Ernest Hemingway’s story ‘Cat in the Rain’ was first published in New York in 1925 in the collection In Our Time. Hemingway dedicated the book to his wife Hadley. It was inspired by a visit he made with his wife to Rapallo in 1923, where their friends Ezra Pound and his wife Dorothy rented a villa. The Hemingways were in the second year of their marriage and of being based in Paris.
The story begins: ‘They were the only two Americans stopping at the hotel.’ They don’t know any of the other guests; the narrative emphasises, that is, their isolation – they have only each other. Their hotel room faces a scene described with Hemingway’s typically unadorned style; objects are singled out with minimal comment : ‘There were big palms and green benches in the public garden.’ The sentences are mostly simple in structure, usually just one or two phrases or clauses, tacked together with the conjunction ‘and’. Adjectives are rare, and when used are usually monosyllabic and plain, even banal: ‘big’, ‘green’,‘bright’. The atmosphere created is therefore neutral, even uninviting: ‘Artists liked the way the palms grew and the bright colors of the hotels facing the gardens and the sea.’
Rapallo is never named, but it’s clearly an Italian seaside resort very like it, for ‘Italians came from a long way off to look at the war monument’, which was ‘made of bronze and glistened in the rain.’ This is the only noun so far that is out of the ordinary, and even this ‘monument’ is presented unemphatically. Its significance seems to be to highlight the seriousness with which the Italians took their recent history, and to show how committed they were to honouring the memory of those who’d died in World War I (they don’t just come to ‘look at’ the monument – they ‘look up’ at it). This commitment contrasts with the presentation of the two self-obsessed American characters, who now appear.
The style in these opening three paragraphs reflects what Hemingway had been developing in his work, further encouraged by his mentors in Paris for the past two years – Pound and Gertrude Stein in particular: pare everything down to its essence in prose with rhythmic syntactic patterns and frequent repetition. This involved striving for what he described in his memoir of the Paris years, A Moveable Feast (which I reviewed here recently): ‘Write the truest sentence that you know’ and ‘not describe’. He elaborated this ‘theory’ thus:
[Y]ou could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.
in paragraph three, then, the word ‘rain’ (also used in the story’s title) or ‘raining’ appears five times, and it recurs five more times in the rest of this story which contains just over 1100 words in total. Other words from this semantic field resonate throughout the story: ‘dripping’, ‘wet’, ‘umbrella’, and so on. Many other carefully selected words and phrases are repeated in these opening paragraphs: ‘room’, ‘sea’, ‘public garden’, ‘war monument’; several reappear later. Hemingway is intent on foregrounding the few solid things that are significant; everything else is omitted, and there are few abstract nouns. This is his famous ‘iceberg’ method, where what is visible and solid in the story is considerably less substantial than what lies beneath the surface.
The other most-repeated expressions indicate where the symbolic and emotional focus in the story lies: ‘cat’ is used in the title and twelve times in the story; the childish diminutive ‘kitty’ is used by the wife seven times.
She is referred to anonymously as ‘the American wife’ or ‘his wife’ seven times and even more patronisingly as ‘(the American) girl’ four times, whereas George is named eight times, only being called ‘the husband’ twice; his inertia is emphasised through being repeatedly described as lying on the bed – ‘read’ or ‘reading’ appears seven times, ‘book’ twice, ‘bed’ five times. Only the wife physically moves about, which she does frequently and restlessly; George’s most strenuous act is to put his book down briefly and to ‘shift his position in the bed’.
The story proper starts with this ‘girl’ looking out of their window at the rain; presumably she’s bored, languid and listless – they’re trapped in the room by the weather, but we sense that her sense of entrapment goes deeper. When she spots a ‘poor kitty’ cowering under a table outside, sheltering from the rain, George offers half-heartedly to fetch it. The wife goes, leaving him reading on his bed. ‘Don’t get wet’, he says, unsympathetic, ungallant.
The hotel proprietor, by way of contrast, is kind to her as she leaves the building. The narrator repeats variants of the verb ‘liked’ seven times in quick succession– ‘She liked the way he wanted to serve her’; his generosity of spirit contrasts with George’s brusqueness and inattentiveness. A maid appears, kindly sent by the proprietor, with an umbrella to shelter her as she searches in the downpour for the cat, but it has gone. When she returns inside, ‘Something felt very small and tight inside the girl’ – possibly the first verbal hint at her true physical and emotional condition. The proprietor bows to her and she feels strangely important. There’s something childish about Hemingway’s depiction of her – and about George.
Back in their room they talk, or the wife does, in desultory fashion.
‘I wanted it so much,’ she said. ‘I don’t know why I wanted it so much. I wanted that poor kitty. It isn’t any fun to be a poor kitty out in the rain.’
George was reading again.
The wife turns her attention to her reflection in the mirror, and again is shown as immature through the language of the narrative; first she suggests that she should grow her hair so as to look less like ‘a boy’ (not ‘man’) – a look of which she repeatedly says she’s ‘tired’. George says, seemingly sincerely, that she looks ‘pretty darn nice’; here again the language is hardly adult or sophisticated. The wife’s tirade continues petulantly: she adds that she also ‘wants’ her own table to eat at with her own silver and candles. She’s possibly craving the stability and security of a nest for a longed-for baby, but she also states this desire for tangible, domestic objects in the absence of warmth and affection from George – a factor he seems oblivious to. She says that she wants it to be spring, to brush her hair and a ‘kitty’ (suddenly remembered again) and ‘some new clothes’, and she sounds (to George and to the reader) irritatingly pettish and girlish, but also discontented and frustrated. His dismissive response, however, is to snap: ‘Oh, shut up and get something to read.’ And he returns to his own reading. End of Part One of this critique.
Part Two of this critique is found here: it offers a closer look at how ‘Cat in the Rain’ might be interpreted, in the light of a parallel scene in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife – her novel based on Hemingway and Hadley’s life in twenties Paris, my review of which is found here.