"Cat in the Rain," Part Two
A fragment-at-a-time exercise, continued...
All right, let’s dive back into “Cat in the Rain,” by Ernest Hemingway.
Just to review, here’s the opening paragraph:
There were only two Americans stopping at the hotel. They did not know any of the people they passed on the stairs on their way to and from their room. Their room was on the second floor facing the sea. It also faced the public garden and the war monument. There were big palms and green benches in the public garden. In the good weather there was always an artist with his easel. Artists liked the way the palms grew and the bright colors of the hotels facing the gardens and the sea. Italians came from a long way off to look up at the war monument. It was made of bronze and glistened in the rain. It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain. The motor cars were gone from the square by the war monument. Across the square in the doorway of the cafe a waiter stood looking out at the empty square.
So, last post, I asked you to just read this and sit with it – see what sort of things it caused to come up in your mind. Whatever those things were, that’s what Hemingway has to work with in the rest of the piece. (I’m aware that the dam sort of broke on this, in the Comments, but that’s o.k.)
(In what follows, I’ll give my reading, but please remember: it’s just my reading. If something in here speaks to you, that’s great, but if what I’ve written causes you to push back, or isn’t what you felt, that’s great too.)
As a piece of writing, the paragraph is lovely – full of specific things (those dripping palm trees, those pools on the gravel paths, that artist with his easel, who is actually not out there today, because it’s raining). It’s also full of motion and change - what we might call “oppositional conditions” - the rainy day vs. the non-rainy-day binary; those moving waves (in vs. out); the Italians coming there celebratorily, but for a sad reason (the war monument); the cars that are usually there but are “gone” today – all of this gives a feeling of activity and motion. We sometimes think of Hemingway as a stoic lister of facts, but this paragraph is full of dynamism and subjectivity – there’s a noticing presence here, not just a data-gathering robot.
The paragraph sets into motion something like, “what was once good is now bad,” or “things in two different states, one preferable to the other” (as, in another example, that waiter, looking out at the (empty) square, as if longing for customers). There’s also that interesting moment when the ongoing description of the way things usually are suddenly leaps into the present moment (at “It was raining”) and the film, so to speak, starts to run.
Story Club runs best on your support.
The short story is, by its nature (like a joke) meant to be efficient. If something is in there, we assume that it has earned its way in. It’s doing some essential work. The story is better with it than without it.
So, an expectation has been raised: we expect this opening paragraph to “speak to” or “shed light on” or “be in relation to” the rest of the story, in a way that seems non-random (i.e., poetic).
(Otherwise, Hemingway could have cut this first graf and just started the story with whatever is going to come next. The fact that he didn’t do it makes the inherent claim that the paragraph is essential. )
Now, let’s (finally!) look at the next (second) paragraph, which is:
The American wife stood at the window looking out. Outside right under their window a cat was crouched under one of the dripping green tables. The cat was trying to make herself so compact that she would not be dripped on.
Now we’re able to attribute that first paragraph to someone: this “American wife” is the one who was seeing all of that and describing it to us – we are looking out that window through her eyes. (A question for later, once we get further into the story - is that first paragraph coming from her point-of-view? Or that of an omniscient narrator? We can’t answer yet, since we don’t know her.)
In every moment as we read, we are noticing details, details that say to us, in effect: “I hope to be meaningful.” In a perfect story, every detail is telling, if only in the lightest, most associative way; every detail has been chosen (although not necessarily by the rational mind, and this choice may not even have been noticed by the writer as she made it). Each time the writer specifies something, we add it to our evolving notion of the story.
So, in the second paragraph, what do you notice? That is, what new stuff has been introduced into the fabric of the story?
(You might take a little pause here, and write a bit in your notebook, or take a walk and think about it, before I give my take on it.)
I notice, approximately: 1) she is referred to as the “American wife” and not, you know “the young woman,” or “Roberta” or “the dentist” or “Mrs. Smith.” 2) There’s a cat out there. The cat is now a component of the story and can (must) be worked with. 3) And it’s not just a cat, it’s a trapped cat, a cat trying to avoid trouble (“making herself so compact that,” etc.)
There’s something important to learn here in this paragraph.
We put details into our stories in order to increase the likelihood that the story will mean something. These details comprise the fabric of the story. The more specific, the better. (The more the story will have to work with as it tries to make itself mean something — the story of Cinderella comes to mean something because Cinderella has been specified as being poor, hard-working, and honorable.)
But “specific” here doesn’t mean, for example, the cat’s color. What makes that cat useful to the writer is that it is in a particular state (i.e., it is trapped and crouching.) If we learned that the cat was pretty, or yellow, or fat – those specifies are interesting, and they increase our ability to see the cat – but they don’t produce much meaning. (The fact that a cat happens to be yellow1 doesn’t signify.) We might say that the more specifically we have made something, the more poised it is to, then, change. There is something poetic and dynamic about the cat’s condition; something that makes it “stand in” for something else (it is “vulnerable,” it is “in need” or “in trouble.)”
So: one level of description is merely physical and inactive (“A tall man”). The next level is more active and fraught – “a tall man looking proudly down at his own new boots” gives us something…more. Something to work with. He’s a character now, somehow, in a way that he wasn’t when he was merely tall.
Here’s a concept we’ll come back to again, I expect: the idea of the reaction moment.
We might understand a story as a series of establishings (“Randy, a tall man, stood looking proudly down at his shiny new boots”) and reactions to that which has been established (“Mary frowned at Randy; she had no patience for vanity.”) I’d argue that these reaction moments are where a story does most of its meaning-making. The tall man looking proudly at his boots brings into the story the notion of pride; the reaction moment activates that notion, by showing us one of the ways in which pride may be regarded - by telling us, that is, what to make of it, by telling us what Mary thinks of it. (“Pride is no good.”) Suddenly, the story is becoming “about” pride.
But it’s interesting – any reaction she has is going to be interesting. If, instead of frowning, she begins to glow with love – well, that’s interesting too. It’s a different story from the one where she frowns, but in both stories, her reaction has narrowed the path of the story, has made it more particularly about something. In this example, we might say it has taken us further into the question of what we should make of the quality called pride.
Often, the establishing phase waits on the reaction phase to justify it.
If I say, “Tom’s face, as he sat at the end of the table, transformed into a chess board” – I’m not sure that means much. I just typed it, and it was easy. But if the next line is, “His wife, Rebecca, yawned” – well, suddenly the story has told us what it’s about – it’s about “getting used to someone” or, maybe, “love gone cold” or maybe, in this world, everybody’s face turns into a chessboard now and then. But any interest we felt after the first sentence is now compounded by the reaction shot.
So we could say that any story, even one that runs to thousands of pages, is really just a pattern of establishings and reactions. (One useful thing we can train ourselves in is simply making sure that we’ve remembered to include a reaction shot to a moment we’ve made, or at least have considered doing it, and that we’ve considered various alternative reactions).
So: the cat is out there in the rain, crouching, and the “America wife” has seen it, and now we are waiting for her to react to it.
What do you think is going to happen next? What do you hope will happen? What are you curious about? (What bowling pins are up in the air, for you?)
Note that, from a craft perspective, these questions really amount to, “If you were writing this story, what would you make happen next?” It doesn’t mean, “What are your themes?” We can (we must, when writing) think in a smaller, more local, way than that. (“What is my next sentence? What is the first phrase of my next sentence? Where is everybody standing right now?”)
Isn’t that a comfort? Theme will come once we choose the right sentences, that is, the ones that delight us (and they can delight us for reasons we don’t have to name).
So: what questions has this set-up (a woman at a window in a hotel room sees a cat in distress outside) made naturally arise in you?
Feel free to respond in the Comments. (If you’ve read the story before, it might be good sportsmanship to hold off for now.)
An exception to this “yellow doesn’t signify” generalization: if there were other yellow things in the story that somehow made a meaningful pattern - we’ll talk about this when we get to Chekhov’s amazing “Lady with Pet Dog.”