Two Americans are staying at a hotel. They know no one there. They have a room that faces onto the sea, the public garden, and the war monument. When the weather is nice, artists paint in the public garden, attracted by the way the palms grow and to the bright colors of the hotels facing the gardens and the sea.
By telling the reader that the Americans know no one at the hotel, the narrator highlights their otherness—they are strangers in a strange land. The landscape that the hotel room looks out on is beautiful. However, the narrator’s comments suggest that on the day the story is set, the weather is not in fact very nice, given that there are no artists painting in the garden. Furthermore, the presence of the war monument communicates to the reader that there has been a major conflict in this region.
The war monument is a point of interest for Italian sightseers, who come from far off to look at it. The monument is made of bronze, and on the rainy day in which the story is set, it glistens.
The war monument calls the reader’s attention to the fact that the First World War (1914-1918) has recently passed through Europe. By referring to the Italian sightseers who come to visit the monument, the narrator locates the action of the story in Italy. Furthermore, the interest that the Italians take in the monument suggests just what a momentous event the war was for them. The image of the monument glistening brightly in the rain further highlights the monument as an important aspect of the landscape.
It is a day of bad weather—overcast with rain dripping from the palm trees and standing in pools in the gravel paths. The sea advances and retreats in the rain. The square by the war monument is empty of motor cars. In a café doorway, a waiter stands alone looking out on the empty square.
The overcast, rainy weather gives a desolate aspect to the scene. The landscape—except for the lone waiter in the café doorway—is practically deserted. The stillness and bleakness of the scene implicitly recall the destruction and desolation wrought on this landscape by the war, which is referenced through the war monument.
Standing at her hotel window and looking out, the American wife takes in the rainy scene. She notices a cat under a café table, trying to shelter from the rain, and tells her husband George, who is reclining reading the paper, that she’s “going down and get that kitty.” The husband offers to do it, but she tells him she’ll go. She feels sorry for that “poor kitty” trying to keep dry. The husband returns to his paper, only offering to tell her that she shouldn’t get wet.
As she looks out on the scene, the wife’s attention is on the cat—not the war monument. This is significant because it implicitly suggests that the wife is not very interested in the war. As an American, she is removed from the conflict, unlike the Italians who have experienced the war firsthand and who come from a long way off to visit the monument. Instead, it is a small animal that catches her attention. That the wife sympathizes with the cat in its predicament is also significant, because it suggests that she identifies with the animal’s vulnerability and loneliness.
When the American wife goes downstairs, she passes the hotel-keeper’s office. As the consummate host, he rises from his seat and bows down. He’s faraway, standing at his desk at the far end of the office. He is old and very tall. The wife speaks in Italian to him, telling him that it’s raining. She likes the hotel-keeper, who responds in Italian that it is indeed very bad weather.
The hotel-keeper’s courtesy to the wife is emblematic of old-world European hospitality. The emphasis that the narrator puts on the distance between the hotel-keeper, who stands at the far end of his office, and the wife as she passes by, however, suggests that although she likes him, a certain formality and remoteness characterizes the wife’s relationship to the hotel-keeper.
As the hotel-keeper continues to stand behind his desk, the narrator communicates again to the reader that the American wife likes him, including the “deadly serious way” he receives complaints. She likes him not only because he is dignified, but also because he wants to serve her. She admires the way he feels about being a hotel-keeper, as well as his “old, heavy face and big hands.”
The American wife’s strong feelings of liking for the hotel-keeper are notable because there is a stark absence in the story of an expression of such feelings towards the American wife’s own husband, George. The narrator’s comment that the American wife likes the way the hotel-keeper is ready to serve her implicitly suggests that the American wife lacks such attention and consideration from her own husband.
The American wife opens the hotel door and looks out. It’s raining harder, and there’s a man in a cape crossing the square to the café. She needs to head right, and considers that she might keep dry by staying under the eaves. Just then an umbrella opens behind her: the maid who looks after their room has stepped out, telling her that she must not get wet. The American wife conjectures that the hotel-keeper has sent her.
The hotel-keeper’s consideration and attentiveness are dramatized here through his action of sending out the maid to follow the wife with an umbrella. While earlier in the story, the wife’s husband, George, had simply commanded his wife not to get wet, here the hotel-keeper acts to actually prevent the wife from exposure to the elements. Again, this sets up a contrast between the consideration and attentiveness of the hotel-keeper and George’s inattentiveness.
The American wife ventures out towards the café with the maid holding the umbrella over her head. When she arrives under their hotel window, however, she sees the table, but the cat has disappeared. She is disappointed. The maid asks her in Italian if she has lost something, and the American wife answers that “There was a cat.” The maid laughs, but this doesn’t alleviate the American wife’s feelings of disappointment. Speaking in English, she tells the maid that she really wanted “a kitty.” The maid’s face tightens when the wife speaks English, and she tells the wife that they must return inside, otherwise she will get wet.
The wife’s deep disappointment at not finding the cat suggests that she herself seeks something from the animal. Her disappointment contrasts with the maid’s reaction, who seems to find the American wife’s mission trivial and humorous. This perhaps suggests the gulf that exists between the Italian maid’s experience—presumably, like other Italians, she had lived through the deprivations of the First World War—and the experience of the American hotel guest, whose whimsical wants imply that she has lived a life far-removed from true deprivation. Furthermore, the difficulty in communication here, expressed through the wife’s lapsing into English, further reinforces the idea that a gulf in experience divides the two women.
The American wife and the maid go back along the gravel path and enter through the hotel door. The maid stays behind to close the umbrella. Meanwhile, the American wife passes the office again. The hotel-keeper again bows from his desk. Something feels “very small and tight” in the American wife, who is now referred to as a “girl” by the narrator. The hotel-keeper makes her feel small and at the same time very important. She has a fleeting feeling of being terribly important.
The American wife’s feelings as she passes by the hotel-keeper’s office highlight the extent to which the cat’s loss has affected her. That she feels small points to her own feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness—feelings, perhaps, that she had projected onto the cat. Her contradictory emotion of self-importance points to the confusion and upheaval she experiences as a result of the loss of the cat. It’s also significant that the narrator begins to refer to her as a “girl” here. It’s as if, as she grows more insecure and uncertain, the narrative perspective on her changes, casting her as an immature, vulnerable youngster.
The American wife continues upstairs. There, she opens the door to her room to find her husband George in the same position she had left him in: on the bed, reading. He puts down his book and asks her if she has managed to get the cat. She informs him that it is gone, and he wonders aloud where it has gone to.
George’s prostrate position on the bed suggests the contrast between his attitude towards his wife and the hotel-keeper’s. While the hotel-keeper rises from his seat on each occasion he meets the wife, George remains stretched out. His own comfort and ease seem to take precedence over his wife’s.
The American wife sits down on the bed, and tells George that she wants the cat so much, though she doesn’t quite know why. She broods over the poor kitty’s fate, stuck out in the rain. As she speaks George goes back to reading.
The wife’s preoccupation with wanting and losing the cat affirms the sense that there is something beyond the cat itself that she desires. That George returns to his reading as she speaks suggests that an alienation or distance pervades the relationship between husband and wife. George seems inattentive and unresponsive to his wife’s needs.
The American wife goes to the dressing table, where she sits examining herself with a hand glass. She looks at her profile—both left and right sides. She looks at the back of her head and neck. She asks George whether he thinks it would be a good idea for her to let her hair grow out. George looks up and studies the back of her neck, where the hair is cut close like a boy’s. He tells her he likes it how it is, but she protests that she’s tired of looking like a boy. George continues to stare at her, and reassures her that she looks “pretty darn nice.”
The wife’s action of examining herself in the mirror suggests that she is going through some process of self-reevaluation, one triggered by the loss of the cat. Her dissatisfaction with her short hair, and her desire to not look like a boy, also imply an ambivalence on her part towards her own femininity. She sports a short hairstyle that, considering the time in which the story is set, was a marker of a progressive and liberated feminine identity. And yet her hankering for long hair suggests that she desires a more conventional and traditional feminine identity. George’s response that he likes her hair the way it is is also telling, in that he seems to cast her appearance in terms of his own needs, rather than hers. What seems to matter to him is what he thinks of her hair, not what she thinks.
The wife lays down the mirror and goes to the window to look out. It’s getting dark. She says that she wants to pull her hair back tightly and smoothly, and to be able to make a big knot at the back of her head that she can feel. She wants a cat on her lap, one that purrs when she strokes her. Encouraged, perhaps, by George’s “Yeah?” she goes on to list other things she wants. She wants a table with her own silver. She wants it to be spring. She wants to brush her hair out in front of a mirror. She wants a cat. And she wants some new clothes. George doesn’t respond and seems to be exasperated by this list, telling her to shut up and find something to read. He returns to his book.
The long list of desires that the wife shares with George indicates that a deep dissatisfaction pervades her life. Her desire for a cat with which she can have close physical contact specifically implies that she yearns for close and warm connection and contact. Such connection seems to be lacking in her relationship with George. His abrupt order to her to shut up and get something to read points to his own callousness, as well as his alienation from her needs. The wife’s desires are also suggestive of a hankering for a more conventional feminine identity. Long hair and silver, as well as a need to nurture, as expressed through her desire for the cat, are all associated with conventional femininity.
The American wife continues to stare out of the window. It’s dark outside but still raining. She repeats that she wants a cat now, especially if she can’t have long hair or any fun. George, who is absorbed by his book, isn’t listening to her. The wife continues to look out, noticing that the light has come on in the square.
The wife’s return to the window, where she takes up the same posture she had held at the beginning of the story, reinforces her distance from George. Her husband has returned to his reading, and she has turned away from him towards the window—as though she is searching for possibilities for satisfaction from the outside world. Her repeated demands for a cat indicate that her feelings of dissatisfaction continue to consume her. George’s obliviousness to his wife’s words as he reads his book underscore his inability to address, or even recognize, her unhappiness.
Someone knocks on the door and George invites them to enter. The maid stands in the doorway, holding a large tortoise-shell cat in her hands. She politely states that the “padrone” (the hotel-keeper) has sent her up with a cat for the “Signora.”
The maid’s arrival with a cat—a gift from the hotel-keeper to the wife—ends the story on an ambiguous note. The reader is not given the wife’s reaction to this cat. Furthermore, it’s not certain that this is the same cat that the wife had spotted earlier from her hotel window, given that the wife referred to the cat she had seen as a “kitty,” and the cat that the maid brings up to the room is “large.” As such, the reader is left in doubt about whether the wife’s desire for a cat has been fulfilled or not. She has gotten a cat, but it’s quite likely that it is not the cat she had initially sought. The story’s ambiguous ending suggests to the reader the ways in which people’s desires, even when they are satisfied, can often be disappointing.