The Mysterious First Line. Discover the Opening Sentence of This Classic Japanese Novel

Introduce the Book

I Am a Cat is a satirical novel written by the Japanese author Natsume Sōseki in 1905-1906 during the Meiji period in Japan. It was originally published in serial installments in the newspaper Hototogisu. The novel is a critique of Japanese society and bureaucracy at the time, told from the perspective of an unnamed stray cat who acts as an observer.

I Am a Cat was hugely popular when first published, selling over 100,000 copies. It is considered one of Sōseki’s best known and most influential novels. The book utilizes satire, parody, and humor to provide commentary on early 20th century Japanese culture and politics. Sōseki is renowned for his wry, cynical tone in critiquing society and human nature. I Am a Cat captures his sardonic literary style.

Summary of the Plot

The novel is narrated by an unnamed stray cat who observes the follies of human nature through interactions with his owner Mr. Sneaze, as well as other characters such as Mrs. Sneaze, their servants, and various neighbors. The cat serves as a witty and sarcastic narrator who pokes fun at the ridiculous behaviors and habits of humans. The story follows the daily events in the Sneaze household, through the unique perspective of the cat.

The setting is in late 19th century Japan during the Meiji period, in a middle class suburban Tokyo neighborhood. The story takes place almost entirely within the Sneaze residence and its surrounding area. Key characters include the intelligent but mischievous cat narrator, the bumbling and foolish professor Mr. Sneaze, his practical and long-suffering wife, and the various servants with their own quirks and shortcomings.

The overall story arc involves various episodic events and hijinks centered around the Sneaze household, all observed through the lens of an amused and sardonic feline. There is no major dramatic plotline, but rather a series of humorous scenes and ironical commentaries about human nature. The cat narrator serves as the consistent thread tying together these thematic observations on society. In the end, the cat leaves the Sneaze household, reflecting on the absurdity of human existence.

Significance of the First Sentence

The first sentence of a novel plays a crucial role in setting the tone, introducing the narrative voice, and hooking the reader. As this article points out, a strong opening line can immediately captivate readers and compel them to keep reading. For I Am a Cat, the unconventional first sentence establishes the satirical, conversational tone that defines the novel while also revealing core elements of the story and narrator right away.

The sentence “I am a cat” immediately tells us the narrator is a cat, which is central to understanding the perspective. According to this analysis, impactful first lines often introduce an intriguing or unusual narrative voice, and this book’s feline narrator certainly qualifies. This singular perspective shapes the satirical commentary that follows. In just five words, the reader grasps they will experience this story from the viewpoint of a cat offering wry observations on human affairs.

Finally, the matter-of-fact declaration “I am a cat” poses an interesting scenario that hooks the reader’s curiosity. As discussed here, compelling opening lines raise questions and implications that make you want to read further. This first sentence immediately prompts the reader to wonder how the narration of a cat will unfold, drawing them into the story. Overall, this deceptively simple first line establishes the unconventional tone and perspective while posing an intriguing scenario that entices readers to continue.

Text of the First Sentence

The first sentence of the novel reads:

“I am a cat. As yet I have no name. I’ve no idea where I was born. All I remember is that I was miaowing in a dampish dark place when, for the first time, I saw a human being.”

Analysis of the Sentence

The novel opens with the famous first sentence: “I am a cat.” This line immediately establishes the humorous, satirical tone of the story by introducing an unconventional narrator – a housecat. According to literary experts, this first line is “astonishing” and “arresting” in the way it grabs the reader’s attention (Source 1).

The perspective of a cat narrator allows Sōseki to provide witty commentary on Japanese society and culture in the Meiji era. Having a cat narrator also enables ironic observations, as the narrator has a limited understanding of human affairs. The voice is simultaneously pompous yet naive as the cat makes sweeping judgments about humans, politics, and literature (Source 2). This satirical narrative voice was groundbreaking for the time and allowed Sōseki to criticize society in a unique, humorous way.

Role of the Narrator

The narrator of the novel is an unnamed housecat who exhibits a satirical and unreliable perspective. As a cat, the narrator provides an outside point of view on human affairs, allowing Sōseki to critique Meiji era society in Japan through satire and irony. The cat frequently mocks and judges the foolish behavior of the humans it observes, acting as an unreliable narrator who shapes the reader’s perspective.

Despite the narrator being a cat, the voice demonstrates sophisticated wit and intellect in its storytelling and descriptions, contributing to the novel’s satirical tone. The cat narrator also makes exaggerated claims about its influence on events to emphasize the satire. While the narrator provides thoughtful social commentary, its biased feline perspective is not objective or fully reliable.

Overall, the cat narrator in I Am a Cat allows Sōseki to explore themes of social satire and absurdism through the eyes of an aloof, critical outsider. The narrator’s unreliable viewpoint shapes the reader’s experience and highlights the foolish aspects of humans when seen from an animal perspective.

Author’s Background

Sōseki Natsume was one of Japan’s most famous writers during the Meiji era. He was born Natsume Kinnosuke in Tokyo in 1867 and later adopted the pen name Sōseki Natsume.

After graduating from Tokyo Imperial University in 1893 with a degree in English literature, Natsume briefly worked as a high school teacher before deciding to pursue writing full-time. He spent two years in England on a government scholarship, which exposed him to Western literature and helped shape his writing style.

Upon returning to Japan, Natsume wrote for several newspapers and magazines. His early works like I Am a Cat gained him recognition for their satirical critique of Japanese society. He went on to become a prominent novelist, writing classics such as Kokoro, Sanshiro, and Light and Darkness.

Despite struggles with illness and depression, Natsume penned 14 novels along with poems, short stories, and literary criticisms before his death in 1916 at the age of 49. He left behind an enduring legacy and is considered one of Japan’s greatest authors from the Meiji period.

Historical Context

I Am a Cat was written by Natsume Sōseki and originally published in 1905-1906 during the Meiji period in Japan. The Meiji Restoration began in 1868 and marked the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the restoration of practical imperial rule. It was a time of modernization and Westernization in Japan as the country moved from a feudal society to a more industrialized nation. Major reforms were enacted in areas like education, military, politics, and social structure. There was a push to adopt Western ideas, technology, fashion, and culture. According to the source, “The Meiji period coincided with a great flowering of Japanese literature and the arts under Western influence” (Wikipedia). This rapid modernization created tensions between tradition and modern values that emerged as themes in literature at the time, including I Am a Cat.

As Japan modernized during the Meiji period, the social satire and critique of human nature and society found in I Am a Cat reflected the changing times. The novel’s talking cat narrator is able to offer a unique outsider’s perspective on Japanese society undergoing dramatic shifts. Understanding the Historical Context of early 20th century Japan provides important insights into the setting and background behind this influential work of Japanese literature.

Themes and Style

One of the central themes of I Am a Cat is satire. The novel satirizes many aspects of middle-class Meiji period Japanese society and culture. The narrator, a housecat, offers a unique outsider perspective that allows Sōseki to poke fun at and critique many commonly accepted practices and beliefs. For example, the cat mocks humans for being overly concerned with superficial things like fashion and the latest trends. He also satirizes things like poetry circles, which were a popular activity among the middle class at the time. Throughout the novel, the cat’s observations expose the absurdity and hypocrisy of much of middle-class urban life in Japan during this era.

Another major theme is a critique of the growing materialism and pretentiousness of the middle class. The professor who owns the house where the cat lives only buys expensive imported items to show off his sophisticated tastes, even though he does not appreciate them. The cat also satirizes the superficial politeness and keeping up of appearances that was so important to middle-class status and reputation at this time. Sōseki uses satire and absurd humor to subtly undermine these bourgeois values that were becoming prevalent in Japanese society during the Meiji period.

In terms of style, I Am a Cat is written from a first person perspective in a rambling, anecdotal format that mimics the random thoughts and observations of a housecat. Sōseki employs a vivid colloquial writing style that was innovative for the time and helped popularize the use of vernacular Japanese in literature. The detached narrative voice, sarcasm, and irony are effective vehicles for the satire and social commentary that are central to the novel’s themes.

Legacy and Significance

I Am a Cat had a significant influence on Japanese literature. The novel is considered one of the first modern Japanese novels, breaking away from earlier conventions and establishing a new style of satirical fiction.

One of the key legacies of I Am a Cat is its innovative narrative perspective. The story is told from the viewpoint of an opinionated housecat observing the foibles and hypocrisies of the humans around him. This provided a clever vehicle for social commentary and critique. Sōseki’s use of a non-human narrator was groundbreaking for the time and inspired later Japanese authors to experiment with narrative voice.

In addition, the novel is known for its wry, ironic tone that pokes fun at the self-importance of the middle class and intellect. The cat offers amusing philosophical reflections on life, providing a humorous counterpoint to human activities. This style of humor was novel and paved the way for satirical fiction in 20th century Japanese literature.

Finally, the episodic structure of short vignettes or scenes was also an innovation by Sōseki. He rejected a linear plot in favor of loosely connected episodes highlighting different absurdities and follies. This fragmented structure influenced many subsequent Japanese authors and helped move literature in a more modern direction.

In summary, I Am a Cat was one of the most important early modern novels in Japan. Its unconventional narrative voice, satirical tone, and episodic structure demonstrated new possibilities in Japanese fiction and shaped the development of literature for decades after.

Scroll to Top