By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Sea Change’ is a 1931 short story by the American writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). Like a number of Hemingway’s other short stories, ‘The Sea Change’ deals elliptically with a taboo topic – here, bisexuality – through presenting (without fully explaining the back story) a conversation between a young couple in a café.
Since Hemingway’s stories are deceptively simple in their style, with his presentation of his story’s themes being subtle and naturalistic, some analysis of the story’s themes and meaning may be useful. First, however, let’s recap the ‘plot’ of this story.
‘The Sea Change’: plot summary
The story opens in media res with a young couple, a man and a woman, talking in a café in Paris one summer day. It is clear they are arguing about something. When the man announces, ‘I’ll kill her’, we wonder what these words are in reference to.
It soon becomes apparent that the female protagonist has had an affair with another woman, and it is this other woman to whom the man is referring with those words, ‘I’ll kill her.’ He seems incapable of being able to understand how she could cheat on him with another woman. If it had been another man, that would have been different.
But the woman insists that she would never be unfaithful to him with another man. She asks the man – whose name is revealed to be Phil – whether he trusts her, and Phil laughs because she has already proved that she cannot be trusted.
As the couple talk, Hemingway intersperses their conversation with the chatter between other customers in the café and the barman who serves them. The story ends with Phil telling the woman to leave him. She does so quietly, and Phil joins the barman, whose name is James, at the bar.
As Phil looks round and observes his former girlfriend walking away, he catches sight of his reflection in the glass, and remarks to James that he is a different man – presumably because of what his girlfriend has done. But the barman doesn’t appear to understand, and remarks that Phil looks well, observing that he must have had a good summer.
‘The Sea Change’: analysis
‘The Sea Change’ does something which Hemingway also achieves in some of his other short stories: address a taboo without naming it. Here, the taboo is bisexuality, and the (inferred) affair the female protagonist has had with another woman.
We might compare this with ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, which deals with the subject of abortion without the couple in the story ever naming this outright (as with ‘The Sea Change’, their conversation takes place in a public place).
In the case of this story, Hemingway does what he so often does in his fiction, especially his very short stories: he lets his characters reveal themselves slowly and subtly – even ambiguously – through their dialogue. ‘The Sea Change’ contains a fair amount of dialogue across its five or so pages, but there are nevertheless a number of questions left dangling at the end of the story.
Does Phil feel somehow emasculated or unmanned by his girlfriend’s infidelity precisely because she went with a woman rather than another man? There’s a suggestion that he struggles to understand how his girlfriend might find it possible to be attracted to both men like himself and women who are quite different.
This appears to have sown doubt in his mind about his own masculinity or manliness. If his girlfriend can be attracted to women, does that mean she was attracted to him for his ‘womanly’ characteristics or qualities? Is he not as manly as he thought he was? Although much of this remains out of the story, present only as subtext, this is one way to interpret the looks in the glass at the end of the story: he is looking at himself in a new way, as a ‘different man’.
Not a ‘new man’, note: instead, it is ‘different’ which is repeated (characters repeating the same observation, until it takes on the force of a mantra, is another characteristic of Hemingway’s short fiction), which is much more neutral and invites either a positive or negative interpretation.
Phil’s reference to ‘vice’ is a (mangled) quotation from Alexander Pope’s poem An Essay on Man:
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
Hemingway’s protagonist misremembers the lines (substituting ‘frightful’ with ‘fearful’, and then forgetting the precise wording of the rest), but it’s a telling allusion. As his girlfriend points out, ‘vice’ is perhaps a strong word for what she has done, and his suggested replacement – ‘perversion’ – perpetuates the idea that homosexuality is somehow abnormal.
‘The Sea Change’ is thus the staging of their very different attitudes towards the woman’s homosexual infidelity. For the man, the shock is less in her having been unfaithful but in her choice of paramour: another man, Phil implies, would have been something he could process and understand, if not forgive.
It is inferred that the woman finds her dalliance with another woman less egregious than if she had been with another man. But the man considers her infidelity worse because it was with a woman. He’d have preferred it to have been with another man, it seems. But note how much Hemingway leaves out of the story: Phil gets no further than saying, ‘If it had been a man – ’, leaving us to wonder how he would have finished this sentence (presumably – though we can only presume – he would have been able to process this revelation, as we say).
In the last analysis, then, ‘The Sea Change’ is a story in which we are invited to ask what the title of the story refers to. Is it simply the change in the relationship between the man and woman, or is it the inner ‘sea change’ that her infidelity has brought about within the man? It’s almost certainly the latter. But if so, then what is the precise nature of that change: realisation that he cannot accept her bisexuality, or a slow coming-to-terms with it?
Certainly the last line, spoken by James the barman, strikes us as ironic: after the conversation and farewell we have just witnessed, he probably will not look back on this as a good summer.
A key element of many modernist short stories is the epiphany, whereby a character in a story comes to realise something: this epiphany might be considered a revelation, a mini-awakening. Indeed, it sometimes even occurs when a character beholds their own reflection in a mirror, as in some of the stories of James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield.
Phil’s glance at himself in the glass at the end of ‘The Sea Change’ suggests he has learned something about himself, but whether it is something he is happy to have learnt remains unstated by the narrator. Here, Hemingway’s technique is in keeping with that of many modernist writers (although Hemingway himself is hardly ‘modernist’ in the usual sense that the term is understood) in being so ambiguous in its significance.