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The story, ‘A Summer of Tragedy’ was written in 1933 by Arna Bontemps. It was written at a time of great economic depression and color segregation in America. It is set in New Orleans a place that is very fertile and near the river Mississippi. It tells the story of an old couple who are on the verge of despair. Jeff and Jennie are the two protagonists. They are a poor couple who seem to have lost all hope in life. After loosing their five children in a span of two years, being in much debt, sickness and their old age, the couple has nothing else to live for. The story is written in the era when majority of the black people did not own their own land. It was a time when America was still struggling to let go of slavery. Many African Americans worked for the white people mostly as share farmers.
Jennie, who is Jeff’s wife, is a sickly blind woman. Despite the poverty and misery they live in, the couple is very much in love and they care deeply for one another. This can be seen when Jennie helps Jeff to dress up regardless of the fact that she is blind and her body is aching. The story begins as the couple is dressing up to go for a journey. It is not a normal journey however, as Jeff shakes and trembles at the thought of it. He is so unsure of the whole idea and it really scares him. At one time, he even feels dizzy just thinking about it. Normal journeys feel people with excitement and longing. They wear their best clothing and are ready to go (Shuman 193). Despite her blindness and apparent sickly nature, Jennie is seen as having a greater will to go ahead with their journey. She is the stronger of the two and she is the one who urges Jeff to go forward and chiding him about his fear. There are various issues brought about in the story.
The main theme as seen in the story is hopelessness and desperation, which has been brought about by the great poverty that the Pattons are living in. The Pattons are going through many struggles. Death is seen as the only resolve out. Though at first Jeff is unsure of the idea, Jennie goes ahead and urges him on. She reminds him of their plans and that they have nothing else to live for. Most of this desperation has been brought about by poverty and the devastating fact that all their children have passed on. Their best attires are full of holes yet they are only worn occasionally. They barely have enough to eat and Jennie is described as having a crooked appearance and having tiny legs such that her stockings can no longer hold (Chapman, 88).
Love is another theme in the story. The Pattons display a genuine love for each other and even in the midst of gloom; they still see a reason to love. They refer to each other affectionately and really show a deep commitment to each other even on their way to death. Perhaps, this kind of love has kept them going for so long. There is so much selflessness seen in Jennie. She does not mind the fact that her body is aching or that she cannot see. She goes ahead and painfully fixes Jeff’s bow tie. She also shows how jealous she is especially when it comes to her love for Jeff. As they pass Delia’s house she is hoping that Delia will see her and know about what they do with Jeff. Despite the fact that they are on their way to death she still remembers how Delia used to smile at her husband. After Jennie has finished making Jeff’s bow tie, he is only comfortable when he hears her place her cane against the wall in the next room and this assures him that she is okay. Jeff’s love for Jennie is also seen, as he prefers dying than the thought of burdening her. He reasons that if he had another stroke and does not die, Jennie would have to take care of him and this would not be fair seeing, as Jennie is blind and her health is very frail.
Devotion, commitment, hard work, and loyalty are other themes portrayed in the story. Jeff has devoted forty-five years of his life to working on the same farm. This is a long time to work at one place for one person. He goes ahead and admires his work as they pass the cotton fields. Despite disagreeing with old man Stevenson idea about overworking mules and men, he continues to work in the same place. He loves the plantation where he works as if it were his own. Old man Stevenson is also devoted to keeping his workers. He has been with Jeff for forty-five years. Jeff still works with old man Stevenson despite owing him. Stevenson still keeps Jeff working on his farm despite the fact that he obviously does not produce the same output he used to when he was younger.
The theme of freedom and liberation is also brought out. The whole story shows how the Jeff and Jennie wanted to be free of the bondages that were holding them. They had the pain of loosing their five children and they therefore did not have anyone to take care of them. As if this was not enough, they had to deal with Jeff having a stroke and other body problems and Jennie’s blindness and weak health. In addition to this, they had debts which they could not finish paying, were living in poverty and they had neighbors who they could not trust as most of their chickens had been stolen or killed from their home. They had to get away from all this and suicide was the only thing they could think of. They wanted a life free from oppression and misery (Nelson, 38).
The Pattons choose to die with dignity. They take time to plan what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. They also wear their best attire. Jennie even wants her neighbor Delia to see her in her best clothes. They could have chosen another way to die such as taking poison, but they do not. Instead, they choose a way, which they plan and prepare for. Sometimes both of them have second thoughts about it but they encourage each other up to the final moment. They also care for and love their neighbors. Jennie has nostalgic feelings about the things and the people that they will leave behind. She breaks down as she thinks about them (A summer tragedy).
Ill health is among the themes in the story. This story is written in the midst of hard economic times when people cannot afford better things in life. Jeff is recovering from a stroke he previously had. He has also lost all his teeth and he only has one functioning foot. His fingers and eyesight are not so good and he is unable to tie a bow tie. His knees and bones also ache a lot. His memory is poor and he sometimes talks to himself. His wife’s voice is shrunken and her appearance has been described as that of a dead leaf and a string bean. This means that she is very thin and unhealthy. She is also blind. Jeff also has a fear of the unknown and he confesses to himself that he is scared. He is scared of sounds that he does not recognize especially at night. He is even scared of going far from his home even during daytime.
There is unfair labor, which can be seen by the way old man Stevenson treats his workers and even his farm animals (mules). He believes that one mule is enough to work a thirty-acre piece of land. He overworks them and many end up dying. Farmers are also reported to have died because of overwork. Segregation is also highlighted. There were areas in the plantation where colored people were allowed to work alone. Jeff has been used to highlight superstition that existed at that time. He ultimately believed that weak men were curses and he had no patience with them. He also had no sympathy for the men who had died due to being overworked, as he believed that they were weak (A summer). The theme of superstition is also seen when Jeff is reflecting about the chickens. He believes that they feed on poison and therefore helps to keep the spells and curses away. While the story does not give a solution to the problem, it does its best to highlight the issues that were facing the African American community at that time. It served as a voice for many who were living in the great depression and facing great difficulties during that time.
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