The Girls in Their Summer Dresses Themes

Irwin Shaw

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story employs a dramatic point of view that emphasizes the fragility of human relationships. It shows understanding and agreements to be temporary and tentative, likely to decay under a threat of differences and opposition, to be reestablished only with difficulty. An anatomy of a marriage quarrel, the story centers on Michael’s compulsive girl-watching. Michael is visually oriented and essentially superficial; to him women are primarily sex objects.

Frances grasps the underlying problem when she says that his habit is that of a boy. Michael has an eye for other details as well. As he leads Frances to the bar on Eighth Street, the narrator explains, he is “looking thoughtfully at his neatly shined heavy brown shoes.” A careful observer himself, he does not suspect that his wife notices his attention to the girls. At first, he tries to be evasive and indirect with Frances; he then tries to minimize the importance of his pastime. In response to her goading, however, he turns to exaggeration and masculine bravado. When his admission finally occurs and he acknowledges his feelings, the reader does not know whether to take him seriously—whether he really means what he is saying or is caddish enough to think that Frances should share his fantasies.

Despite her own attractiveness, Frances is basically insecure, and this leads her to moodiness and a kind of nagging repetition. She apparently has no other role, identity, or interest in life than being Mrs. Michael Loomis. She desperately wants his attention, approval, and reassurance. Her anguish and his ungentlemanliness arise from their superficial characters.

As with other stories by Irwin Shaw, this one touches on the theme of lost or disappearing youth. Both Michael and Frances feel the approach of middle age and seek to fend it off. The title emphasizes this theme. Although the plot occurs in November, Michael recalls, among many other groups, “the girls in their summer dresses” who represent freshness, youth, and vitality as he himself is losing these qualities without being fully aware of what is happening. Frances appears to have no defense against the ravages of time except her marriage, and she finds the prospect of losing this security difficult to bear.