Definitions

Cheshire Cat

Cheshire Cat

The Cheshire Cat is a fictional cat appearing in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Alice first encounters it at the Duchess's house in her kitchen, and then later outside on the branches of a tree, where it appears and disappears at will, engaging Alice in amusing but sometimes vexing conversation. The cat sometimes raises philosophical points that annoy or baffle Alice. It does, however, appear to cheer her up when it turns up suddenly at the Queen of Hearts' croquet field, and when sentenced to death baffles everyone by making its body disappear, but its head remain visible, sparking a massive argument between the executioner and the King and Queen of Hearts about whether something that does not have a body can indeed be beheaded.

At one point, the cat disappears gradually until nothing is left but its grin, prompting Alice to remark that she has often seen a cat without a grin but never a grin without a cat. This has become a point of notability for the cat: most people remember it most strongly performing its vanishing act.

Cheshire is not an actual breed of cat: the English county of Cheshire is famous for its cheesemaking, salt, and silk, as well as being a major railway junction, but no mention is made of any unique breeding. However, it has been speculated that the Cheshire cat was intended to be a British Shorthair, as that is the cat breed that Carroll saw on the label of Cheshire Cheese.

Inspiration

Cheese moulds

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says grinning like a Cheshire cat is "an old simile, popularized by Lewis Carroll". Brewer adds, "The phrase has never been satisfactorily accounted for, but it has been said that cheese was formerly sold in Cheshire moulded like a cat that looked as though it was grinning". The cheese was cut from the tail end, so that the last part eaten was the head of the smiling cat.

Dockyard cats

Another origin for the story concerns the cats that lived in the port of Chester. Until the late 1970s, a monument to the Cheshire Cat stood beside the River Dee, where there had formerly been a cheese warehouse. It was said that cats sitting on the dock would wait for the rats and mice to leave the ships transporting Cheshire cheese to London and were the happiest cats in the kingdom – hence their grins. The monument was destroyed when Copfield House, which stood on the site of the warehouse, was demolished in 1979.

Cats from a dairy county

A yet simpler explanation and one widely believed in the area itself is that, Cheshire being famed as a dairy county, its cats enjoyed copious amounts of milk and cream and in consequence displayed a contented grin.

Church carvings

There are reports that Carroll found inspiration for the Cheshire Cat in a carving in a church in the village of Croft-on-Tees, in the north east of England, where his father had been rector. Another view is that the cat is based on a gargoyle found on a pillar in St Nicolas Church, Cranleigh, where Carroll used to travel frequently when he lived in Guildford. The cat is named after Carroll's home county, Cheshire. Others attribute it to a carving on the west face of the tower at St Wilfrid's Church, Grappenhall, Warrington, Cheshire.

Cheshire Cat in popular culture

The Cheshire Cat is one of many iconic characters from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that have become enmeshed in popular culture. Depictions of the Cheshire Cat have appeared in many media, from political cartoons to television. The Cheshire Cat's grin is reminiscent of the vagaries of human character or of a trickster nature.

Prior to the release of the Walt Disney animated production Alice in Wonderland, scholars observed few specific allusions to this character. Martin Gardner, author of the The Annotated Alice, wondered if T. S. Eliot had the Cheshire Cat in mind when writing Morning at the Window but notes no other significant allusions in the pre-war period.

Images of and references to the Cheshire Cat cropped up more frequently in the 1960s and 1970s, along with more frequent references to Carroll's works in general. The Cheshire Cat appeared on LSD blotters as well as in song lyrics and popular fiction. For example, in the Star Trek episode Who mourns for Adonais?, Kirk and Chekov argue over the origin of the "vanishing cat" and Chekov amusingly alleges that it came from Minsk.

An exhibit called The Cheshire Cat at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, created by Bob Miller in 1978, features a mirrored eyepiece that allows visitors to look at a picture of the Cheshire Cat's face with one eye while the other eye sees a reflection of a white screen to the side. When the visitor waves a hand in across the white screen, the cat image starts to disappear. If the visitor focuses on the cat's smile while doing this, the smile will remain while the cat disappears. The general phenomenon of a moving stimulus presented to one eye causing a static image to disappear from the other eye is called the Cheshire Cat effect, named after this exhibit. The effect is part of a broader visual phenomenon called binocular rivalry.

In a Garfield comic, Garfield sneaks into Jons room at night and gives a wide grin (which is all that can be seen in the pitch black, making it appear that the rest of his body is missing). After turning on the lights, Jon comments to him, "you've been reading Alice in Wonderland again, haven't you?"

Depictions

In it the Cheshire Cat is voiced by Sterling Holloway, a voice actor whom Walt Disney was already familiar with due to Holloway's voicing of Mr. Stork in Dumbo (1941) and Flower in Bambi (1942). Holloway went on to achieve his greatest fame voicing Winnie-the-Pooh in the short film Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree in 1966 (one of the last animated shorts produced by Disney himself before his death), as well as 2 more shorts and a 1977 film. Holloway was originally going to sing "I'm Odd" as the Cheshire Cat, but instead sang "Twas brillig" in the final film due to Walt Disney's concerns and opinions of the deleted Jabberwocky scene but wanting to keep a part of the original poem. In the 2004 DVD release of Alice in Wonderland, Jim Cummings (the current voice of Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger) sang "I'm odd". Holloway never got to record the song himself due to his death in November of 1992.

In the video game American McGee's Alice (2000), the Cheshire Cat is portrayed with an emaciated, almost skeletal appearance, with undergrown incisors and wearing an earring. His voice was provided by Roger L. Jackson, who also voiced the Mad Hatter and The Jabberwock in the game.

Quotes

"Please, would you tell me," said Alice, a little timidly, ... "why your cat grins like that?"
"It's a Cheshire cat," said the Duchess, "and that's why."

  • "But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.

"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "otherwise you wouldn't have come here."
Alice didn't think that proved it at all: however she went on. "And how do you know that you're mad?"
"To begin with," said the Cat, "a dog's not mad. You grant that?"
"I suppose so," said Alice
"Well, then, " the Cat went on, "you see a dog growls when it's angry, and wags its tail when it's pleased. Now I growl when I'm pleased, and wag my tail when I'm angry. Therefore I'm mad."

  • "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where –" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"– so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

Notes

References

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