By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Cat in the Rain’ is a very short story by Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), published in his early 1925 collection In Our Time. Hemingway wrote ‘Cat in the Rain’ for his wife Hadley while they were living in Paris. She wanted to get a cat, but he said they were too poor.
‘Cat in the Rain’ was supposedly inspired by a specific event in 1923 when, while staying at the home of Ezra Pound (a famous cat-lover) in Rapallo, Italy, Hadley befriended a stray kitten. You can read the story here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘Cat in the Rain’: plot summary
An American couple are staying at a hotel in Italy. It is raining heavily one day, and the wife, looking out of their hotel room window, spies a cat under one of the tables outside, trying to shelter from the rain.
She wants to go and get the cat and bring her (the cat is specifically gendered as female) indoors. Her husband, George, sits on the bed, reading, and offers to go and fetch it, but the wife says she will go.
She goes downstairs and talks to the Italian hotel owner, whom she likes. Stepping outside, she is about to go looking for the cat when the maid who looks after their hotel room appears with an umbrella, telling her she mustn’t get wet.
The wife fails to find the cat, and returns up to her hotel room, disappointed. She tells her husband that she wants a cat, as well as other things: she wants spring to arrive, and she wants some new clothes. But George is engrossed in his book and isn’t listening.
Then, at the end of the story, the maid knocks on the door and when she enters, she is holding a large tortoiseshell cat in her arms. She tells them that the hotel-owner told her to bring the cat up for the wife.
‘Cat in the Rain’: analysis
In keeping with Ernest Hemingway’s signature style, ‘Cat in the Rain’ is written in spare, clear prose, using short sentences and plain dialogue. This is a trademark feature of Hemingway’s style in his short stories and novels.
Hemingway’s stories often seem direct and matter-of-fact, as though they simply mean whatever they say, but there is, in fact, symbolic resonance to many of the ordinary and everyday details he builds his stories around. The cat in the rain is not just a cat: she clearly symbolises something more to the wife, who wishes to rescue her from the rain and, in doing so, rescue a part of herself. She, too, wants to escape the rain, as her reference to spring (which hasn’t yet arrived) towards the end of the story demonstrates.
In other words, we might analyse or interpret the cat as a site of desire for the wife: the cat represents desire itself, all her wants, becoming a tangible, physical manifestation of her desire. We want what we can’t have, of course: Jacques Lacan’s work on desire argues as much, and in English the word ‘want’ denotes both a desire and a lack (i.e., you want an ice cream but if you fall short of some standard you are said to have been found wanting).
Of course, the wife’s initial failure to find the cat when she goes outside is also, we might say, significant: having seen what she wants, the object of desire, she then fails to attain it.
The maid’s role in the story is also significant in this connection. There is an intriguing relationship between the three female characters of the maid, the wife, and the cat. The wife’s actions are motivated by a desire to shelter the poor cat from the harsh rain, but also because, as she acknowledges, she wants a cat (among other things).
The maid, meanwhile, brings the wife an umbrella so she won’t get wet. So there is an intriguing echo of the wife’s actions (trying to stop the cat from getting wet) in the maid’s (trying to stop the wife from getting wet).
‘Cat in the Rain’, in short, is not just about a cat. The cat can be taken at face value and surface level as ‘just’ a cat, and the events of the story as being a minor snapshot into one hour’s events in the lives of an American couple living in 1920s Italy. But since when in our own lives do events simply happen without having wider implications? Many things we do are motivated by other desires, drives, wants, fears, anxieties.
This is especially true of American culture, we might say, which – in Hemingway’s time as much as in ours – has often been driven by desire for material objects: a new car, a bigger house, the latest fashionable clothes, and so on. The cat cannot be separated from this mentality: it embodies it. Although the wife begins by wanting the ‘cat in the rain’, she later expresses the wish to have a cat: any cat will do. She wants a pet.
This reveals that although helping an animal in distress (the cat trying to avoid the rain under the table) may have formed part of her initial desire to rescue the animal, her actions were also driven by more selfish and materialistic desires.