The Cat in the Hat
by Dr. Seuss
The Cat in the Hat Tone
Take a story’s temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Challenging, Exuberant, Subversive, Respectful
Dr. Seuss lavished this book with care, that's for sure—it's obvious in everything from the smoothly flowing rhymes to the consistently energizing illustrations.
Why so deliberate? Well, The Cat in the Hat was a direct challenge to the standard Dick and Jane reading primers in the 1950s. Check out "Writing Style" for more on that, but suffice it to say, Seuss & Co. were not about to let those funless books be the authority on reading.
Dr. Seuss didn't just decide to take on Dick and Jane; his publisher asked him to. Talk about pressure—a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the world. He took the challenge and stomped on it, blowing Dick and Jane right out of the water, and making a bundle of dough, to boot.
And the challenge comes through fiercely and fun-ly in Seuss's attitude throughout The Cat in the Hat. After all, every page represents some challenge to the "normal" lives that Dick and Jane lived.
After the massive success that was The Cat in the Hat, learning to read would never be the same. No longer a series of drab vocabulary drills featuring children who speak in stilted, unnatural tones, learning to read became a rich experiment, full of mystery, wonder, and opportunities for expression.
A Little More Fun With Dick and Jane
Where are Dick and Jane now? You can still find them, but mostly outside of the classroom, where most people agree they belong. Who are most people? Let's take a look:
Dr. Seuss once said of The Cat, "It's the book I'm proudest of because it has something to do with the death of the Dick and Jane primers" (source).
Anna Quindlen famously called this death "a mercy killing of the highest order" (source).
Toni Morrison agrees, too. Give her novel The Bluest Eye a look for a more harsh and serious fictional critique of Dick and Jane.
What about you?
There's no shortage of exclamation points in The Cat and the Hat, and you know what that means: exuberance. We're pretty sure Seuss was beyond excited about what he was doing.
It's not just exclamation points that get the job done. The exuberance is also expressed through motion—lots and lots of motion. Thing One and Two tear through the house disrupting everything; even their tools (kites) suggest the freedom of play.
The Cat's exuberance is much more controlled than the Things', but it's still intense. His frenzied bounce-athon is emblematic and makes us want to skip school and jump on a trampoline all day:
"And look! With my tail
I can hold a red fan!
I can fan with the fan
As I hop on the ball!" (98-101)
Adding to the exuberance is the illustration that accompanies these words. We just can't get enough of the look on the cat's face as he bounces, balances, and fans with the fan. In fact, we'd argue that the illustrations are the most successful in conveying the sheer joy of being alive. Take a look and let us know if you agree.
Taking it Apart and Putting it Back Together Again
Seuss called himself "subversive as hell" (source, 62), and you can be sure that subversiveness comes through in his tone. The book begins with everything neatly in place, as if nothing has ever happened and nothing ever will. But the story steadily moves toward ever-increasing levels of chaos that subvert the way things are "supposed" to be—just ask the fish—in the home.
The kids, so bored and boring at the beginning of the story, now have a secret life and a secret knowledge of a whole hidden world—one in which you can have fun and get away with it.
Sounds pretty subversive to us.
Dr. Seuss wants everyone to have a great time but, like the Cat, he doesn't want anyone to get in trouble. It's important that the Cat clean up the mess he's responsible for creating. The home in The Cat in the Hat is a place to be honored, respected, and preserved.
On the same note, the mother's role as ultimate authority is never questioned, not even by the Cat. The Doctor might be "subversive as hell," but the respectful tone toward family and the home presents a constant counterpoint to that attitude. After all, Dr. Seuss was interested in letting kids make up their own minds; balancing contrasting tones is one way to make that happen.