“Cat in the Rain” depicts an American couple on holiday in Italy shortly after the First World War. In doing so, the story inherently foregrounds issues around tourism, difference, and foreign identity. The American wife’s longings—which include having the cat as a pet—become mundane when played out against the backdrop of the conflict that had recently traumatized Europe. Implicitly contrasting the wife’s dissatisfactions with the tragedy of war of which she hardly seems aware, “Cat in the Rain” highlights the innocence, and privilege, of the American experience.
Through his landscape and setting description, Hemingway highlights the First World War as a backdrop to the story. In the opening paragraph, the narrator tells the reader that the room occupied by the American woman and her husband, George, faces out onto a “public garden and the war monument.” The narrator goes on to further state that the monument “was made of bronze and glistened in the rain.” In highlighting the monument, these details immediately call the reader’s attention to the fact of the recent war, which broke out in Europe in 1914; American troops did not join until 1917, two-and-a-half years after the conflict’s start. At the time of the story’s publication in 1925, the First World War was the largest and most violent conflict ever witnessed in history.
The description of a desolate, wet landscape also implicitly calls attention to the destruction wreaked by the war. The public garden is deserted; there are no cars on the square by the war monument. The vast expanse of the sea—which the American woman can see from her hotel window—also gives the impression of desolation; there is no one on the beach, only the sea breaking “in a long line in the rain.” This image of a deserted, bleak landscape echoes the fact that the war had only recently wreaked havoc on this environment in which the couple now comfortably visits. The emptiness also recalls the great death toll of the war, which literally led to a significant depletion of the European population.
While the woman looks out on this landscape marked by war, she seems completely unaware, or uninterested, in the conflict itself. The narrator tells the reader that “Italians came from a long way off to look up at the war monument.” This suggests the importance that the war holds for the Italians, who after all experienced it firsthand and lived through it. The woman’s attention, on the other hand, seems not to be caught by the monument, but rather by a wet cat sheltering under a café table. By setting up a contrast between the Italians’ interest in the war monument and the woman’s interest in the cat, Hemingway implicitly reflects the main character’s obliviousness to the toll of the war on this community. This obliviousness is significant, because it alludes more broadly to the lack of consciousness among many Americans about the destruction caused by the war, having not lived through or experienced the conflict themselves.
Furthermore, the positioning of the woman and her husband as tourists in this war-riven landscape further reinforces the sense that they are “foreign” in Italy, not only as Americans, but also as a result of the innocence of their experience. The narrator states that the couple are the “only two Americans stopping at the hotel,” and that they “did not know any of the people they passed on the stairs on their way to and from their room.” By highlighting their estrangement from those around them, the narrator points to a gulf between the couple and the Europeans who surround them.
This gap is further reinforced in the differences in language that the story highlights. The American woman speaks some Italian, but clearly her grasp of the language is weak—she lapses into English when speaking to the maid who accompanies her outside. By including Italian dialogue in the story, Hemingway calls the English reader’s attention to difference: the reader is forced to read words that he or she most likely does not comprehend. In this way, the story creates a gap—or a gulf—on the page. This gulf can be taken to allude to the gap in experience between the Americans who can enjoy the landscape as “tourists,” and the Europeans who have experienced its destruction.
Within this context, the American wife’s mundane desires and longings seem petty to those around her. When the hotel maid who accompanies her outside discovers that she is looking for a cat, she laughs. While the rescue of the cat seems very important to the American woman, to the Italian maid it is so trivial as to be funny. Given the backdrop of the war, all of the American woman’s longings and desires—not only for the cat, but to grow her hair out, for new silver, and for spring—seem trivial. They allude to her privileged obliviousness as a person who has not suffered the true deprivations of war.
Hemingway’s story thus highlights aspects of tourism and the foreign in such a way as to draw a contrast between the Americans at the center of the story and the landscape and people that surround them. By framing the story’s action in the context of the First World War, “Cat in the Rain” underscores the naïve—and privileged—innocence of the American tourists visiting Italy, whose mundane desires and longings seem to take no account of the experience of cataclysmic destruction and desolation that marks the foreign environment through which they move.
Tourism and War ThemeTracker
Tourism and War Quotes in Cat in the Rain
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.
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 motor cars were gone from the square by the war monument.
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.
“Ha perduto qualche cosa, Signora?”
“There was a cat,” said the American girl.
“Sì, 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.
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.
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.”