You might be hard-pressed to find a more controlled writer than Hemingway. The word "control" generally implies that there is something that needs to be controlled, right? There's a conflict between restraint and rebellion present in this story, but Hemingway only suggests it. The husband and wife are at odds and discontent with one another, but they don't talk about it. Instead, the tension lies in their lack of real interaction. There's an unhappiness that they are studiously avoiding, but trapped as they are in their room on this rainy day, as each other's only company and as the only Americans at the hotel, the awkwardness becomes pretty concentrated. Hemingway's sentences, both in the dialogue and the descriptions, are terse. It's so clipped that you know that there's something being excluded. Thanks for leaving us hanging, Ernest.
"Cat in the Rain" is the epitome of its genre. It is slim, thoughtfully written, and full of more suggestions than it has words. You might think of it like a sculpture, where each sentence is three-dimensional—it carries has multiple meanings. There is nothing wasted in Hemingway's descriptions or his dialogue. Each word earns its keep and it's up to you to ask yourself…how?
Ok, so there doesn't seem to be too much imagination behind this title, but that's when you know something important is going on.
The characters' actions and dialogues in this short, short story do indeed center on a cat in the rain, but the title is actually kind of mysterious when you think about it. Just why is this cat is so darn important? Why is it so particularly important to the American wife who spots it from her hotel room window? What is it about the cat's position, huddling under a table in the rainy Italian square that makes the woman want it so much? What is it about her own situation, trapped in the hotel with her neglectful husband that makes her sympathize with the cat?
Calling this story "Cat in the Rain"—as opposed to " The Cat in the Rain"—opens up a lot of possibilities. Maybe there isn't just one cat in the rain. Maybe there could be any number of people or animals living in such a crouched, helpless position.
When it comes to Hemingway, words are super important, so let's examine the four words in this title. They are all simple, monosyllabic words—like something you might find in a Dr. Seuss book, or in a book for kids just learning how to read. They're deceptively simple. Let's take a closer look at each one.
Cats are pretty typical animals, right? We see them everywhere. They're cuddly, independent, and often hang around people's houses. They can entertain themselves. Sometimes they go a little crazy and attack birds or hunt mice, but for the most part, cats are pretty cool, calm, and collected. There's nothing in this word that would alarm us readers, right? Or maybe not. What do you think?
It is interesting that there is no article (like "the" or "a") in front of this word. Without a "The Cat in the Rain" or "A Cat in the Rain," we're kind of stumped. Which cat is it? Also, the absence of "the" or "a" makes this title sound like the title of a painting. Like "Still-life with Basket of Apples" or "Girl in White in the Woods." It could be said that, much like these famous works, Hemingway is trying to paint a picture with his words—a study of a restless American tourist on a rainy day in a sleepy Italian village.
Before we start reading this story, we almost feel like the cat isn't going to be a very important part of what's to come.
"In" means to be in the middle of something—surrounded by it on all sides. In this case, the cat is getting soaked by the rain.
Ah, finally—an article! Imagine what this title would sound like if "the" weren't in it: Cat In Rain. That sounds like a poem or like a bit of conversation from a small child. Perhaps the "the" here helps us take the title a bit more literally. Maybe it helps us understand that there actually is a cat and there actually is rain in the story that follows.
Rain is a pretty ordinary thing, but there's something fascinating about it—water from the sky, ooh. Have you ever noticed that when it shows up, the mood starts to change—sometimes we get more sleepy when it starts to rain, or we feel like curling up in a blanket. Sometimes we get a bit more thoughtful.
The ending in this story is pretty typical for a short story: a delicious, surprising twist. The wife and her husband seem to have reached the climax of their argument. She has all of these desires for a different life. He has no interest in hearing them. She has returned to her window and he has returned to his book.
But then…there's a knock at the door. The maid is standing there in the doorway with a cat in her arms, sent, as she says, by the padrone. Is it the same cat as the one the wife had seen in the rain from her window? That part remains unclear. Had the wife told the padrone what she was looking for a cat, or that she even wanted one to begin with? No and no.
This means that the padrone probably went through a bit of trouble to get this gift to the Americans' room. He must have first thought about the woman and decided he wanted to do something to help make her happy. He also would have had to talk with the maid, who did know what woman went out for. Then, of course, he needed to find a cat. It's a gesture of thoughtfulness—like when someone gives you exactly you want even though you never told them you wanted it. That's how the wife must feel at this moment. Hemingway, of course, doesn't tell us how she feels, but does he need to?
This story is set in a small, coastal Italian village. This town may have been familiar to Hemingway, as he was stationed in Italy during World War I. The Great War happens to be tremendously present in this story, too. Remember the War Monument in the public garden? It's one of the things the wife sees from her perch at the window.
If you've ever been to Europe, you may have noticed that these sorts of monuments are in pretty much every town, commemorating the citizens of that particular town who were lost to the violence. The fact that the story was written in 1925 hints to us that the story must take place pretty near 1918, the year the war ended.
The sheer scope of World War I's tragedy and destruction across Europe was immense and unprecedented. It wiped out nearly an entire generation of young men and left the landscape scarred with trenches, craters from bombs, and half-populated towns. The fact that the war was over, however, also meant a period of relief and celebration amid the mourning. In the opening paragraph, Hemingway juxtaposes the painters and colors in the public garden with the war memorial. This is a pretty good representation of the dueling sorrow and celebration in the years following the armistice. The town in the story is on the seaside, too, which suggests it's as a place for vacationers, for people wanting to get away and forget.
Still, Hemingway doesn't set this story on your typical sunny day on vacation. The relentless rain and the way it envelops the whole scene—gardens, sea, square—conveys a feeling of imprisonment. No one's going out, there's no moving around, no distraction. Rainy days in vacation towns also have a more disappointing feeling to them than rainy days elsewhere. It sort of hints that things aren't what they're supposed to be, or they're not what people hoped for when they set out on holiday. Hm…sound at all similar to a certain marriage in this story?
Hemingway's stories may be short, but honey, they sure ain't sweet—and they certainly aren't simple. At a grand total of three pages, "Cat in the Rain," is one of the shortest full prose pieces that Hemingway wrote, but the concentration of it also means that there's a lot that goes unsaid (and, thus, all the more for you to figure out yourself).
Who are these Americans? Why are they there in this Italian town? How long have they been there? How long have they been married? What do they feel and think about each other? Hemingway offers no definitive answers to any of these basic questions. He has no interest in "explaining" the situation at all, actually. This, if you care, is for you to imagine and figure out for yourself.
At the same time, context is a lot easier to focus on than the meaning. So if you're as good a reader as Hemingway is a writer, then you'll do away with those questions of who and where, too, and spend more time on what is there: a wife, her reading husband, a cat in the rain, and some very strong but uncertain feelings for something completely different. It's this combination of simplicity, intensity, and ambiguity that earns "Cat in the Rain" a solid score of 5.
Before he started writing fiction, Hemingway worked as a journalist in Michigan, and the lessons he learned at his newspaper job stood by him throughout his career. His stories don't include many adjectives or adverbs, with the primary focus normally on the action. Sometimes this can lead people to assume that his writing lacks emotion, but we think it's just a more artful way of building emotion. Feeling is created and conveyed without the narrator having to name it and, as in this story, that emotion can feel more authentic because it goes unnamed.
Another unfortunate assumption about Hemingway's style is that it's simply…well, simple. This can lead readers to be less attentive than they should be to the art and beauty of Hemingway's lines. Take this one from the first paragraph of "Cat in the Rain"…it's beautiful and quite lovely:
The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain. (1)
That right there is one single, fluid clause: no commas, no modifiers. This sentence is one "long line," just like the sea it describes. If you read it to yourself aloud, you can hear and feel the movement of the waves, slipping back, only to break again; it's the way the sentence moves. This is an example of the incredible artistry of Hemingway's style: his sentences might be simple, but they can also embody the essence of what they are describing. They can make the thing, the movement, the feeling they are describing actually happen in your mind and body as a reader.
Clearly, this is something more artistically advanced than a newspaper article. As prosy as Hemingway's writing style is, you might say that it's actually almost like poetry. So take a moment, pretend you're in an art gallery, stop looking at your computer screen and worrying about your paper. With stories like this, you are looking at the art of language: simple, but in no way plain.
Hemingway is an author who takes the material world very seriously. So before we get all crazy-analytical with things, stop and consider this for a second: that the cat in the rain is perhaps just a cringing, drippy, unhappy cat under a table.
Let's imagine this soaking wet cat for a minute. It has to be pretty pitiful. A horse or a dog in the rain is one thing, but there's something really wretched about a wet cat. It's basically trapped, too, beneath its little table-shelter in the plaza. The rain is pouring down so hard that it's trying to make itself as "tight" and small as possible to stay dry. As the American wife so perceptively says:
"It isn't any fun to be a poor kitty out in the rain" (30).
Hold up—did you catch that part where the cat was described as "tight"? A bit later in the story, Hemingway uses the same word to describe the way the wife feels around the padrone: "tight" Also with the silly quote above, we hear the wife sympathize with the cat. If we match this sympathetic statement alongside the shared adjective "tight," we'd say we have enough evidence to consider the cat as a symbol for the wife—or at least for some aspect of her.
There's something in the cat that the wife both wants and identifies with, which means that it's a symbol that works in at least two ways. Think about the cat's isolation, pitifulness, its lack of protection, and also the hostility of its surroundings.
All of these things remind us of the wife's own situation with her husband. She, too, is in an environment that's far from ideal, which explains why she might sympathize with the cat. The word that she uses in her statement about the kitty—"fun"—is also echoed later when she tells her husband that if she can't "have any fun," she should at least have a cat. When you're dealing with a writer who is as choosey with his adjectives as Hemingway, the repetition of a word is a big huge deal.
So, if the wife identifies with the cat's dire straits, what might she want from it? Well, think back to that adjective that they share: "tight." The cat's tightness and the "small, tight" feeling that the wife has before the padrone, are both instances of them being or feeling diminutive. It's the protection of the table that makes the cat tighten up and the largeness of the padrone that causes this in the wife. The protectiveness and respectfulness she sees in the padrone makes the wife want to tighten and draw towards him. She's experiencing her own sensitivity and vulnerability.
Amazing isn't it? The wet kitty doesn't get more than two sentences of face-time in the story, yet it's important to our understanding of the wife in two completely different ways. And never will you feel the same about wet cats again …
You might think the narrative perspective of this story sounds very third person: the basic sentences and statements seem strictly factual, and we don't get a sense that the narrator has an opinion or bias. Or do we? It does seem that we have a bit more intimate connection with what's going on in the wife—more so than any other character. She's the one we travel with.
Our view of the hotel owner in particular is filtered through the wife's mind: Hemingway's perspective is more focused on what she feels and thinks about him than it is on the padrone himself. By staying in third person, Hemingway can also convey things about her that she might not be aware of in herself, like her feelings, which are described in a deeper way than she could articulate in speech. In this way, the narrator's omniscience (all-knowingness) allows Hemingway to both remain on the surface, above what characters may be thinking for themselves, but also to go much deeper than those personal conscious thoughts.
Who wants to spend their vacation stuck inside? The situation of the couple stuck in their room is both monotonous and restless. The description of the view from the window suggests that it's a view the wife is used to. She's seen the square, the public gardens, and the war monument before. It sounds like this is a woman who spends a lot of time looking out the window. Her focus on the world outside the hotel is in contrast to her husband's absorption in his book, suggesting that the two are quite different: she is extroverted and oriented towards lived life, he is focused toward the internal world of books and ideas. They say opposites attract—but that doesn't necessarily mean they can stick together.
Seeing the cat doesn't necessarily create a conflict between the characters, but it does give the wife a reason to move—something she has clearly been waiting for. Hey, it's not like she had Facebook or even an iPod to entertain her or anything. The husband's half-hearted offer to go down instead and her ready dismissal of it further suggests her desire for independent movement. She may also know full well that he didn't actually want to go down to find the cat, but that doesn't seem to bother her much.
Once she goes downstairs, the wife encounters the hotelkeeper—known as a 'padrone' in Italian. She likes him very much, and is thinking of this as a maid escorts her outside with an umbrella. When she looks under the table, however, the cat isn't there. The maid is a little amused at the thought of a cat in the rain, but the wife is disappointed. They return inside, damp and cat-less.
As she passes the padrone again, the wife is aroused and filled with a sense of importance in his presence. The feeling is very strong, but not defined or labeled. The wife isn't necessarily conscious of her feelings either, but is strongly affected as she proceeds upstairs. Sounds like someone's got a crush.
When the wife returns to the room, her husband casually asks if she found the cat. She replies no and sits down in front of the mirror, evidently even more restless than before. We know she's bored when she starts to critique her hair and profile and proceeds to list all the things she wants: long hair, a cat on her lap, her own silver, candles, springtime… Her husband, George, is quickly fed up with this and tells her to shut up and find something to read.
The wife doesn't react to her husband directly, but does seem to feel his scolding tone. She stays looking out the window as the evening darkens around her. If she can't have "long hair or any fun," she decides at the very least, she still wants a cat.
The room and the couple seem to have settled into the same state of restless rest we saw at the beginning of the story when there's a knock at the door. The hotel maid is there with a large cat and tells them it was sent for "the signora."