Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543
Sergius O’Shaugnessy has tried to live entirely by his own lights, to establish the time of his time. Sergius is a sexual adventurer, a man of action asserting his manhood. He has even established a bullfighting school in Greenwich Village. He is a loner, living on the fringes of society, refusing to conform, and behaving like an artist, which means abiding by his own code and creativity.
Sergius has come by his identity the hard way. He is an orphan who grew up in a Catholic orphanage. To make himself, he has had to jettison not only the teachings of traditional religion but also allegiance to institutions of any kind. He lives in the moment, free of guilt (he claims) and any emotional baggage. His life is only as stable as his own stamina; his truths are the product of experience. He recognizes no authorities or limitations, except the ones he imposes on himself.
Sergius’s conception of himself is challenged by Denise Gondelman. She is bright, Jewish, and full of the psychiatric jargon that puts off the hipster, who sees her as the typical intellectual Jew. She uses words to type people and to assert her superiority. She is obviously dissatisfied with her conventional boyfriend, and she is attracted to the nonconformist, belligerent Sergius. They become enmeshed in a love-hate affair.
Denise confesses that she has never had an orgasm. She doubts that Sergius would find her a good lover, but he takes her admission of inadequacy as a spur to his male ego and sets out to rectify her sex life by conducting a war against her frigidity. His masculine power-grabbing alienates her, yet like him, she craves intense experience, and she believes that through him she will finally achieve a sexual climax.
At first Sergius disappoints her. His own climax comes too soon for her, and she angrily accuses him of selfishness. Then they struggle in another round of sexual intercourse, each trying to pound into the other his or her own sexual rhythm. Finally, Sergius seems to triumph. Denise has an orgasm—on his terms, he believes.
Denise does reach a sexual epiphany with Sergius, but she rejects him because of his predatory code. He acts in bed like a bullfighter; his violence excites and repels her. When Sergius claims credit for satisfying Denise sexually, she retorts that he has not changed her in any fundamental way. She implies that she has gotten just as much as she wanted from him, but she has not actually put herself in his power. Sergius admits the truth of her retort when he compares the look in her eyes to that of the bullfighter ready for the kill. She has used him at least as much as he has used her. Denise’s parting shot is to quote her psychiatrist, who has told her that Sergius’s whole life is a lie, that he has done nothing but run away from his own homosexuality.
Sergius does not defend himself against her allegation. He simply calls it her truth. Her words define her psychological state, not necessarily what he thinks of himself or what their relationship has meant to him. He ends the story admitting that she has been a worthy opponent.