Writing his iconic novel A Farewell to Arms in the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway famously tried out forty-seven different endings. He considered the so-called nada ending and the live-baby ending, the spiritual closer and the romantic finale. Ultimately, he settled on terse tragedy. After killing off protagonist Frederic Henry’s lover Catherine and their newborn son in childbirth, Hemingway completed the circle of calamity with this final sentence: “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”
Most everyone agrees it’s perfect. A big part of what makes it so is the rain.
Rain sets the mood in A Farewell to Arms from the very first chapter, a symbol of foreboding and fate, doom and death. “I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see myself dead in it,” Catherine tells Frederic during their idyllic time in Milan. “And sometimes I see you dead in it.”
Hemingway tried endings with the sun streaming through an open window and the sun on the trees, but many more in the rain. As the novel’s final word, rain stands in for the tears of a man unable to express his mourning. Just right for the war-toughened Frederic – and the war-toughened writer, too.
Symbolizing death and decay but also life and growth; the ideal setting for romance or a character’s worst day, rain is one of literature’s great workhorses. Besides atmospherics and metaphor, rain can step in as a plot device, a cleanser of character – or a muddier of one. “It’s never just rain,” Thomas C. Foster, the common man’s literature professor, likes to say.
Rain drives plot by forcing people together, sometimes cozily, sometimes uncomfortably. A dramatic rain storm plays matchmaker in Frank Capra’s 1934 film It Happened One Night, forcing Ellie and Peter off the road to spend the night together at Duke’s Auto Camp. Rain is a well-known impresario in Thomas Hardy’s 1883 short story “The Three Strangers.” Three mysterious men, one after the other, ask to join a party at a shepherd’s cottage to take shelter from a rainstorm that “smote walls, slopes, and hedges” and blew little birds’ tails “inside-out like umbrellas.” They turn out to be an escaped condemned man, a hangman, and the escapee’s brother. After the strangers manage to give everyone at the party the creeps and two of them leave, the hangman and a constable figure out they’ve let an escapee slip by and the party gives chase, only to seize the wrong man—the brother. No one hangs in the morning. And rain has held the story together for more than a century—sealing the plot, lending a mysterious atmosphere, and symbolically, for the deeply religious Hardy, putting hangman and condemned man on equal footing: rain falls upon the just and the unjust.
Rain is also good at cleansing characters of their faults. The American writer Edward Lewis Wallant, compared with Bellow and Roth before he died in his thirties, does it in his novel The Pawnbroker, foreshadowing a troubled young character’s redemption with a walk in a storm: “The fiery exultation of evil drained out of him then, and he walked home, all hunched over, nailed heavily to the earth by the torrential downpour.”
The counterpoint to rain as cleanser is when it coats you in mud. In Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison has poor jilted Hagar spend her mother and grandmother’s last two hundred dollars on a shopping spree to win her lover Milkman back. To transform herself into the sort of woman (a lighter/whiter ideal) he wants, she splurges on bra and panties, garter belt, nylon slips, heels, a suit, blouse, Youth Blend crème, jungle-red lipstick. A manic walk home in a rainstorm rips her hose, soils her white suit, lumps her face powder, streaks her rouge, and sends her hair into “wet, wild shoals.” She dies of a fever not long after. The sight of herself sullied and bedraggled filled her eyes “with water warmer and much older than the rain.”
From the atmospherics of grunge in Seattle to the gloomy tales Charles Dickens conjured in the stormiest years of London history, rain frequently inspires the writing, itself. Seattle-based Timothy Egan, who wrote a lyrical travelogue of the Pacific Northwest called The Good Rain, once did his own, informal study of book authors in his city to figure out if they accomplished their best work in the murk of the dark months. “Creativity needs a season of despair,” he wrote. “At the calendar’s gloaming, while the landscape is inert, and all is dark, sluggish, bleak and cold, writers and cooks and artists and tinkerers of all sorts are at their most productive.”
As he tracked down Seattle’s writers at home and in the latte shops, Egan’s theory panned out. The authors he interviewed felt “an overpowering impulse to write” in the wintery days of gloom and scant sunlight. Seattle transplant Jennie Shortridge said she took seven years to finish her first novel in Denver, with three hundred days of annual sunshine. “When I moved to the Northwest, I wrote the next novel in fifteen months, and subsequent books every two years,” she told Egan. “The dark and chill keeps me at my desk.”
Literary inspiration turns on the type of rain, says Thomas Hallock, a professor of literature in Florida, where the sunshine-to-rain ratio makes it notoriously hard for writers to stay at their desks. While Seattle or London set a misty mood, “big storms are a whole different story,” Hallock says, the sort to inspire the wreckage in Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. The title was inspired by a 1928 hurricane that sent South Florida’s Lake Okeechobee bursting through and over its earthen dike, killing 2,500 people, most of them poor black laborers who drowned in the agricultural fields south of the lake.
Hurston had her storm outrage and Hemingway his. He wrote his essay “Who Murdered the Vets?” in response to the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 that ravaged the Florida Keys and killed some five hundred WPA workers, half of them World War I veterans sent to build a highway across the low-lying islands during hurricane season.
If tropical weather inspires dramatic bursts at the keyboard, steadier drizzles explain Egan’s consistently creative Seattle—and perhaps why Iceland produces more authors and books per capita than anywhere else in the world. It is said that one in ten Icelanders will publish a book. Clouds cover the capital city, Reykjavik, 90 percent of the time. The probability of rain (usually moderate showers or drizzles) rarely falls below 70 percent. The cozy national pastime of writing and reading -- you can buy books at the gas stations -- dates to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when unknown authors put the famous Icelandic sagas to paper during an otherwise dreary, broke, and isolated time in the country’s history.
What the Irish call soft days helped build the canon on their well-watered island, where contributions to literature far eclipse the nation’s relative size. Rain and its mordant shades gave James Joyce a gripping suspense. In Dubliners, his boy narrator hears rain “impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds.” In his four-part “Gifts of Rain,” it gave Seamus Heaney layers of antediluvian clay to search for a lost home, lost past, lost language, and lost way of life. Heaney loved to read his poem of water wordplay aloud. Critics called it some of his best civil war writing.
Rain, gray skies, and lightning are constants in the work of Samuel Beckett, who made it a habit to let just a tiny gleam of light into his rainy landscapes, his literary biographers note.
In his film Radio Days, a tribute to the glory days of radio and the Rockaways in the early 1940s, Woody Allen shows off his old beachside neighborhood on the dreariest day possible, a day of rain-sullen sky and sea, icy wind, and furious waves pummeling shore. “Forgive me if I tend to romanticize the past,” Allen narrates. “I mean, it wasn’t always as stormy and rain-swept as this. But I remember it that way . . . because that was it at its most beautiful.”
The audience always laughs. And this Allen doesn’t understand, he says in his book Woody Allen on Woody Allen: “I was serious. To me, it’s beautiful. I’m always filming exteriors when it’s dreary out. If you look at all my films over the years, you’ll find it’s never sunny, it’s always gray. You would think that it rained in New York like London. That it’s always grey and bleak in New York. I love the idea of rain. I just think it’s so beautiful.”
In film, rain adds stylistic pizzazz to its literary metaphor: tears, soul-cleanser, foreshadower of doom, equalizer. The last was a favorite of the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who seemed to conjure rain in every movie, including Seven Samurai’s epic closing battle. The Italian-born American director Frank Capra loved rain for the sensual power it could bring his films, including It Happened One Night and It’s a Wonderful Life. Rain, Capra once said, “is for me an aphrodisiac.”
When Allen wants rain and good weather foils it, he covers the set with rainmaking machines. Movie rainmakers look like the hulking linear crop irrigators that crawl along corn fields in the Midwest—but hoisted high into the air on a crane. For lower-budget filmmakers, special effects companies also rent smaller rain towers; rain wands that can be hand-held over actors for close-ups; rain bars that can attach to a car roof; dump tanks that can pour 850 gallons of water on an unlucky actor’s head; or a rain window that, when attached to a hose, creates the lonely specter of rain streaming down a glass pane.
Filming with rain machines is an order of magnitude more complicated than other outdoor scenes. The machines add thousands of dollars a day to production costs. Their generators grind loudly, easily drowning out the actors and adding considerable editing work on the back end. And for every take, actors have to blow-dry their hair, don a new set of clothes, and steel themselves for the next deluge. The final, rain-kiss scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s required eight takes and two dressing rooms for star Audrey Hepburn, “Wet Hepburn” and “Dry Hepburn.”
Still, Allen says he regrets the times he’s let producers talk him out of the aggravation. When it rains: “People are confined to their households. They seek shelter. They succor inside their houses. They run from the outside to the inside to protect themselves. They go inward and move inward.”
The same creator of moodiness and introspection in Allen's films brings romance and joy in others. Tap dancing in puddles on a city sidewalk in the most recognizable rain scene of all time, a buoyant and giddy Gene Kelly mocks the claustrophobic storms of a Woody Allen film in the 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain.
Singin’ to the rain as much as in it, stretching his arms to embrace it, removing his hat to lift his face to it, Kelly seems equally in love with rain as with his ingénue, played by Debbie Reynolds. The film celebrates rain as playful and uplifting, its singularity and suddenness much more romantic than the sun.
A young Irish filmmaker named Claire Dix appreciates the rain as joyfully in her short ode to Ireland and rain, Downpour. The three-minute film opens with a bride putting on her wedding dress as rain streams down the windows outside. While her mother frets about the rain on the telephone in the background, the bride is happy and serene remembering all the rainy times that have defined her romance with the man she is about to marry: their meeting at a bus stop during a deluge, swimming in the rain at the beach, camping in the rain, and making love with the rain drumming outside.
Dix grew up in West Cork on Ireland’s southwest coast, where gale-force winds and thundery downpours are as much part of the landscape as the jagged green coastline. She hit upon the idea for Downpour while brainstorming a funding project offered by the Irish Film Board. Entrants had to come up with a short film with the theme “Ireland, I Love You.” “Rain makes Ireland the country it is, and Downpour is meant to celebrate our love-hate relationship with rain,” Dix told me. “I thought to myself, ‘What day would be universally recognized as being ruined by rain?’ The wedding day clicked.”
Downpour racked up numerous awards, from the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild prize for best short script to the Directors Choice Short Film Award at the Irish Film Festival in Boston. The accolades floored Dix, who felt a bit sheepish setting a romance in the rain. She knew she risked coming across like a giant Irish cliché.
Rain is as romantic as roses, and as easily overdone, like in the famously torrential scene at the end of Four Weddings and a Funeral. As rain pelts her eyes, a sopping Andie MacDowell tells Hugh Grant: “Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed.” The unconvincing line is regularly voted one of the worst movie lines of all time. The kiss that follows, however, is among the popular rain kisses of film history, up there with Kelly and Reynolds’s in Singin’ in the Rain; Hepburn and George Peppard’s at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s; and many modern twists on the soaked smooch, upside down between Kristen Dunst and Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man or preceding disaster with John Hannah and Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors. (Naturally following all that making out is the rain sex scene, never as memorable as Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger’s in the vaporous 9½ Weeks.)
When Dix herself married in 2010, she and her fiancé took a chance on an outdoor wedding. They held it on Ireland’s Sheepshead peninsula overlooking the sea. It was an unusually sunny day in West Cork. “It was amazingly sunny. The type of day we never have here,” she says. “You couldn’t write a screenplay in weather like that.”
Rain is such a compelling literary and cinematic trope that it’s easily and often overdeployed, as many critics have mirthfully pointed out. Rain can be avant-garde in a Beckett play and embarrassingly melodramatic in a romance novel—or when the rain machine gushes a bit too obviously in film.
In 1713, the satirist Alexander Pope poked fun at literary atmospherics with a sardonic recipe book for aspiring poets hungering to write an epic. To conjure a tempest, he advised: “take Eurus, Zephr, Auster, and Boreas, and cast them together in one verse. Add to those of rain, lightning, and of thunder (the loudest you can).” Finally: “Mix your clouds and billows well together until they foam, and thicken your description here and there with a quicksand. Brew your tempest well in your head before you set it a blowing.”
The Victorian writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton didn’t pick up on the irony. He composed several of the most enduring phrases in western culture, including “The pen is mightier than the sword” and “the almighty dollar.” But the seven words he chose to open his 1830 novel Paul Clifford—“It was a dark and stormy night”—earned him literary immortality for bad writing. Charles Schulz’s Snoopy may have done the most to solidify Bulwer-Lytton’s reputation, tapping out the line over and over again on his dog-house typewriter.
The incipit is only part of the sentence, which goes on to read, “the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
American humorist Mark Twain opens his 1894 novel The American Claimant by announcing to his readers, “No weather will be found in this book. . . . Many a reader who wanted to read a tale through was not able to do it because of delays on account of the weather.”
Twain refers readers to an absurd appendix where they can pick and choose from a list of purple weather descriptions: “Wild piles of dark and coppery clouds, in which a fierce and rayless glow was laboring, gigantically overhung the grotesque and huddled vista of dwarf houses, while in the distance, sheeting high over the low, misty confusion of gables and chimneys, spread a pall of dead, leprous blue, suffused with blotches of dull, glistening yellow, and with black plague-spots of vapor floating and faint lightnings crinkling on its surface.”
Just as rain and other atmospherics have much to tell us about literature, the literature of the times has much to tell us about climate. These days, the story of climate change – once confined to sci-fi novels like J.G. Ballard’s murkily brilliant The Drowned World, about a future London covered by rising seas – is making its way into popular novels. Endless rains punctuate a changed world in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.
Ceaseless rains likewise soaked stories during the Little Ice Age, five hundred years of extreme cold and storms that lasted until about 1860. We can hardly imagine the miserable conditions, though Dickens left a most vivid picture. The Thames froze regularly and merchants set up “frost fair” carnivals on the ice. Snowy London winters were common then but no longer; Dickens’s work shaped the cultural nostalgia for an old-fashioned white Christmas.
Persistent rain gives the sense of desolation and decay in virtually all the works of Dickens, falling through a broken roof or “slowly and doggedly down” on Pickwick, “as if it had not even the spirit to pour.” Rain is a sure mourner at a Dickens funeral. It is a protagonist in Bleak House and a constant warning in Hard Times, seeming to caution the unhappily married Louisa against adultery when James Harthouse asks where they are to meet. Louisa was sure “there was another listener among the trees. It was only rain, beginning to fall fast, in heavy drops.”
Another English classic for which we can thank the Little Ice Age is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. She wrote it during a stretch of freezing rain while vacationing with her husband, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron near Geneva in the summer of 1816. The eruption of Mount Tambora the year before dimmed the sun and brought what’s known as “the year without a summer.” It was the coldest summer ever recorded in Europe. Shelley and her poet companions had to stay holed up in their villa, huddled over a constantly burning fire. Lord Byron suggested they all write a ghost story. Frankenstein was hers.
For every writer who conjures rain “dismally against the panes” like Shelley or “cold, unending, heavy, and accursed,” like Dante in his third circle of hell, there is another who finds beauty in rain’s silver guise and wonder in its service to nature. Such was the outlook of the English novelist Walter Raymond, who is credited with the metaphor “right as rain.” The phrase first appears in Raymond’s Love and Quiet Life, published in 1894. Etymologists surmise it took hold for reasons of alliteration and not logic. The previous iterations: right as a ram’s horn, in the fourteenth century; right as a line, in the fifteenth; right as my leg, in the seventeenth; and Dickens’s right as a trivet simply weren’t as catchy.
Raymond wrote in an old, thatched-roof cottage in a village called Withypool on the wet southwest coast of England, now preserved as part of Exmoor National Park. During breaks he would take long walks along the moorlands and the river Barle. He wrote exquisitely of rain in his Book of Simple Delights. The Earth, and he, were grateful when rain would fill “the whole atmosphere with a healthy freshness, that the mingling scent of all the flowers can never cover or excel.”
I like to think the etymologists are wrong—that the saying “right as rain” made perfect sense to Walter Raymond, and makes perfect sense today. Count him among the artists who simply loved rain. He thought it was just right.
Reprinted from "Rain: A Natural and Cultural History." Copyright © 2015 by Cynthia Barnett. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Reprinted with permission of the publisher and author. All rights reserved.