Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Summer Night” is considered to be one of the best of Elizabeth Bowen’s scores of short stories. The style is taut: Every word counts; no detail is unimportant. Tension is created in the very first paragraph by small details. One does not know who the excited young woman is or where she is going at sunset in such a mad rush, but one feels her mood of expectancy because she glances at her watch and reads the mileage on the yellow signposts.

The reader can see the characters as they move about and talk to one another despite the economy of description of the rooms. In the main scene, an open window, easy chairs, and a fireplace mantel with a clock and silver-framed photos suffice. The author displays her extraordinary talent for the creation of atmosphere when she pictures Aunt Fran’s room with its feeling of transitoriness.

It is the characters who unfold the plot, not the narrator. Elizabeth Bowen wrote that the action of a character should be unpredictable before it has been shown, inevitable when it has been shown. She does not explain what prompts the actions of her characters. Understanding this story requires the same technique demanded by an Impressionist painter: The reader must synthesize for himself. He must conjecture what has happened.

The most striking symbolism in the story is the use of light and darkness to mark the difference between public and secret lives. Emma watches the sun set on her ride to her rendezvous. It is dark when she arrives, and as soon as she enters the house she wants the top light turned off. When she and Robinson are in the garden and she is still living her fairy tale, there is the light from his flashlight, but no moon. Justin writing the angry letter in his small harsh hotel room is bothered by the hot light. It is well past twelve o’clock on this dark night when he sees the woman sobbing by the telegraph pole. Queenie goes happily to bed in the dark. Because light and darkness also have a moral connotation throughout the tale, one wonders if Queenie will be Robinson’s next victim. This lack of conclusion is typical of Elizabeth Bowen’s short stories.