The Cat Who WalksThrough Walls:
Heinlein and Manners

 

This paper was written as an assignment for ENGL500: Methodology and Bibliography, Dr. Thomas Ware, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Fall 1986.

© Bill Stifler, 1989

 

Robert Heinlein's latest novel, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is sub-titled A Comedy of Manners, and throughout the story, Heinlein indulges himself in jibes about the things that should and should not be done in polite society. The novel opens when the protagonist, Dr. Richard Ames aka Colonel Colin Campbell is approached by a man whose ID identifies him as Enrico Schultz and told he is needed to kill a man. Ames responds by insisting the man join him for dinner telling the reader, "He had annoyed me by interrupting an evening with a delightful lady; I was paying him back in kind. It does not do to encourage bad manners; one should retaliate, urbanely but firmly" (Heinlein 3). Later when Schultz is killed, Ames swears he will find and kill Schultz's murderer. When Gwen Novak, his original dinner guest questions whether he should involve himself, Ames tells her, "Schultz or whatever his name is was killed while he was a guest at my table. That's intolerably rude. . . . I must find the oaf who did this thing, explain to him his offense, give him a chance to apologize, and kill him" (Heinlein 25).

Heinlein's tongue-in-cheek approach to manners extends to his writing as well. Ames, who has been supporting himself by writing pulp fiction, refers to Schultz's murder as "a tired cliche" telling Gwen, "If I plotted a story that way, my guild would disown me. . . . . In its classic form you would turn out to be the killer . . . a fact that would develop slowly while you pretended to help me search. The sophisticated reader would know from chapter one that you did it, but I, as the detective, would never guess" (Heinlein 7). As it turns out, Gwen, whose real name is Hazel Stone, actually did murder Schultz.

Gwen Novak and her relationship with Ames becomes one of the weakest elements in the story. In the opening chapters, she marries Ames, then tells him she did so to prevent being required to testify against him. In a long digression, Ames refutes her supposed testimony. In the light of later events, the reader becomes aware of Novak's real intention in marrying Ames. The difficulty is in understanding Ames's motivation. While they are good friends, Heinlein has not laid a sufficient basis for the marriage or the intimacy which seems immediately present between the two, despite the fact they don't appear to have known each other that well.

Heinlein may be suggesting a more casual basis for marriage, using Ames and Gwen to satirize our views of marriage. The novel is filled with a libertine approach to sexual matters from Gwen's dialogue on Ames `deformity' to the various liasons later available to Ames on the moon with Xia and a teenage girl Gretchen to Ames sleeping with his doctors, Minerva and Galahad. On the other hand, Ames seems to honestly love Gwen from his comments that she makes him happy, that he doen't want anyone else, and so on. Their dialogue is full of the careless banter of a comfortably married pair. In the end, their marriage lacks credibility to the reader. Either Heinlein needed to build the intimacy more gradually ,or the story should begin with them already married.

In this novel, Heinlein draws together characters and events from a number of his other novels, especially The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Gwen eventually reveals to Ames that she is Hazel Stone, one of the Founding Fathers of Free Luna, a 125 year-old grandmother, and an agent for a secret group of individuals who can cross time and parallel universes. Other members of this group include characters from Heinlein's other novels (c.f. Jubal Harshaw and Lazarus Long) as well as characters created by Hazel, Ames, and others in fiction they have written. The explanation given for this phenomenon is the concept of the World as Myth which Heinlein calls a `multiperson solipsism'--that we create the world by our own imaginations (Heinlein 364-5).

Heinlein uses this concept of the World as Myth and Schroedinger's cat, a thought experiment from early quantum physics, to set up an ambiguous ending for the novel. Schroedinger's thought experiment was based on the probable nature of reality and involved placing a cat in a box with a radioactive material with a half-life of one-half hour. As a consequence, at the end of an hour, the radioactive isotope either would or would not have emitted radiation that would have killed the cat. Schroedinger argued on the basis of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and other concepts of quantum mechanics that, until the box was opened, the cat did not exist as a real cat, but as a function of probability. In his novel, Heinlein has Ames and Hazel attempt a rescue of Mike, the sentient computer in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. They know beforehand that future timelines from that point all indicate that they either succeeded or died trying. Ames takes Pixel, Schroedinger's cat with him on the mission. As the novel closes, they are pinned down by the enemy. Ames keeps checking Pixel and Hazel but is uncertain whether or not they are alive. Ames asks himself who is writing their story, then makes the comment, "Anyone who would kill a baby kitten is cruel, mean cruel. Whoever you are, I hate you. I despise you!" (Heinlein 387). The story ends with Ames realization that Hazel killed Schulz.

In a sense Heinlein's ending returns to the theme he has established in his title, for what he does is make the reader aware of the created conventions of fiction. When Ames addresses the author Heinlein, we realize Heinlein is laughing at us, at our personal involvement in what is only a lie, that, in our acceptance of the world he has created,we admit to a reality that is only Myth. In the end, we are left to decide for ourselves whether or not they succeed, remembering only a "cruel, mean cruel" person would kill a baby kitten.

 

Works Cited

Heinlein, Robert A. The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. New York: Berkley, 1985.

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