Ernest Hemingway's "The Sea Change" was first published in The Quarter in 1931, and again in Winner Take Nothing in 1933. Although one of Hemingway's lesser known stories, it has received critical attention for its thematic focus on bisexuality, especially in light of the posthumous publication of The Garden of Eden, which also explores its characters' sexual experimentation. Although homosexuality was a somewhat controversial subject in the early 1930s, it was not foreign to Hemingway's experience. Among his close friends, for instance, was Gertrude Stein.
"The Sea Change" effectively illustrates many of Hemingway's writing conventions. Like "Hills Like White Elephants," "The Sea Change" primarily uses dialogue as a means of conveying the major elements and conflicts of the story. At first the dialogue is nonspecific; Phil and the unnamed girl refer to their disagreement only as "it." This too is a technique used commonly by Hemingway (including in "Hills Like White Elephants"). Often, the ambiguous or seemingly innocuous "it" ultimately refers to a major thematic or moral issue. Like many of Hemingway's stories, "The Sea Change" is brief and the details are rich. Although there is not much description of the setting or characters in the text, what is included supports the story's thematic content. For instance, the brief physical description of the girl alludes to her masculinity right before Phil refers to his romantic rival as "her."
The story's title, an allusion to Ariel's song in Shakespeare's The Tempest, suggests the major transformation happening for both the girl and Phil as they argue over the girl's relationship. At first, their disagreement appears to be the generic dissolving of a romantic relationship. It is only later that the reader can decipher the specifics. Phil describes the girl's affair as a "perversion" and a "vice"—a characterization to which the girl objects. Despite this, the girl is apologetic and somewhat passive, reassuring Phil of her love. Eventually, though angry and hurt, Phil tells the girl to "Go on," and he is left behind in the bar, talking to the bartender and contemplating how much he has changed. The bartender and two additional patrons are the story's minor characters. Critics have debated the importance of these characters, some suggesting that the patrons are themselves gay. Regardless, the bartender delivers the story's closing line, ironically remarking that Phil must have had a good summer.
"The Sea Change" is an interesting and rich story, well stocked with Heminway's trademarks. Like most of his fiction, it is full of interpretative possibility.