Ernest Hemingway’s 1925 short story ‘Cat in the Rain’ is a short vignette about an American husband and wife staying in Italy. The wife notices a cat outside their hotel, in the pouring rain, and wants to bring it inside. As with much of Hemingway’s fiction, he leaves out more than he includes on the page, leaving us to draw conclusions about the meaning of the story.
The symbolism of the story is also intriguing, because – again, as is often the case in Hemingway’s work – it can function purely as a sign of itself and as a symbol for other things. Should we take the story’s images and details at face value, or see them as hinting at unspoken emotions and attitudes?
Let’s take a closer look at some of the prominent symbolism of ‘Cat in the Rain’.
Given the story’s title, ‘Cat in the Rain’, the cat itself seems a logical place to start. But does the cat in Hemingway’s story represent something more? The wife wants the cat, although she readily admits she isn’t sure why she wanted it so much. There’s a suggestion that she feels lonely and longs for companionship beyond that offered by her husband.
Her description of the cat as a ‘poor kitty’ implies that she takes pity on it (indeed, ‘poor kitty’ sounds like an elongation of the word, ‘pity’) and wants to look after it and care for it. The cat is a symbol of her longing to love something, as well as her compassion for another living thing, although this compassion perhaps stems from a more selfish need: the need to love and be loved by something.
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 (and there is a suggestion that their marriage is not an especially close or even happy one). 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.
Indeed, the husband’s advice to his wife as she leaves the room to go and get the cat strengthens the association between wife and cat: he tells her not to get wet, much as the cat is seeking to avoid the same fate.
Is it significant that the cat is described as ‘tortoise-shell’ at the end of ‘Cat in the Rain’? Some critics have suggested that ‘shell’ here (and, perhaps, ‘tortoise’, given the dryness of the animals’ skin) suggests dryness and therefore sterility, hinting at the wife’s possible infertility. She wants a cat because she wants a baby and she cannot conceive one.
However, this is speculation on the part of critics and readers, as the woman’s fertility (or lack of) is not directly mentioned in the story.
However, going against the above-mentioned interpretation of the story (which deduces that the wife is infertile) is the opposite suggestion: that she is, in fact, already pregnant. Rain suggests fertility, growth, abundance – partly because the land needs rainwater for crops to grow and for the land to remain fertile.
The wife’s determination to brave the rain, though with protection at hand from the maid’s umbrella, could, in this interpretation of the story, imply her half-willingness to confront the changes she is undergoing: she is slowly accepting her ability to create new life (by going out into the rain to help a small creature in need of her protection), though she is reluctant to go out into the rain and accepts the maid’s help with the umbrella.
This notion – suggesting a woman in a story is already pregnant but perhaps doesn’t realise the fact or hasn’t directly confronted its reality yet – has been incorporated into short stories by other writers besides Hemingway. At the end of her 1893 short story, ‘A Cross Line’, George Egerton had hinted at the female protagonist’s pregnancy through a conversation she has with her maid about children, and symbolic references to the blossom on the trees.
Similarly, Raymond Carver’s ‘Fat’ suggests the narrator is pregnant and is slowly coming to terms with this fact through her engagement with the various symbols in the story: it is narrated by a woman who is mysterious drawn to an overweight man whom she serves in the diner where she works.
What should we make of the wife’s desire to let her hair grow long? This is coupled with her longing for the cat – which becomes, later in the story, a longing for a cat, not necessarily the cat in the rain outside. Letting her hair grow out perhaps suggests a longing a return to a state of full womanhood: she’s tired of looking like a ‘boy’ with her short, cropped hair. At this time, short hair on women often symbolised a break with traditional gender norms, as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 story ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’ had made clear.
In Fitzgerald’s story, there is a strong link between longer hair and femininity, and, by extension, female attractiveness. Does the wife want to grow her hair because she wants to be admired again? Is she aware that her youth is passing (it’s possible, after all, that she is pregnant and will soon have another life to take care of)?
As with the other symbols in ‘Cat in the Rain’, Hemingway refuses to tell us how we should respond to these suggestive symbols, leaving it up to us as readers to fill in the gaps.