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What is a Cheshire Cat?

Lewis Carroll liked to use puzzling creations in his writing.
The Lewis Carroll story Alice's Adventures in Wonderland features a Cheshire cat.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Images By: National Media Museum, Elena Schweitzer
  • Last Modified Date: 09 October 2014
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The Cheshire cat is an enigmatic figure in the Lewis Carroll novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865. This character is one of the most familiar figures from the book, and he is probably most famous for his vanishing act, which allows him to cause various body parts to vanish at will. In one notable scene, the Cheshire cat slowly fades away so that only his trademark grin remains, causing Alice to remark that she has seen “a cat without a grin,” but never a “grin without a cat.”

Many English speakers have read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and the book is widely regarded as a classic of English fiction. It's an extremely surreal story, in which the title character slips through a rabbit hole and into a wonderland, meeting an assortment of bizarre characters and going on various adventures with them. The book is littered with references to English literature and culture, and it has in turn spawned a number of references in popular culture.

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Readers are introduced to the Cheshire cat when Alice enters the home of the Duchess. When Alice leaves, she encounters the cat again, sitting on the branch of a tree, and the cat demonstrates its vanishing act for her. As the two characters talk, the Cheshire cat remains courteous and polite, but still manages to stymie and confuse Alice, confronting her with philosophical questions. When the cat appears again later in the middle of a croquet field, it sparks a complex philosophical debate after it is condemned to death; the cat causes all of its body to disappear except for its head, raising the question of how one would execute a head.

The most distinguishing feature of the Cheshire cat is its large grin, which displays an array of extremely sharp teeth. The character is also said to have an impressive set of claws, and a striped coat. While there is no actual cat breed known as the Cheshire Cat, the character seems to be modeled on the British Shorthair, especially in the original illustrations for the book, where it has the characteristic compact, muscular body of the Shorthair.

Like many of the characters in this book, the Cheshire cat is an extremely puzzling individual, and it challenges the reader, in addition to Alice herself. The cat is also quite memorable, thanks to the invisibility trick. People who have not personally read Alice often know who the Cheshire cat is, or they at least remember the famous grin.

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LesterT
Post 1

Did you all know that there are actually several theories about the origins of the Cheshire cat? I focused on Lewis Carroll for my undergraduate thesis so I learned way too much about Cheshire cats in general. So some people say that the Cheshire cat is based on an English sign painter’s representations of a royal family’s crest. The story goes that the family’s crest featured a lion, but the painter often painted it to look like a strange smiling cat.

Another theory about the origins of the Cheshire Cat is that he was inspired by anecdotal stories about types of cheese sold in England that were sculpted to look like cats. These cats also wore huge smiles. Interestingly, the cheese was cut in such a way that the head would be the last part eaten. This in itself reminds me of the Cheshire Cat, as many images of it are of its disembodied grinning head.

The last theory claims that the Cat’s origins come from church carvings and sculptures in and around Cheshire, England. The various carvings that could have inspired the Cheshire Cat are of cats that appear to be smiling widely. The carvings vary in how much they look like the Cheshire Cat, but some do bear a large resemblance to him.

I’m personally think that the Cheshire Cat is an embodiment of all of these stories, but I find it very interesting that even the most recognizable literary figures very possibly have actual physical origins.

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