In Which We Finish It, Finally, Sort Of
"Cat in the Rain," Part Six
Happy New Year! May 2022 be great for you – full of growth and joy and a general feeling of leaving behind whatever has impeded you or bummed you out in 2021.
Today, as my New Year’s gift to you, we’re going to (finally) finish up “Cat in the Rain.”
And thanks again for staying with this admittedly odd exercise and for all of your intense and generous commentary.
Here is the section we read last time, for review:
“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.
Some things I notice:
She is “she” for most of this section. After he puts her in her place (“Oh, shut up and get something to read,”) she becomes “his wife.” And stays “his wife.”
I don’t know what to make of it, exactly, but I notice it - this changing-identifier thing is still in play.
George’s main stance is indifference. Here, he puts the book down when she comes in. But then we find out that he is “resting his eyes from reading” (our notion that he is interested in what she has to say gets complicated there – he has mixed motives). I always hear that phrase “Wonder where it went to,” as...a placeholder. He’s absent, not interested; he’s putting her off. Then she starts to get passionate and to really tell him, and us, what’s bothering her (why she went out to get that cat). I lean in a bit at the line, “I don’t know why I wanted it so much.” She is asking exactly what we’ve been wondering (Why do you want it so much?”). And then I lean in again at “It isn’t any fun to be a poor kitty out in the rain.” This causes, or completes, an identification I think we’ve been trying to make all along: the wife = the kitty. If so, in what way is she “out in the rain?”
Well, we’re about to find out, we hope.
After she says, essentially, “I am that cat in the rain and I don’t like it,” George responds to this burst of honesty (which I always find touching – suddenly I find myself on her side again) by going back to his reading (not offering her a word of consolation or comfort).
She goes to the mirror and we find out that her hair has been cut short, and then we find out, or infer, that this is per his wishes. He likes it “the way that it is,” i.e., “clipped close like a boy’s.” But she’s tired of it. He dismisses this with “You look pretty darn nice,” which is equal to, “I like it and that’s what really matters.”
So, she is rebuffed.
She regroups at the window and then conflates two ideas: she wants to have long hair again and wants to have a kitty to stroke. I hear this as, “I want to want what I want and I want to get what I want. I really do. Please.”
George is again, still, indifferent. “Yeah?” he says from the bed, the big dope. Although, on the other hand, I feel simultaneously, why is she being so dramatic? What hangs in the air, then, is this moment of missed possible communication between them.
Note the way that the tension is quietly rising. She keeps asking for something, in increasingly specific ways, and he keeps ignoring her.
And now she expands upon her request, in that lovely graf that begins “And I want to eat at a table with my own silver…”
After which she is told to shut up and, in a sense, the air goes out of the balloon that is her rage. (Or that rage goes underground, to bide its time, waiting, as these things tend to do, for another time and place.)
There’s something powerful going on here and I’m not sure I can quite do it justice. But I’ll try. And let’s recall that articulating all of what’s happening is part, but the lesser part, of what we’re doing here. Mainly, we want to be watching and noticing. The articulation of that watching/noticing is important, and fun, but, to me, is somehow secondary to a story’s real reason for existing.
On one track, we’ve been feeling that this is the story of a spoiled, entitled American girl, staying in a nice hotel in Italy, either on vacation or not needing to work. She causes the maid to have to go out in the rain, in service of her dumb quest; she feels superior to the padrone, and likes that feeling, and so on.
So, we’re against her.
On a second track, though, our hearts go out to her. Poor kid: her husband dominates and then ignores her; he is, apparently, in charge of her appearance; she’s bored and he won’t listen to her.
So, she is a rich character: we can’t feel just one way about her. Although we are inclined to feel one way (“I can’t stand rich, entitled whiners”) the story runs around and shows us another side of her, which makes us feel differently (“I can’t stand men who ignore the legitimate needs of their partners”) and a third way (“I can’t stand whiny people, like this woman, who are always calling attention to themselves”) and a fourth way (“Well, that husband isn’t all bad; he’s checked out, but at least somewhat patient and he does try to tell her she’s beautiful, and she is being sort of whiny...”) and maybe even a fifth (“Ugh, these entitled people, who don’t know how lucky they are.”)
Which view is right? None of them, or all of them, at once. As discussed in the last post, that’s one wonderful thing literature does – it confuses us right out of our lazy, judging stance, by way of energetic ambiguity. (We catch a glimpse of the way our mind is always working with/on other people.) It reminds us that things – things out here, in the real world – are always many ways at once. We can’t live there, in that stance – we feel a constant need to decide, opine, be sure (and there are good, Darwinian reasons for this) but, when we decide/opine/be sure too soon, we are ignoring certain other aspects of the thing – that is, we are choosing, for pragmatic reasons, to view things in a partial and deluded way.
Fiction is lovely because it reminds us of this and lets us (briefly) reside in a more truthful land, where things are rich in contradiction and, not only do we not mind it, we like it. We get a glimpse of who we might be if we decided/opined/were sure less often, or a little later in the game.
Now, as I asked in the last post: might we end the story there, at “His wife looked out of the window where the light had come on in the square.” (?)
Well…maybe. It’s not bad. She’s back at the window where she was at the beginning of the story. That’s nice symmetry. It’s dark now and the lights have come on. We feel all the contradictions mentioned above sort of resonating in our mind, and…The End.
But Hemingway’s not done.
In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, I raised this idea: as long as a story can keep meaningfully escalating, it should keep going. Conversely, when no more escalation is possible, the story should be over. (It’s a little extreme, but useful as a discussion-starter.)
Here, by going on (for another four, short, paragraphs, as you’ll see in a second) Hemingway is tacitly saying, “But wait, there’s more – I sense some bowling pins still up there.”
Let’s see what he does:
Someone knocked at the door.
“Avanti,” George said. He looked up from his book.
In the doorway stood the maid. She held a big tortoise-shell cat pressed tight against her and swung down against her body.
“Excuse me,” she said, “the padrone asked me to bring this for the Signora.”
So…let’s discuss, in the comments, why this is a better ending than the truncated version I suggested above. What else does it give us? And let’s remember: this stuff is hard to discuss. When writing is good, it defies reduction; as soon as we start discussing, we begin reducing. But that’s o.k., as long as we remember that, if something is beautiful, our attempts to say why it is beautiful will always be a mere approximation – as we Buddhists say in a different context, it will just be “a finger pointing at the moon.”
But, for fun, let’s try.