Hemingway barely describes the American wife in "Cat in the Rain." Is she pretty? Is she tall? Is she a blonde or brunette? We have no idea. The only physical description we get is of her short haircut that she complains about to her mirror. She laments that she gets "tired" of "looking like a boy." Short hair on women is something we're pretty used to seeing now, but in the 1920s, this was not the case. The wife's hairstyle would have read as being much more overtly "boyish" than it would today—especially in a more traditional European setting like this Italian town.
In America, the style for women in this era leant towards androgyny: short haircuts and drop-waisted dresses that de-emphasized hips, waist, and bust. On the surface, this meant greater freedom for women, but it doesn't seem to be having this effect on the American wife. The fact that she is "tired" of such a relatively new and revolutionary trend is particularly notable.
Like all the other "liberated" aspects of the young couple's life-style—their intellectualism, their globetrotting, their non-materialism—Hemingway seems to be critiquing this progressive style as not entirely satisfying. He portrays a young woman who is longing to look like a woman and do traditionally feminine things. We might protest that Hemingway is being a little closed-minded about women and their roles here, but there could also be a larger critique of the celebration of "newness" and liberation at the time.
While the "liberated" style of women during the 1920s would seem to have been enjoyable to women, the frustration of the American wife shows a more realistic ambivalence towards this neutralizing of gender roles. She may be "liberated" from the restraints of old-world traditions, but the wife also feels that she has lost some of her power.
There's a sudden shift in perspective in the story when George sees the wife's hair "clipped close like a boy's." Hemingway immediately follows with George's remark "'I like it the way it is'" (34), which suggests that the marriage, free and equal as the wife's modern haircut makes it appear, is founded on the husband's refusal to let his wife be different from himself.
The opening sentence of "Cat in the Rain" introduces this theme perfectly:
There were only two Americans stopping at the hotel. (1)
Even though we proceed through the story from the perspective of these Americans, and even though the writer is an American himself, the husband and wife are being put in the position of "foreigner" and "outsider." By creating this situation, Hemingway allows us (as well as the wife) to look at the American attitude more critically.
The American wife is enthralled by the old world traditions for which the padrone stands—more so than the man himself. Her attraction to his foreignness is only a part of her frustration with her own way of living.
Hemingway uses the mix of Italian and English dialogue as a symbol for the even greater divide and difference between the American couple and the Italians around them.
Have you ever seen or used a pressure cooker? If the marriage in "Cat in the Rain" were a piece of kitchen equipment, that's probably what it would be. The wife's restlessness is a mounting force in this story. She's unable to say what exactly is making her dissatisfied in her life; instead, she harps on a multitude of small things. Her dissatisfaction with the life she leads with her husband is particularly problematic because, like the cat trapped under the table in the rain, there's not really any way to escape—or so we think.
In "Cat in the Rain" Hemingway uses frustrations and desires for material things to point towards deeper existential dissatisfactions in his characters.
The American wife's restlessness with her restless lifestyle allows Hemingway to critique the paradox of free-spirited American Bohemians in the 1920s.
The cringing kitty under the table in the rain is the ultimate image of isolation in "Cat in the Rain." Not only is it alone; it's also trapped. Like the cat, the American wife and her husband are both isolated from each other, which is made all the more palpable since they're living in such close quarters. Their isolation from everyone else as the only Americans in the hotel also reinforces the strangeness and discomfort of their feelings towards each other. The isolation between them is something you read in their lack of real communication, in the way they barely seem to hear or respond to one another. This gap between them is indeed wider and more difficult and hostile than any language barrier. This was definitely not a match made in heaven.
The wife might feel that a different lifestyle will solve her isolation, but Hemingway shows in this story that it is a deeper problem of attitude and communication that plagues her.
The "very small and tight" feeling that the girl has before the padrone, as well as her "feeling of being of supreme importance" in that moment, offers sexual re-awakening as a possible solution to the problem of isolation.