Gareth B. Matthews
Review of The Cat Who Thought She Was a Dog and the Dog Who Thought He Was a Cat by Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1974). Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 10(3): 1.
Jan Skiba is a poor peasant who lives in the country with his wife, Marianna, their three daughters, and a dog and a cat. The dog, Burek, who has never encountered any other small animal besides the cat, Kot, thinks that he, too, is a cat; and Kot thinks that she is a dog. Of course Burek thinks that he is the kind of cat that barks; and Kot thinks she is the kind of dog that meows.
One day a peddler arrives at the Skibas’ hut and lays out his cheap jewelry and kerchiefs for Marianna and the daughters to admire; but it is the peddler’s mirror that most interests the Skibas. Since the Skibas don’t have enough money to buy the mirror out right, they strike a bargain with the peddler; they will get the mirror in exchange for a monthly payment of five groschen. At first everyone is pleased to have a mirror. But then they all discover defects in their appearance that they had not known about before. Marianna is bothered by the gap where a front tooth is missing. One daughter finds her nose too snub; another thinks her chin is too long; and the third dislikes her freckles. As for Jan, he frets over his thick lips and buck teeth.
It is the dog and cat, though, who become most upset of all. Burek takes his reflection in the mirror for a menacing beast, the likes of which he has never seen before. And Kot spits angrily at her image, which, of course, spits angrily back. The dog and cat become violent toward their mirror images and then turn their violence on each other. When they draw blood, the Skibas have to separate them and, sadly, tie Burek up outside their hut.
Realizing that the mirror has become a curse, Jan gets the peddler, on his next visit, to take the thing back; he buys slippers and kerchiefs instead. With the departure of the mirror, tranquility returns to the Skiba household. Kot and Burek resume peaceful coexistence, and the daughters, despite their earlier anxieties, all succeed in marrying suitable husbands.
The village priest, upon hearing the story of the disturbing mirror, assures the Skibas that a glass mirror shows only the skin of the body. The real image of a person, he says, is found in a willingness to help family and neighbors. The mirror of those around us, he adds, reveals the very soul of a person.
After reading Isaac Singer’s wonderfully wise story to a group of school children, I would want to open the discussion with talk about mirrors. To me, mirrors are, and always have been, some of the most wonderfully mysterious objects there are.
I can remember as a child looking into the mirror over the mantelpiece and playing with the idea of a reversed space behind the chimney, much as Lewis Carroll introduces us to that idea in Through the Looking Glass. I can also remember holding my mother’s hand mirror before her dresser mirror and trying to count the mirrors within mirrors I could see receding into the indefinite distance. Surely children still play such games. And surely they, like me, wonder whether receding mirror images really go on forever only we just can’t see that far or whether they stop receding right after the point at which they become too tiny for us to see.
I like to be reassured that kids today are just as good at using mirrors to in duce metaphysical vertigo as I ever was. But I would also want to explore with the kids in my class the village priest’s idea that our effect on the people around us gives us an image of our real selves. We have no way of finding out whether we are likeable, friendly, funny, “awesome “ or “cool;” except by getting other people to react to us.
Often we become comfortable with the self-image we get from our interactions with others. When we are comfortable with our image, most of us try hard to preserve it. Thus the class “show-off,” or the class bully, or the class “cool cat;” may work very hard to preserve that image and thereby maintain that identity. Yet the mirror of family and peer groups can also be as upsetting as the peddler’s mirror in the Skibas’ hut. It may reveal defects we do not want to recognize. And it may make us as violently competitive as the peddler’s mirror made Burek and Kot.
Social mirrors sometimes pose another threat. One of my daughters once told me that each of the various groups to which she belonged reflected a different side of her. In a way she found that diversity of images reassuring. Each group reflected something of her that the others had missed. But she also found the situation troubling. What was she like, really? Was there even any real “her;’ beneath all those very different images? And how could she find out?