Puss in Boots: A Story With a Questionable Moral
Perrault's Story About the Puss in the Boots
Charles Perrault's Puss in Boots, or Master Cat, is probably the most famous fairytale with an animal in the title. Aside from Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty in the Woods, this is one of the most well-known fairytales written by Charles Perrault.
We'll examine Puss in Boots and common fairytale symbols to try to explain the questionable moral of the story.
A Story Summary of "Puss in Boots"
The story of Puss in Boots starts with a miller who has three sons. When the miller dies his property is divided. The eldest son gets a mill, the middle son a donkey, and the youngest gets a cat. The youngest son is not very happy with the situation and decides to kill the cat, but the cat asks his master to spare his life. In return, the cat promises to make his young master rich. When the master agrees, the cat asks for a pair of boots.
Puss begins his adventures by catching rabbits and partridges to give to the king. Every time the cat gifts the king, he says that it is sent by his fictional master, Marquis de Carabas (Marquis of Carabas). The king starts to become curious about this generous nobleman.
One day, the cat hears that the king will drive by the river with his daughter, so he tells his real master to undress and swim in the river. When the carriage with the king and the princess drives by, the cat stops the coach. Here, he tells a lie. He explains to the king that his master, Marquis de Carabas, was just attacked by robbers while swimming and lost all of his clothes. The king offers fancy clothes to the cat's master and invites him into the coach. Upon seeing the master, the princess immediately falls in love.
While the coach continues to drive, the cat runs ahead and orders groups of people (peasants, lumberjacks, shepherds) to tell anybody that asks that the surrounding property belongs to Marquis of Carabas. He warns that bad things will happen to them if they don’t obey his commands. When the coach passes through the countryside, the groups of people tell the king that the property around them belongs to Marquis of Carabas.
In the meantime, the cat arrives at a castle inhabited by an ogre who has the power to change into any animal. The cat tricks him to change into a mouse, and he is promptly eaten by the cat. Now, the castle and the surrounding property belong to the cat's master. When the king, princess, and the young master arrive, the king is impressed with the castle and weds his daughter to the young man. The master becomes a prince and, thus, the cat’s promise is fulfilled.
Does This Story Qualify As a Fairytale?
It definitely has most of the fairytale elements: the protagonist, antagonist, mission, obstacles, magic, transformation, and typical elements like the number three, an animal helper, a princess, etc. But it lacks something we expect in all fairytales for children: a moral.
The cat achieves everything in this fairytale by cheating, threatening, and lying. He is far from being the perfect role model.
And what about his master? He does nothing. The only plan he ever had was to destroy his only property — his cat. He is not too smart and not a nice person either.
So when I see a new edition of Puss in Boots in a shopping window advertised as a "timeless story about the friendship between human and animal," I can't buy it.
Why, then, is this story so popular? For over three hundred years, this book has been republished time and time again. To answer this question, let's examine some basic elements of the story. It may help us better understand the moral of this fairytale.
What Is Primogeniture?
When the first versions of Puss in Boots were written, the system called "Primogeniture" (latin 'primo' means first and 'genitura' means born) was widely used. This term refers to the practice of giving the older son all of the property when the father dies. There was a good logic behind that rule.
Most people didn't have much, so dividing between all of their children was out of the option. A small piece of land or small business (like a mill) was not enough for all children (many families had ten or more children and before their father died, some of them probably had their own children).
If only one person should take everything, the older one was a reasonable choice. Of everyone in the family, he probably invested the most time and energy into that piece of land or small business, so there was a big possibility that he would use it to its best potential. Younger children would have to find their own paths to happiness.
In our particular fairytale, we have three sons, and the eldest gets the mill. The second son gets a donkey which could be very useful for a miller who probably needs some kind of transportation. The youngest gets a cat, and again, this is useful for a miller because mice are one of the biggest concerns. So neither the middle nor the youngest son have practical uses for their inheritance. Thus, the author's choice to divide the father's property between 3 children is questionable.
Is Puss in Boots suitable for children?
Do you find it educational or questionable?
Fairy Tale Number Three in 'Puss in Boots"
- There are three sons.
- Puss divides his plan into three parts (getting sympathies of the king, introducing his master, and getting a castle to establish his position).
- There are three groups of people who help to spread the word of the master's wealth (peasants, lumberjacks, shepherds).
- The ogre transforms into an animal three times.
There are many reasons why the number three is so popular in storytelling, especially in fairytales. One psychological explanation comes from the fact that almost every child identifies himself with the number three at a subconscious level. If we examine a child's familial relationships, the numbers one and two, in most cases, represent the mother and father. The child feels that he is number three. Even if he has brothers and sisters, the connection with his mother and father are so strong that he still sees himself as being number three.
The Power of Boots
Boots are an important part of this story. We already know that for decades, Charles Perrault was very influential in the court of Louis XIV where fashion was extremely important. We have read about noblemen who sold real estate just to buy proper clothes because without dressing in the latest fashion, the doors of Versailles were closed to them.
In Puss in Boots, the situation is similar. With proper clothes (boots), all the doors were open. Even a cat can win the king's trust if he follows the proper dress code. Perrault's classic humor can be seen in the moral that is written at the end of the book: "Good looks and good manners, and some aid from dress" are really key to success.
Why Perrault Added Boots?
Boots were not included in any versions of the story that existed before Charles Perrault. Boots are Perrault's addition and all versions after his Puss in Boots always include them.
A pair of boots symbolizes climbing up the social ladder. Shoes (or boots) were expensive back then, and they still remain a status symbol in the developing world today. Because kids easily outgrow their shoes, poor families could not afford to purchase a pair for their child until he/she was grown. Coming of age and receiving a pair of shoes represents an important time in a young person's life when he/she embarks on a journey to find their position in society. Charles Perrault was relatively affluent, but was not a member of a noble family. He knew first hand what it meant to climb social ladders, so this symbolism was pertinent to the society that Perrault lived in at the time.
The Oldest Versions Don't Have a Cat
In the older versions of the story, we have a fox in the role of the helper. Very interestingly, the Italian folktale Don Joseph Pear tells of a fox who is caught stealing pears at night, which is similar to the beginning of Golden Bird by Grimms or Fire Bird by Afanasyev.
The plot line is almost identical to that of Puss in Boots and includes all the similar steps — the fox offers Don Joseph riches if his life is spared, he kills and ogre and threatens the townspeople in order to make way for Don Joseph's rise in society, and he eventually succeeds in marrying Joseph to the king's daughter. The ending takes a different turn, however. Rather than enjoy his newly found status, Don Joseph kills the fox to prevent anyone from finding out the truth about his origins.
In Norway There Is a Version Called "Lord Peter"
The Norwegian version has a similar beginning with one important change: when the parents die, all the sons take their belongings and abandon the family home. The youngest son, Peter, takes the cat with him because he is afraid it might starve. So in this version, the master's cat has some compassion. The story then develops in the familiar pattern — the cat aids young Peter's journey from rag to riches. But in the end, the cat demands something very unusual from "Lord Peter." He asks that Peter behead him. When Peter obeys, the cat transforms into a beautiful princess. It is not hard to recognize the similarities between this story and Beauty and the Beast, Frog King, and especially Golden Bird, all of which include enchanted noblemen/women playing the role of an animal helper.
Lord Peter is probably what George Cruikshank (known for his illustrations) used to write his version of Puss in Boots. In his adaption, the boy (not the cat) was a grandson of a nobleman, deprived of his property by the ogre. This story, however, is too moralizing and doesn't offer the protagonist real chances for success. There is still an ongoing debate about whether this is the same motif used in the Jack and the Beanstalk versions written by Benjamin Tabart and Joseph Jacobs.
If we want a better understanding of the classic Puss in Boots we certainly have to examine Basile's Gagliuso (Caglioso). In this early Italian version of the story, we have a cat (female) who helps her master in a lot of ways — she even teaches him how to behave. There is no ogre in this story and Gagliuso's property is simply purchased using money from the king.
The ending is educational, too. When Gagliuso gets all he needs to live happily ever after, the cat asks him for only one favor: to be decently buried when she dies. Gagliuso promises. Later, the cat tests him by playing dead. When Gagliuso hears she is dead, he orders her body to be thrown through the window. The story ends with this moral: once a beggar, always a beggar.
Perrault Is Inspired by Basile's "Pentamerone"
Scholars agree that Perrault's biggest inspiration for his stories in Tales of Mother Goose, including Puss in Boots, was Basile's Pentamerone. In this fairytale he introduces the ogre and changes the cat's gender from female to male. But the most important change is certainly the moral of the story. Charles Perrault turned Basile's moral upside down. If Basile said, "Clothes do not make the man," then Perrault claims the opposite: "Clothing makes the man."
Perrault's story, which has stood the test of time, is the most popular version of Puss in Boots, and has inspired many modern versions. But is the message appropriate for kids? I don't think so.
But if we look closely enough, we can find some valuable moral lessons. Below, I offer my simplified interpretation of the moral of the story.
My Favorite Message of the Story
-Don't waste your time complaining about circumstances.
-The cards are in your hands.
-Play the best you can and you will be rewarded!