Study Guide

Four Summers

by Joyce Carol Oates

Four Summers Summary

Introduction

Joyce Carol Oates’s short story ‘‘Four Summers,’’ initially appeared in The Yale Review in spring 1967 and the next year was included in The American Literary Anthology. Subsequently, the story was included in Oates’s story collections The Wheel of Love (1970), Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Stories of Young America (1974), and in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Selected Early Stories (1993). It also appears in anthologies such as Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Fiction (2001). Like many of Oates’s early stories, ‘‘Four Summers’’ takes childhood and the family as its subjects and explores the pain and confusion that accompanies a young person’s introduction into the adult world. In four short sections, each describing incidents from four summers, Oates chronicles the changes of Sissie, the narrator, as she moves from childhood to adulthood, trying to understand what she should do and who she should be. By using a first-person point of view, Oates gives readers insight into the thoughts and motivations of a young girl who is coming of age. The story’s language is spare and accessible, and young women, in particular, will be able to identify with Sissie’s responses to events and changing perceptions. Oates draws on her own working-class upbringing in developing her characters.

Four Summers Summary

Part 1 Summary

‘‘Four Summers’’ refers to the four summers that Sissie, the narrator, recounts during the course of the story. In this first section, she is with her parents and brothers at a lakefront tavern. It is early afternoon, a parade has recently disbanded, and men in uniforms are all around. The setting resembles that of Memorial Day. While her parents drink beer with their friends from the old neighborhood, the children pester them for a ride in a boat. The boys, Jerry and Frank, play by themselves, and Sissie stays close to her mother. Lenore’s cousin, Sue, gives Sissie a sip of beer, which she does not like. The couples discuss people from the old neighborhood such as Duane Dorsey, a ‘‘nut’’ who was always in trouble, and June Dieter, who now has a serious disease. The war they discuss is probably World War II.

At the end of the section, the children see a blackbird flailing in the scum on the water’s surface. One of the children pokes it with a stick, and others, including Frank, throw stones at it. Sissie writes: ‘‘I watch them throw stones. I am standing at the side. If the bird dies, then everything can die.’’ Sentences like these mark Sissie’s innocence and her position as observer.

Much of the dialogue does not have attribution, and so readers have to infer who is speaking from the context. Ernest Hemingway popularized this kind of spare, elliptical writing in his short...

(The entire section is 250 words.)

Part 2 Summary

In this section, Sissy is at the boathouse tavern again with her father and Jerry. Oates marks the passage of time through details about the characters: for example, her mother has had another baby, and Frank is at a stock car race. Jerry is twelve years old, and Sissie says he is ‘‘like Dad, the way his eyes look.’’ Jerry says he hates his father, remarking, ‘‘All he does is drink.’’ Jerry and Sissie wait for their father to take them on a boat ride to an island in the center of the lake. Throughout the section, Sissie describes the loudness and vulgarity of the tavern and the men who drink there. Sissie’s descriptions in this section also focus on her father, whom she both admires and fears. When they arrive at the island, it is different from the way Sissy and Jerry thought it would be. At the end of the section, the children witness their father vomiting into the water, sick from drinking and rowing.

(The entire section is 168 words.)

Part 3 Summary

In this section, Sissie is fourteen years old and displays all the thinking and behavior of one her age. She is self-conscious, cocky, sarcastic, angry, and hateful towards almost everyone. Lamenting that she cannot attend the show with her friends Marian and Betty, because she has to help her mother take care of her baby sister, she says, ‘‘Poor fat Linda, with her runny nose!’’ The setting is again the boathouse tavern. The characters present include Sissie, her mother and father, her baby sister, and her aunt Lucy and her uncle Joe. In the first part of this section, the adults bicker about how to secure tickets for a game show, with the women speaking admiringly of the emcee, Howie Masterson, and the men claiming he and the show are phony. In the second part, Sissie encounters a man in the tavern who sweet talks her and then attempts to seduce her. Showing her bravado, Sissie walks with him for a bit, and then after he kisses her and becomes sexually excited, she runs away.

(The entire section is 175 words.)

Part 4 Summary

It is five years later, and Sissie is nineteen years old, married, and pregnant. She and her husband, Jesse, stop at the Lakeside Bar, the same tavern she had come to with her parents in previous summers. Oates uses the proper name of the place now, as Sissie is now an adult. The way she sees the bar is different from the way she remembers it. It is smaller now and ‘‘dirtier.’’ Her description is in keeping with the differences between how human beings perceive the world when they are young and when they are adults. Sissie reflects on the times she and her family had come to the bar. She sees a man she thinks might be the same one who kissed her when she was fourteen, but she is not sure and so says nothing to her husband. Sissie mixes description of the bar with information about what has happened in the last five years, including a mention of her father’s accidental death at the factory. She also compares her own life with her parents’ and hopes that Jesse, whom she describes as being like her father, will not turn out like him. At the end of the story, readers are left with an image of a young woman who is still struggling to understand her past, the choices she has made, and what has shaped her desires.

(The entire section is 231 words.)