A Summer Tragedy

by Arna Bontemps

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What is the irony in Arna Bontemps' "A Summer Tragedy"?

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Jeff Patton and his wife have suffered a series of tragedies, and both have physical disabilities that prevent them from continuing work on the farm, particularly Jeff. As they drive to their destination, Jeff, the hapless sharecropper, suddenly feels excitement and a renewed sense of purpose.

The couple are on their way to commit suicide, so the irony of the story is that Jeff has found purpose in his life again whilst driving towards his death. The blooming crops is also symbolic of the ups and downs in life.

There is a season when things die, yet they "resurrect" the following season. However, Jeff and his wife have made a final decision regarding their fate. Another example of irony, although subtle, is the fact that Jeff wore a suit that he rarely used. It wasn't until the day of his demise that he wore something nice; perhaps symbolic of his lifelong despair as a poor farmer finally ending with him dressed as a rich man.

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Identify the dominant theme in A Summer Tragedy by Arna Bontemps.

The dominant theme of the story is one of suffering.  Jeff and Jennie endure a life of suffering.  To struggle in the condition of the South for two elderly people of color is embodiment of struggle in its own right.  At the same time, for parents to see the deaths of five children in their adult years is another form of suffering in how a parent outlives a child.  It acquires a greater level of significance when they live into adulthood and to see none of them progress past a certain point.  The element of physical suffering is another example of the dominant theme in Jeff's and Jennie's lives.  Consider Bontemps description of their physicality.  Jeff's face is seen as "a hideous toothless grimace” while Jennie is described in terms such as "wasted, dead-leaf appearance."  Such detail is matched by the physical conditions of his strokes and her blindness.  They are both experiencing a level of physical suffering in which there does not seem to be any alleviation in the future.  This becomes where the decision to drive the car into the Mississippi is the only way out of this intense level of physical and emotional suffering.

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What was the theme for the story "A Summer Tragedy" by Arna Bontemps?

This one is going to be challenging.  One of the strongest elements that is in the story is how suffering is part of what it means to be human and how all individuals possess some level of empowerment regarding their predicaments of pain.  The fact that the Jennie and Jeff Patton are both elderly, physically limited, and have endured the loss of their children brings to light how suffering is something that is intrinsic to human consciousness.  Both of them have endured a great deal.  Adding to this is the reality that their social condition will never really allow them to economically or socially possess autonomy over their lives.  Living in the deep Southern part of the United States at a time when segregation resulted in unequal and unfair treatment for people of color only adds to this burden of suffering.  However, in deciding to take their own lives, there is a level of autonomy that both seem to possess.  It is almost as if they acquire a sense of transcendence in that they are moving past their own contingent states of being in the world.  The only power that both have is over their own lives and their decision to drive the car into the water is reflective of this.  They do not embrace this as something that is a way out or an easy escape.  Jennie's tears prior to the moment and Jeff coaxing her in assuring her that this is the only way reflects that both of them understand what is being done.  Yet, they feel a need to possess power over their own predicaments and their own conditions of suffering.  In this, the theme of possessing power over one's life is evident.

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