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Arna Bontemps' wonderful short story "A Summer Tragedy" uses many details to show the physical and psychological effects of sharecropping in the South. Bontemps' use of symbolism, imagery, and repetitive motifs really adds to the mood and message of the story. Notice how many things in the story are old, worn out, and dying. Like the "frizzly chicken" and blind Jennie, the institution of sharecropping is an old way of life and is dying with Jeff and Jennie. Jeff's best clothes are full of holes, he has a bum leg, and the old Model T starts with a last gasp. Jeff is afraid he will have another stroke and knows Jennie would not be able to take care of him. Nothing grows in the dirt yard. Jeff and Jennie's children are all dead, and Jeff and Jennie are the only people living in the row of abandoned, run down cabins that once held families of sharecroppers. Their time and usefulness is up; they are too old to work the fields and cannot produce the crops needed to live on. Caught in the cycle of owing the landowner for seeds, tools, mules, and other necessities to farm, Jeff and Jennie are no longer viable employees. An old way of life has ended; therefore, Jeff and Jennie are compelled to end their own lives as honorably as they can and on their own terms. They will not be beholden to anyone, including each other. They are finally free and not oppressed by the system of sharecropping that kept them in economic bondage.
The recurring motifs of old, worn out, and dying people and things symbolically represent the dying of the institution of sharecropping that is no longer needed in the South. Jeff and Jennie are also symbols of the tragic oppression associated with sharecropping because the institution has left them with nothing but the necessity to end their own lives.
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