The Plague

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The Man Who Spits on Cats Symbol Analysis

The Man Who Spits on Cats Symbol Icon
Tarrou describes his neighbor, a “dapper little old man” who goes out onto his balcony every day and drops torn paper into the street to lure stray cats. Whenever a cat approaches the old man spits at it, and when he hits one he looks supremely satisfied. When the dogs and cats are killed during the plague (as carriers of plague-bearing fleas), the old man seems heartbroken, and he never appears on his balcony again after that. This man and his strange habit symbolizes the absurdist universe that Camus proposes in his novel. There is no inherent meaning in the man’s actions, but he creates his own meaning from them, which gives him happiness. The extreme absurdity of spitting on cats only emphasizes how absurd all human action is in the face of a vast and uncaring universe. We are all doomed to suffer and die, so anything we might do in the face of that is just as silly as spitting on cats – yet we must keep doing it, as it is only through creating our own meaning that we can give our lives value.

The Man Who Spits on Cats Quotes in The Plague

The The Plague quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Man Who Spits on Cats. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Absurdism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of The Plague published in 1991.
Part 1 Quotes

Every day… a dapper little old man stepped out on the balcony on the other side of the street… Leaning over the balcony he would call: “Pussy! Pussy!” in a voice at once haughty and endearing… He then proceeded to tear some paper into scraps and let them fall into the street; interested by the fluttering shower of white butterflies, the cats came forward, lifting tentative paws toward the last scraps of paper. Then, taking careful aim, the old man would spit vigorously at the cats and, whenever a liquid missile hit the quarry, would beam with delight.

Related Characters: Jean Tarrou (speaker), The man who spits on cats
Related Symbols: The Man Who Spits on Cats
Page Number: 25-26
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to one of the most loaded symbols in the novel--the man who spits at cats. This old man, very well-dressed, goes outside every morning and tries to lure stray cats to within "spitting distance." When the cats have congregated, the old man spits at them again and again, taking great pleasure in hitting them.

What, if anything, does the scene symbolize? Camus seems to intend his scene as a symbol for the absurdity of the universe. Humans are ill-equipped to recognize the truth: the universe is a crazy, meaningless place. As such, they often choose to to invent their own meanings for life: they give themselves routines to distract themselves from the absurdity. The irony, of course, is that the routines and hobbies that humans adopt for themselves are every bit as absurd as the universe itself (and, Camus argues, no less absurd than this man's bizarre ritual). The old man seems to hate the cats (he enjoys spitting at them) and yet he clearly needs cats--they seem to give his life meaning, and when the plague kills them, he disappears into his apartment and presumably despairs. Humans are all alone in the universe--even our enemies serve a useful purpose in giving us someone to connect with. In all, the episode of the cats suggests the absurd measures we take to entertain ourselves and build communities for ourselves in the face of the crushing meaningless of existence.

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The Man Who Spits on Cats Symbol Timeline in The Plague

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Man Who Spits on Cats appears in The Plague. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1
Absurdism Theme Icon
Language and Communication Theme Icon
Tarrou describes an old man who lives across from him, who comes out onto his balcony every afternoon and drops... (full context)
Part 2
Absurdism Theme Icon
Suffering and Death Theme Icon
...seem smaller. Tarrou records a woman opening her window, screaming twice, and then shutting it. The man who spits on cats has lost his pastime, as the cats have all been killed as possible carriers of... (full context)
Part 5
Absurdism Theme Icon
Heroism and Defiance Theme Icon
Tarrou still takes a few scattered notes in his diary – he records that the man who spits on cats does not appear again even when the cats return, and Tarrou wonders if he is... (full context)