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PERVERSION AND THE WRITER IN "THE SEA CHANGE" Robert E. Fleming University of New Mexico Ernest Hemingway's "The Sea Change," first published in 1931, has been one of his least popular stories among critics. Carlos Baker accorded only half a paragraph to the story in The Writer as Artist and referred to it in Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story as a "curious story, a lesser twin to 'Hills Like White Elephants.'"1 While Philip Young made several perceptive points in his book-length study of Hemingway, among them discussions of the two literary allusions in the story, he did so primarily in footnotes, as if "The Sea Change" did not merit extensive treatment.2 But "The Sea Change" is considerably more important in the Hemingway canon than has heretofore been recognized. A coherent reading of the story requires the correct interpretation of the two literary allusions; an understanding of the interaction, even tension, between the allusions makes it clear that Phil, the male protagonist of "The Sea Change," is a writer and that his perversion is more degrading than the lesbian tendencies of his former lover. Phil wants her to come back and tell him "all about" her sexual experiences not just to satisfy his morbid curiosity but to furnish the material he needs for his writing. Hemingway is dealing with meanings of "perversion" in a way that recalls a key idea of Hawthorne: The Unpardonable Sin might consist in a want of love and reverence for the Human Soul; in consequence of which, the investigator pried into its dark depths, not with a hope or purpose of making it better, but from a cold philosophical curiosity,—content that it should be wicked in what ever kind or degree, and only desiring to study it out. Would not this, in other words, be the separation of the intellect from the heart?3 Several prevalent misreadings of "The Sea Change" arise from critics ' emphasis of the passage Phil attempts to quote from Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man: it reads 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. But where th' Extreme of Vice, was ne'er agreed. . . .4 Following Philip Young's lead, Joseph DeFalco centers his interpretation on this passage, arguing that Phil is in effect stating his willingness to embrace the vice that he has previously hated. DeFalco suggests that the relationship between Phil and the young woman "has been unrecognized vice,"5 based on her remarks to Phil: "'We're made up of all sorts of 216Notes things. You've known that. You've used it well enough.'"6 DeFalco takes this statement to mean that "the woman has appealed to [Phil] on the grounds that he too has perverse tendencies."7 However, if Phil is a writer, as suggested by other elements in the story, her comment makes much more sense: He has used "all sorts of things" in human nature to enrich his writing. But the sexual motif has found continued favor with critics. J. F. Kobler is willing to go further along DeFalco's line of reasoning to state that Hemingway is sympathetic to homosexuality in the story. The change that takes place in Phil during the course of the discussion seems to Kobler to be the result of capitulation to homosexual tendencies in himself: "There can be no question that he is moving toward a homosexual affair. He is about to embrace that which he earlier categorized as a vice. . . ."8 Yet even Kobler finds it hard to believe that his single experience with lesbianism should have unleashed homosexual tendencies in Phil. Sheldon Grebstein seems on far safer ground when he observes that the ending of the story "implies a general perversion of character, a deduction supported by the story's conclusion which hints at the man's degradation. By permitting the girl's adventure, he is more culpable than she in living it."9 That homosexuality should be viewed not as Phil's own vice but as an effective metaphor for a writer's perverse willingness...


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pp. 215-220
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