Tom, Jerry, and Sisyphus: a tale without end

Culture Entertainment

Image Description: An illustration of Tom pushing the head of Jerry up a hill.

Tom and Jerry. The famous Metro-Goldwyn Mayer cartoons that entered our screens for the first time in the 1940s and have continued to dominate the scene ever since then. For those living under a rock, the premise of the series of short films is simple- There is a cat called Tom and a mouse called Jerry. Like all cats, Tom spends his time vainly chasing Jerry, only to be foiled at every turn by the scheming mouse. Simple. Until you realise that Tom and Jerry is, in reality, an attempt to catapult the myth of Sisyphus into the modern age.

According to the ancient version of this mythical take, Sisyphus was a mythical king of Corinth (Then called Ephyra), well known for his self-aggrandising craftiness. Indeed, it was through such craftiness that he sought to kill his own brother Salmoneus without being caught and suffering the consequences. After betraying one of Zeus’ secrets, Sisyphus managed to trick Thanatos, who incarnated death himself, by slyly asking him how his chains worked. However, his chaining of Thanatos caused chaos on earth. Although Sisyphus was cunning, Zeus was more so and he condemned him to endlessly push a boulder up a hill. Such a maddening, monotonous task devised to exact revenge on the hubristic Sisyphus, who deemed himself to be cleverer than Zeus, King of the Gods. Every time the boulder appeared to reach the top of the hill, Zeus enchanted the boulder into rolling away from him, ensuring that Sisyphus would never complete his task. 

Tom and Jerry is, in reality, an attempt to catapult the myth of Sisyphus into the modern age.

But how does a myth relate to a cat? Quite easily.  Indeed, Tom is more than an ordinary cat- showing cleverness and abilities that transcend even his species. However, bold statements require evidence. In one episode where Tom shows off his chemistry prowess by measuring chemicals in such an accurate way that he manages to distil the dastardly concoction whilst maintaining the natural colour of the milk Through such cunning, he gives himself the best chance of not arousing suspicion from his nemesis. We can safely say that unless he was pitted against the supernatural, Tom would never fail to succeed. The parallels are clear. Just like Zeus exacts revenge upon Sisyphus by foiling his boulder-rolling mission, so too does Jerry foil this most intelligent and dastardly of cats. Tom’s expression throughout the cartoon cannot be overlooked- one of cunning and self-belief in his assured success, a hubris not unlike Sisyphus himself, unaware of his predetermined failure. The evil joy Tom takes echoes his possible life before condemnation, and we are truly left to wonder what tricks Tom pulled to deserve such a fate. 

The title further illustrates the parallels between a children’s TV programme and a Greek myth; ‘Tom and Jerry’ is extremely matter of fact, and shows sharp focus solely on the two individuals. However, this is a show about animals, and it stands to reason that if Tom were like any other cat, he’d give up the pursuit of Jerry after the first failure. But Tom is no ordinary cat; trapped by hubris, he must stick to his guns, his unwavering self-belief and naivete as to his assured failure. 

The evil joy Tom takes echoes his possible life before condemnation.

The extent to which the creators of Tom and Jerry continue the parallel pervades the short films. Indeed, despite Tom’s constant failure, there are instances where Tom is in mortal danger and is saved by Jerry. In one episode, Tom is literally in the jaws of death (a shark) when  Jerry,  a  seemingly normal mouse, saves him. No ordinary mouse would endanger itself in order to save a predator- after all, cats and mice aren’t the best of friends. But not in Jerry’s case. If we view Jerry as the Zeus embodiment in the Sisyphean parallel, it is in his interest to continue the game that he is predetermined to win. Much like Zeus, Jerry takes pleasure in punishing Tom for his hubris and relishes the opportunity to prove himself cleverer at every opportunity. Just as Sisyphus never completes his task, Tom’s chase has no end; both cat and mortal soul are stuck in a game which has no finish line in sight. 

Image Credit: Eloïse Fabre, The Oxford Student

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