclamation marks abound, and the Cat’s voice sings out in
continual tonal variation. This pattern continues throughout the story; the narrator tends to speak
in statements while the Cat makes many exclamations. The utterances of the fish, meanwhile,
end more and more frequently in exclamation marks as he tries to order the Cat out of the house
and urges the children to take action. His tone is insistent and demanding due to these constant
exclamations. These subtle differences in end punctuation help to distinguish between the
moods of these central characters.
There are a few more unusual elements of punctuation in The Cat in the Hat, all of which
contribute to the rhythm and meter of the poem. One such element is the absence of
contractions, which causes the rhythm to sound more concise, clipped, and unified. Almost
every word is only a single syllable, and many short phrases such as “do not” and “should not”
which could have been contractions appear dozens of times throughout the story, giving it a more
insistent tone and a straightforward, rapid-fire beat. Another unusual use of punctuation is the
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frequent capitalization of an entire word, which places greater stress on that word and sometimes
alters the established pattern of the poetic feet. For example, when the fish is scolding the Cat,
the anapestic dimeter is briefly interrupted by capitalized words: “. . . And you bent our new
rake. / You SHOULD NOT be here / When our mother is not” (Seuss 25). The capitalization of
“should not” causes it to become a spondee--two stressed syllables in a row--and the fish’s
statement takes on more force and emphasis because of this alteration.
The meter is one of the most important elements which shapes the mood and the meaning
of The Cat in the Hat. The primary meter of the text is anapestic dimeter. An anapestic foot
contains two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. Dimeter signifies that there
are two anapestic feet in every line. The combination of the sing-song meter and such short,
concise lines combines to create a constant sense of movement, paralleling the continual action
in the story. After the initial moments of boredom come to an end with the entrance of the Cat in
the Hat, one trick follows another, and activity and chaos reign in the house. The anapestic
dimeter carries the story on in a rapid-fire fashion. Though this meter generally continues
throughout the text, frequent irregularities of meter also fill the story, just as the Cat fills the
house with anomalies. The very first words the Cat speaks are in dactylic rather than anapestic
feet. Dactyls are the exact opposite of anapests, containing a stressed syllable followed by two
unstressed ones. As Philip Nel notes in his book, Dr. Seuss: American Icon, this subtle
irregularity suggests the oppositional nature of the Cat, foreshadowing the way he will turn the
established order and rhythm of the children’s lives upside down (30).
One of the most common ways that Seuss will vary the meter in The Cat in the Hat is by
writing a line which contains one iambic foot and then one anapestic foot, rather than the regular
pattern of two anapestic feet. The first or last line on a page or in a stanza often follows this
pattern, while sometimes every other line alternates in this way. An example of such variation is
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seen when the Cat speaks to the protesting fish. He exclaims, “Now! Now! Have no fear. / Have
no fear!” said the cat. / “My tricks are not bad,” / Said the Cat in the Hat” (Seuss 12). This
variation serves to create an even more rapid and insistent rhythm, and the unpredictability of
these five-syllable lines parallels the unpredictability of the events in the story.
Shifts in meter often underscore the actions in The Cat in the Hat (Nel Icon 31). The first
few pages of the book are written almost completely in anapestic dimeter, but when the children
hear a loud "BUMP," two-syllable iambic lines punctuate anapestic trimeter, as if to say,
"Something unusual has just happene d, som ething important:" “We looked! / Then we saw him
step in on the mat! / We looked! / And we saw him! / The Cat in the Hat!” (Seuss 6). The single
iambic lines convey the surprise of the children and the suddenness of the Cat’s appearance quite
effectively. After the Cat’s first dactylic lines, the meter falls into a generally predictable pattern
of anapestic dimeter. However, once the Cat begins his balancing game and gets carried away
with himself, the meter once again changes to underscore the Cat’s crazy tricks.
As the Cat speaks while balancing on top of the ball, his meter shifts away from anapests
and follows no apparent pattern. The disorderly meter parallels the instability of his position on
the ball and signals the imminent collapse of the Cat’s trick (Nel Icon 31). He exclaims, “Look
at me! / Look at me now!” said the cat. / “With a cup and a cake / On the top of my hat! / I can
hold up TWO books!” (Seuss 16). In the phrases “Look at me!” and “Look at me now!” either
all of the syllables receive the stress or all but “at” do, and the capitalization of TWO also
disrupts the pattern by placing a stress on that word instead of on books . Later on in the story,
when the Things are running loose through the house, once again the meter underscores the
actions of the story, conveying a sense of noise and chaos: “We saw those two Things / Bump
their kites on the wall! / Bump! Thump! Bump! Thump! / Down the wall in the hall” (Seuss 40).
The unusual appearance of spondaic feet in the third line causes the sound the Things’ bumping
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to ring out resoundingly in the text. Throughout The Cat in the Hat, meter plays a crucial role in
underscoring the mood and meaning of the story.
Another central aspect of The Cat in the Hat is continual repetition of words and phrases.
It makes sense that the book would be filled with repetition, since Seuss uses the same twohundred and thirty-seven words over and over in a fifteen-hundred word story. The obvious
danger of such a limited word-list is that the story could become a boring, droning tale that
echoes the same phrases over and over. However, rather than allowing the limited vocabulary to
cripple the potential of the book, Seuss crafts the lines in such a way that the repetition creates
coherence and reinforces the story’s ever-progressing action. While many times a phrase is
exactly the same when it is repeated, frequently it is altered slightly and new details are added.
For example, when the Cat offers to show the children his tricks, he says, “I know some good
games we could play,” / Said the cat. / “I know some new tricks,” / Said the Cat in the Hat”
(Seuss 8). The core phrases “I know some” and “Said the cat” reappear, but they are
accompanied with new phrases when they are repeated, thus adding greater detail and making
the text more interesting while at the same time building around a familiar phrase that carries the
story rhythmically along.
These four lines not only illustrate the way that phrases are repeated, but they also show
the typical rhyme scheme of The Cat in the Hat, which is abcb, meaning that the final word s on
the seco nd and fourth lines rhym e, while the final word s of the first and third lines do not. The
rhyme scheme is much more consistent than the meter is throughout the story, but there are
occasional moments of intensity and excitement when a rhyming couplet appears rather than the
typical four-line stanza. Such a couplet appears with the first sign of the Cat’s upcoming
appearance: “And then / Something went BUMP! / How that bump made us jump!” (Seuss 5).
Another example of a couplet appearing in a climactic moment occurs during the Cat’s balancing
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game, as he exclaims, “I can hop up and down on the ball! / But that is not all!” (16). The
presence of a couplet rather than a four-line stanza serves to emphasize the immediacy of a
sound or event.
Rhyme does not only occur at the end of lines in The Cat in the Hat, but in key moments
internal rhyme helps to create meaning. The Things have been thumping through the house
creating chaos and disorder, when the boy sees his mother approaching and resolves to catch the
things: “And I said, ‘With my net / I can get them I bet. / I bet, with my net, / I can get those
Things yet!” (Seuss 50). The internal rhyming and deliberate repetition of “net,” “bet,” “get,”
and “yet” imposes a militant order on the text, paralleling the boy’s desire to reestablish order in
the house where chaos has been running free. The boy is successful in catching the Things, and
order begins to be re-imposed on both the text and the house as the Cat removes the Things and
cleans up with his magic machine. As he gathers every item that has been scattered through the
house, the text maintains an uninterrupted anapestic dimeter, suggesting a reassuring regularity
which has been absent during the Cat’s fun and games. Anaphora, the repetition of a word or
phrase, also appears in this passage, as the phrase “and the” is repeated ten times within five
lines. The structured meter and deliberate repetition emphasizes the fact that order is once again
being reestablished in the house.
By the time that the mother enters the house, order has been fully restored, and
everything appears as it did at the beginning of the story. The Cat in the Hat begins with wellregulated stanzas and well-regulated children, but the story becomes more interesting and the
meter more varied as the Cat enters the house. Throughout the tale, the stanzas grow in length
and the text is filled with anomalies as the Cat brings chaos, fun, and games. The elements of
punctuation, meter, rhyme, and repetition parallel the events of the story, becoming as
unpredictable as the Cat and then falling back into order as the story draws to an orderly end.
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Archetypal Criticism
In his famous book Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye sets forth a theory of myths,
claiming that every work of literature can be categorized as belonging to one of the four mythoi ,
all of which come together to compose the mono m yth (Dobie 60). Frye writes that the works of
each mythos will contain specific patterns and archetypes and that the mythoi are analogous to
the seasons of the year. The mythos of spring is comedy; summer, romance; autumn, tragedy;
and winter, satire and irony. The Cat in the Hat fits into Northrop Frye’s mythos of winter, not
only because the setting of the book is consistent with the winter mythos—it is a “cold, cold, wet
day,”—but also because the essence of the book itself is satirical. This can be proven through an
understanding of the context in which the book was written and by comparing it to Frye’s
description of the elements of satire in the Anatomy of Criticism.
In her book entitled Dr. Seuss, Ruth MacDonald explains the background as to why Seuss
decided to write The Cat in the Hat. He was prompted by an article which appeared in a 1954
Life magazine (MacDonald 106). The author of the article, educator John Hersey, lamented the
fact that so few children in American public schools were becoming competent readers, and he
suggested that this was due not to the failure of teachers but to the lack of interesting or wellwritten primers which would engage children’s attention and imagination. Hersey claimed that
“children felt that their intelligence was insulted by such boring, unchallenging reading, and that
the pursuit of reading was hardly honored by such pallid, pastel, middle-class illustration as is
common in those books” (MacDonald 106). Hersey expressed the desire for children’s authors
“such as Howard Pyle, ‘Dr.Seuss,’ [or] Walt Disney” to create delightful primers which would
not bore children as the Dick and Jane books did (107). Dr. Seuss took up the challenge, and,
after a year’s labor, he produced a book which not only entertained children and helped them
learn to read, but which turned the bland, well-ordered, and uneventful world of Dick and Jane
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upside down.
The Cat in the Hat opens with two children sitting silently at the window, staring out at
the rain. They reside in the world of order, the traditional home setting in which Mother’s word
is law. It is the world to which Dick and Jane belong, a world where children would be good and
sit quietly all day, perhaps playing a game of tiddly-winks if they wanted to enjoy some
excitement. These two children parallel the old primer characters of Dick and Jane. While the
boy’s name remains unknown, readers learn that the girl’s name is Sally, and, interestingly
enough, Sally is the name of the younger sister of Dick and Jane (MacDonald 106). It is possible
that Seuss was intentionally satirizing the older primers. In any case, these two ordinary children
go through an extraordinary experience unlike any that Dick and Jane ever could have imagined.
Their uneventful, orderly home is converted by one unusual character, the Cat in the Hat, into a
gigantic playground where disorder abounds and chaos runs free. Because satirical elements
undercutting authority are so clear throughout the book, schools originally resisted buying The
Cat in the Hat (Nel Annotated 9). When one examines the story through Frye’s mythos of satire,
one can see that teachers and parents were justified in their concerns about the messages in this
explosive, entertaining, unconventional new children’s primer. Seuss's story presents the playful
Cat’s revolt against authority and his subversion of traditional societal values and subtly affirms
that insurrection.
As Frye introduces the concept of satire, he gives a description of satire which describes
the situation in The Cat in the Hat perfectly: “Satire is irony which is structurally close to the
comic: the comic struggle of two societies, one normal and the other absurd, is reflected in its
double focus of morality and fantasy” (224). Throughout The Cat in the Hat there is indeed a
comic struggle between two domains, one emphasizing traditional morals while the other is a
fantastical explosion of chaos and entertainment. Frye also claims that satire’s “moral norms are
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relatively clear, and it assumes standards against which the grotesque and absurd are measured”
(223). While the Cat with his tricks and games may not be called grotesque, he is certainly
absurd, and he is a character who brings disorder and entertainment to a house where structure
and boredom have reigned. The moral norms of order reign supreme at the beginning of the
book, and even once the Cat and then the Things begin to defy these standards, they are
continually called to mind through the voice of the fish. He constantly reminds the children that
the Cat is violating the rules of order and that the authority is being undercut and would be
Frye writes that “the satirist may employ a plain, common-sense, conventional person as
a foil” (226). The fish fills the role of this foil. He constantly speaks from the voice of
conventions, reminding the children that these conventions are being broken and threatening the
Cat with trouble from authority. His words are generally ignored, however, and from the
beginning of the book the fish’s influence is undermined. Immediately after the fish speaks for
the first time and begins to represent the absent authority of the mother, declaring that the Cat
should leave the house, the Cat singles the fish out and makes him a part of his first trick, a
“game that I call UP-UP-UP with a fish!” (Seuss 12).
The inversion of authority begins with this first “game,” as Cat chooses to "play” with the
one who would oppose his tricks. The Cat behaves very courteously and yet belittlingly towards
the fish, saying “Have no fear, little fish,” and proceeding to balance him on the tip of the
umbrella and then to make the fish a part of his balancing act (Seuss 8). The Cat’s failure results
in the fish’s even greater discomfort and demotion as he falls out of his fishbowl and into a pot.
The presence of the fish in the pot seems to suggest that this comical, rather ridiculous setting is
the type of place where authority belongs as long as the Cat reigns. The fish ends up strung on
one of the kites and pulled through the air by the Things. At the moment of greatest distress,
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when the mother is returning, the fish even leaves his pot completely to urge the children to take
action. The continual displacement of the fish from his comfortable original fishbowl
environment parallels the displacement of authority which the Cat causes with his game and
tricks. Finally, when the Things are caught and the Cat cleans the house, the fish is restored to
his bowl and order is restored within the home. Authority once again presides.
During the time when the Cat in the Hat is in the house, however, and before order is
reestablished, the children are observers of “the comic struggle of two societies” (Frye 224), and
though the fish never ceases to threaten and to remind the children of the displeasure of the
authority, his words have no power for the majority of the story. The children do not take action
based on his urgings. They prefer to watch the Cat and see what unusual developments will
unfold. Frye writes that in a satirical world where things are “full of anomalies” and out of
balance, there is a typical response from characters (226). Satire’s principle “is that anyone who
wishes to keep his balance in such a world must learn first of all to keep his eyes open and his
mouth shut” (Frye 226). This is exactly what the children do throughout almost the entire story.
They are watching the comic struggle between the worlds of order and fantasy, and they
maintain their balance in the midst of the chaos simply by staying silent, eyes open and mouths
shut. The Cat, on the other hand, is intentionally out of balance; he is the embodiment of fun,
tricks, games, and disorder. Though the children remain inactive for the majority of the story,
that is not to say that they are not being affected by the Cat’s actions. He is a type of tricksterhero in their eyes, bringing them on a journey from innocence to experience, from boredom to
In her book Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism, Ann Dobie
gives a brief description of the various archetypal characters which can be found in literature,
and one such character is the Trickster. According to Dobie, “the Trickster is mischievous,
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disorderly, and amoral. He disrupts the rigidity of rule-bound cultures” (59). The Cat certainly
fills the role of the Trickster in The Cat in the Hat, filling the house with anomalies and mischief.
However, the Cat is not simply a troublesome trickster who disturbs the children. He is also a
hero in their eyes, bringing entertainment and excitement to their previously uneventful lives.
The Cat affects not only the house but also the children’s mentality. Dobie writes that there are
general situational themes which can be found in archetypal stories, and one of these themes is
that of initiation: “Initiation stories deal with the progression from one stage of life to another,
usually that of an adolescent moving from childhood to maturity, from innocence to
understanding” (60). The children experience a sort of initiation at the hands of the Cat, gaining
a new understanding of authority, rule, and power, since they’ve seen it playfully undermined.
Frye writes that in a comic satire, there is often “an attitude which fundamentally accepts
social conventions but stresses tolerance and flexibility within their limits” (227). The Cat could
be seen in this light, since he brings his games, fun, and tricks into the world of social
conventions and shows the children how to enjoy these games and experience flexibility and fun.
One could claim that the Cat fundamentally accepts social conventions because he reestablishes
order at the end of the story, leaving things as the fish and the mother would want them to be.
However, one could also argue that this reestablishment of order at the end of the book only
serves to make the tale more strongly satirical. Authority has been subverted and the children
will no longer think in conventional terms of what is acceptable to authority.
Dr. Seuss himself acknowledges that his tale undermines conventional authorities: “The
Cat in the Hat is a revolt against authority, but it’s ameliorated by the fact that the Cat cleans up
everything at the end. It’s revolutionary in that it goes as far as Kerensky and then stops. It
doesn’t go quite as far as Lenin” (Qtd. in Nel Annotated 88). While it is true that the Cat restores
order in the house before he leaves, which would appear on the surface level to reinforce the
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rightness and predominance of authority, Seuss himself probably realized that this external
reestablishment of order does not truly ameliorate the Cat’s actions. “Dick and Jane” will no
longer think only in terms of what is acceptable according to mother’s standards. The fact that
the house is clean doesn’t change the fact that authority was turned completely upside down and
knocked out of balance. Though the children externally appear just the same to their mother,
internally they have been initiated into a different mindset in which established conventions do
not always hold.
The external reestablishment of order can actually be seen as the element of The Cat in
the Hat which is most satirical. It is as if Dr. Seuss is saying that outwardly the children may
appear to their mother like the same good little children, but inwardly they undergone a complete
shift in their perceptions of authority and order. The children watched revolt against authority
take place, and they did not speak out against it or try to stop it until it was absolutely necessary
to do so. They enjoyed the irregularity and entertainment of the Cat’s chaos, and at the end of
the story external order is reestablished, enabling the children to appear innocent and unchanged.
They could easily respond to their mother’s question, “Tell me. What did you do?” with the
simple, conventional, “Nothing” (Seuss 60).
While the book ends before the children give their mother any reply, the very fact of the
existence of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, in which the children are once again left alone at
home, seems to suggest that they remained silent. The existence of a sequel is evidence that the
disruption of order and the revolt against authority is not an isolated event. When the Cat
returns, he once again brings chaos on an even greater level than before, and once again restores
order. As he leaves, however, he tells the children, “I will be very happy / To come here
again . . .” (Seuss Cat Com e s Back 61). The Cat’s final words suggest that traditional rules no
longer hold firm; they can be changed and played with at the drop of a hat.
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Works Cited
Dobie, Ann B. Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. Boston: Thomson
Heinle, 2002.
Dr. Seuss. The Cat in the Hat. New York: Random House, 1957.
——. The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. New York: Random House, 1958.
Frye, Northrop. The Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. New York: Atheneum, 1966.
MacDonald, Ruth K. Dr. Seuss. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.
Nel, Philip. The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats. New York: Random
House, 2007.
——. Dr. Seuss: American Icon. New York: Continuum, 2004.