I haven't, until now, when the American wife, wife, girl sat before the mirror, had the experience I look for in a good story: a feeling of deep recognition, an empathy for the internal struggle of the character that makes me feel as if I have dropped into a deep and wide place of understanding. My mother was a girl at about the same time this character was written onto these pages. My mother did not say those exact words: "I want it to be spring, and I want to brush my hair...and I want a kitty and I want new clothes." But she could have and, indeed, if she had I would have been pleased because at least she would be trying to put language to the stirrings of desire inside her. Women of that era were so lost, so discouraged from having desire, ambition, big dreams. Women of that era could only dream small dreams: kitties and silver and candles. She's cut her hair short, like a boy's: a wish to be in the body of boy who is allowed bigger dreams, to escape the constraints of womanhood? Then she doubts her choice. Is she still pretty? She wishes to feel something: the bun on the back of her neck, the cat ( no longer kitty but something larger, more substantial.) Betty Friedan called the depression many women in the fifties experienced as "the disease that has no name." My mother's inability to name her longing to have a life where she could follow her own desire and ambition was shared by most women of this era. My mother, the valedictorian of her High School class, eventually gave up wanting anything for herself, but, bless her, she encouraged me to have dreams, to find language for those dreams that went beyond kitties and candles and new clothes. I cheer when our girl gets a little fierce. "I want a cat. I want it now." Go girl/wife/American wife!! Stamp your foot! Want something. Start with a cat. Then tell that sleepy dud of a husband to wake up and pay some attention to you!

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Dec 29, 2021Liked by George Saunders

Just popping in to say how wonderful this exercise is. Both here and in A Swim, George sometimes says something like "bear with me, I know that reading this way can be annoying," but DAMN do I disagree with that. This method of close-reading is so, so valuable to me, and I look forward to every new post. Please keep them coming, you have my rapt attention, and I am learning oodles.

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Dec 30, 2021Liked by George Saunders

A welcome consequence of this exercise is that I find myself suspending judgment a little more. There are a number of points in the story where I’ve felt strongly, usually negatively, towards one of the characters. If I were reading it in one go and without taking the time to reflect on my reaction to the text, those feelings might easily have become enduring and overriding assessments of the characters.

Working through this exercise, I’m aware of my feelings about the characters changing from pulse to pulse and that awareness, coupled with more time spent thinking about why I’m reacting in the way that I am and reading through so many thoughtful and incisive responses to the text, means I’m slightly less likely to let my feelings at any particular pulse carry the day.

I’m also noticing a readiness to leave the question of what the story is ‘about’ unanswered for just a little while longer. It’s refreshing.

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

George is getting turned on, that’s what I think, and furthermore I think this is his whole raison d’etre for the marriage.

Then she starts talking about sensual stuff like feeling her hair in a knot and stroking a kitty.

“‘Yeah?’ George said from the bed.”

George is really asking, “Is this going to be sex?”


“‘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.’”

I hear:

“I want to be somewhere that is home, I want to be myself, and I want things to be good.”

A materialistic kind of good, okay, but I think she hasn’t run into other, deeper kinds of goodness very much yet in her life.

George hears:

“This isn’t going to be sex and I’m the annoying but hot but not intellectual wife you really have.”

And he goes back to his own main life, inside his book, after telling her to be somebody else.

“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.”

It’s hopeless and weird to fixate on a cat. The cat’s not going to help! Your problems aren’t going to be solved by a cat! Argh! But I sympathize with her anyway. A person has to have something.

Holy gods, is it satisfying when the light comes on in the square. Shockingly satisfying. The story could almost stop there for me, but we wouldn’t know if there’s hope or no hope in this marriage yet. I need another drop of something to help me place my bet.

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George, I can't help but think of your brilliant essay on endings / close reading of Barthelme's "The School". (Here it is, for anyone who hasn't read it: https://paulsaxton.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/saunders-barthelme-a.pdf)

You say in there, on the brilliance of Barthelme's closing paragraphs: "And look what's happened: Suddenly, Barthelme can end this thing any way he pleases. The essential work has been done." That idea really struck me when I first read it: the notion that the work, when done well (in earlier parts), allows the story to end in any number of different ways and still mean something. And when I think about what would feel unaddressed by Hemingway if "Cat in the Rain" ended here (with the light coming on in the square), while I do feel we need a final moment, a final interaction or glimpse or something, I also think Hemingway has done much of the essential work and has a number of endings open to him, each in line with the "meaning" he has hinted toward.

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I am feeling tenderness for this wife/woman/girl. There is a restlessness to her that is relatable. She’s seeking something tangible: a cat/kitty to rescue, long hair in a bun to ground her in her womanhood, someone to acknowledge her in the ways she wants to be seen. And yet all she’s getting is rain, the absence of a cat, a distracted husband’s suggestion to read a book. She is teetering on the precipice of some kind of understanding of herself, which makes her both infuriating and fascinating.

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I've been remembering all the little things that women couldn't do back then, back when this story takes place. In the Sophia Coppola movie, "Lost in Translation" the wife is trapped in a hotel, while her husband has all this exciting work to do, then she goes to a bar by herself and gets to hang out with Bill Murray.

The wife/American girl in this story is living in a time when chopping off hair was a big deal, a huge liberation, and she's chopped off her hair... but still lives, trapped, in how she feels about her looks, how she's looked at, if she's approved of. This last problem, where we feel so much about our external package, seeking approval, still exists. I feel more for her now that I've thought about all the restrictions women had in the past. I don't even think they could open their own bank accounts. Being a wife was like being a child in a way. You had to ask for money. The husband picked where you'd live, where his work took him, and if you got left behind you'd just have to bear the solitude. No Bill Murray hangouts.

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Dec 29, 2021Liked by George Saunders

For the first time in our "serial" reading of the story I really want to read ahead --- to see how the story ends. And yes, I definitely need another brush stroke. In fact I want to know what happens next as much as I want to see how Hemingway finesses it. Between them, husband and wife, another character seems to be needed --- as if the marriage calls for it -- the hotel keeper or the maid, or, of course, the cat.

"She liked, she liked, she liked," now becomes "I want, I want, I want." She's a piece of work!!

George's comment about the subtle shifts in attitude toward her remind me of a phrase used by the film editor Ellen Hovde about the editing of "Grey Gardens." She talked about "structuring sympathy," building sequences so that sympathies shift as the story progresses.

It occurs to me now that what I think of our American wife matters less than how much vitality she's painted with --- I'm learning this from Hemingway.

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Can I ask a related question about reading versus re-reading?

It's a little embarrassing to admit that I enjoyed your analytical chapters in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain more than some of the stories themselves (as a first-timer). Your years of experience with those texts opened my eyes... but also made me feel like a philistine by comparison ;)

I'm wondering what warrants persisting with a text, or going back to it again, when our internal reading meter is not pointing to P? I ask this knowing there is more great literature in the world than we could ever have time to read.

Using "Cat in the Rain" as an example is perfect. I try to pretend that I've never heard of Hemingway, that I've never read this story, and set aside the context that he's a master of simplicity. I turn on the meter and take it line by line, just as you've suggested.

"There were only two Americans stopping at the hotel." OK, so what? As openings go, this one leaves me pretty indifferent.

"They did not know any of the people they passed on the stairs on their way to and from their room." I'm not captivated by this. Why would we expect them to know other guests?

"Their room was on the second floor facing the sea." I don't see the escalation here. Do I need to know what floor they're on? Okay, there must be a payoff coming... but I'm also wondering if my attention is being taken for granted at this point. If I didn't know it was Hemingway, I can't say if I would detect enough writerly charm to keep going here.

Am I misapplying the principles you've shared? Because if I'm the bouncer at Story Club here, I'm on the verge of turning away one of the greatest writers in history, purely based on first impressions. I feel like a philistine just writing that because the story is a masterpiece and I agree with everything you've said about it.

But do you see what I'm getting at? At a time when our attention is being pulled in countless directions, how can we override that internal meter and trust that our efforts at re-reading something will be rewarded?

Thank you.

(By contrast, in case I sound crazy, here is what I would consider an opening that practically *dares* you to stop reading:

"I wake up afraid. My wife is sitting on the edge of my bed, shaking me. ‘They’re at it again,’ she says." - Tobias Wolff, Next Door


“Two years ago, Kazushige Nishida, a Tokyo businessman in his sixties, started renting a part-time wife and daughter.” - Elif Batuman, The New Yorker)

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Jan 1, 2022·edited Jan 1, 2022Liked by George Saunders

Hey, I just wanted to pop in here before the year switches over and wish everyone in Story Club a fine farewell to ‘21 and a ‘22 with as much health, joy and fascination as life allows. This amazing crew makes me want to stretch myself as much as possible and grow in wisdom to keep up.

George, you’ve done so much to boost that joy and fascination for us already and I hope everything you wish for rains upon you in response. Having the serious pleasure of Story Club to look forward to - a major win on the books for 2022, and before midnight, even - that’s gold. Thank you for this massive act of generosity. Let us know how we can keep this experience a happy one for you, as you’re giving so much.

Thanks to all of you and happy new year!

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Hi All…

When the writer called the AW a “girl” a feeling coalesced that I didn’t trust the writer…

Now I feel - the husband believes he is living the life of the mind, the life of an artist. Her short hair signifies their life in the avante garde of the time.

However, perhaps she had given up a lot for that identity and maybe she’s ambivalent about it. Long hair (at the time, a signifier of married secure womanhood) and a cat, a comfortable domestic life.

What does she get from being the boyish fun cool girl appendage of an artist?

What does he get?

“Shut up and read” - be like me, live this life.

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So many more contradictions! I love the idea that a story is practice for a reader to feel comfy in her ever-contradictory reality/self.

I feel a little heartbroken by how human this character becomes in this section. She wants things! And she's failed to get this one thing that she thought she sort of wanted (but was actually just a proxy desire for the other, deeper, realer desires), and now she's so frustrated and dissatisfied and feeling important and small and impotent/helpless that her realer deeper desires are spewing out in a jumble. This feels like such a refreshing and true version of (or response to?) one kind of classic shape of a story that I feel familiar with: what does the protagonist want, and does she get it in the end?

The object, for this character, has definitely exceeded the desire (Is that a Lacan thing? I can't remember who wrote about that...) because the "kitty" has become bigger than its literal self in the woman's consciousness (and it ran away before she could catch it!). But then Hemingway pushes this farther, into more desperate territory (so satisfying for the reader!). Instead of having the woman say, "I want you, George, to tell me I'm beautiful and help me feel feminine and important and wealthy and purposeful, and I want you to let me be my true self, and I want help knowing what I actually want," (or whatever it is she really wants from him), she says something so much more inarticulate and human and specific and mysterious and vulnerable and revealing. She really lets herself sound "silly" (what *she* might think of as silly, or what she might worry her husband thinks of as silly). This is (to me) a more unexpected and satisfying ("surprising and inevitable"?) version of the more traditional story shape with a character who knows just what she wants, goes for it (or is forced by circumstance to go for it), and then gets it or fails. Hemingway's character is moving through the soup of desire (maybe that's all life is for many of us!) in a more interesting and complex way. ...And we still haven't seen how she feels about what she's said! Or how George reacts to what she's said! Or whether the rain will stop! Or whether the cat will reappear!

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Seems like she changed everything she liked about herself for him, and now she can't even get him to pay attention to her. Homesick for who she was.

Also, Hemingway periodically liked his wives to be the "boy" and he would be the "girl," say the historians. When a person changes herself drastically for a lover, the relationship can't help but go to shit. At least a cat would want what she has to give, would comfort her, and wouldn't need her to be anyone but herself. I hope it doesn't end here.

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Waking up this morning to the power being out, a foot of new snow falling, I stay in bed and am happy to have the excuse to just lie there and just think about things.

I think about the Cat in the Rain story and the petulant young wife and her woes. Then I start in on my woes, and find myself for a few minutes in her same exact complaining attitude. I want the power to go on, I want it to go on now. I want to sit at my table with my hot coffee and I want to not hear my husband worrying on about the pipes and the roof and the snow to shovel.

I too want a nice kitty to pet, to hold, to keep warm with and I want to sit by a warm fire and never be cold. Ok. This sentiment does not last long, since for heavens sake I know how unlikely it is that the power will stay out for more than a few more hours, and we have every comfort and so forth and so on. We are the fortunate with a nice house, plenty of food, ability to use shovels and we don’t have to go anywhere.

I’ve been thinking lately about the injustices we see, and those we don’t. How injustice surrounds us in so many ways. How can I be spending my time reading an old Hemingway story and writing my little comments, when I could be —- could be what? I could be out helping the old person around the block with their snow shoveling, I could be donating to the many go fund me projects for people in my county and towns nearby who have been devastated by floods, and now are seeing pipes freeze under their houses and can’t afford to get things fixed. People who see their flooded fields now turn to frozen lakes. I could be writing essays and articles and even short stories about these injustices I see. And about the ones I don’t see, but maybe can imagine.

But no. Can’t do any of that. I’m going to just lie here in bed with covers pulled overhead and complain. I want my coffee since its now morning and I don’t want to get up and be cold.

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Fist reaction, why the hell is her hair so short!? That is not a flapper roaring twenties haircut, that is boy short. Total shock and surprise at this reveal.

Second, I am curious how space defines the female character once she is introduced.

Inside hotel room = American wife

Inside hotel but outside her room = wife

Outside hotel = American girl

Return to inside hotel = American girl

Return to hotel room = his wife (George, first named when returning to room)

For me freedom is now linked to being the American girl. As a girl she got the farthest away from her husband. Her failure in her quest for a cat/companion causes her to head back to the hotel room and is now identified as belonging to someone, his wife. Her freedom is now gone. She is tethered to George, as stated in the comments the only named character and now, on the bed, not moving has the most status. The cat (wet, uncomfortable, maybe starving) has more freedom than she does. It had the choice to run away.

The dream of wanting a life different than what one is experiencing connects to me deeply. I can't help but think of Chekhov's Three Sisters and the dream of Moscow.

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Our understanding of the woman’s intense interest in the cat (which is not a tomcat but a female cat) has exploded, with the cat representing so much more than a kitty to be cuddled. Our protagonist, like so many women before and after her, is diminished like a cat in the rain. But unlike the cat, she lacks freedom of movement and self-agency, as well as a sense of connection, including to place. Our American wife wants to sit at her own table with her own silver and candles, symbols of affluence, light, and romance. She sounds homesick and lovesick. Her husband denies her the simple luxury of her own hair. Why does he want her to look like a boy? Is he jealous of the potential attentions of other men? Or does he prefer men over women? Although George is not (yet) a monster, he is controlling, absorbed in his own agenda, and emotionally indifferent to his wife and her needs.

This section ends when a light comes on in the square, suggesting that darkness has descended but also that there is the possibility of a new vision in the light. If the story ended here, however, I wouldn’t be satisfied. I want our protagonist and/or the cat to own the last scene, not the husband. George (the character, not Saunders) shouldn’t have the last word, through silence or otherwise.

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