The Truth About Tom and Jerry: Is Tom a Masochist?

Image: a two-panel comic displaying Tom the cat on his knees against a backdrop of flames, with Jerry the mouse as a devil standing above him. In the first panel Tom says ‘You’re so cruel to me’ and in the second he says ‘I like it…’

A Tom & Jerry article. A thoroughly useless overanalysis, which serves only to tarnish academia’s sainted reputation. However, all great works of art ought to be subject to various critical interpretations, and for me, Tom and Jerry undoubtedly belongs in this category. Thus, let us explore the idea that Tom perpetuates his Sisyphean task of chasing a mouse in order to satisfy inherent masochistic tendencies, allowing him to lock himself in a cycle of self-pity. The similar tendencies of Gregor, the man-turned-beetle in Kafka’s fantasy/absurdist classic The Metamorphosis, are reflected in a similar cycle of suffering throughout the tale. 

In Kafka’s work, Gregor, a salesman, wakes up to find himself transformed into a ‘Ungeheures Ungeziefer,’ a close-to-untranslatable phrase which indicates a massive insectoid-like thing. The rest of the novella centres on the changes in Gregor and his family’s life now that he, the main breadwinner, is confined to his room in this state. Eventually, the story ends with Gregor dying and his family ostensibly happier as a result – a very sad tale indeed. Much of Kafka’s narrative focuses on Gregor’s new life post-transformation, which caused him to lose his job and rendered him unable to carry out his family responsibilities.

However, there is extensive debate as to whether Gregor shows a masochistic desire to bring this suffering upon himself. Although initially startling, the argument is reinforced by a series of questions that Kafka leaves unanswered: despite Gregor’s clear unhappiness at work, why doesn’t he make any conscious effort to change anything? Secondly, why does he torture himself by staring listlessly out of the window of his room-turned-prison, reminding himself of the life he once had? Finally, why does he obsess over a romantic painting, Venus in Furs, as a way of reminding himself of his own romantic inadequacy?  

The answer to these questions is simple: Gregor seeks to perpetuate his own suffering through a masochistic desire. Gregor wants to suffer, and this is the reason why he locks himself in an unhappy cycle of work and suffering, leading a life that he can complain about whilst allowing him to lose himself in self-pity.

Before this transforms into rather a poor tutorial essay, let us move onto the case of Tom. At the end of one episode, Tom catches Jerry as well as Nibbles, the little mouse. A double catch – a princely meal for a cat! We should assume that this concludes the series – finally Tom has found what he was seeking, catching not one but two mice who have made his life arduous at best. He ought to obey his feline instincts by eating them. However, this is not the last episode. Indeed, the next episode once again begins with a chase. Much in the way pauses between stanzas speak millions in a piece of poetry, so too do the often-overlooked episode breaks in Tom and Jerry. Here, the only logical possibility is that behind the cameras, Tom lets Jerry go. Irrational, completely irrational. He’s a cat! Mice are prey! But is Tom a cat with a masochistic streak who brings about his own suffering? 

In the same way that Gregor carries on his thankless and perpetual task out of masochistic desire, Tom does the same. Jerry, the mouse who is almost always too fast for Tom, represents the same work that Gregor can never get on top of. For Tom, it is the chase itself that is so alluring; the chase that allows him to fulfil his desire. Meanwhile, his constant failure is an opportunity to wallow in self-pity.

The example of Tom catching Jerry is particularly pertinent here, not least because it shows Tom’s agency in controlling his fate. It is not that Jerry is always out of reach, but that Tom chooses to let his miserable game continue. This is because it is not in fact a miserable game; rather, it is a vehicle through which Tom can satisfy his masochistic desires. Much like Gregor, who can change his work environment, but chooses not to, Tom can catch Jerry, but similarly makes a choice to perpetuate his cycle. It is important in the parallel to state that much like Gregor’s oppressive work, Jerry represents a formidable obstacle, but not an insurmountable one.

Unlike Gregor, whose Metamorphosis forces him out of his cycle, eventually causing his death, Tom is given agency. He catches Jerry, and in that very moment is granted a choice as to whether he wants his own metamorphosis – his own escape. He does not. And thus, his endless masochistic chase continues. Much like Tom, do any of us really know how many more chances we will get to escape our cycles of woe?

Image by Sophia Hambleton-Grey.

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  1. Interesting analysis and I don’t think that it is wrong to be thinking this way, as I feel that behind every childhood tv program the creator has implemented a deeper message behind it.

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