Commentary by Karen Bernardo
After serving as a Red Cross Ambulance driver in Italy during World War I¬¬—an experience which went a long way toward forming the young writer’s lust for adventure—Ernest Hemingway married Hadley Richardson, a comfortably-wealthy young woman several years older than he. Immediately after their marriage, the couple moved to Paris, where due to the favorable rate of monetary exchange, it was possible to live comfortably on a writer’s salary. It was here that his story “A Cat in the Rain” was written.
This is an intriguing little gem of a story, one of relatively few in the Hemingway canon told from the point of view of a woman. Although the point of view is third-person omniscient, our sympathies as readers lie with the female protagonist, called only “the American wife.” The story works its way through her consciousness as she spies a stray cat huddled under a dripping table outside their Paris hotel, and attempts to rescue it. Her husband, George, spends the entire story curled up in bed reading a book, paying little attention to his wife.
On the one hand, the American wife seems a rather silly, childish, petulant woman, which may reflect what Hemingway thought of Hadley. She continually refers to the cat as a “kitty,” and her most significant speech in the story is delivered in front of a mirror, when she says, “I want to pull my hair back tight and smooth and make a big knot at the back that I can feel. I want to have a kitty to sit on my lap and purr when I stroke her…. 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.”
These may seem like vanities, but the other hand these “wishes” are symbolic of a deeply-felt human need with which we can sympathize. What the American wife is saying is that she wants concrete, tactile, palpable pleasures, and what she has is a husband reading in bed; the emotional distance between the couple is illustrated by her husband’s remark, “Oh, shut up and get something to read.” The American wife does not need something to read, she needs something to feel. It is significant that Hemingway recognized what was going wrong in his marriage to Hadley; he even recognized his own part in it; but he obviously felt powerless to change. It should come as no surprise that within a few years, the Hemingways divorced.
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