As 2021 Grinds to a Close...
...we find ourselves still in a hotel in Italy ("Cat in the Rain," Part Five). And it is raining. Still.
To review, we ended the last post by reading the following:
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.
“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.
That first line makes me happy, because I see that we are now back on-track – she is continuing her quest to bring in the cat.
Hemingway then quickly takes us to that spot under the window, where she expects the cat to be.
Here, another way of the infinite ways to think about storytelling (none of which is the only or correct one, any one of which may help us do some storytelling of our own): a story is a series of crossroad moments. The writer leads us to a place where, we know, either this or that will happen. He has skillfully created the crossroads – he’s set us up for it.
And that’s a nice feeling. (Scrooge, already at the end of his rope, is led to his own grave. Will he change, or will he not?)
Here (at a relatively small crossroads) there are two possibilities: the cat is either there or it’s not. We are, I’d say, because of the set-up, expecting that the cat will be there.
And then it’s not. And that’s…nice – a small surprise, that has the effect of opening out the story, somehow.
Hemingway is a good writer because 1) he made us feel a concrete expectation. (Some writers, some stories, don’t – we drift around in them, unsure of what we’re supposed to be caring about) and then, 2) having made the expectation (she will find that cat), he is aware that….the opposite is also possible, and might even be better, and then 3) he takes that route, having somehow decided that the story’s higher ground lay in the direction of “The cat is not there.”
Again – I don’t know how he did this. Anecdotally, it seems that the young Hemingway wrote quickly, like a poet. There’s a story that he once wrote three of his (now classic) stories in one day. So, that’s both amazing and depressing. For now, though, let’s not worry about how he did it, but let’s just make this note to ourselves: “When revising, try to make the decision points in the story crisper and more pronounced.”
How do we do this? Make crisper decision moments? Well, right, good question. For now, let’s put that question aside and assume that just having that aspiration is a good start. (In the same way that having the aspiration “I want to be a better listener” might result in a few occasions during a given day when, you know, we actually are.)
In the last post, we noted that “the way in which the woman is referred to” had declared itself to be a story element. And look at this: here, in the third graf of this section, she is suddenly referred to as “the American girl.” Is this meaningful? Well, when we read it as part of the sequence: “American wife….the wife…the American girl…” it feels escalatory. That is, there’s a pattern here, that is developing, and seems to be leading in the direction of something like “reduced agency.” (Note that we don’t have to make that last declaration, of what the escalation means, for the escalation to still be doing good work in the story. Or, instead of “escalation,” we might think of this is “anti-stasis” or just, you know, “change.”) And then we might look to see what caused this latest change (from “wife” to “girl”) and we see that this occurs just after (in response to?) the reveal that the cat she is seeking is not out there. She feels sad about this and maybe a little silly – she’s made this fuss, dragged this maid out in the rain (remember, the umbrella is up over the American girl but not over the maid, and it’s raining hard). So, it’s almost as if the narrator, moving into her mind, is revealing that she’s given herself a sort of inner demotion. (Some of you have also argued that we pop, slightly, into the head of the maid here - or that it is the omniscient narrator signaling over the head of the character, to us.)
But again – the reader feels that Hemingway has been attentive to his own story. Having changed this identifier once, earlier, Hemingway remembered that he’d done that, and…kept doing it. And it is meaningful, slightly, somehow.
She speaks English to this maid who, she should know, doesn’t speak English very well. And yet, with “I suppose so,” she keeps on doing that.
And this tells us something about her.
The absence of the cat has made her sad. The padrone (not “hotel owner” anymore) bows to her, and “something felt very small” inside of her. But also “supremely important.” A beautiful description of how it feels to be in a power arrangement that is essentially baseless; based, in this case, on commerce and, maybe, nationality. She is not superior to him, but the arrangement makes her feel so (but she also feels the smallness that comes from knowing her natural place, which – given her youth and naivete – might be…below him).
I don’t know what to say about this, other than “wow,” and maybe: contradiction, in fiction, is often a form of increased truthfulness. In a lesser version of this story, she feels sad about the cat and just keeps on feeling sad. Her feelings about the padrone stay consistent. Here, she feels contradictory things. This draws us in because we feel it as a form of narrative alertness. Hemingway is alert to how things actually are (we are always feeling multiple ways at once). He is also alert to how things are in his story; aware of what we are expecting, and hoping to subvert and complicate those expectations, in the cause of getting us to keep reading.
So, here, with respect to the padrone, he allows both things to be true of her (she sees herself as both powerful and powerless).
“What is this story about?” we might feel. “Am I supposed to like or dislike this person? Is she arrogant or humble?”
And the story says essentially: “Yes, right exactly, keep reading to find out.”
In other words, the main experience of the story is that we keep trying on different attitudinal clothing with respect to this woman - our view of her keeps subtly changing.
Let’s keep this in mind as a model for what a good story can do - even just that is pretty remarkable.
Here I want to highlight a lovely comment made by one of you, Sadie Horton, in the last round. Sadie quoted Terry Eagleton, on “Wuthering Heights”: “Catherine may be a both a petulant child and a grown woman in search of her fulfillment. The novel itself does not invite us to choose. Instead, it allows us to hold these conflicting versions of reality in tension.”
What if we see a story that way? A series of sentences designed to help us see and accept “conflicting versions of reality?” An exercise, really, that shows us how our mind usually works (quick judgment) and demonstrates that it can work differently - it can be comfortable there amid contradiction and ambiguity. And it’s not really that we’ve stopped judging this woman; rather, various judgments are flickering on and off, appearing and then being challenged and replaced, briefly, by equally transient others. And there in the middle of it is our usual mind, trying to do its usual thing, but being pleasantly challenged by the story.
So, where are we?
A woman wants to save a cat, goes to find it, it’s no longer there.
Could the story end there? After: She opened the door of the room. George was on the bed, reading. (?)
This is one way of learning about the essence of the short story: read a good one and try to truncate it early. Every time we try, and the story, truncated there, doesn’t feel complete – well, we’ve learned something about what “completeness” means in this context.
Another way to ask the question: If we ended it here (no cat, she goes sadly back to the room), what bowling pins are still up in the air for you?
The (real) ending is coming up quickly (in the edition I’m working from, it’s just over there, on the opposite page). So, there’s not much time left for Hemingway to bring this thing home – to make this the little masterpiece I’m claiming it is.
Let’s see what he does…here’s one more pulse (not the final one, however):
“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.
How has your understanding of the story now expanded? If the story ended there, would you be happy with it? What would remain unaddressed? (Respond in the comments, in your usual brilliant manner.)
And Happy New Year.
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!
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.