‘Puss-in-Boots’, from her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber, was the first story Angela Carter wrote which was designed to be ‘out-and-out funny’. The story is narrated by a cat name Figaro, who helps his master to become ‘friendly’ with a young woman his master has fallen in love with, in the hope that the man will fall out of love with her once he’s ‘had’ her.
‘Puss-in-Boots’ is the funniest tale in The Bloody Chamber, not least because it is partly inspired by the commedia dell’arte tradition. But what is commedia dell’arte? To answer this and other questions about Carter’s story, we clearly need to explore it in more detail. Before we come to the analysis, though, let’s recap what happens in the tale.
‘Puss-in-Boots’: plot summary
The story is unusual in that it is narrated by the marmalade-and-white cat himself: Puss-in-Boots, from the famous fairy tale of that name.
In Carter’s story, the cat introduces himself as Figaro, a sprightly, streetwise, no-nonsense, flamboyant cat who falls in with a poor young man who feeds him beef sandwiches and lets him drink brandy. They live in the town of Bergamo in Italy.
Figaro’s master is a bachelor who hops from one prostitute’s bed to another. He is terrible with money, often losing it at cards. He is promiscuous, but has never been in love before. He’s even had a threesome with the Mayor’s wife and daughter! But then one day, he falls in love with a beautiful young woman who is kept locked up in a tower and only let out on Sundays to attend mass.
This woman is the wife of Signor Panteleone, a man much older than she is. His young bride is ‘looked after’ by an old hag who prevents the young woman from talking to anyone or leaving her tower. Figaro becomes friendly with the female tabby cat who lives in the tower, and who is the young lady’s companion.
Figaro and Tabby act as go-betweens for their respective owners, passing letters between each other expressing their interest in each other. Figaro arranges for his master to serenade the young lady outside her tower. But how can he engineer it so his master can get inside her tower and woo her?
The young lady’s tabby cat suggests a scheme: the old husband goes to collect rents the next day, and the old hag who guards the young lady is terrified of rats. A loyal chambermaid will plant dead rats in the lady’s chamber and the hag will cower in a closet until a rat-catcher has come in and rid the young lady of her rat problem. This ‘rat-catcher’ will be Figaro’s master, who will finally be alone with the woman of his dreams.
The plan works: the hag, spotting dead rats in her lady’s chamber, runs out into the street, only to find ‘Signor Furioso’ – Figaro’s master posing as a rat-catcher – ready to help out. He and Figaro enter the lady’s chamber, and she tells the hag to go and recover herself while the rat-catching pair catch the vermin. Once the hag is gone, the young couple make love, with the young man taking her virginity (there is blood on the sheets, and her old husband, we are told, is impotent), but this one encounter fails to cure the young man of his love for the woman.
So they hatch a more definitive scheme: the tabby cat will trip up the doddery old husband one morning as he gets up in the dark, in the hope that the fall will kill him. Sure enough, the plan works, and Figaro’s master, disguised as a doctor, turns up to pronounce the husband dead. The young lady inherits her dead husband’s wealth and she announces she will marry the young man. They pay off the hag, who is happy to be bought off.
Figaro concludes his story by announcing that the young couple have a child together, and that he and the tabby cat have a litter of kittens.
The fiction of the English writer Angela Carter (1940-92) is, first and foremost, the fiction of ideas. Her 1979 collection of tales, The Bloody Chamber, is often described as a series of ‘versions’ or ‘retellings’ of classic children’s fairy tales. But as Carter was quick to point out, she was actually writing new tales which revealed the latent violence – including sexual violence towards women – of those old folk tales.
In the case of ‘Puss-in-Boots’, Carter puts the spotlight on one of the more ‘civilised’ ways in which women were subjugated and mistreated by men: by being married off for money to old, wealthy men to whom they were told to be faithful. The young lady is kept imprisoned in a tower like Rapunzel, cut off from people her own age and not allowed any form of social life. Her husband, being impotent, has never made love to her, though he occasionally fondles her – more to remind himself what a ‘bargain’ she was than out of any affection for her.
The young woman’s liberation from such an existence is made possible by the resourcefulness of Figaro, Carter’s take on the Puss-in-Boots character from the original fairy tale. But Carter fuses this tale, and tropes from other fairy tales (such as the Rapunzel story), with the commedia dell’arte tradition in Italian literature and theatre. Figaro is the harlequin figure: both clown and servant to his master. Signor Panteleone is named after Pantalone, a stock character in commedia dell’arte who is an example of the Vecchi character – an old, wealthy man. Carter’s ‘Puss-in-Boots’ is the story of Harlequin’s comic triumph over Pantalone.
‘Puss-in-Boots’ is not just a story about the heroine’s sexual awakening, however: it is also her triumph over her husband as property-owner. She inherits all of his wealth, and thus becomes that rarest thing, at least within the society in which the story’s action takes place: a rich woman who owns her own property.
In liberating her from a loveless marriage in which she is treated like a prize animal (notice how Figaro uses the words ‘hide’ and ‘flanks’ to describe the woman when the husband touches her, making her sound like a racehorse or piece of cattle), the master enables her to find both sexual fulfilment and financial security. For his part, the master gets the girl of his dreams and doesn’t have to worry about not having any money.