Published in 1925, a time of liberation and new-found freedoms for many women, “Cat in the Rain” projects a clear ambivalence regarding certain changes in women’s position in society. The female protagonist herself—a short-haired, ostensibly childless wife living out of a hotel room—seems to bristle at being distanced from more stereotypical femininity, as is evidenced by her ultimate longing to embrace a more traditional woman’s role (that is, to be a caretaker, a homemaker, to be beautiful). Yet the fact that she also seems to be dismissed or infantilized by the men around her (and even by the author himself) implicitly suggests the reductive nature of restrictive notions of both masculinity and femininity. The story’s ultimate ambiguity regarding gender roles can be read both as a general reaction to era’s promises of “progressiveness” that dictated new (but ultimately equally restrictive) rules for women’s behavior, and as a likely consequence of Hemingway’s own positioning as a “macho” author writing at a time of radical transformation in the relations between the sexes.
George’s attitude towards his wife is marked by condescension, which seems to stem from a stereotypical understanding of gender. When the wife first informs her husband that she will go outside to rescue the cat from the rain, George tells her, “I’ll do it.” In offering to take on this very simple task, one which his wife is easily capable of doing herself, the husband seems to position her as weak and dependent, and he himself as able and powerful by contrast. In this way, he reinforces a traditional gender hierarchy.
Furthermore, when the wife returns upstairs after having failed to locate the cat and begins examining herself in the mirror and wondering whether she should grow her hair out, George seems concerned that she keep her appearance according to his liking. Considering her short hair, he says, “I like it the way it is,” and affirms again, “You look pretty darn nice.” While perhaps a half-hearted attempt to assuage his wife’s anxieties about her looks, these comments implicitly reveal George to be more fixated on his own appreciation of his wife’s appearance, rather than on hers; his comments—however complimentary—suggest that his wife’s appearance exists primarily for his consumption.
George’s condescension towards his wife is further reflected in his irritation over the list of desires she communicates to him. Rather than affirming her desires—for a cat, for long hair, for silver, and for spring—he tells her, “Oh, shut up and get something to read,” before turning back to his newspaper—effectively ending the discussion with a complete dismissal of his wife’s attempt to communicate her needs. While it’s arguable that the wife’s desires are in many ways mundane and petty, George’s refusal and/or inability to respond to them—particularly to her need for genuine connection, expressed through her longing for the cat—alludes to a certain masculine insensitivity and callousness.
While the hotel-keeper behaves more kindly towards the wife than her husband does, his attitude, too, is ultimately marked by a distinct sense of condescension. The wife seems to like the hotel-keeper more than her husband. When she sees him downstairs, the narrator notes how she “liked” him and “liked the way he wanted to serve her.” In responding to the way that he “wanted to serve her,” the woman seems to be adopting a more traditionally feminine posture in relation to the hotel-keeper than towards her husband, whose offers of service she had refused.
And indeed, the hotel-keeper does serve the woman. At the end of the story, he sends up the hotel maid with a cat (one, however, that is likely not the same one that the woman had sought earlier). It remains unclear if the hotel-keeper’s action is a reflection of his genuine respect for her wishes, or simply a sloppy attempt to “serve” an eccentric female guest. The fact that the cat the hotel-keeper offers may very well not be the same cat that the woman had wanted suggests that the hotel-keeper, like the husband, treats the woman in a condescending way—he thinks that any cat will do, and thus, in a way, fails to understand that her hankering for a cat has really been an expression of her longing for emotional intimacy. In fact, he arguably treats her like a child, seeking to distract her from the loss of one “toy” by offering another instead. This action suggests that he, like George, infantilizes her and her wishes.
The wife’s own attitude towards gender is complex, in that she seems to revolt against the feminine passivity ascribed to her by her husband, yet also seems to embrace a more traditionally feminine identity. By insisting on going down to get the cat herself, for instance, she acts against her husband’s presumption of her weakness and incapacity. In this way, she steps out of the role of passivity ascribed to her by George.
However, the longings that the wife expresses after failing to find the cat also suggest her desire for the stereotypically “feminine.” She wants to grow her hair out because she is tired of “looking like a boy.” She wants silver, presumably to entertain with, thus affirming her traditionally feminine identity a homemaker. She wants to nurture the cat—again expressing an impulse for caretaking often associated with femininity.
The wife’s contradictory actions and expressions suggest an ambivalence at the heart of her identity. Again, given that this story was published in 1925, this can be read as a response to specific changes in women’s position in society. The wife acts independently of her husband and wears a short hairstyle that, at the time, was reflective of the more progressive, rebellious identity that women were adopting. As such, her desire for things that are more traditionally “feminine” may suggest that she is not yet entirely comfortable with these changes, or that she ultimately finds them to be unfulfilling demands on her behavior.
The fact that the wife remains unnamed further complicates the story’s ambiguous gender dynamics. While the narrative begins by referring to the two Americans as “husband” and “wife,” this changes over the course of the story. The husband is given a name—George—while the wife never is. This is especially striking given that she is the tale’s protagonist. Her lack of naming can be taken to allude to her anonymity and invisibility as a woman; indeed, George ignore her desires and needs.
Furthermore, the tag that the narrator uses to identify the woman also changes over the course of the story. While the narrator refers to her as “wife” to begin with, as she grows increasingly insecure and unhappy after failing to find the cat the narrator begins to refer to her as “girl.” Both labels identify the woman condescendingly: either in relation to her husband or in terms of her emotional immaturity. This, in turn, raises questions about the narrative voice telling the story: the voice seems to reflect (ironically or not) a masculine bias whose attitude towards the woman is characterized either by feminine dependency or feminine emotional immaturity.
Ultimately, the treatment of gender in Hemingway’s “Cat in the Rain” is anything but simple. Ambiguity and ambivalence are reflected even in the wife’s attitude towards her own femininity. The men that surround her take on stereotypically masculine postures in relation to her, either by dismissing her desires, or by infantilizing her even in their attempts to appease her. “Cat in the Rain’s” complicated depiction of gender is, of course, a reflection of the time in which the story is set—when gender roles were being fiercely contested both by women and men, and when attitudes towards gender were very much in flux. Furthermore, Hemingway’s well-known tendency to idealize masculinity may well be a reason why the story, while striving to engage meaningfully with the predicament of its female protagonist, raises more questions than it answers.
Gender Roles and Femininity ThemeTracker
Gender Roles and Femininity Quotes in Cat in the Rain
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.
“I’m going down and get that kitty,” the American wife said… “The poor kitty out trying to keep dry under a table.”
The wife liked [the hotel-keeper]. She liked the deadly serious way he received any complaints. She liked his dignity. She liked the way he wanted to serve her.
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.
“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.”
“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 from of a mirror and I want a kitty and I want some new clothes.”
“Oh, shut up and get something to read,” George said.
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.”