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Puss in Boots: A Story With a Questionable Moral

The Wolf and Seven Kids can be used an example of a relationship between legends and first fairy tales.

Perrault's Story About the Puss in the Boots

Puss in Boots, or Master Cat, is probably the most famous fairytale with an animal in the title. Aside from Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty in the Woods, this is one of the most well-known fairytales written by Charles Perrault.

We'll examine Puss in Boots and common fairytale symbols to try to explain the questionable moral of the story.

More about Carl Offterdinger? Press below the picture!

More about Carl Offterdinger? Press below the picture!

Story Summary of "Puss in Boots"

The story of Puss in Boots starts with a miller who has three sons. When the miller dies his property is divided. The eldest son gets a mill, the middle son a donkey, and the youngest gets a cat.

The youngest son is not very happy with the situation and decides to kill the cat, but the cat asks his master to spare his life. In return, the cat promises to make his young master rich. When the master agrees, the cat asks for a pair of boots.

Puss begins his adventures by catching rabbits and partridges to give to the king. Every time the cat gifts the king, he says that it is sent by his fictional master, Marquis de Carabas (Marquis of Carabas). The king starts to become curious about this generous nobleman.

Puss played dead to catch a rabbit.

Puss played dead to catch a rabbit.

One day, the cat hears that the king will drive by the river with his daughter, so he tells his real master to undress and swim in the river. When the carriage with the king and the princess drives by, the cat stops the coach. Here, he tells a lie.

He explains to the king that his master, Marquis de Carabas, was just attacked by robbers while swimming and lost all of his clothes. The king offers fancy clothes to the cat's master and invites him into the coach. Upon seeing the master, the princess immediately falls in love.

Illustration by Antoinette Lix, PD licence

Illustration by Antoinette Lix, PD licence

While the coach continues to drive, the cat runs ahead and orders groups of people (peasants, lumberjacks, shepherds) to tell anybody that asks that the surrounding property belongs to Marquis of Carabas.

He warns that bad things will happen to them if they don’t obey his commands. When the coach passes through the countryside, the groups of people tell the king that the property around them belongs to Marquis of Carabas.

Miller's boy becomes a king and cat in boots a prime minister.

Miller's boy becomes a king and cat in boots a prime minister.

In the meantime, the cat arrives at a castle inhabited by an ogre who has the power to change into any animal. The cat tricks him to change into a mouse, and he is promptly eaten by the cat.

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Now, the castle and the surrounding property belong to the cat's master. When the king, princess, and the young master arrive, the king is impressed with the castle and weds his daughter to the young man. The master becomes a prince and, thus, the cat’s promise is fulfilled.

Does This Story Qualify As a Fairytale?

It definitely has most of the fairytale elements: the protagonist, antagonist, mission, obstacles, magic, transformation, and typical elements like the number three, an animal helper, a princess, etc. But it lacks something we expect in all fairytales for children: a moral.

Puss in Boots by Harry Clarke

Puss in Boots by Harry Clarke

The cat achieves everything in this fairytale by cheating, threatening, and lying. He is far from being the perfect role model.

And what about his master? He does nothing. The only plan he ever had was to destroy his only property—his cat. He is not too smart and not a nice person either.

So when I see a new edition of Puss in Boots in a shopping window advertised as a "timeless story about the friendship between human and animal," I can't buy it.

Why, then, is this story so popular? For over 300 years, this book has been republished time and time again. To answer this question, let's examine some basic elements of the story. It may help us better understand the moral of this fairytale.

The youngest son got nothing but the cat.

The youngest son got nothing but the cat.

What Is Primogeniture?

When the first versions of Puss in Boots were written, the system called "Primogeniture" (Latin primo means "first" and genitura means "born") was widely used. This term refers to the practice of giving the older son all of the property when the father dies. There was a good logic behind that rule.

Most people didn't have much, so dividing between all of their children was out of the option. A small piece of land or small business (like a mill) was not enough for all children (many families had 10 or more children and before their father died, some of them probably had their own children).

If only one person should take everything, the older one was a reasonable choice. Of everyone in the family, he probably invested the most time and energy into that piece of land or small business, so there was a big possibility that he would use it to its best potential. Younger children would have to find their own paths to happiness.

In our particular fairytale, we have three sons, and the eldest gets the mill. The second son gets a donkey which could be very useful for a miller who probably needs some kind of transportation.

The youngest gets a cat, and again, this is useful for a miller because mice are one of the biggest concerns. So neither the middle nor the youngest son have practical uses for their inheritance. Thus, the author's choice to divide the father's property between three children is questionable.

Fairytale Number Three in "Puss in Boots"

  • There are three sons.
  • Puss divides his plan into three parts (getting sympathies of the king, introducing his master, and getting a castle to establish his position).
  • There are three groups of people who help to spread the word of the master's wealth (peasants, lumberjacks, shepherds).
  • The ogre transforms into an animal three times.

There are many reasons why the number three is so popular in storytelling, especially in fairytales. One psychological explanation comes from the fact that almost every child identifies himself with the number three at a subconscious level.

If we examine a child's familial relationships, the numbers one and two, in most cases, represent the mother and father. The child feels that he is number three. Even if he has brothers and sisters, the connection with his mother and father are so strong that he still sees himself as being number three.

Illustration by Gustave Dore

Illustration by Gustave Dore

The Power of Boots

Boots are an important part of this story. We already know that for decades, Charles Perrault was very influential in the court of Louis XIV where fashion was extremely important. We have read about noblemen who sold real estate just to buy proper clothes because without dressing in the latest fashion, the doors of Versailles were closed to them.

In Puss in Boots, the situation is similar. With proper clothes (boots), all the doors were open. Even a cat can win the king's trust if he follows the proper dress code. Perrault's classic humor can be seen in the moral that is written at the end of the book: "Good looks and good manners, and some aid from dress" are really key to success.

Illustration by Carl Offterdinger

Illustration by Carl Offterdinger

Why Did Perrault Add Boots?

Boots were not included in any versions of the story that existed before Charles Perrault. Boots are Perrault's addition and all versions after his Puss in Boots always include them.

A pair of boots symbolizes climbing up the social ladder. Shoes (or boots) were expensive back then, and they still remain a status symbol in the developing world today. Because kids easily outgrow their shoes, poor families could not afford to purchase a pair for their child until he/she was grown.

Coming of age and receiving a pair of shoes represents an important time in a young person's life when he/she embarks on a journey to find their position in society. Charles Perrault was relatively affluent, but was not a member of a noble family. He knew firsthand what it meant to climb social ladders, so this symbolism was pertinent to the society that Perrault lived in at the time.

The Oldest Versions Don't Have a Cat

In the older versions of the story, we have a fox in the role of the helper. Very interestingly, the Italian folktale Don Joseph Pear tells of a fox who is caught stealing pears at night, which is similar to the beginning of Golden Bird by the Brothers Grimm or Fire Bird by Afanasyev.

The plot line is almost identical to that of Puss in Boots and includes all the similar steps—the fox offers Don Joseph riches if his life is spared, he kills an ogre and threatens the townspeople in order to make way for Don Joseph's rise in society, and he eventually succeeds in marrying Joseph to the king's daughter.

The ending takes a different turn, however. Rather than enjoy his newly-found status, Don Joseph kills the fox to prevent anyone from finding out the truth about his origins.

Illustration by Erik Werenskiold

Illustration by Erik Werenskiold

Norway's Version: "Lord Peter"

The Norwegian version has a similar beginning with one important change: when the parents die, all the sons take their belongings and abandon the family home. The youngest son, Peter, takes the cat with him because he is afraid it might starve. So in this version, the master's cat has some compassion.

The story then develops in the familiar pattern—the cat aids young Peter's journey from rag to riches. But in the end, the cat demands something very unusual from "Lord Peter." He asks that Peter behead him. When Peter obeys, the cat transforms into a beautiful princess.

It is not hard to recognize the similarities between this story and Beauty and the Beast, Frog King, and especially Golden Bird, all of which include enchanted noblemen/women playing the role of an animal helper.

Lord Peter is probably what George Cruikshank (known for his illustrations) used to write his version of Puss in Boots. In his adaption, the boy (not the cat) was a grandson of a nobleman, deprived of his property by the ogre.

This story, however, is too moralizing and doesn't offer the protagonist real chances for success. There is still an ongoing debate about whether this is the same motif used in the Jack and the Beanstalk versions written by Benjamin Tabart and Joseph Jacobs.

Giambattista Basile, author of Pentamerone

Giambattista Basile, author of Pentamerone

Basile's "Gagliuso"

If we want a better understanding of the classic Puss in Boots we certainly have to examine Basile's Gagliuso (Caglioso). In this early Italian version of the story, we have a cat (female) who helps her master in a lot of ways — she even teaches him how to behave. There is no ogre in this story and Gagliuso's property is simply purchased using money from the king.

The ending is educational, too. When Gagliuso gets all he needs to live happily ever after, the cat asks him for only one favor: to be decently buried when she dies. Gagliuso promises. Later, the cat tests him by playing dead. When Gagliuso hears she is dead, he orders her body to be thrown through the window. The story ends with this moral: once a beggar, always a beggar.

Portrait of Charles Perrault

Portrait of Charles Perrault

Perrault Is Inspired by Basile's "Pentamerone"

Scholars agree that Perrault's biggest inspiration for his stories in Tales of Mother Goose, including Puss in Boots, was Basile's Pentamerone. In this fairytale he introduces the ogre and changes the cat's gender from female to male.

But the most important change is certainly the moral of the story. Charles Perrault turned Basile's moral upside down. If Basile said, "Clothes do not make the man," then Perrault claims the opposite: "Clothing makes the man."

Perrault's story, which has stood the test of time, is the most popular version of Puss in Boots, and has inspired many modern versions. But is the message appropriate for kids? I don't think so.

But if we look closely enough, we can find some valuable moral lessons. Below, I offer my simplified interpretation of the moral of the story.

My Favorite Messages of the Story

- Don't waste your time complaining about circumstances.

- The cards are in your hands.

- Play the best you can and you will be rewarded!

Illustration by Josiah Wood Whymper, PD licence

Illustration by Josiah Wood Whymper, PD licence

Which of the Messages in Puss in Boots You Find Most Appealing?

kizkircil on September 25, 2019:

Thank you

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on August 28, 2019:

Thanks, nevermind:)

nevermind on August 22, 2019:

very good

seahaks fan on October 25, 2018:

Its good but so fictional id'e like it more realistice

Anonymous person on November 13, 2017:

I love puss in boots and I agree it isn’t very educational. I really like the version with the girl cat. I am even writing my own version.

Savagemind on October 30, 2017:

Many fables are about socially “passing” as a member of the dominant group: an orphan passes as a king’s son, a woman passes as young nobleman etc. Puss in boots is a counter passing fable: what happens when the protagonist can’t possibly pass because he or she is so marked as clearly subhuman that there is no chance of achieving social transcendence. In early depictions, Puss is often black, further underscoring the impossibility of his personal characteristics triumphing over his subhuman station in society. The protagonist must then use a surrogate as well as his innate daring, cunning and skill to achieve his membership into the elite. In the children’s story this moral is sugarcoated by making the rightful owner of the wealth Puss ursurps into an unsympathetic monster. See Benito Cerino for a more troubling version of this theme

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on March 06, 2017:

Hi, jim lillemoe, it's not so strange if you think about the origins (before Perrault the cat or fox was almost always 'her', after Perrault in majority of cases 'him') and the chaos about copyrights on the edge of 19th and 20th century. Many editions are not dated, they lack illustration credits (or are simply wrong), translations were bad and anonymous, ...

It was the raw beginning of capitalism and the book business was no exception. In many ways we still experience very similar situations even today!

Thanks for stopping by!

jim lillemoe on March 06, 2017:

I have Puss in Boots by McLoughlin Bro's, N.Y. No date and puss starts out as a "her" and in the end when he is his master's best man at his wedding and is referred to as "him" . Strange.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on January 24, 2017:

My words exactly, puss in boots;)

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on January 27, 2016:

Thanks, Cheryl!

Cheryl on January 15, 2016:

Excellent resource - thank you.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on July 19, 2014:

@tazzytamar: Thanks:)

Anna from chichester on July 18, 2014:

You wrote some very interesting points here! Awesome lens :)

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on January 16, 2014:

@WriterJanis2: Thank you very much!

WriterJanis2 on January 15, 2014:

Back to pin this.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on November 27, 2013:

@WriterJanis2: I hope it feels comfortable in boots;)

WriterJanis2 on November 27, 2013:

Puss in Boots is such a delightful character and I named one of our cats after him.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on July 24, 2013:

@katespetcorner1: Yep, there is a lot of interesting info behind the scene:)

katespetcorner1 on July 21, 2013:

I had to read this because Puss In Boots from Shrek is my favourite character, and I don't really know much about him. Lovely lens, I think the origin of fairy tales is always fascinating and provides a fun little history lesson.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on July 07, 2013:

@jastreb: Glad to hear that!

jastreb on July 06, 2013:

My favorite story from the childhood;) Clear research, thanks for sharing.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on June 14, 2013:

@cgbroome: Thanks for your nice and supportive comment!

cgbroome on June 13, 2013:

Once again you did an amazing job of researching behind the origin of a children's book! I'm beginning to look at children's stories with a different perspective now! Thank you for your hard work in researching this all out.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on May 11, 2013:

@WriterJanis2: Thanks!

WriterJanis2 on May 09, 2013:

I just have to pin this.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on March 02, 2013:

@Aja103654: Sometimes simplicity adds to the story, sometimes not... I just like to resent different views.

Aja103654 on March 01, 2013:

I like the simplified moral. About not complaining, knowing what cards you have and using them wisely. It's more realistic.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on March 01, 2013:

@Felicitas: Thanks!

Felicitas on February 28, 2013:

I think that clothes do not make the man. But, I like your moral better. "The cards are in your hands. Play the best you can and you will be rewarded". I think that is a wonderful moral for kids and adults.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on February 24, 2013:

@anonymous: Thanks!

anonymous on February 24, 2013:

Man, this is awesome :) I am big fan of puss in boots and this lens is just too good for me, I've bookmarked this one !

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on February 24, 2013:

@like-an-angel: Thanks for your kind words:)

like-an-angel on February 24, 2013:

Yes, clothing makes the man! And I'll tell this story to my children with the moral too, because children must learn and discern what is good from what is bad. Thank's for this great lens!

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on February 19, 2013:

@Loretta L: Yep, this can be the case. And we have cat's relative fox in older versions...

Loretta Livingstone from Chilterns, UK. on February 19, 2013:

I had forgottem most of this fairy tale, and got the rest mixed up with Dick Whittington, haha. So it was good to refresh my memory. Cat's are very good at implying lies, ie that they are staved and homeless when they are well fed and already have two other homes. But they always do it with the best of intentions. Maybe this tale also reflects that. After all, the cat could have just run away, but he stayed with the person who needed him the most.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on February 11, 2013:

@anonymous: But the question is still - which one is original?

anonymous on February 11, 2013:

Wonderful analysis of this classic tale. I guess I like the original version the best!

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on December 12, 2012:

@Melissa Miotke: Well, eventually they will meet characters like these in real life, so with knowing the story they could be more prepared to react in proper way. Or maybe not...

Melissa Miotke from Arizona on December 10, 2012:

Yes this is definitely not a story that you'd tell your children so that they'll turn out like the characters!

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on December 02, 2012:

@pretyfunky: Thanks!

pretyfunky on December 02, 2012:

Just wow!

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on December 01, 2012:

@Tennyhawk: This fairy tale is good example of subversive fairy tale. most of them are actually pretty conservative (but still with subversive messages, although not so open as here).

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on November 27, 2012:

@CruiseReady: Thanks, that was my intention exactly:)

CruiseReady from East Central Florida on November 27, 2012:

Wow! I never gave Puss and Boots much thought ... until now. I found your analysis fascinating!

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on November 13, 2012:

@anonymous: Thanks!

anonymous on November 11, 2012:

We all like the happily ever after and Puss in Boots is just missing that part, I would wish that Puss's cleverness be used for the good of all, buts that's a perfect world! You have spent hours and hours preparing this and have another work of excellence that reveals things about the story I never thought of before.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on October 22, 2012:

@WriterJanis2: Thanks, I appreciate it!

WriterJanis2 on October 22, 2012:

Can't forget to bless this. :-)

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on October 22, 2012:

@WriterJanis2: Thanks, I appreciate your support!

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on October 22, 2012:

@BeyondRoses: Wow, this really sounds like a serious plan!

WriterJanis2 on October 21, 2012:

Absolutely wonderful work here. I'm always happy when you write something new.

BeyondRoses on October 21, 2012:

I think Puss in Boots should have ended with the young son being made rich like cat promised, then the cat banishing the son that was going to kill him, to some cold part of the world. Then the cat would have control of all the riches, and would provide a haven for the animals. The princess would adore the cat, and he could have a real home, and throw away the boots.

Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on October 21, 2012:

@digitaltree: Yes, but the question is still - which one is the original?


digitaltree on October 21, 2012:

Nice Lens, i didn't know there were many variations of the tale. I think i choose the original story.

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