The Cat that Walked by Himself


First published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1902. Collected in Just So Stories (1902), illustrated by the author and followed by the poem “Pussy can sit by the fire and sing” (“The First Friend” in the Just So Songbook, 1911). The upper part of the illustration on p. 185 was reproduced on the dust jacket.

There are numerous paperback editions of Just So Stories available.

The story

Originally all the tame animals were wild, but especially the Cat: he walked by himself and all places were alike to him. The Man was wild too until he met the Woman, who chose a Cave for them to live in, lit a fire in it and hung a horsehide over the opening. She cooked a meal of wild ingredients.

Then, while the Man slept, she took the bladebone of a shoulder of mutton and made a Singing Magic. This attracted the Dog, and on the next two nights she similarly lured the Horse and the Cow to visit the cave. They agreed to provide services to the couple, the Dog in exchange for roast meat and the other two for hay that she had dried by the fire. Each time the Cat followed and eavesdropped, called them fools, and went off to tell no one.

On the fourth night the Cat went to the cave and smelt the warm milk from the Cow. The Woman laughed at him and told him to go back to the woods. The Cat flattered her and asked if he might never come in the Cave, sit by the fire or taste the milk. She answered that if she praised him once, twice and three times, his three wishes would be granted, but swore she never would. The Cat left, but the Bat reported to him what was happening.

When he heard the Woman had a Baby, the Cat knew his time had come. He went and found that the Baby crying outside the Cave. He rubbed himself against it till it laughed. The Bat told the Woman, who blessed whatever creature was responsible, whereupon the horsehide fell down and the Cat was admitted to the Cave. The Woman was annoyed. She began to spin, but the Baby cried again, and the Cat told her to tie her spinning-whorl to a thread to pull about the floor for him to chase. This made the Baby laugh, then it clutched the Cat, who purred it to sleep. The Woman thanked him, then the fire smoked and the Cat was found warming himself. She was furious, and made a Still Magic to prevent herself from granting the third wish. In the quiet, a mouse came out and she screamed. When the Cat killed the mouse, she thanked him, and the Milk-pot cracked open, allowing him to drink.

But he had made no bargain with the Man or the Dog. The man said the Cat must always catch mice or have boots and other objects thrown at him. The Cat agreed, but defiantly, so was told that three things would still be thrown. The Dog threatened to bite the Cat if he were ever unkind to the Baby, and receiving a defiant consent, promised always to chase him up a tree. Man and Dog carried out their threats; most men and all dogs will do the same, though the Cat keeps his bargain. But on moonlit nights he roams the woods or the roofs, walking by his wild lone.


The manuscript of the story and the verse are in the volume “Just So Stories” at the British Library, preceded by a list of words to be given capital letters – Cat, Man, etc. Carrington’s notes from Mrs Kipling’s diaries give the date of writing as 23rd January 1902, but in a letter quoted in ORG (pp. 1689-90), Carrington said:

When I was at Brattleboro on a winter day in ’52 I saw a hunting cat in the wet wild woods looking too absurdly like the picture that is on the cover of the 4th edition. It belongs to New England though it was written at Cape Town seven years later.

Carrington also called it ‘a gentle satire on Carrie Kipling’, pointing out that a few months before the written version, her Wolcott cousins ‘had made her a present of a fine Persian cat.’ He did not mention, though it is listed in his notes, that her husband had also given her a Persian cat on 1st December 1894. A fortnight earlier, Kipling had written ‘the cats don’t like’ a skunk in the coal-cellar at Naulakha, their Vermont home [letter to Ripley Hitchcock, 13 November 1894, (Letters, vol. 2, p. 159)]. What status these cats held – pets, kitchen or stable mousers – is not explained.

When Kipling’s uncle Sir Edward Burne-Jones drew the three children at Rottingdean in 1898, Josephine was shown clutching a kitten (the picture hangs in the bedroom at Bateman’s). Since she was the only one old enough to have played with a cat while the family still lived in Vermont, it seems probable that the cat story was originally addressed to her. The poem, which would have been written when Just So Stories was being assembled, seems to be about John Kipling, who was five when the book was published. [Philip Holberton notes that the last line of Verse 1 confirms that the speaker is male: ‘I am the Man in the Cave!’ Kipling’s biographers do not mention whether hr kept dogs when he first moved to Bateman’s, or whether young John had a puppy.]

The Kipling Journal of October 1952, p. 10, quotes a ‘legend’ (origin unspecified) that a cat visited the Christ-child in the manger. The baby was wakeful, and neither his mother, the ox, the donkey, nor the dog could soothe him – but the cat purred him to sleep.

It is not true, as the story asserts, that ‘all places are alike’ to cats, for they are territorial animals. What the drawing appears to show is a mature tom patrolling his territory. One might query whether such a tom would condescend to play kitten games to amuse a baby, or allow himself to be clutched while it slept. The cat in the poem, on the other hand, is a female. While Kipling often had cats around him, he does not seem to have known them intimately – possibly because of his fondness for terriers, who do indeed like to chase cats up trees. But if the Wild Cat may be a compound, he has genuine feline characteristics, while equally it is true of domestic cats that they will only scratch a child under extreme provocation (such as having a paw forcibly dabbled in cold water). That all cats lack subservience is familiar to anybody who has known one.

The capitalised words and lack of individual names suggest that the characters are archetypes, as the “Cave” is an archetypal home. But see also Critical Opinions below.

Critical Opinions

In the letter quoted above, Carrington wrote: ‘I sometimes think ‘The Cat that Walked’ is RK’s masterpiece, the best story he ever wrote of any kind.’
J M S Tompkins [pp. 55-6] remembered that:

the prehistoric background of … “The Cat that walked by Himself” offered me a fascinating blend of the cosy and the infinitely distant.

To Rosemary Sutcliffe:

The story of The Cat, seen in a kind of rainy witchlight, has a really back-hair-disturbing magic of its own. (But few children are disturbed by the things that seem to have the potency and the terror of the true Other World; … [I felt nothing] about “The Cat that Walked by Himself”, save that it was a very exciting and very satisfying story and the cat was superbly catly.) [p. 95].

But to Angus Wilson the story was ‘too marred by humans, cosy … [p. 229].

For Rosalind Meyer:

To some extent the tales are allegorical, but they are also actualist. Wild Horse arrives ‘tripping and stumbling on his long mane’, a genuine creature in his own right [Kipling Journal, 232, December 1984, p. 12].

She further wrote

the tale of the Cat appears to be a self-generating myth; until one considers what is its direction.

Clearly, the tale centres on the creation of that indefinable entity, a home: to accomplish which, the Woman has to call on all her powers acquired and inherited – whether she is a little girl hanging sacking across the entry of a lean-to in the garden, or some larger representative of Womankind. Under her guidance, comforts, responsibilities, and relationships, shared in common by all the household, emerge and proliferate.

Only the Cat presents an insuperable challenge, since “all places were alike to him”, and his concerns affect him alone. The conflict of the tale lies between him and Woman, not over a question of social accommodation, but on an issue of principle and of attitude. Notably, it is immediately after the Cat, “the wildest of all the wild animals”, that the Man is introduced to the story. The Man [quoted p. 175, lines 20-2]. So she domesticates them all, and it is made clear that although they gain much by their bargain, they lose their freedom. The point is scored most incisively in the case of the Horse – as is appropriate: [quoted p. 182, lines 25-7].
Every word tells, from “slipped” to “plaited hide”. The noose is handsome, and it is comfortable, but it is also durable. The Man’s situation is to be sought in the experience of the animals; and it is thus that the Cat’s part in the allegory becomes clearer. When the night gets into his head – as happened to the author when a young man – he makes his escape in the moonlight, ‘waving his tail and walking his wild lone’. … “The Cat that walked by Himself” reserves its own ironies; of which one of the best may be that it was first published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, an organ dedicated to the preservation of home life. Yet it is by no means an allegory easy to interpret; its truths, because inexpressible otherwise, are presented with the elusiveness of myth. [pp. 17-8].

In a letter to the Kipling Journal, 235, September 1985, she wrote [p. 55]:

I am prepared to state my conviction that somewhere from that enigmatic myth arises the impression that the Horse, Dog and Cow at one level are meant to reflect Husband the lover, defender and provider; while at that point the Cat mirrors whatever else in him the Woman may never domesticate – though she is obliged to live with it, for it comes with the others!

In his introduction to the Oxford Authors Rudyard Kipling, a Critical Edition of the Major Works (Oxford University Press, 1999), Daniel Karlin wrote:

Kipling’s emblem is the Cat that Walked by Himself, who is both inside and outside the warm cave and the ordered lives of beasts and men. [p. xxi].

In his notes on the story, he said:

… he is essence of cat, really; he makes most other literary cats look half-realized, yet he is drawn in monochrome. Kipling’s account of the making (or, more properly, engendering) of the family is similarly succinct and intense. The flatness and repetitive rhythms which denote a childlike mode of storytelling are primitive without being in the least simple-minded. The cat may be allegorized as many things (the artist’s imagination, the Freudian ‘id’, male sexuality) but the story remains a fable, not an allegory; like all Kipling’s best stories, it is meaningful because no single meaning can be extracted from it.


©Lisa Lewis 2006 All rights reserved