Pregnant with meaning:

photo by David Nedeljkovic
photo by David Nedeljkovic

 

Interpretations of Hemingway’s ‘Cat In The Rain’

By Carol Fenlon

In his essay ‘Analysis and Interpretation of the Realist Text’, David Lodge (1980) examines two readings of Ernest Hemingway’s short story ‘Cat InThe Rain’, one by Carlos Baker (1952) and the other by John V. Hagopian (1962), followed by his own analysis of the text. At the time of reading Lodge’s essay, I had not yet read the story for myself.

The story concerns an American couple staying at an hotel on a wet day when both are confined indoors. The wife sees a ‘kitty’ outside in the rain and announces her intention of going out to rescue it. The husband is reading his book and shows little interest. The wife goes downstairs and is helped by hotel staff to search for the cat but finds that it has disappeared. When she returns to their room she is fixated on getting a cat to alleviate her boredom, to the annoyance of her husband. At the end of the story, the hotel maid knocks at the couple’s door and delivers a large tortoiseshell cat which the manager has found and sent up for the wife.

The main points of the two analyses discussed in Lodge’s article may be summarised as follows:

Baker: The cat represents domesticity for the woman. The cat in the wife’s mind is associated with other things that she desires (long hair, new clothes etc). The wife is dissatisfied with her life, confined in a boring, dull hotel room in the rain with an inattentive husband while craving the possibilities of new, exciting scenarios – getting new clothes, a different hairdo, having a cat. For Baker there is closure in the story as the cat is sent up to the room by the hotel manager providing resolution for the wife. Baker assumes the cat at the end is the same cat as the desired ‘kitty’, although there is nothing in the text to suggest this is so.

Hagopian: The cat represents for the woman, a longed-for child. Various symbols in the story represent fertility (rain, the garden). The man in the rubber cape who appears in the garden represents contraception. Hagopian interprets the story as being about the couple’s childlessness and the wife’s desire for a child. The cat at the end of the story, in Hagopian’s view, is not the original ‘kitty’. It is instead, a big, adult cat which cannot fulfil the wife’s desire for a child, therefore there is no closure in the final scene.

At this point I read the story and though I have not drawn any specific new meaning from my own reading, I believe there is something lacking in both Baker’s and Hagopian’s analyses. I am particularly struck by the wife saying, ‘The poor kitty trying to keep dry under a table’ (Hemingway, 1925:1), and later, ‘It isn’t any fun to be a poor kitty out in the rain’ (ibid, 2).

Lodge agrees with Baker and Hagopian that the story is ‘about’ a rift between a man and his wife but believes that the ambiguity of the ending, regarding whether or not the cat presented is the one which the wife originally saw, suggests that this is not the whole point of the text.

None of these interpretations satisfy me. Baker fails to consider the wife’s indeterminate sense of lack. Hagopian identifies this feeling but seems to force his reading of it to fit his thesis. The idea of the rubber-caped man standing for contraception seems, to me, contrived and there is little in the text to suggest that the wife mourns the lack of a child. Lodge identifies phrases in the text that may suggest the wife is pregnant, rather than desiring to be so, and links this to Baker’s biography of Hemingway in which he states that Hadley Hemingway had just become pregnant at the time this story was written. He relates her demands for new experiences to the ‘whimsical cravings’ of a pregnant woman (Lodge 1980:35). However, he discounts the pregnancy, or lack of it, as a meaningful interpretation and relies on a structural analysis of oppositional conflicts within the marriage.

Something teases me here, namely the identification of the wife with the cat out in the rain and the idea of a young wife, newly pregnant. On reading the story again, I immediately find evidence to support the thesis that the story explores fears and uncertainties about becoming a parent for the first time.

The cat is female, offering twin symbols of motherhood and petted baby. The wife repeatedly expresses concern for the cat’s welfare, showing a displaced fear for her own security as a pregnant woman needing safety and support. The demands for her own household environment are, from this perspective, not ‘whimsical’ but reflect a nesting instinct, the need for a permanent home rather than hotel rooms.

The other characters show an exaggerated concern for her well-being which is understandable if she is pregnant. Why else the reiterated advice, from her husband, the hotel manager and the maid, not to get wet? As a pregnant woman, she is on the threshold of a new and responsible persona. The padrone makes her feel vulnerable yet also valuable by his protective stance. The wonder of the child inside her is reflected in the moment of feeling herself to be of ‘supreme importance’ (Hemingway, 1925:2).

The husband, however, is oblivious to all this. The wife returns to the room and her feelings are confused. Her importance is not noticed by her husband. She doesn’t know why she wants the kitty. Her uneasiness translates into confused desires for long hair, new clothes, and some sort of new activity, yet the very desire for long hair and the statement that she is tired of looking like a boy, emphasise the position of the girl beginning the journey to the maturity of motherhood. At the same time there is a yearning for the freedoms of youth in the desire for new clothes and springtime. The familiar pleasures of girlhood pull in the opposite direction to the mother’s desire for a stable and settled home life and family security.

There is fear and conflict here: a fear of losing the fun of travel, freedom, and the euphoric relationship of the newly-wed, which is in opposition to the need for a secure future and love for her unborn child. The wife is poised between her changing roles. The story, for me, represents a crossroads and the ambiguous delivery of the (probably) wrong cat merely emphasises how she must resolve all this for herself and how others do not understand her dilemma.

The husband’s role is passive. Far from creating conflict, he avoids confrontation, taking refuge in his book. If the wife is pregnant, he too faces the loss of youthful freedom and will have to shoulder the new responsibilities of parenthood. Such fears may leak out in his wistful comments about her hair: ‘I like it the way it is. You look pretty darn nice’ (ibid). Instead of confronting or exploring her seemingly irrational statements, he can only say ‘Yeah’ and is eventually goaded into telling her to read a book, which is his own means of escaping from the  changes to come.

A major aspect of the story seems to be a failure of communication between husband and wife but this failure is not restricted to the couple.  Similar problems with communication occur between the wife, the hotel manager and the maid. The disparity between the reality of the cat produced at the end of the story and the wife’s expectations of a ‘kitty’ also shows a disjunction between her inner and outer worlds. The point then is not a rift between husband and wife, but a rift between the wife and the rest of the world, occasioned by the impending motherhood which is being thrust upon her. The wife’s concluding statement, ‘If I can’t have long hair or any fun, I can have a cat’ (ibid), seems to articulate her willingness to give up the freedom of youth for security and comfort, showing her on the point of resolving her inner conflicts.

My reading of the story gives me more satisfaction than the analyses in Lodge’s essay. However, I am conscious of my bias, reading as a woman, aware of how it feels to contemplate bearing a first child. It is interesting that the analysis I finally arrived at did not occur to me until I was primed with the information about Hadley Hemingway’s pregnancy. Having made that analysis, it is now extremely difficult for me to read the story in any other way.

Many of the points made here were written several years ago in my journal when I first encountered Lodge’s essay. Reflecting on the discussion now, I can see that my interpretation of Lodge’s, Baker’s and Hagopian’s readings failed to consider the time in which they were written and the changes in attitudes which have occurred in the ensuing years. However, Hemingway’s text is timeless in its ambiguity and Lodge rightly concludes that the indeterminacy of the text is its major function. My original reading approached the text from a single perspective and excluded other possibilities. Analysis via a specific viewpoint is valuable for the focused insight it can give into a piece of writing but perhaps the real message in stories like ‘Cat In The Rain’ is the writer’s skill in embedding layers of meaning into the text to show us the multiplicity of meanings in any version of reality and to enable us to view situations from a variety of viewpoints, thus encouraging a wider tolerance in making sense of our lives.

 

Read Hemingway’s story, ‘Cat in the Rain’ HERE.

www.carolfenlon.com

email: writeme@carolfenlon.com

References

Hemingway, E. (1925) ‘Cat In the Rain’.

Lodge, D. (1980) ‘Analysis and Interpretation of the Realist Text’ in Rice, P. & Waugh, P. (eds.) (1989, 1996 ed.) Modern Literary Theory: a Reader, Arnold, London. (pp24-41)

About the author

Carol Fenlon has written 2 articles for THRESHOLDS

I have been writing short fiction and poetry for fifteen plus years, much of which has been placed in competitions or published in small press and mainstream magazines. I have a PhD in Creative Writing from Edge Hill University and my novel 'Consider The Lilies' won the Impress Novel Prize in 2007. I am on the editorial board of the journal 'Short Fiction in Theory and Practice' and am a regular competition judge for several North West events.

7 Responses to "Pregnant with meaning:"

  • Phil Latham 11:52 AM 29/9/2011

    Interesting analysis Carol.

    I don’t buy the pregnancy view, however. To me, the cat represents what she wants in her marriage, namely affection and compassion, and the rain signifies the struggles she is willing to go through to better her marriage, even if it means getting wet in the process.

    So Hemingway uses the cat stuck in the rain with nobody to care for it to symbolise the wife who longs to be loved.

    Although Hemingway’s subtext is intriguing, I still find his style of repetition and short sentences irritating. For emphasis he uses “in the rain” three times in the third paragraph and “She liked” five times in a later one. Moreover, the first paragraph’s short sentences I find are annoying as he seems to think everyone has a reading age of eight. If you combine sentence one and two and then three and four the paragraph flows much better.

    And yet . . . I can see Hemingway finding a new generation of readers, those with ever-decreasing attention spans; a fresh generation of graduates who are ever more educated yet know less and less.

    • Carol Fenlon 05:30 PM 30/9/2011

      Hmm! I can’t really see the justification for the view that she is looking for compassion and affection alone, she seems very confused about exactly what she does want, which to me indicates a lack of confidence in a new role. I do like the idea though that the rain signifies barriers to her ideals which she is willing to struggle through for the betterment of the marriage. On the other hand, it doesn’t really explain the protective stance of the hotel staff towards her, or why their attitude to her makes her feel of supreme importance. The reading of the cat as the embodiment of her desires is certainly a possibility and I agree that the rain may be interpreted in various ways. I guess it just goes to show the versatility of Hemingway’s writing, whatever you may think of his narrative style.

  • Vicky Grut 08:35 AM 05/10/2011

    What a wonderful thing! Thanks so much for this carefully constructed three-way reading. I love the way you open things out at the end and hand it back to the reader – and it’s great to be able to read the story at the end of it all. Thank you. I’m going to share this with my students.

    Interesting to see the comment above. I don’t feel that way about Hemingway – I think his compressed, highly elliptical style has much to teach us, and it does leave space for the reader. But clearly not everyone agrees. I was looking at the Guardian short story podcasts a while ago and they have ‘Homage to Switzerland’ chosen and read by Julian Barnes – and the Guardian introduces this as a story ‘by a writer deeply out of fashion’ – DEEPLY! (I personally didn’t like that particular story, by the way’).

  • Loree Westron 10:28 AM 05/10/2011

    Thanks, Vicky. Hemingway does seem to stir up a variety of opinions. Some of us like his terse, sharp prose, and some of us don’t. I, for one, have always been a huge admirer of his no-nonsense style, which I consider no less beautiful than that of contemporaries like Faulkner and Steinbeck.

    And for those who would like to listen to the podcast that Vicky refers to, here it is: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/audio/2010/dec/08/julian-barnes-ernest-hemingway-podcast

    • Carol Fenlon 07:21 PM 07/10/2011

      I found Hemingway hard to read when I first encountered him. It was only when I persevered that I saw the man himself coming through the printed page. I can only admire someone who can show us the world, inner and outer in so few words and involve us in an appreciation of our own humanity. Life teaches us that there are many ways of doing this and all are equally valuable.

  • Vicky Grut 03:08 PM 06/10/2011

    Thanks for posting the link Loree. The other podcasts really worth seeking out are the New Yorker ones. They started recording them in 2006. Link here: http://www.newyorker.com/online/podcasts/fiction

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