Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 516

How seriously can Sergius O’Shaugnessy be taken? Bearing a name reminiscent of a mythic Irish hero, he has come out of nowhere, so to speak, to make an impression on his times. Still, is establishing a bullfighting school in Greenwich Village really such a heroic thing to do, or is it ridiculous? Denise Gondelman’s words imply there is something absurd in Sergius parading himself as a man of action defying death. He has killed bulls in Spain, but what bulls are there to kill in New York City? His real adversary is a woman and, Denise implies, himself. His tough talk and violent streak mask an uncertain identity. He is not the master of reality but its fool. He is not in control of his time but the servant of her time.

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The feminine pronoun in the story’s title is a profound rewriting of the romantic, heroic quest story. Denise, in some ways, displaces Sergius as the story’s hero. She refuses to submit to his code of male superiority, even though he brags that she cannot experience sexual satisfaction without him. Her strength comes from knowing that her orgasm has been possible because she has fought Sergius in bed, not because she has given in to him. In effect, she expresses contempt for him as a sexual object even as he supposed she was his instrument.

Denise’s truth does not displace Sergius’s so much as it shows his limitations. Her comment that he has denied his homosexuality is simplistic, and is made more so because she is quoting her psychiatrist who has not even met Sergius. Nothing revealed about Sergius makes the charge of homosexuality seem relevant to his attitudes. Denise lives in the world of second-hand diagnoses. She has made real contact with Sergius, yet she resorts to jargon rather than confronting him in all of his individuality. She denies the mutuality they have shared, however briefly.

In this sense, the title is ironic and belittling of Denise. She has had the time of her time and emerged triumphant in her own mind, but where else? She has walked out on Sergius, denying him the role of conquering hero, but she also has turned him into a cliché: the macho man hiding his vulnerable side. She is, in a way, a parody of Sergius, declaring a hollow victory, slaying a bull where there are no bulls to be slain. She does not admit or wrestle with her contradictory desires to be totally in control and to abandon herself to a moment of complete ecstasy, a moment that would take her beyond her categorical view of reality. Both Denise and Sergius have been the bull and the bullfighter; their relationship is about how they constantly shift between their passive and active selves, their roles as heroes and victims.

Both characters are romantics in that they blow up experience, making of it a life-and-death battle, in which the self suffers either defeat or victory. Neither is satisfied with mediocrity or with half-success. Each sees their relationship as a duel of identities.

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