Like many of Kay Boyle’s stories written while she was a foreign correspondent for The New Yorker, the events of “Summer Evening” take place during the post World War II reconstruction of Germany under the American occupation. The story relates the events of a cocktail party given by one Major Hatches and his wife. Their guests include military officers, government personnel, and their spouses. Although little action occurs during the course of the story, as the party progresses, the reader is introduced to a variety of sharply etched characters and is permitted to overhear their various conversations.
As the story opens, Major Hatches comments to Lieutenant Pearson about choosing a Hausmeister: “You have to be as careful about who you take as a Hausmeister as who you marry. . . . You have him underfoot twenty-four hours every day of the week.” Hatches is cruel in his remarks concerning the Hausmeister’s desperation, exemplified by his having to retrieve cigarette stubs for his own use. Pearson continues the discussion by relating the story of a fellow in Nuremberg who would drop his butts out the window so that his Hausmeister would have to crawl through the shrubbery for them.
Marcia Cruickshank, the flirtatious wife of Captain Cruickshank, is one of the lonely, unhappy Americans among this ensemble of characters. Unlike another member of this party, Wendy Forsythe, who is unhappy in her realization of humankind’s cruelty to its fellow creatures, Mrs. Cruickshank is unhappy because of her own empty life. She gets so drunk, as she does at all the social gatherings she attends, that she openly seduces the young man in the blue suit, an “intelligence” operative whose name is never revealed. Disgusted, her husband eventually must carry her to their car.
Captain Pete Forsythe, as he views the castle across the valley, is forced to think of the war: “There’s a tank, a big Sherman tank, rusted and gutted and turned on its back, with field flowers growing through the carcass of it,” an example of “the meaningless paraphernalia of war.” As Forsythe remembers the Americans’ defeat of the Germans, he maintains a strong conviction against further humiliating the former enemy. It is his wife Wendy’s sensitivity to the extinction of the whooping crane that stimulates his thoughts: “The wheat growers came down across the plains and the marshes and the open prairies, . . . and the whooping crane lost its breeding ground. Like the Indian, the bison, the poets, their time is finished. There is no role left for them to play.” Like other creatures similarly exploited by Americans, the Germans are made to feel like foreigners in their own land.
The Americans’ exploitation of the Germans is further exemplified by the last conversation between Hatches, Pearson, and the intelligence agent, regarding the museum-quality treasures—the Biedermeier silver coffee set that had been in a German family for generations, the seventy-four-piece Dresden dinner service with gold inlay, the tablecloth that took a professor’s wife twenty years to make—all bought “for a song.” They are amused that the hungry Germans are willing to trade their “back teeth” for coffee and lard.
The Americans not only have cheated the Germans out of their material possessions but also proceed to strip them of any dignity that they may have left. At the end of the story, Hatches, Pearson, and the intelligence agent play their cruelest prank on the Hausmeister. When he is invited by Major Hatches to partake of a nightcap, the Hausmeister divulges his American background. He was born in “New Joisey” and desires to return to his homeland. The Hausmeister is led to believe that the young intelligence agent is the General Consul and that a golf-score card is a passport. To their embarrassment, the Hausmeister breaks down in tears of joy. Hatches expresses his disgust at what they have become during their stay in Germany: “What are we doing here, any of us? he asked himself, in sudden bewilderment, almost in fright. What has become of the lot of us here?” Boyle’s stories typically end in this kind of revelation.
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