Written by Anna Dolliver
Tragic female characters wander through the words of our favorite Victorian novels. From the ostracized Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter to the drowning Maggie Tulliver in Mill on the Floss, women who turn from traditional gender roles meet both praise and punishment in the pages of their stories. When they step out of line, these heroines gain a voice in a narrative dominated by conformity; rarely, however, do these transgressors find happy endings. Instead, their stories warn against breaking social boundaries.
Later novelists experimented with this convention by turning tragedy into a distorted social liberation, as when Virginia Woolf gave Rachel Vinrace of To The Lighthouse a premature death to free her from an impending marriage and future as a Victorian housewife. We might be inclined to separate these tragic Victorian heroines from the protagonists of our modern literature, but a closer look at one novel suggests that this social suffocation has simply shifted into a new form — a feline form. In the modern children’s series Warriors, the Victorian warnings to conform or suffer a tragic life emerge through a similarly sorrowful figure: a cat of shifting names who ends her life as Bluestar.
Though Bluestar may not look like the standard Victorian heroine, her complicated youth clearly mirrors the troubles present in many of her fellow subversive women. Being a cat does not exclude her from the social stigmas present in Victorian literature; in fact, the dramatic deaths in her life suggest that her female feline existence is just as harrowing as the lives of her Victorian sisters. As an apprentice, Bluepaw decides that she doesn’t “want to be remembered as the kit who was jumped on by a dead squirrel,” and she declares her ambition to become the leader of ThunderClan. During Bluepaw’s first battle with cats from another clan, her mother is killed by another cat. But instead of confiding in her sister and bonding over their sorrow, Bluepaw throws her energy into becoming a stronger warrior so that “she would take care of her Clan.” This blue-furred woman’s focus on occupational ambition rather than familial well-being would outrage a conventional Victorian reader; one would expect the heroine’s choice to hinder her journey. A few chapters later, it does.
Bluestar prioritizes catching mice and chasing other cats away from her clan borders above spending time with her sister, unaware of her impending death. Snowfur becomes the mate of Bluefur’s rival for clan deputy, Thistleclaw, and Bluefur grows torn between supporting her sister and criticizing the tom who stands between her and a promotion. When Snowfur expresses her interest in Thistleclaw, she dodges Bluefur’s criticisms by saying there’s “nothing in the warrior code” against their relationship. Bluefur then “rolls her eyes” at the notion that Snowfur is “just following the warrior code” and replies, “Well, there’s nothing in the warrior code about sleeping or eating. Maybe you should give those up, just so you aren’t breaking the code!” Bluefur makes light of the very system that guides the cats’ social interactions, threatening its validity while mocking her sister. Later, Bluefur begrudgingly supports her sister to honor her mother’s memory, but the Bluefur’s defiance of the warrior code remains, and the tension between the heroine and Thistleclaw leaves the bond with her sister strained.
As any sensible Victorian society woman — or society cat — would know, such blatant defiance of social norms foreshadows tragedy in the life of the transgressive culprit.
Even as Bluefur nurtures her relationship with Snowfur, she oversteps another tenant of the social boundaries. Like Wuthering Heights’ Cathy Earnshaw, Bluefur becomes a wild, candid girl (or cat) who acts outside her station as her romantic interests begin to stray beyond her socially permitted options. She develops feelings for Oakheart, a cat from a different clan. Since the warrior code — the law among forest cats that keeps the peace between clans — forbids relationships across clan boundaries, she starts to see Oakheart in secret. As any sensible Victorian society woman — or society cat — would know, such blatant defiance of social norms foreshadows tragedy in the life of the transgressive culprit.
Snowfur finds out about their relationship one evening on a walk, and within pages, she is killed by a “monster” — what the cats call a car. Bluefur’s guilt for the death amplifies as she thinks to herself, “Oh, Starclan, why did I tell her about Oakheart? She wouldn’t have run off.” This loss mirrors the earlier death of Bluefur’s mother, intended to check the cat’s ambition. Though other cats seek to support her, like her friend Thrushpelt and the clairvoyant medicine cat Goosefeather, Snowfur’s death leads Bluefur farther away from her warrior code-approved relationships. Bluefur pushes her energy back into training, and she has nightmares of her nephew, Whitekit, drowning — a fear that foreshadows her eventual death by water.
When Bluefur goes on another patrol months later, she encounters Oakheart again. Despite calling him a “smug fleabag” at the Gathering, Bluefur fakes an injury to speak with him, and Oakheart invites her to meet with him later in the evening. On her way to their meeting place, the spirit of Snowfur appears to her, insisting that she return to her clan. Rather than listen to her family and the warrior code, Bluefur ignores her pleas and spends the night with Oakheart, where they build a nest after arguing over which cat is a “fish-face.” Like the transgressive Victorian heroine, Bluefur is warned that her actions will have consequences, yet she continues to set her own path by seeking clan leadership while defying the warrior code. In Hester Prynne fashion, Bluefur soon discovers that she will have kits by Oakheart.
The deputy of her clan grows sick, and Bluefur finds herself torn between her desire for leadership and the impending role of a mother. She has her kits, and her clan assumes that Thrushpelt is the father. When Oakheart visits ThunderClan to see Bluefur, her rival Thistleclaw threatens him and defends his accusations with the warrior code. When Bluefur explains the situation to her clan’s leader, she says that Thistleclaw acted wrongly because “the warrior code speaks of fairness and mercy.” Rather than following the code to the letter, Bluefur interprets its ideals and lives according to her own values informed — but not directed — by the warrior code. As the deputy gets weaker, Thistleclaw declares that he will become the next deputy; soon after, Bluefur sees a vision of Thistleclaw soaked in blood. While she was previously torn between her career and motherhood, this image solidifies her decision. Bluefur travels through the snow to give her kits to Oakheart and his clan, inventing a game called “Secret Escape” to persuade them away from ThunderClan. Death comes again as Mosskit, one of her three, dies in the cold. Like the exponentially increasing sorrows that Thomas Hardy’s Tess Durbeyfield experiences in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Bluefur must face the loss of her family, her child, her love, and finally her life.
When Bluefur returns to her clan, the leader observes that she must be “destined to suffer.” Still, he selects her as the next deputy, and Bluefur declares that she will “give every breath in [her] body to serve” her clan. She later becomes leader and receives nine lives and her final name, Bluestar. As the years pass, Bluestar sees her nephew, Oakheart, and countless other cats die as she continues her duties as a leader. Her deputy, Tigerclaw, attempts to kill her, and the bouts of depression that have followed her through life take hold once more; she starts to spend all of her time in her den, trusting no one but Fireheart, a cat prophesied to protect her clan. Near the end of her life, Bluestar loses touch with the cats around her and lives more in her head than in a shared reality with her clanmates.
In Bluestar’s final days, she brings the deaths of Maggie Tulliver and Jane Eyre’s Bertha together in one last effort to protect ThunderClan. When dogs attack Bluestar’s clan, she realizes that they are chasing her successor, Fireheart. Frantically, she thinks, “No! Not that one! You cannot use him as prey!” Bluestar distracts the dogs and leads them off a cliff, jumping into the water below. Like Bertha’s leap off the balcony, Bluestar enacts her own death in order to achieve her goals. But just as Maggie Tulliver drowned in the arms of her brother, Bluestar’s end arrives with her family beside her. Fireheart brings Bluestar’s body to the shore, and she speaks to her kits before she “close[s] her eyes and [gives] way to dizzying blackness.” Bluestar reconnects with her family, but at the cost of her life.
Many transgressive women of Victorian literature have space to determine their lives between the pages of their novels, yet a heroine’s ownership of her personal narrative often leads to tragedy by the end of her book. Whether they lose family members, became ostracized from their communities, develop mental health problems, or meet untimely ends, Victorian female protagonists who step beyond their social standing trade their personal agency for startling consequences. Though the tragic Victorian heroine is no longer a staple of modern literature, the trends present in their stories emerge once more in the lives of modern cats such as Bluestar. Though their social codes and species may differ, Bluestar and the tragic Victorian heroine’s shared refusal to fit into the narratives set by their communities invites parallel traumas into their lives and deaths and indicates the problems still present for women in feline-centric literature. Literary human women may face fewer ramifications for reclaiming their stories in modern literature; in the case of Bluestar, however, it seems that the female cat still has obstacles to overcome before her narrative can escape the bounds of the feline patriarchy.
Image found on Kate Cary’s blog