Ernest Hemingway, ‘Cat in the Rain’ critique Pt II

Part Two, continued: for pt one of this critique, click here

The ‘American wife’’s prattling, repetitive list of wants now becomes a reiterated ‘want a cat’, culminating in a foot-stamping, petulant ‘ now’.  Then the maid knocks and enters their hotel room holding ‘a big tortoiseshell cat’ against her body.  She announces, in the last line of the story, that the padrone had asked her to ‘bring this for the Signora’.

So what’s the hidden part of this iceberg of a story?  It’s been suggested that the woman’s childlike mantra of repetitions about how much she wants a ‘kitty’ to pet and care for is an indication, as I’ve suggested in the first part of this critique, that she longs to have a child, or may even be pregnant already.

Gertrude Stein with John 'Bumby' Hemingway in Paris, 1924, soon after this story was written

Gertrude Stein with John ‘Bumby’ Hemingway in Paris, 1924, soon after this story was written

This is certainly the way Paula McLain relates a similar scene in her novelised version of Hadley’s life with Ernest, The Paris Wife, which I reviewed here.  (Its title could be seen as derived indirectly from this story’s ‘the American wife’.  Hemingway’s favourite nickname for Hadley was ‘Cat’ or ‘Kitty’.)

Her much-repeated insistence that she wants a cat and other things can be seen then as an indirect, even symbolic representation of her longing for a baby, stated obliquely perhaps because she fears her husband’s response will be as brutish and insensitive as McLain depicts it was in the Hemingways’ real life.  Unfortunately this causes her to sound like a spoilt little girl, thereby increasing George’s heedless, selfish absorption in his own world of books.  The fact that the cat brought in by the maid sounds like a different one from the ‘little kitty’ seen earlier by the wife further reinforces the notion that this ‘girl’ is to be indulged only so far, and certainly not by a husband who is reluctant to engage with her at any but the most superficial emotional level.  He likes her looks, maybe even desires her, but he doesn’t seem to want to make any other commitment to her than a limited and sexual one.

In The Paris Wife McLain imagines a scene in which, on holiday together in Chamby, near Lake Geneva (he had initially gone to Switzerland to cover a Peace Conference for a newspaper), shortly before they left for Rapallo, Hemingway is incensed to discover that Hadley had forgotten to bring her prophylactic diaphragm.

Hemingways with Bumby, Shruns, Austria, 1925

Hemingways with Bumby, Shruns, Austria, 1925. JFK Library

He tracks her monthly fertility cycle meticulously in a notebook so they ‘could have unprotected intercourse as often as possible.’  He knew better than Hadley which days were ‘safe’, and we are clearly meant to infer that he takes these steps for the benefit of his own sexual gratification and terror of Hadley’s becoming pregnant.  They have a sex code which involves his asking if she has made ‘the necessary arrangements’ to which Hadley is expected to reply, “Yes, sir” as if she were ‘his secretary’.  When on this occasion in Chamby she confesses she’s left the diaphragm in Paris his reaction is fierce: ‘Your timing stinks’, he spits, red-faced and ‘very angry’.  He demands to know what else she’s been keeping from him.  When she admits that she would like a baby he’s furious.  He says they’d ‘agreed’ to wait until his writing career had taken off: ‘Do you really want to ruin it for me?’   Bitterly she points out that at thirty-one she ‘doesn’t have all the time in the world’.  Neither does he, is his selfish, challenging riposte.  The time isn’t right, he tells his ‘little cat’.

When they reach Rapallo, McLain tells us, Hadley was charmed by the town; ‘Ernest disliked it on sight.’  But it’s also his writer’s block that’s causing his irascible behaviour.  His frustration is perhaps reflected in George’s gruff manner with his wife.  In The Paris Wife there’s a scene that’s surely based on ‘Cat in the Rain’.  Hadley stands gazing out of the hotel window looking at the rain, worrying about the growing tension in the marriage; she ponders the moral laxity in their artistic set in Paris and talks about it with Ernest, who lies reading on his bed, barely looking up at her.  He speaks airily about marital infidelity and sexual promiscuity (their friend Pound openly had an affair and made no attempt to conceal it from his wife or anyone else), and claims not to think it ‘means anything’.

Pound photographed by A.L. Coburn in 1913

Pound photographed by A.L. Coburn in 1913

She’s shocked, and wonders if it means something when ‘everyone finally gets smashed to bits’ – prophetic words, given that their marriage lasted only three more years, when her friend Pauline Pfeiffer stole him away from her and became the second Mrs Hemingway.

Soon afterwards she tells him she’s pregnant.  His reaction is once again angry – he feels trapped, tricked and creatively thwarted.  Their quarrel simmers for days, until she asks him if he thinks she’s ‘done this on purpose’.  ‘What, lost the manuscripts?’ he replies.  She feels like he’s slapped her.  Later she’s mortified to realise he’s ‘tangling up the lost manuscripts with the coming baby in his mind’, and partly believes she’s ‘sabotaged’ his work doubly: first when she lost the valise containing all his manuscripts on the train en route to Switzerland, then by falling pregnant:

Broken trust could rarely be repaired, I knew, particularly for Ernest.  Once you were tarnished for him, he could never see you any other way.

He had fallen in love with Hadley because she was so unworldly, even a little dull – but she provided the undivided attention and loyal, adoring support he needed.  From this point their marriage is doomed.  Maybe she lost the manuscripts and became pregnant out of more than carelessness, he suspects; maybe she wanted to sabotage his literary career out of jealousy, a desire to keep him all to herself.

‘Cat in the Rain’ can be seen, perhaps, as his half-conscious recognition of a relationship that was foundering.  It’s interesting to consider how well he realised the portrayal of George was so unflattering to him, if George is meant to be some kind of representation of himself.  Even though he portrays neither character as capable of showing much empathy to the other, it’s hard to believe that he would knowingly place the anguish of ‘the American wife’ centre stage and make George appear so totally self-centred.  Unless, of course, a part of him was feeling guilty already about his ungenerous treatment of the woman who’d given up pretty much all she knew back home to tend to his needs and immense ego as his ‘Paris wife’. It’s also possible, I suppose, that his portrayal of the ‘American wife’ in this story was intended to show her as annoyingly whimsical, immature and egotistical, and that George’s breezy insularity was totally understandable.  If that was his intention it surely doesn’t entirely succeed.

For a link to my review of The Paris Wife click HERE

Note: all photographs are from WikiCommons and are in the public domain.

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3 thoughts on “Ernest Hemingway, ‘Cat in the Rain’ critique Pt II

  1. Thanks for the feedback, Maureen. I know what you mean about Ernest – he doesn’t always come across in a very pleasant way. But I guess he’s just one of countless artists whose personal lives/opinions are borderline odious, but who is nevertheless capable of great art: Ezra Pound himself is a prime example – broadcast on the radio during WWII expressing sympathy with the fascists. His anti-Semitism is unsettlingly prominent in the Cantos and elsewhere. Yet these remain among the most important poems of the mid-20C. Celine, Larkin…the list goes on: fascists, homophobes, misogynists. I guess we have to be wary of identifying the biography of the artist too closely with the work. That’s what I was trying to suggest, partly, here: Hemingway’s attitudes to Hadley weren’t always admirable, but I still think ‘Cat in the Rain’ is technically very good, and needn’t necessarily be seen as endorsing a misogynistic view.

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