I'm not sure why this story affects me so much more than anything else by Hemingway I've read. There isn't much to it—just a brief conversation that is barely any conversation at all, a passing encounter with a hotel owner and a maid, a stray cat out in the rain. And yet there is also a world of loneliness and displacement and isolation there, never explicit but bleeding between the lines so heavily that one can taste it. As always with Hemingway, the impact of the story lies in the accumulation of little details. The unnamed "American Girl" doesn't know any other guests—she and her husband are the only Americans (and presumably the only English-speakers; being abroad has taught me how isolating that is, even if one speaks the local language).

Add to that displacement the fact that she expresses great fondness for a near stranger, the elderly hotel owner, but all interactions with her young husband (are they on their honeymoon?) are decidedly cold—their marriage in a nutshell right there. There is something about that image of the "poor little kitty," out in the rain, trying to stay dry, which somehow sums up all that loneliness and near-despair, and it's more than she can handle, more than I can handle. Wanting to bring that cat in out of the rain quickly moves beyond an act of pity (and, perhaps, boredom) as that lost cat becomes a symbol of everything the American girl desperately desires.

"‘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... 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."

I've seen this outburst interpreted as an expression of American materialism, but I don't think that's it at all. She doesn't really just want silverware and candles and clothes; these are the trappings of the quiet, old-fashioned domesticity that she has done away with when she cut her hair short and went to Italy, but that now seems a haven. To wear her hair in a heavy bun the way her mother and grandmother did, to have a house of her own to rule over and something small and warm to cuddle: this is to have an established Place, a sense of belonging somewhere.

To be deprived of all this and be stuck in a strange place with a husband who doesn't hear her is bad enough; to lose the cat, who would bring some small comfort, on top of it all just seems cruelly unfair. "I want a cat. I want a cat now. If I can’t have long hair or any fun, I can have a cat."
It is beautiful that the story ends with the maid bringing in the tortoise-shell cat, before we see how either of the Americans react, because it leaves the question dangling—does having a cat actually make the sadness go away?

When I first read this story in college, during a peculiarly lonely time for me, it was like a lightning bolt through my soul. Because I GET what the American Wife is feeling. I want to go and get that kitty out of the rain and bring it inside and feel it purr when I stroke it; and somehow, it seems, that will make everything all better.