The Negative Effects of Progress
An important theme that runs through ‘‘The Garden of Stubborn Cats’’ is the negative consequences progress can have on a community. The city in the story is rapidly changing—new skyscrapers appear and buildings become taller and more uniform. As these changes unfold, cats are no longer able to live as they once did, visibly intertwined with the world of people. Cats are now trapped in what the narrator calls ‘‘an uninhabitable city,’’ where courtyards have disappeared and the nonstop flow of cars on the streets is deadly. Progress has also stripped the city of gardens, trees, and ponds, leaving the garden on the Marchesa’s property the last remaining safe haven for cats, birds, and frogs. After the Marchesa dies, even this last piece of nature is destroyed in the name of progress, dug up so that a cement foundation can be poured in its place to support a new skyscraper.
The Resilience of Nature
Even as progress takes away the last remnants of nature from the city, wildlife still finds a way to survive. Cats adapt to the ‘‘negative city’’ made up of the spaces that humans cannot reach or occupy. Along with the birds and frogs, they locate the one area of nature that still exists in the city and claim it as their own. The cats even prevent the Marchesa from selling her lot to builders by intimidating people and tearing up the paperwork. In a fantastical display of their perseverance, after their garden is destroyed, they remain on the site, sabotaging the workers’ efforts to continue building.
Conflict between the Social Classes
The city depicted in the story is clearly divided along class lines. When Marcovaldo follows the tabby through the neighborhood, he discovers things he has never seen before, including a fancy restaurant. The restaurant is not new, but Marcovaldo has never encountered it because it is not a part of the working-class world he inhabits. In fact, had he not followed the cat, he would probably never have known the restaurant existed. Marcovaldo is clearly a poor man—he brings his lunch to work in a sack and can only afford to smoke half a cigar each day. He is dazzled by the dining room of the Biarritz Restaurant, with its upscale atmosphere and sumptuous food. Marcovaldo sees a man inside the restaurant who is in utter contrast to himself. As he selects a fresh trout from a tank to be prepared for his meal, the man has a ‘‘grave, intent air’’ and selects his fish ‘‘with a slow, solemn gesture.’’ The man is utterly indifferent to the extravagance of his surroundings and acts ‘‘solemn as a magistrate who has handed down a capital sentence.’’
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Italo Calvino, Published by Gale Group, 2010