A theoretical framework is developed for understanding the transient growth and propagation characteristics of thermodynamically coupled, meridional mode–like structures in the tropics. The model consists of a Gill–Matsuno-type steady atmosphere under the long-wave approximation coupled via a wind–evaporation–sea surface temperature (WES) feedback to a “slab” ocean model. When projected onto meridional basis functions for the atmosphere the system simplifies to a nonnormal set of equations that describes the evolution of individual sea surface temperature (SST) modes, with clean separation between equatorially symmetric and antisymmetric modes. The following major findings result from analysis of the system: 1) a transient growth process exists whereby specific SST modes propagate toward lower-order modes at the expense of the higher-order modes; 2) the same dynamical mechanisms govern the evolution of symmetric and antisymmetric SST modes except for the lowest-order wavenumber, where for symmetric structures the atmospheric Kelvin wave plays a critically different role in enhancing decay; and 3) the WES feedback is positive for all modes (with a maximum for the most equatorially confined antisymmetric structure) except for the most equatorially confined symmetric mode where the Kelvin wave generates a negative WES feedback. Taken together, these findings explain why equatorially antisymmetric “dipole”-like structures may dominate thermodynamically coupled ocean–atmosphere variability in the tropics. The role of nonnormality and the role of realistic mean states in meridional mode variability are discussed.