unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm Read-Through

Cat and Mouse in Gesellschaftillus-050


nti-tales are understudied, as I’ve mentioned before. But what seems evident is that anti-tales do not simply arise in reaction to tales. Anti-tales are, by definition, contained in the tales themselves. A tale holds its own anti-tale, and sometimes subverts itself with the telling.

Tales in the grand tradition—that is, those tales most commonly retold—are more commonly presented in the pure tale. There is a happily ever after. Good conquers Evil. Love conquers All. These tales invite subversion, anti-telling, and deconstruction, because so many of the retellings are so obnoxiously smug.

The older tales and lesser known tellings startle with the prominence of the anti-tale already in the text. The darker, more disturbing Grimm tales fit in this category. Something unsettles us, we wonder uneasily why the neat world presented in the tale seems to frail just in the telling of the story. We haven’t even had a chance to apply postwar trauma or suburban angst to it, and it already frightens us.

So it’s doubly surprising, and more than a little freakish, to discover a retelling of such an anti-tale that emphasizes the anti-tale coloring.

‘Katz und Maus in Gesellschaft’ is such a tale. James Thurber’s ‘The Birds and the Foxes’ (1940) is such a retelling. In Thurber’s tale, the foxes are interested in promoting ‘civilization’ among birds. When a fence goes up to enclose an oriole sanctuary, the foxes protest, calling it ‘an arbitrary and unnatural boundary’, and insist ‘there had once been foxes in the sanctuary but that they had been driven out.’

The foxes are preoccupied with civilizing chickens and geese for a while. When, however, ‘all the geese and ducks had been civilized, and there was nothing left to eat, the foxes once more turned their attention to the bird sanctuary.’ There is a brief, gruesome battle that ends with the foxes devouring the orioles.

The next day the leader of the foxes, a fox from whom God was receiving daily guidance, got upon the rostrum and addressed the other foxes. His message was simple and sublime. “You see before you another Lincoln. We have liberated all those birds.”

Thurber’s terse moral stings with its simplicity: ‘Government of the orioles, by the foxes, and for the foxes, must perish from the earth.’

In point of historical fact, the foxes are Nazi Germany, the fox leader Adolf Hitler, the orioles Austria, France, and so on. Thurber wrote ‘The Birds and the Foxes’ as a sort of polemic, exposing the shallowness of Nazi propaganda through his ridicule. He also visited the growing conflict in Europe in ‘The Rabbits Who Caused All the Trouble’ (1940), where the wolves blame natural catastrophes on rabbits with increasingly improbable logic, ultimately attacking and devouring the rabbits in what they say is an attempt to keep the rabbits safe.

Thurber demolishes oppressive ideologies and system that disguise themselves as acting for the people’s welfare. The totalitarian state and 1950s Americanism were his chief targets. Whether there’s any contemporary political application is anyone’s guess.

The story-type of Thurber’s tale, intentionally on his part or not, is found in the folktale the Grimms collected. ‘Katz und Maus in Gesellschaft’ tells the story of a cat’s attempt to civilize a mouse. They agree to share a house, where the mouse will be confined for her own safety. They lay up food for the winter, hiding a bowl of fat in a church, to help them survive the winter. But the cat secretly eats the fat, pretending she’s going to church to stand as a godmother for various oddly named kittens—Top-off, Half-done, and All-gone. When the mouse realized the truth and confronts the cat, the cat kills her.

In a telling note, the Grimms explain that another version of this tale features a rooster and a hen, with the hen outwitting the rooster and eating the supply of seeds. There’s a remarkably Thurberian twist to this version, with the dominating wife controlling the husband. The traditional version ends with the rooster killing the hen, similar to the subversive ending of ‘The Catbird Seat’. It’s a hollow victory for the rooster, however. He will probably die in the winter.

Maragaret Hunt has translated Gesellschaft as ‘partnership’. This, however, obscures the meaning of the tale. The German word looked impressive enough that I did some further research. Gesellschaft is, in fact, one of those lovely German words nearly untranslatable to English or any other word.

It’s the coinage of the great German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, who used it to express a precise ordering of society—what we would call ‘civilized’ society. Gesellschaft means, roughly, the societal agreement of individuals to enter into and maintain a mechanical social relationship, a contract of survival without a common, familial bond. It is an act of arbitrary will (Kürwille), uniting people in unspoken agreement to cooperate. Gesellschaft, according to Tönnies, creates rational, scientific societies, and underlies the city, the nation, the merchant-class, and the market-economy. It exists in tension with Gemeinschaft, society based on kinship, folk-culture, farm, and village.

Tönnies is a complex thinker—he’s a German scholar, for pity’s sake, and that’s a stereotype that means something. I will not attempt to fully engage with his work here. But a few points connect to this reading. Consider the following quote:

In this connection [bond without commonality] we see a community organization and social conditions in which the individuals remain in isolation and veiled hostility toward each other, so that only fear of clever retaliation restrains them from attacking one another, and, therefore, even peaceful and neighborly relations are in reality based upon a warlike situation.This is, according to our concepts, the condition of Gesellschaft-like civilization, in which peace and commerce are maintained through conventions and the underlying mutual fear.


[I]n the city and therefore where general conditions characteristic of the Gesellschaft prevail, only the upper strata, the rich and the cultured, are really active and alive. They set up the standards to which the lower strata have to conform. These lower classes conform partly to supersede the others, partly in imitation of them in order to attain for themselves social power and independence.

–Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, (1887)

This is Katz und Maus. The stronger party, the upper strata, is the cat, dictating to the mouse the rules for her destruction, in the name of society and civilization. In the end, the repressed beast, breaks through. The Gesellschaft is destroyed in fear and warfare. The upper class consumes the lower without even the pretence of liberation. The dream of safety, tolerance, and independence, once attainable, deteriorates in barbarism and greed.

The moral is pithy, sardonic. ‘Verily, that is the way of the world.’ We’re left to draw our own conclusions. Is this a fatalist, a cynical midnight commentator? ‘Well that’s the way the money goes, folks. I’ll be here all week.’

Is this the voice of Gemeinschaft, lampooning the lure of the cities and social orders, the healthy skepticism of the countryman for city-types, native intuition that wealth devours, that markets benefit those on top when those on top control them?

Or is this a command, thinly veiled, as Thurber says—this must perish?

In the end, it’s all of these. And none. It is simply the story of two wildly disparate and antagonistic parties who attempt to get along. One’s greed and the other’s imprudence destroys their hope. Such is the world—stab and turn and stab again. The tale deconstructs itself. We are left with questions we fear to answer.


Deflem, Mathieu. ‘Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936)’ in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward Craig (London: Routledge, 2001) http://www.cas.sc.edu/socy/faculty/deflem/zToennies.html

Thurber, James. ‘The Birds and the Foxes’ in Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated (New York: Harper Perennial, 1983) 53-54

Truzzi, Marcello.  Sociology: The Classic Statements (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971) 145-154

2 thoughts on “unsettling wonder

  1. I gather that Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning graphic novel Maus takes a somewhat similar line, retelling the Holocaust with cats as Nazis and mice as Jews. I wish I’d actually read it so I could point out more parallels… anybody out there who can weigh in for us?

    Then of course Animal Farm: ’nuff said.

  2. Aside from Animal Farm I was constantly reminded of Dogville – the well-meaning modern moralist attempting to reform society to provide space for a dependent outsider. Haunting and troubling stories, these. As you say, “questions we fear to answer”.

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