"Claire" by Steven Barthelme is a story about a man who has lost the love of his life, Claire, mainly because of an addiction to gambling. Although the couple has parted, and Claire intends to marry someone else, they still love each other and have remained friends. Bailey often borrows money from her to support his habit, and the reader gets the feeling in the opening of the story that Bailey is going from bad to worse and getting seedier. The cat appears like a signal that something is about to change. The cat represents Bailey himself and the condition of his consciousness. This can be seen in the cat's neediness, opportunism, or good luck, and basic likeableness.
That the cat is needy, like Bailey is needy, is clear at the moment it enters the story: "The cat watched him. Bailey reached carefully in over its head and took hold of the scruff of the neck and lifted the cat out of the seat. 'Jesus,' he said. 'You're just bones. You haven't eaten in a month'" (p. 326). Bailey's own hunger is not physical but spiritual and emotional. He feels that his life is meaningless now that Claire and he are no longer together. As he explains to her after meeting the new man in her life, "All that time when we were together, when I was a lowlife, a slacker, every goddamn day, it was electric. Something wonderful was coming. I remember how wonderful stuff at the grocery store was, those Rubbermaid things and the little hardware display and funny vegetables. Then I got a job and a nice fat salary.' He turned his palms up and gave her a puzzled look. 'All gone,' he said" (p. 339). The cat, hungry for food to nourish its body, is a symbol of Bailey's hunger for real love and for meaning, Claire's love, to nourish his soul and make his life meaningful again. Inside, he is just like the cat, all bony and scrufty.
The cat also represents a good sign or luck coming in the door (in Bailey's case the car). It appears out of nowhere in his car and refuses to leave him. When Bailey decides to accept the cat, to help it survive, this indicates a change in his consciousness. This is the first moment when he becomes a sympathetic character to the reader. In a sense the cat is his redemption. Prior to his encounter with the cat, we experience him as a "user," someone who borrows money, has no pride, and doesn't seem to have much conscience. But we know when he keeps the cat, that something good is about to happen to him. And, of course, it does. That night he wins sixteen thousand dollars at the casino. But he realizes that the money itself doesn't make him happy.
It came to him that Claire wouldn't care about it, not at all. She'd be happy to take her loan money back, but that's all. He hadn't done anything at all, the way she saw it. Just didn't matter to her. He ran through some channels on the TV, settled on some talk show, set the control down. He touched his pocket, looked toward the kitchen. 'God-damn it,' he said, 'get in here, you pest'" (p. 333).
It is significant that he calls the cat to him at the very moment of his realization that gambling doesn't make him feel happy and satisfied. The cat has found a relationship (with him) that is satisfying. And the cat knows enough not to let go of it, as Bailey realizes the value of his relationship to Claire.
The cat is rather a likeable animal despite being down-and-out, hungry, and stray. So is Bailey a likeable person. As the story unfolds and he begins to understand himself better, the reader understands him too and likes him better. Like Bailey, at first the cat seems not very attractive: "Your cat?' Bailey said. 'I like dogs,' the old man said. 'That looks sick.' Bailey crouched down and opened his hand. The cat jerked forward and cleaned all three Cheetos in one bit. 'Hey,' Bailey said, and pulled his hand back as the cat tried to lick orange dust from his palm'" (p. 326). In one sentence the cat goes from looking "sick," to being a friendly animal who licks the palm of its benefactor. Likewise, Bailey moves up from a seedy low-life to a generous and decent human being willing to help a miserable creature. The happens to the cat reflects what happens to Bailey. For example, when the dog tries to attack it, the cat decides to fight: "The dog jumped back, yelling a weird, twisting cry that began in a growl and then raced into something higher pitched and plaintive. It backed away from the side of the car, looking confused, blood all over its face" (p. 327). Likewise, Bailey decides to fight for Claire. He points out to her the negative traits in her intended husband. He asks her to marry him. He tells her he'd like to have children with her.
The symbolism of the cat is integral to the story because the cat's condition mirrors the main character's condition. The cat is a symbol of Bailey's inner self. Because Bailey intends to keep the cat and take care of it, we are left with the feeling that Bailey's life will get better too. As the cat's situation improves, so will Bailey's. As Bailey says to Claire at the end of the story, "Anyway, this cat is skinny ... looks like he hasn't eaten since the Bicentennial. You'll come to see him sometime.' ... He glanced vaguely out into the damp morning air, closed his eyes, and shuddered again. 'Still like cats, don't you?'" (p. 339). The cat is a symbol of something inside Bailey, which Claire can still love.
Getting a Life: "Claire"
"Claire" is a story about a man, Bailey, who has no life. He seems to have lost everything. He has lost Claire, the love of his life, and all the joy he once felt for living. Because of his gambling addiction, he is broke. He's lost all his money, and he's deeply in debt. He seems to be alone in the world. Until the end, it isn't clear if he even has a job. Bailey needs a life, and the message of the story is that it is possible to get your back after you've lost it. This can be seen in Bailey's gradual rise from rock-bottom to definitely hopeful. When Bailey changes from a taker to a giver, his luck changes too, and he starts to get his life back.
Bailey is more or less a scrummy low-life at the beginning of the story. He goes to his ex-girl friend, Claire, for money to play black-jack at the casino and tries to manipulate her into a giving him a loan of a thousand dollars. He advises her not to lend it to him if she doesn't want to and not to do things she doesn't want to. But he doesn't really mean it: "He always tried to give some advice while he was sponging, to maintain the advantage he had once had over her" (p. 324). He isn't thinking that he loves her, or that he once loved her -- he doesn't really care about her -- he's thinking only of what he can get from her. At the beginning of the story Bailey is the image of a "taker." But when Claire reaches for her pen to write a check to him, he suddenly remembers one of the things he loved about her:
[She] took a pen from a can of pens on the bright windowsill. The can had once held some kind of fancy fruit from Poland or someplace and the label was striking, green, blue, black. Claire had always found things like that, nice things that Bailey overlooked, didn't notice, couldn't see, on his way to some obvious choice, something he had read about in a magazine. Her unerring eye, the ease of it, had always been mysterious to him (p. 324-25).
This moment is when the reader first starts to realize that Bailey still loves Claire: "Claire was more beautiful now than she had been in college and in college she had always drawn a crowd. Stop a clock, Bailey thought" (p. 325). But when Claire invites him to come to dinner the next night to meet her fiance, he forgets all about it. Gambling, that is, getting something for nothing, is more important than his relationship with Claire.
Bailey got addicted to gambling after he took a job in a department store that didn't really suit him. The job paid well and he got early promotions, but it was boring. Bailey took up gambling for the excitement of it: "Then he'd started gambling, which was more interesting. It was a…