"Puss-in-Boots" takes place in Bergamo, Italy and comes to us from the perspective of the title character, a conceited "ginger tom[cat]." Although his native tongue is Bergamesque (an Italian dialect), Puss also speaks French because "that is the only language in which you can purr." He hyperbolizes about how good he is at wooing female cats, doing acrobatic tricks, and singing. However, it is clear that his perception of at least this last claim is off-base; Puss describes how "fans" at his concerts "deluge [him] with pails of the freshest water, vegetables hardly spoiled and, occasionally, slippers, shoes and boots." What Puss perceives as raining gifts are actually pieces of refuse thrown in anger at his yowling. Puss acquired the boots he wears, and which give him his name, during one such show of "adoration" by an angry patron.
After the young man who threw his boots at Puss saw the cat putting them on, he called for Puss to come to his chamber. When he arrived, Puss smiled "involunta[rily]" because, as he explains, all cats have "their smiles ... painted on." This makes them all "have a politician's air" and make people distrust them. But Puss noticed that the young man smiled in the same mischievous way, and because of it, they got along instantly. The young man employed Puss as his valet and companion. Puss kept him warm at night, delivered messages to women for him, helped him cheat at gambling, and stole food for them both. Puss says that he and his master get along so well because they are both "proud as the devil, touchy as tin-tacks, lecherous as liquorice, and ... as quick-witted [rascals] as ever put on clean linen." In other words, Puss and his master are a team of clever, trouble-making bachelors. They were having a great time together until Puss's master fell in love.
At first, Puss did not believe that his master was really in love. He thought his master only loved adventure, because he was smitten with a woman who resembled a fairy-tale princess; she was confined to a tower except for ventures to church, and even then she was veiled and in the company of an evil-seeming "aged hag." In retrospect, Puss is proud of how he helped his master see the young woman's face. One night, as they returned from their revelry, they saw the young woman walking with her guardian. Puss rubbed against the young woman's leg so that she would bend down and scratch his ear. When he responded by purring and dancing for her, she laughed and pulled her veil aside. Her face, Puss relates, was like "an alabaster lamp lit behind by dawn's first flush." Her beauty won his master's heart completely.
Puss could scarcely believe that his master was in love after bedding so many women without loving them. What's more, he discovered that the young woman with the beautiful smile was already married to a miserly, impotent old man named Signor Panteleone. However, nothing could shake the master from his lovesick reverie. He followed the young woman to church on Sundays just to touch her dress when she kneeled, he stopped sleeping with other women, and he even stopped eating. Puss decided that the only way to win back his master's attention was to get the young woman to sleep with him; then, Puss thought, his master would forget her.
Puss began his mission by befriending Tabby, Signor Panteleone's cat and his wife's only true companion. Because Tabby pitied her lonely, unhappy mistress, she agreed to help Puss. She explained that, unfortunately, the old hag was allergic to cats so Puss could not win her heart no matter how charming he acted. But she agreed to deliver a letter to her mistress from Puss's master. Later, she reported to Puss that her mistress cried upon reading the letter and wanted to meet his master. On hearing this, Puss's lovesick master decided to serenade the young woman, but the piazza was so noisy that she could not hear him from her high window. He sent Puss up to her balcony to get her attention. After a dangerous climb, Puss told the young woman to watch his master below. Then he performed a never-before-seen "death-defying triple somersault" and dropped three stories to the ground. Although Puss was immensely proud of his acrobatic feat, his master was too busy tuning his mandolin to notice. Puss's master sang so beautifully that he charmed not only the young woman but everyone in the piazza. Then the hag slammed the lady's shutters abruptly, ending the serenade.
After the serenade, Puss and Tabby decided that Puss and his master should pose as rat-catchers in order to gain access to Signor Panteleone's house. They arrived at the house in disguise (Puss disguised as a human), and bearing a sign that reads, "Signor Furioso, The Living Death of Rats." The terrified hag welcomed them into the house, where Tabby had made a fine show of dead and half-dead rats. The young lady convinced the hag to leave her alone with the rat-catchers in her chamber. There she and Puss's master had passionate sex while Puss made a racket to simulate the catching of rats. When they let the hag back in, she asked why the sheets were so rumpled. His master replied, "Puss had a mighty battle with the biggest beast you ever saw upon this very bed; can't you see the bloodstains on the sheets?" Then Puss demanded an extravagant fee, which the young lady insists the hag pay from her own (stolen) money.
Puss was disappointed to find out that taking the young woman's virginity had not cured him of his love. But Puss's love for his master eclipsed his frustration and he sets off to help him once again. Tabby told Puss that Signor Panteleone's fortune was vast enough to sustain the master, mistress, and the two of them for the rest of their lives. Because he got up in the morning without lighting candles, it would be easy for her to trip him on the stairs.
Puss's master arrived at the house disguised as a doctor and the hag let him in to see Signor Pantaleone. It was clear immediately that Tabby did her job well; Signor Pantaleone has died of a broken neck. While the hag rushed off to find Signor Pantaleone's will, Puss's master and the lady had sex on the floor (since Signor Pantaleone's corpse occupied the bed). At the same time, Puss noticed that Tabby was pregnant. He resigned himself to leaving his bachelor days behind and building a life with her. The young woman sent the hag away with generous severance pay. Then she proclaimed, "I am a rich widow and here ... is the young man who'll be my second husband."
Puss's master and Tabby's mistress settled down together, the latter already pregnant. Since she is a cat, Tabby's offspring were born first-they were three "new-minted ginger kittens" that made everyone smile. Puss and Tabby were so genuinely happy that they not only "smile[d] all day long," but "put [their] hearts in it." Puss ends the story by wishing the audience: "So may all your wives, if you need them, be rich and pretty; and all your husbands, if you want them, be young and virile; and all your cats as wily, perspicacious and resourceful as: Puss-in-Boots."
In "Puss-in-Boots," Carter uses to one of the best-known fairy-tale cliches, the imprisoned princess, to examine the objectification and subjugation of women. In the traditional tale, a beautiful and virginal princess is trapped in a remote tower that is guarded by a dragon, which the hero must kill in order to save and marry her. In "Puss-in-Boots," the beautiful virgin is trapped in a tower in the middle of town. By placing her in the midst of a busy town, Carter omits the excuse of remoteness for the townspeople who ignore her plight. They do not help the miserable young woman in their midst because they find it acceptable for a man to control his wife. The young woman in "Puss-in-Boots" is imprisoned literally in the house, but more importantly, she is the prisoner of chauvinism. Signor Panteleone is a miser with all of his possessions, including his young wife. Because he sees her as his property, he feels justified in keeping her locked up, letting her look out her window for just one hour a day provided that she doesn't smile, and permitting her to leave the house only to go to church, veiled and supervised.
The young woman is still a virgin because Signor Panteleone is impotent, or as he claims, does not want to waste his precious energy on sex. When he does touch her, he treats her like an animal; "since she is his prize possession, [he] consents to finger her a little. He palpitates her hide and slaps her flanks: 'What a good bargain!'" Carter's diction, "hide," "flanks," and "bargain," make it clear that Signor Panteleone considers his wife subhuman. The ironic "consents" suggests that he thinks he is doing her a favor by treating her this way. We can assume that the young woman married or was made to marry Signor Panteleone for economic and social gain, like the heroine in The Bloody Chamber. When she has sex with Puss's master and fires the hag, we learn that she is in fact a bold and vibrant person; it is only her fear of her husband that has pacified her.
In "The Bloody Chamber," the heroine's objectification makes her realize her own sexual potential. The Marquis mistreats her, but in doing so awakens her sexually. In Puss-in-Boots, the young woman's objectification stifles her sexual nature. She remains a virgin despite her husband's unwanted prodding until Puss and his master intervene. Then, she reveals herself as an unbridled, sexual being, surprising Puss; he observes that "extravagant screeches break forth from that (who would have suspected?) more passionate young woman as she comes off in fine style." At the story's end, she shows how assertive she is by snatching the key ring-the symbol of her husband's power-from his dead hand. "Once she's got the keys secure," Puss explains, "she's in charge of all."
Unlike female sexuality, male sexuality in the story is immediately and boldly evident in Puss's sexual bravado and bawdy sense of humor. At the tale's start, he calls himself and his master "lecherous as liquorice." He often brags of how nicely he cleans his genitals, his prize possessions, flaunting, "[I] ... washed my face and sparkling dicky with my clever paw." He introduces himself to Tabby by "accost[ing]" her sexually. He narrates: "Grasping the slack of her neck firmly between my teeth, I gave her the customary tribute of a few firm thrusts of my striped loins." Tabby welcomes Puss's thrusting, but Puss's wording is just as chauvinistic as Signore Panteleone's. He considers sex his "tribute" to Tabby-as though he is doing her an honor-just as Signor Panteleone "consents to finger" his wife. Puss and his master find the loves of their lives at nearly the same time, but even as Puss's master becomes so lovesick that he cannot eat, Puss retains his chauvinistic character. He finds the pretense humans display around sex cute because for him it is a purely animal act. After all, he is an animal. He tells his master to con the young woman into having sex with him, saying, "Convince her her orifice will be your salvation and she's yours." He also narrates the human couple's first sex act together as a sport, where his master is the athlete and the young woman is mere equipment. He says, "She shows him the target, he displays the dart, scores an instant bullseye." Unlike Puss, Signor Panteleone is the least sexual but also the most stereotypically masculine character. As we have seen, he represents male power misused to subjugate women. His name means "Sir Pantaloon" or "Sir Pants," which is ironic considering that while pants are a symbol of male power and virility, he is impotent and so easily felled.
Even though Puss, his master, and their wives are happily settled the story's end, "Puss-in-Boots" does not raise marriage on a pedestal. After all, the young woman's first marriage to Signor Panteleone is disastrous. Like "The Bloody Chamber" and other stories, "Puss-in-Boots" advocates loving relationships where all parties are satisfied. Yet even these relationships it acknowledges are a matter of choice; as Puss expresses by saying, "your wives, if you need them," and "your husbands, if you want them." Despite the story's message of mutual satisfaction for men and women, it ends by repeating the stereotypes about the sexes that it seemed before to be rejecting. Puss wishes his male readers "rich and pretty" wives and his female readers "young and virile" husbands. We cannot very well expect Puss-in-Boots to change his tune entirely, because his very name connects him to the idea of male superiority. Puss's boots make him resemble a man. He is clothed in relation to his female counterpart, Tabby, not so differently from the way the Marquis in "The Bloody Chamber" enjoys looking at his naked wife while he is still clothed. Puss's boots are the visible manifestation of his chauvinism and as long as he wears them, we can assume he will retain his 'traditional' views of women.
While "Puss-in-Boots" can be seen as an allegory of equality triumphing over bigotry, it can also be seen as one of the triumph of evil. Aytyul Ozum writes, "Carter, in "Puss-in-Boots" combines evil with lechery and proposes the idea that women have this potential and it is not less strong than the evil in men." Even as Signor Panteleone can be seen as the most lecherous character in the story, Ozum suggests that in fact, the other characters are worse. She points out that "lechery goes hand in hand with greed," and the master, mistress, and their cats plot to kill Signor Panteleone out of greed for his wealth and the sexual, perhaps sometimes lecherous want to be with each other. Puss certainly is proud to call himself and his master "as lecherous as liquorice." Ozum argues that "the foregrounded evil is not the cat's but the master's," that Puss and Tabby help their master and mistress execute their own evil ideas. However, the cats are the ones who plot the mistress's adultery and Signor Panteleone's demise. Puss's intentions are more lecherous than his master's from the beginning; he only helps his master reach the young woman because he hopes that once his master beds her, he will again favor Puss. Morality is undoubtedly complicated in Puss-in-Boots because deceit, adultery and murder are necessary in order for sexual mutuality to triumph over sexual subjugation.