In all the stories in all the issues of The Sandman, I think “A Dream of a Thousand cats” is the strangest one. One of the landmarks of the series as a whole is just how tightly Gaiman plots details and incidents together so that things which are almost inconsequential in the early issues come back to be major plot points near the end. Even standalone issues, like Nada’s story in “Tales in the Sand” and Calliope’s in “Calliope” have import.
“A Dream of a Thousand Cats” really doesn’t.
I’ve been mulling it over to see if there’s anything in this story that contributes to our understanding of the larger story, and the best I can come up with is that it shows Dream has a slight affinity for cats, which is an odd detail considering he’s so much more strongly associated with ravens, and that translates later to a very poignant, though ultimately unimportant, relationship that Dream maintains with Bast, an Egyptian cat goddess. Even that aspect of Dream is somewhat questionable, since all it really establishes is the ongoing assumption that the form Dream takes is determined by the person observing him. He is the anthropomorphic personification of a universal concept, so it makes sense that the facets of his personality are varied enough that only from the perspective of a cat might he appear to show preference to cats (just thinking about the meaning behind his encouragement to the cat who meets with him is enough to make my head hurt, since I don’t know if he’s being sincere and that’s totally part of what he wants within the vast labyrinth of motivations that is Dream, or if it’s simply kind words because he knows the cat’s goal is unrealistic, or if that’s my reading from a human perspective and the human perspective is the dominant one observed in The Sandman, or if my assumption that he’s saying kind but empty words suggests that Dream’s actually just a big jerk who prefers that things not change at all).
So this story’s pretty odd, narratively speaking.
On a metaphorical level, I think the story works much better as a sort of allegory for the difficulties that people face in gathering support for a movement, especially one meant to upset the status quo. It’s difficult to muster the imagination for a different vision from what you see around you, and it’s exponentially more difficult to get others to buy into that vision once you have it. Gaiman’s writing about cats, but I suspect that that’s not what he actually wants readers to consider. Something in the way Dream describes the state of things as being changed so that they’ve always been this way resonates as a commentary on how institutions of power tend to manipulate narratives so that it seems like they’ve always represented what they currently represent. The reality of it is different, but if everyone believes the story, then reality’s not good for a whole lot (I suppose in this sense, “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” is in conversation with Orwell’s 1984, which feels like a very odd comparison as I’m in the midst of making it).
As for whether this story is ultimately optimistic, I’m not sure. The cat paradise sounds like an awful one for humans, and in finding it repulsive, I feel empathy with people with whom I disagree politically, because that mistrust of the other’s vision is what grows into the fear that maintains an attitude of wanting to screw over outsiders in order to maintain your own power. I don’t want cats to be in charge because I suspect they’d hunt me for sport, but I don’t really know whether to trust that vision. It was, after all, imagined by a human trying to figure out what a cat would like best.