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May Day Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This story employs the May Day rioting of 1919 as the historical reality that impinges on characters existing at different social levels and about to collide. The double plot brings together the privileged and a drab underclass and reflects the multiple standards of an apparent democracy. Irony in this story is always near the surface, but as action mixes levels, judgments are urged increasingly. Romancelike, the story’s plots are interlaced.

The main plot involves a Yale group reunited by an event less important than political unrest, the Gamma Psi dance. Most secured by privilege is Philip Dean, who was graduated immediately before the fight for democracy’s sake. Dean radiates physical comfort, spending his first scene in the story polishing his body and the rest enjoying unfettered self-indulgence. He is rich enough to play at will, callous about others’ needs, and self-righteous. Near the bottom of this group and slipping fast is Gordon Sterrett. His once expensive suit is shabby now, announcing his need before he does in Dean’s room at the Biltmore. Since returning from France, he has lost a job and has become involved with Jewel Hudson, a common woman whom he cannot love. He needs money to study art and to break from Jewel, to whom he is attached by drunken letters. This whining failure would probably gain no sympathy at all if Dean were less insensitive toward him. Even so, his fall is parody.

Edith Bradin is more interesting. As she nears the end of her May days, accompanied by Peter Himmel, the quintessential awkward undergraduate, she is given the chance to rekindle her affection for Gordon as a love from his better-dressed and less-drunk days. The successful floater through social events cuts herself loose from her clumsy escort and, after an attempt to regain the past, from Gordon, too, hoping only to save some pieces of experience for future lovers. If there were no more to this character, she might be dismissed as mindless; she experiences an anxiousness, however, that leads her to admit to her brother, Henry Bradin, that she sees an incongruity between her party life and his radical causes.

Along the way, a subplot pushes members of the lower orders toward encounters with the privileged. Carrol Key and Gus Rose, two “human beings” temporarily released from service, desert an anti-Socialist mob and prowl for alcohol, which it is illegal to sell to servicemen. They find Carrol’s brother, George Key, a waiter at Delmonico’s, where the Yalies have easily gotten too much alcohol. George, the soldiers’ link to booze, brings them inside the club to a broom closet, the only place for them among the dissipated privileged. When Himmel spots them there, the distance separating social levels is painfully clear, as is the irony of Himmel’s drunken toast, “We’re all Americans! Have another.” From this camaraderie, Himmel can escape whenever he tires of slumming.

Minor foils...

(The entire section is 740 words.)