Saturday, July 9, 2022

Cat in the Rain

Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961)
From Ernest Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises & Other Writings 1918–1926

Hadley and Ernest Hemingway in Chamby, Switzerland, 1922. (Wikimedia Commons)
“‘Cat in the Rain’ wasn’t about Hadley. I knew you and Zelda always thought it was,” Ernest Hemingway insisted in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald in late December 1925, denying that the central character of the story was modeled after his wife, Hadley Richardson. He continued:
When I wrote that we were at Rapallo but Hadley was 4 months pregnant with Bumby. The Inn Keeper was the one at Cortina D’Ampezzo and the man and girl were a harvard kid and his wife that I’d met at Genoa. Hadley never made a speech in her life about wanting a baby because she had been told various things by her doctor and I’d—. No use going into all that.
In this passage, Hemingway recalls their stay at the Hotel Riviera Splendide in Rapallo, Italy, where he and Hadley visited Ezra Pound and his wife, the artist Dorothy Shakespear. They arrived on February 7 and early the following month left to spend several weeks skiing in Cortina D’Ampezzo. Hemingway has at least one detail wrong in his letter: At the time of their stay in Rapallo, Hadley was no more than two months pregnant; their son John (“Bumby”) was born on October 10, so the couple would not have known for sure that they were going to be parents until well after their arrival in the seaside town.

While in the Hotel Splendide, Hemingway scribbled four pages of random notes that would, a year later, form the basis of “Cat in the Rain.” Hemingway labeled the draft as “False start Rapallo story possible Fascisto story”; it opens with a description of a Fascist hotel owner and describes a “happy” couple traveling by train from Genoa to Rapallo. There is no cat, nor is there a drop of rain marring “the oranges in the trees” or the “blue head land of Portofino,” a nearby fishing village. The draft clearly identifies the hotel in Rapallo as the Splendide and the wife is addressed as “Kitty,” an echo of “Feather Kitty,” Ernest’s nickname for Hadley. On the one hand, then, we have Ernest Hemingway’s insistence that the unnamed wife in the final story is not Hadley; on the other, there are numerous clues that Hadley was, at least initially, the inspiration.

Still, the final story, which we present below, was written a year later in Paris and bears little resemblance to the first draft; gone are the Italian Fascists and the oranges and the blue sea. In his five-volume biography of Hemingway, Michael Reynolds reminds us that our inclination to “substitute his later story for that February’s reality is to use his fiction to create further fictions of our own.” Even Reynolds admits, however, that Hadley must have recognized her own marriage in the portrait of the couple, “but not only in Rapallo. Some of it was [a year later] in the February rain and snow of Paris.” Gioia Diliberto, in her biography of Hadley, agrees: “It's not hard to see Hadley's vulnerability and loneliness in ‘Cat in the Rain.’”

The few scraps of Hadley’s writing that survive from the period hint at her insecurities: about her body, still carrying the extra weight from pregnancy; about her hair, which she had trimmed short on a whim to match Ernest’s haircut; about her isolation as a new mother in the bohemian social circle of the Left Bank. Shortly after Ernest finished the story and six months after their son was born, Hadley wrote “Kitty Love Story,” an unpublished tale about a cat whose exhilarating days as a kitten are over once it has given birth: “The black cat, now shapeless and baggy, . . . steps heavily over the roof in the shining dark of spring night, remembering with her whole doleful body the new love of only a few weeks ago—and wonders why she is called out almost never now.”

For such a brief story, “Cat in the Rain” has inspired an impressive amount of critical commentary and disagreement: not only about its possible autobiographical elements but also about what it means—and even about what actually happens. Is there one cat—or are there two? Would the wife be satisfied by what happens at the end of the story, or disappointed? Is her desire for a “kitty” really a longing for a baby—as the above passage from Hemingway’s letter seems to imply? In a thorough and now-classic examination of the story, the novelist David Lodge explains it has provoked conflicting interpretations: “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).”

Notes: The war monument mentioned in the story is Giacinto Pasciuto’s recently unveiled bronze statue commemorating the Italian soldiers who had died in World War I; Ernest and Hadley could see it from their second-story window in the Hotel Splendide. “Il piove” translates as rain; “Ha perduto qualque cosa, Signora?” as Have you lost something, Madam?

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce Hemingway’s story, in its entirety, below. You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.

Cat in the Rain

There were only two Americans stopping at the hotel. They did not know any of the people they passed on the stairs on their way to and from their room. Their room was on the second floor facing the sea. It also faced the public garden and the war monument. There were big palms and green benches in the public garden. In the good weather there was always an artist with his easel. Artists liked the way the palms grew and the bright colors of the hotels facing the gardens and the sea. Italians came from a long way off to look up at the war monument. It was made of bronze and glistened in the rain. It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain. The motor cars were gone from the square by the war monument. Across the square in the doorway of the café a waiter stood looking out at the empty square.

The American wife stood at the window looking out. Outside right under their window a cat was crouched under one of the dripping green tables. The cat was trying to make herself so compact that she would not be dripped on.

“I’m going down and get that kitty,” the American wife said.

“I’ll do it,” her husband offered from the bed.

“No, I’ll get it. The poor kitty out trying to keep dry under a table.”

The husband went on reading, lying propped up with the two pillows at the foot of the bed.

“Don’t get wet,” he said.

The wife went downstairs and the hotel owner stood up and bowed to her as she passed the office. His desk was at the far end of the office. He was an old man and very tall.

“Il piove,” the wife said. She liked the hotel-keeper.

“Si, si, Signora, brutto tempo. It is very bad weather.”

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.

Liking him she opened the door and looked out. It was raining harder. A man in a rubber cape was crossing the empty square to the café. The cat would be around to the right. Perhaps she could go along under the eaves. As she stood in the doorway an umbrella opened behind her. It was the maid who looked after their room.

“You must not get wet,” she smiled, speaking Italian. Of course, the hotel-keeper had sent her.

With the maid holding the umbrella over her, she walked along the gravel path until she was under their window. The table was there, washed bright green in the rain, but the cat was gone. She was suddenly disappointed. The maid looked up at her.

“Ha perduto qualque cosa, Signora?”

“There was a cat,” said the American girl.

“A cat?”

“Si, il gatto.”

“A cat?” the maid laughed. “A cat in the rain?”

“Yes,” she said, “under the table.” Then, “Oh, I wanted it so much. I wanted a kitty.”

When she talked English the maid’s face tightened.

“Come, Signora,” she said. “We must get back inside. You will be wet.”

“I suppose so,” said the American girl.

They went back along the gravel path and passed in the door. The maid stayed outside to close the umbrella. As the American girl passed the office, the padrone bowed from his desk. Something felt very small and tight inside the girl. The padrone made her feel very small and at the same time really important. She had a momentary feeling of being of supreme importance. She went on up the stairs. She opened the door of the room. George was on the bed, reading.

“Did you get the cat?” he asked, putting the book down.

“It was gone.”

“Wonder where it went to,” he said, resting his eyes from reading.

She sat down on the bed.

“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.

She went over and sat in front of the mirror of the dressing table looking at herself with the hand glass. She studied her profile, first one side and then the other. Then she studied the back of her head and her neck.

“Don’t you think it would be a good idea if I let my hair grow out?” she asked, looking at her profile again.

George looked up and saw the back of her neck, clipped close like a boy’s.

“I like it the way it is.”

“I get so tired of it,” she said. “I get so tired of looking like a boy.”

George shifted his position in the bed. He hadn’t looked away from her since she started to speak.

“You look pretty darn nice,” he said.

She laid the mirror down on the dresser and went over to the window and looked out. It was getting dark.

“I want to pull my hair back tight and smooth and make a big knot at the back that I can feel,” she said. “I want to have a kitty to sit on my lap and purr when I stroke her.”

“Yeah?” George said from the bed.

“And I want to eat at a table with my own silver and I want candles. And I want it to be spring and I want to brush my hair out in front of a mirror and I want a kitty and I want some new clothes.”

“Oh, shut up and get something to read,” George said. He was reading again.

His wife was looking out of the window. It was quite dark now and still raining in the palm trees.

“Anyway, I want a cat,” she said, “I want a cat. I want a cat now. If I can’t have long hair or any fun, I can have a cat.”

George was not listening. He was reading his book. His wife looked out of the window where the light had come on in the square.

Someone knocked at the door.

“Avanti,” George said. He looked up from his book.

In the doorway stood the maid. She held a big tortoise-shell cat pressed tight against her and swung down against her body.

“Excuse me,” she said, “the padrone asked me to bring this for the Signora.”

From In Our Time (1925).