I am currently taking a course in my MLS program focused on the short stories of Ernest Hemingway. While much is known about his novels (For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Moveable Feast, etc), most people are not as familiar with the incredible focus and dedication Hemingway extended toward the craft of word economy.
I’m just a few weeks into the course and I’ve fallen deeply in love with several of Hemingway’s stories. While I’ve enjoyed the more well-known shorts (“Big Two-Hearted River” and “Hills Like White Elephants” were both exceptional), I really found myself in love with own of the lesser-discussed narratives, “Cat in the Rain.”
As a weekly assignment, we’ve been required to do a close reading of a select passage from the short story of our choice. Last week, I chose to write my essay on a paragraph from the “Cat in the Rain,” which I’ve shared below.
“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.”
– Hemingway, “Cat in the Rain”
In order to maximize impact, Hemingway utilized a “minimum number of words selected with great care” to reveal details of characterization, theme, and symbolism in his short stories (Lamb 16). Hemingway’s authorial distance, coupled with his unique, almost journalistic truncation of sentences in the above passage, avoids didactic guidance and allows us to infer more from the text than a superficial appreciation of the words. In this essay, I will identify the author’s specific word choice, brevity, and sentence structure within the passage to reveal complex characterizations, underlying desires, and expose conflict between the American husband and wife in “Cat in the Rain.”
In viewing the passage as a whole, we learn about the American girl’s observations of the hotel-keeper, but through this lens her personal character, desires, and tastes are revealed. With Hemingway’s use of the sentence “She liked his dignity,” we learn the value she places on decorum, self-respect, and propriety – but that she doesn’t necessarily associate these traits with class or rank, as she also “liked the way he wanted to serve her” (Hemingway 130). She appreciated “the deadly serious way he received any complaints” and “the way he felt about being a hotel-keeper,” which not only tells us she values pride in one’s occupation, but that she venerates the humility displayed through his purposeful execution (130).
Looking closer at the text, we see beyond the surface inference of the wife and details of her husband’s character emerge through her observations of another man. She notes the hotel-keeper’s pride, assiduity, and his pertinacious need to act; this is viewed in stark contrast to her husband’s behavior earlier in the story. The American husband minimized his wife’s concern over the cat in the rain, unenthusiastically addressing her without removing his attention from his book nor rising from the bed. Hemingway’s repetition of “she liked” in this passage draws a distinct disparity to the fact that she didn’t like her husband’s behavior (130). The real conflict of the story is revealed not to be the wet feline, but rather the incongruity and growing distance between the couple.
Hemingway ends the passage with the sentence: “She liked his old, heavy face and big hands” (130). This physical revelation doesn’t identify sexuality or physical desire, as demonstrated by Hemingway’s word choices in “old” and “heavy,” but rather emphasizes the American girl’s youth and a need for security. She sees in the old hotel-keeper a father-figure, an admirer, and a man concerned for her well-being and happiness. The “big hands” symbolize protection, strength, and a verisimilitude that she had forgotten could exist in a man. Again, we see this in dissimilarity to her husband’s behavior, emphasizing the conflict brewing under the surface of the story.
The hotel-keeper bears a god-like persona in “Cat in the Rain,” a participant through delegation and not personal action. Hemingway intentionally points out in this passage that he stood “behind his desk in the far end of the dim room,” a constant observer of the American wife and the world he created and preserves: the hotel (130). The young wife reveres him, and she views him with a child-like light, as indicated by Hemingway’s use of simplistic, repetitive sentences. She acknowledges his “old, heavy face,” with a childlike innocence, not viewing it as masculine, sexual, or unattractive, further reinforcing divine asexuality.
Hemingway’s placement of this passage–in juxtaposition to the husband’s previous behavior and the hotel-keeper’s continued involvement in the wife’s mission to save the cat–leads the reader to sense a growing contention with the couple, which comes to a head when she returns to the bedroom. In a single passage, Hemingway informs us–through minimal action or authorial intrusion–of the personalities of the three characters, unveils desires, and discloses the true conflict of the story.
Lamb, Robert Paul. “Historical Genre, Dispassionate Presentation, and Authorial Judgment.” Art Matters: Hemingway, Craft, and the Creation of the Modern Short Story. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Cat in the Rain.” The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Finca Vigía ed. New York: Scribner, 2003.