A Qualitative Life in the Face of a Quantative Society:
Sheelagh Morris’s “Letter to a Cat”
Sheelagh Morris’s short story, “Letter to a Cat,” is a dramatization of the conflict between two sets of life-values: the qualitative and the quantative. Norma is someone who has qualitative values, that is, someone who values such things as literature and art. We term such a person as one with qualitative values, because, even while such things as literature and art may be considered “valuable,” they cannot be quantified, and so they cannot be reduced to a price or deemed as “useful.” Such people as Norma, then, are “humanists” in the classical sense. In contrast with Norma, there are her husband, Daragh, and her daughter, June. They have quantitative values, that is they value things that can only be counted and regarded as useful. We can see this attitude in June when she relates how she does not wish to invite Aunt Mary and Uncle Tom to her wedding, because they are “no earthly use to us…” (l. 11). Now, one could argue that the contrast between Norma and her family is all that “Letter to a Cat” is about. This argument would maintain that these two sets of values exist equally and so are equally valid. But to argue for this point, one would have to ignore Morris’s greater social and spiritual concerns and also ignore the obvious sympathy that Morris shows for her protagonist, Norma. In short, Morris obviously contrasts these two value systems in order to express her contempt for the quantitative one. This disdain can be seen in the settings of the story, the characterization of Norma, Arthur and Norma’s family and in the title of the story.
There is not one setting for the story, but two, and these two settings are symbolic of the difference that lies between the qualitative and the quantitative way of life. Beginning in Norma’s house, the story quickly makes us aware of the way that Norma and her possessions are continually in retreat from the growing indifference and coldness of Norma’s husband and June. Norma describes this retreat ironically as being like the flight of “refugees” (l. 55). Her books and her kaftans—her greatest form of artistic expression—are being “evicted” she tells Arthur (l. 55). Like an invading army that drives all of the inhabitants of a country into reservations or concentration camps, the values that Daragh and June share have driven Norma’s things—and, by extension, her life—into a single room, and now, with the coming of June’s wedding, even this room must now be given up.
Arthur’s cabin contrasts sharply with Norma’s house. In his cabin, Arthur places such things as books above all else. The place is “lined with book shelves” (l. 63), and what’s more, these shelves are filled with philosophy books: books that perhaps express the most qualitative subject ever conceived. In his way, Arthur is the exact opposite of Daragh and June. In his home, there is no such thing as quantitative values. Like the famous philosopher, Ludwig Wittengenstein, who gave up all of his money to live in a cabin in Norway, Arthur has given up the materialistic and quantitative world. His home, then, is a sanctuary for Norma and her things, and Morris makes this clear when she describes how Norma’s English literature books take “their rightful place beside the thinkers on the shelves.” Such a description suggests that Norma’s books have always belonged next to Arthur’s, and that their arrival onto the shelves has fulfilled a pre-destined meeting. In short, Arthur’s and Norma’s books are soul-mates, just as Arthur and Norma would seem to be. The books, however, are not the only expression of this union. The fact that Arthur uses Norma’s Kaftans as decorations for the walls of his cabin is also symbolic. The kaftans, Arthurs announces, “change[ ] this miserable cabin into a temple” (l. 68). This change is important, because, like the arrival of the books, the arrival of the kaftans suggests that Norma’s art fulfills...
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