Kristen Roupenian’s short story "Cat Person" published in The New Yorker has gained a lot of notoriety, and for good reason. Besides its immediately evident relatability, particularly to Millennials, it is not a very explicit work. This naturally draws out flocks of self-taught literary critics that archive blog posts recounting easily-digestible interpretations about “what 'Cat Person' does for feminism.” Not to say that no one has deconstructed "Cat Person" in a non-feminist lens, but there is undeniably a large pocket of criticisms working at this angle. However, these types of readings are not only narrow in scope, but sloppy. Form is largely ignored, despite it having just as much to say as the explicit narrative. Roupenian very slyly subverts and combines them to make her larger overall point: a reflection on how millennials now date and interact.
Upon first reading "Cat Person," it initially struck me for the same reason that it went viral: the incredibly realistic depiction of the modern dating scene. The unnerving storyline is a haunting echo of experiences that many young women have endured, myself included. It was so realistic in fact, that many shared it on social media completely unaware that it was a work of fiction. Perhaps it was this realism that led people to take it extremely literally. "Cat Person" is a haven of material for the symptomatic feminist reader. To be fair, a feminist contextualization does seem to have merit in this case: many instances in the story make this lens of interpretation an easily accessible one. For instance, Margot’s repeated thoughts such as “he could take her someplace and rape and murder her” does provide some great groundwork to talk about effects of rape culture. Certainly, Robert’s last text to her—“whore”—must also say something about the nature of relationships between men and women.
My concern with this kind of interpretation is not that it has no basis, but rather that it does not fully cover the interpretative possibility of the story. At the very least it fails to question what the form and descriptive material of the story have to offer to the unpacking of it. Using this narrow scope to approach the text pushes it into a corner, allowing it to give us no more than what we demand of it. Furthermore, the text does not provide feminism with anything new to work with; it just becomes another data point in a large curve of feminist literature, doing little more than reiterating what has already been said before by author after author, critic after critic.
I propose an alternate lens—one that is not so much prescribing a context to the text, but one that analyzes both what the text says and what it does not say. In terms of description, the analysis of description that seemed, to me, most applicable to Roupenian’s work would have to be William Mills Todd III’s “Description as an Alibi for Narrative.” His reference to how the “edges of their concepts could become blurred” provides for a great way of thinking about Roupenian’s piece: it is not always evident where narrative nor description end and pick back up. This tale’s form is a very blended version of what one would typically categorize as narrative and description. Todd goes on to state that description can function as “a tale of countervailing experience,” which I think certainly holds true for "Cat Person." If the reader looks only at the sequence of events, one would simply see an encounter, a series of texts, a date, and a testy break up. By and large, it is Margot’s description of the events that gives the reader a sense of what is really going on, even giving descriptions of events that could make the reader question why the events are unfolding as such in the first place.
For example, if the narrative was not so descriptive, the sex scene between Margot and Robert would leave a very different impression. Margot’s internal monologue shares with the reader the secret of her disinterest, stating that the reason she follows through is really only because “the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming.” Perhaps an even better example is her initial kiss with Robert. Margot describes it as “a terrible kiss, shockingly bad,” but that “it also gave her that tender feeling toward him again, the sense that even though he was older than her, she knew something he didn’t.” This description of it actually gives the kiss a different meaning than if the text would have simply read “they kissed.” Roupenian has a knack for locking into one moment of the narrative, flattening it, and treating it like a description all its own.
Roupenian uses this method in a calculated way to control the reader’s view of the events. By doing this, she is able to comment on the frustrating nature of modern day communication: particularly how greatly it relies on projection of one’s own feelings and notions onto the other person. She is highlighting a change in—or lack of—communication that is occurring in a generation that prefers to speak behind screens. Not relying on the ability for spontaneity in conversation, Millennials have learned to unpack every text message, projecting what they think the other person might mean. "Cat Person" brings to attention the fact that this practice has been adopted not only via texts but in person now too, and the descriptive nature of the narrative provides us with the projections that Margot places on Robert. She makes inferences from his very demeanor, jumping to conclusions and describing it to the reader in full.
The precise danger I warned about for readers with a solely feminist lens is encompassed perfectly in the article, “‘Cat Person’ Isn’t a Feminist Rallying-Cry. It’s a Bad – and Badly-Written – Story” by Charlotte Allen, published by online magazine Acculturated. Although Allen makes some interesting points, she clearly misses the mark. For one, she complains about the vague and dismissive way that Roupenian introduces certain things to the narrative. She cites Roupenian’s passage, “Robert became much more relaxed, more like the witty person she knew through his texts.” Allen asks, “can’t we readers actually have some of this ‘more like the witty person’ conversation?” In fact, no, we cannot. Passages like these are intended to keep the reader from making their own interpretation as to whether Robert was indeed “witty” or not. Instead, we are forced to take Margot’s word for it; we only see what she sees—only see what she projects onto him—and the reader is just as frustrated as Margot whilst trying to unravel Robert. Allen also comments that Margot is the only fully characterized individual in the story, but is that not the point? To properly put these projections into practice in a way that readers might understand, Roupenian needs to do so from one point of view. If we got a conflicting side of the events, such as from Robert’s point of view, then the effect of the end—that final “whore”—would not be as poignant, since the reader would have seen it coming all along.
The “whore” at the end is not simply for added pure shock value. We were meant to be shocked, just as Margot herself would be, but that shock is meant to do something. Not an outraged shock, but a shock of confusion: where did this come from? Well, it comes from the fact that all along, Margot had only been painting a picture of Robert in her head. This picture was not founded in real evidence, but in inferences. Margot dissects Robert’s every move and possible motivations from their movie date: she did not want to go to the movie theatre at which she worked, so she contributes his crankiness to, “maybe he’d suspected that she was ashamed to be seen with him.” From that, she assumes, “how sensitive he was,” even though her only evidence at this point is her own bold assumption. She projects onto Robert what she wants to, making him into this ideal with little to no basis in reality.
Roupenian’s point really peaks both when Margot finds herself about to have sex with Robert and within the aftermath of that decision. Just to muster up the will to go through with it, Margot needs to imagine what Robert may be thinking, imagining him thinking, “I want her so bad I might die.” Granted, it may not have been that far-fetched a prediction, but the problem lies in the necessity for the imaginary internal dialogue in the first place. It is not him that turns her on at all, but her own projection. When her projection is finally broken after sex, with Robert telling her about his feelings for her, Margot is not impressed. Despite the truth being just as favourable for her ego as the fantasies had been, the shattering of her self-made illusion was just not as satisfactory as the creation she had built internally.
Beyond simply complaining about these projections being presumptuous, Roupenian demonstrates how these assumptions can lead to many, at times dangerous, gray zones. The moral here is not some perverse version of “all men are trash,” but rather a warning that the way in which the current generation treats relationships is borderline delusional. Small actions, traits and other evidence is blown out of proportion in the mind. This is done to such a degree that these fictions not only encompasses one’s vision of that person’s character, but also encompasses the entirety of the fragile attraction. The entire first bit of a relationship now is like stepping through a minefield: with each step that we do not blow up, we assume even further that we must be going the right way, when in reality we might have missed the bomb by mere inches. At the end, Margot steps solidly on Robert’s bomb, effectively shredding the images she had placed up around him in her mind that she thought represented him.
In a similar vein that feminist interpreters approached "Cat Person" with their mind already made up, as too do Millennials approach relationships in this way. Perhaps life really does imitate art. Roupenian’s text is not a love story to women, nor necessarily a warning to them. It takes on the broader task of deconstructing the way in which we make meaning of things—both in a text such as this or in real life interactions. The message underlying "Cat Person" can be applied to all aspects of life, which is what makes the short story such an important one. For the same reason that it is important to look at the form as well as context of a story such as this one, it is important to judge real phenomena by its real evidence, not by assumptions and projections we bring to it. Relying on inference alone and not enough on tangible evidence can land oneself into some tricky situations—nobody wants to be in that situation with a Robert.