Hemingway's `the Sea Change': What Close Reading and Evolutionary Psychology Reveal. (Articles)

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A close reading of Hemingway's "The Sea Change," designed to demonstrate (1) that the overall arc of the piece involves Phil's gradually coming to terms with the changed nature of his relationship with his lover; (2) that the changes Hemingway made as he moved from drafts to the story's published form are always designed to focus the issue at hand more sharply; (3) that Hemingway uses repetition to highlight aspects of characterization and employs pauses to control the story's movement and architecture, often providing counterpoint; (4) that the irony pervading the work underscores Phil's bitterness; and (5) that Hemingway's portrayal of Phil's jealousy captures his feelings with psychological realism.

IN A WIDE-RANGING BUT RATHER PETULANT LETTER of 16 November 1933 to Maxwell Perkins, complaining about the response of various critics to his short fiction, Hemingway listed "The Sea Change" and several other stories as "invent[ed] completely." They were not, as one commentator had charged, merely a reporter's transcription of actual events like some of his other works. "The point is" he went on, "I want them all to sound as though they really happened. Then when I succeed those poor dumb pricks say they are all just skillful reporting" (SL 400). Over twenty-five years later, in 1959, he gave a different account of the story's genesis in "The Art of the Short Story," a preface for what was to be a student edition of his short works: "In ... `The Sea Change, everything is left out. I had seen the couple in the Bar Basque in St. Jean de Luz and I knew the story too too well, which is the squared root of well, and use any well you like except mine. So I left the story out. But it was all there. It is not visible but it is there" (Flora, Ernest Hemingway 131). (1) When The Garden of Eden was published in 1986 with its obvious similarities to the earlier story and as more biographical information about Hemingway became available, his comment about knowing the situation "too too well" should perhaps have led to a much fuller analysis of "The Sea Change." (2) Yet three years later Susan F. Beegel included an essay on the story in Hemingway's Neglected Short Fiction, suggesting the paucity of detailed attention to the work. Since that time, lengthy discussion of the piece has been slight. (3) Hence a new look may be useful.

What I hope to show here with a close reading of the story is (1) that the overall arc of the piece involves Phil's gradually coming to terms with the changed nature of his relationship with his lover; (2) that the changes Hemingway made as he moved from drafts to the story's published form are always designed to focus the issue at hand more sharply; (3) that Hemingway uses repetition to highlight aspects of characterization and employs pauses to control the story's movement and architecture, often providing counterpoint; (4) that the irony pervading the work underscores Phil's bitterness; and (5) that Hemingway's portrayal of Phil's jealousy captures his feelings with psychological realism. On this last point, recent work by psychologists and sociologists helps underline Hemingway's insightful reading of human nature. The methodology in this essay is to walk through the story almost line by line to see what such close attention can reveal, always keeping in mind what others have said about the story. What ultimately emerges is a renewed respect for Hemingway's remarkable artistry.

As Philip Young was first to remind us, the story's title comes from Ariel's song in The Tempest (178n): (4)

   Full fathom five thy father lies.
   Of his bones are coral made;
   Those are pearls that were his eyes;
   Nothing of him that doth fade
   But doth suffer a sea-change
   Into something rich and strange.
   (1.2.400-405)

Most readers believe the "sea change" applies to Phil, especially given his comments at the story's end, after he sends his lover off for a lesbian affair. …