Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Summer Evening” portrays humanity’s injustice to humanity. The references to the Americans’ mistreatment of the Indians and to the German’s systematic annihilation of the Jews both echo the Americans’ present exploitation of the Germans. The character of the Hausmeister and the Americans’ ridicule of him particularize the general helplessness of Germany. The major’s statement that the Hausmeister will “make enough out of what’s left in the ashtrays after one of these shindigs to keep him in luxury six months” not only belittles the subservience of the Hausmeister but also alludes to the falling social status of the entire German population.

The Hausmeister is a broken old man who must resort to alcohol to escape his pain. He has no purpose in life because of the destruction of the war (“Everything bombed out. Everything lost. Nothing left to Pop”). Although Boyle does not sympathize with the Nazis, she exhibits compassion for a proud and defeated people. While the Hausmeister symbolizes the broken spirit of Germany, the young man in the blue suit (the intelligence agent) represents the strength of America. He is naïve about the frailty of human feelings, just as the Americans were practically taking over a country that did not belong to them. He exhibits no conscience in his taking advantage of Mrs. Cruickshank’s loneliness or his taking part in the practical joke played on the Hausmeister.

The setting is not merely background for the story, but further supports its theme. The party is held on “a dreamy, bluish summer evening” in a terraced villa overlooking an eleventh century Hessian town. The villa and the wealth associated with it symbolize America’s exploitation of postwar Germany. Across the valley, the ancient castle, which appears “to watch, as it had watched for century after century, for armored knights on horseback . . . or for armored vehicles and low-flying planes,” represents an ennobled German past. Unfortunately, the view of the castle elicits sympathy only from Captain Forsythe. The others are interested in filling themselves with Scotch-and-sodas and chopped-egg-and-anchovy canapes. The absence of German guests and the presence of German musicians and a German servant indicate that the Americans are interested, not in socializing with the Germans, but in using them for their entertainment and service.