By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Like many short stories, Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Cat in the Rain’ contains a very small cast of characters. All of the characters in the story can be defined by their relationship to the story’s protagonist and central character, the American wife, who is staying at a hotel in Italy with her husband, George. Let’s take a closer look at the characters in Hemingway’s very short story, which was first published in 1925.
Introduced as an American wife, the wife is staying in Italy with her husband, George, and she is the central character in ‘Cat in the Rain’. There is a suggestion that she is not especially old, as she is described as the American ‘girl’ at several points. Her concern for the cat stuck out in the rain (she describes it as a ‘poor kitty’) may suggest that she identifies with the cat (which is gendered as female in the story), recognising it as a kindred spirit, a symbol of her own alienation and helplessness.
Alternatively, there is a possibility that the wife is slowly realising that she is pregnant, and she sees the cat as being like her unborn child growing inside her. In another reading, the cat represents her boredom and loneliness and is something she seizes onto in the hope that it will help to assuage both.
Indeed, her actions when she gets back up to the hotel room – examining her appearance in the mirror, and asking her husband whether she should grow her hair long – lead us to surmise that she is undergoing some sort of miniature identity crisis, and wants to change her life somehow.
Whether this change of heart has been prompted by external forces (realising she’s pregnant, for instance) or from an introspective assessment of her life and marriage is not made clear.
George, the Husband.
The wife’s American husband, George, spends much of the story on the bed, reading a book. He doesn’t seem overly concerned by, or interested in, his wife. Although he offers to go and get the cat from out in the rain when she announces she’s going to get it, he barely seems to be listening to her for the rest of the time, and is more interested in his book.
When she begins to list all of the things she wants – a cat, to grow her hair long, new clothes, for spring to arrive – he appears to snap, telling her to shut up and get something to read (something to keep her quiet). There is a suggestion that her behaviour is not new and she is often in the habit of expressing her desires and dissatisfactions in this manner. When she refuses to shut up and repeats her wish for a cat, he stops listening altogether.
The man who owns the hotel at which the couple are staying is described as old, and very tall, with big hands. He is described as the padrone, an Italian word meaning a hotel proprietor or owner. The wife likes him because of his dignity and the seriousness with which he responds to any complaints about the hotel.
She also likes his readiness to serve her: as soon as he sees her, he bows to her. When he bows to her upon her re-entry into the hotel, she feels like an important person, although she also feels small, though Hemingway doesn’t say why (it’s possible that she is experiencing the first signs of pregnancy – just before this, she had felt something small and tight inside her – or it could be that she feels silly for going to look for the cat in the rain).
The hotel-owner proves his willingness to serve, and please, the wife by sending the maid to find another cat (at least, we are invited to assume it is not the same cat as the cat the wife saw out in the rain, sheltering under the table), and then taking this tortoise-shell cat up to the couple’s room. He wants to make her happy, as a guest in his establishment.
The maid appears with an umbrella as the wife is about to step outside into the rain. The wife realises that the hotel-keeper has sent her, because he is worried about her getting wet. The maid then walks alongside the wife, holding the umbrella over the wife to keep the rain off her, as she wife looks for the cat.
The maid is Italian, and seems to prefer it when the American wife speaks Italian to her: her face tightens when, in her disappointment at finding the cat has disappeared, the wife speaks to her in English. The maid, then, is a kind of double of the wife, as they both appear to experience disappointment at this moment.
The cat is a character in itself – or, we should say, herself, for the cat is gendered as female, identifying it implicitly with the wife in the story. Whether the wife views the cat as a poor, defenceless creature she wishes to help in its moment of need, as a child substitute, or as a symbol of her own plight, is left for us as readers to decide.
The cat is gendered as female, identifying it with the wife. Like the American wife, the cat is stranded when we first meet it: she is crouching under one of the tables outside the café, much as the wife is emotionally or spiritually stranded and alone, in a foreign country with only her husband for company.
Although the cat is trying to adjust to her surroundings (making herself compact under the table so the drops of rain won’t fall on her), this is only partly successful. The disappearance of the cat when the wife goes out to rescue it from the rain implies the wife’s intensifying loss of identity in her marriage, living in a foreign country far from home as an expatriate.