Ernest Hemingway, Cat in the rain (#Review)

As I often do with Library of America (LOA), I bookmarked their recent Story of the Week featuring Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Cat in the rain” to read later. “Later” came today. I have no Hemingway on my blog, so this seemed a perfect opportunity, and I do like short stories anyhow.

First ed. cover, from Wikipedia article. Public domain.

With many of my LOA posts, I need to start by introducing the writer, but this is not one of those occasions. However, if, perchance, you don’t know who Hemingway is, you can check his Wikipedia article.

Meanwhile, some background to the story. It was originally published in Hemingway’s first short story collection, In our time, in 1925. It is a very short, short story, but it has, according to LOA’s notes, garnered much critical interest. There is also a Wikipedia article on it. I’m not sure how much more I can add to what’s been said, given I am not a Hemingway scholar. However, I enjoyed reading it, partly because it felt more sensitive than macho, so I will say something!

“Cat in the rain”

The storyline is simple. An American couple is on holiday in Italy, and the story is set in and around their hotel. It’s raining, so they are stuck in their hotel room, she staring out the window and he lying on the bed reading. She sees a cat outside, hiding under a table, and she wants to rescue it. On her way outside, she sees the hotel-keeper (“padrone”), whom she likes. When she gets outside, however, the cat has gone, so she returns to her room and her husband. Wikipedia tells you exactly what happens, but generally I try not to spoil stories here, unless I know they are well-known (like, say, Pride and prejudice.)

The thing I like about Hemingway’s writing – though I’ve only read a little, and that was decades ago – is its spareness, and this is on display here. There are short, plain sentences, and simple repetition. These make it not only strangely beautiful to read but convey so much while seeming to say little. They convey a tone of lassitude, and also a sense of tension or lack in the marriage, though not a cross word is spoken.

Here is the wife, passing the hotelkeeper on her way out to find the cat:

He stood behind his desk in the far end of the dim room. The wife liked him. She liked the deadly serious way he received any complaints. She liked his dignity. She liked the way he wanted to serve her. She liked the way he felt about being a hotel-keeper. She liked his old, heavy face and big hands.

There is lovely rhythm to this – but there is also information about her character and about what she likes in people. Later, back in the room, her husband George asks her what happened. She tells him the cat had gone, then:

“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.

George, in other words, is not listening to her wants or, indeed, needs, because both are wrapped up in this statement. I love this: the repetition (again), the staccato-like rhythm, and the direct, plain statement about George conveys, almost paradoxically, such intensity.

David Lodge, according to LOA, has written a “thorough and now-classic examination of the story” noting conflicting interpretations. They quote him as saying:

“although it is a well-formed narrative, with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, the primary action is not the primary vehicle of meaning.” That is, the story presents “a plot of revelation (the relationship between husband and wife) disguised as a plot of resolution (the quest for the cat).”

That makes sense to me from my reading of the story; I read it as being about the wife, her needs and her relationship with her husband.

The story also – and Lodge’s comment doesn’t contradict this – exemplifies Hemingway’s theory of omission (or “iceberg theory”), which is the idea that, as with icebergs, there is more below the surface than above. In this case, there is the idea, for example, that there is more to the cat than just being a cat, even though Hemingway doesn’t tell us what. That’s for us to consider – and the critics sure have.

There are other reasons this story interests critics and Hemingway aficionados, a major one concerning whether it is autobiographical. According to LOA, Hemingway, himself, wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald saying that it wasn’t about his wife, Hadley, even though they thought it was. However, continues LOA, there’s evidence that she was at least the inspiration, and that biographers agree. Hemingway biographer, Michael Reynolds “admits … that Hadley must have recognized her own marriage in the portrait of the couple”, and Hadley biographer, Gioia Diliberto agrees that “it’s not hard to see Hadley’s vulnerability and loneliness in ‘Cat in the Rain.’”

I can see why this story has garnered such interest. Despite its seeming simplicity – the story itself isn’t hard to understand – there are multiple ways it can be thought about and interpreted, from the opening sentence to the intriguing last.

If you haven’t read it, do consider giving it a go at the link below – it really is short, and quick to read. If you have read it, what do you think?

Ernest Hemingway
“Cat in the rain”
First published: in In Our Time, 1925
Available: Online at the Library of America

28 thoughts on “Ernest Hemingway, Cat in the rain (#Review)

  1. This coincides with my bedtime ‘reading’, once again, of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, narrated by Campbell Scott. The same skill in creating a rhythm is even more noticeable in the audiobook, where repetitions cascade into cumulative emotions that are, iceberg-like, beneath the surface. It’s a novel about a war, but it is the least ‘macho’ war novel I’ve ever come across. Each death is felt so keenly, especially old Anselmo’s even though Robert Jordan turns away and says nothing.
    Re marriage: The novel also features a very interesting relationship between Pilar and Pablo. There is a tussle for the leadership of the partisans which she wins because she has the respect of the men, and there is no sign of affection between them, but at the end, when he has betrayed them but then fought bravely after all, she commands Jordan to respect him when he blames Pablo for Anselmo’s death. There is a bond between those two that is not like romantic love, but a shared recognition that they are fighting for something important.

    • How funny Lisa. And thinks for sharing your thoughts on the language and rhythm. I found I reread sections of the short story a few times to myself, just to “hear” the rhythm. I might see if I can get the audiobook of For whom the bell tolls for our next road trip.

      ps Have just skimmed your QE post. Looks great. Will try to comment tomorrow.

  2. I haven’t read much Faulkner or Hemingway, those types of authors, because 1) they were never assigned to me, if you can believe that, and 2) I was always frustrated with how often as a young person I was assigned stories about men doing things really important to a man’s spirit, and why do I have to read/understand all that. The number of times I’ve read about men justifying their cheating, lying, underhanded choices is enough to choke a person. However, this story does sound charming and simple, and actually reminds me more of Raymond Chandler, whose work I do tend to enjoy. I wonder how much of it was really him; rumor has it Chandler had an editor who largely reshaped all Chandler’s stories to be the tales we know today.

    • I love this, Melanie, “men doing things really important to a man’s spirit”. That’s so well expressed.

      Interesting you mention Chandler, because LOA mentions his positive comments on Hemingway’s writing. And this story suggests to me that Hemingway understood the woman’s malaise and the husband’s distance from that, which I liked seeing.

  3. I must say – not being a Hemingway fan – that your quote that includes “George was reading again.” does show a way of managing words that’s impressive: an entire marriage portrayed in four of them !!

  4. Hemingway loved cats. I once visited his home in Key West still maintained as it was – a place of literary pilgrimage – still with cats descended from those he had – a genetic variation making them easily identifiable. Maybe the story has that underlying sensitivity to cats blended in with the aspects you are identifying as well…

    • You are probably right Jim … I suspect there are many layers, some of which might throw readers off the scent, some of which add depth! I reckon every reader will probably find a different balance.

  5. I visited his home in Key West also. Saw the cats that derived from Hemingway’s. They had six toes on their front feet and this still remains. He was quite a cat lover. I laughed at your reference to Wikipedia if you don’t know who Hemingway was. Lol. The short story sounds interesting. I’ve only read a bit by him, mainly The Old Man and the Sea which evidently has religious connotations.

    • You and Jim both, then, Pam. I’ve visited quite a lot of the USA but not that part.

      I couldn’t resist the Wikipedia reference – and, you know, there might be someone out there who needs the link!

  6. Ah, Hemingway. There aren’t many American (or American-born) writers of a certain generation who haven’t been influenced by him. He’s been open to parody, of course, but you’ve certainly picked up his strengths. The rhythm particularly and the gift of saying things without seeming to be saying them. And the British way of writing which I was introduced to when an undergraduate English and history major at Sydney University seemed so different to me. I still, to this day, feel uncomfortable when I find myself ‘explaining’ too much. And I wouldn’t have thought myself a Hemingway fan. I remember, too, that the only US writer who was avidly read by my English dons was Faulkner, and Hemingway was looked askance at. There wasn’t much they had to say about Fitzgerald either. (That at least has changed.) As for Dos Passos, hardly anyone had heard of him, let alone had read him. I wept and wept in For Whom the Bell Tolls, especially when Catherine died in childbirth. There was a fascinating documentary about him on Netflix a couple of years ago. Well worth watching. A complex, not altogether pleasant person, yet somehow in his prose he was most humane.

    • Thanks Sara … that’s interesting about his influence on your reading and writing. That’s just what I wanted to know about. I also like your point about the person versus the writing. This story seems quite sensitive to the woman … though she’s not a paragon either … and at odds with his image.

      You keep mentioning Dos Passos! One day!

  7. I don’t know why I’ve never read any Hemingway, but I haven’t. However, I do have a different collection of his short stories on my self – The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and other stories. I really should read it!

  8. I like Hemingway’s short stories, including this one. I think his spare style lends itself to shorter fiction. My favorite is a common favorite, Hills Like White Elephants.

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