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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

From the moment “At the Bay” opens, readers are introduced to the geographical area where the story takes place and to the emotional climate that will prevail. From the merging images of earth and sea arise the major symbol of the story. Throughout the narrative, the activities of the characters will be seen against the background of the rise and fall of the tides of the ocean, and, as in “Prelude,” are in time with the movement of the sun and moon through the heavens. Life moves along a path between birth and death and is no more than the rising and setting of the sun. As the images of sea and earth merge, so life and death are unified; the manifestations of sex, male and female, merge also, so that distinctions disappear.

The opening paragraph of the story, in which sea and earth are merged, is a metaphorical statement of the mutability of time and life. In the microcosm, the members of the Burnell family react to the symbolic situation and setting with varying degrees of awareness and acceptance. In “Prelude,” the house and garden are surrounded by the dark bush, and the story moves back and forth between them. In “At the Bay,” the action moves in and out of the house to the sea and seashore. The characters continue the same concerns, seeking answers to the same questions.