Themes and Characters
The cast of characters in Summer of My German Soldier includes a variety of vivid personalities. Patty Bergen, the central character, is a twelve-year-old who perceives herself as plain and outspoken and thus "living with a disadvantage." Although frequently rebuffed when she tries to express love to her parents, she doggedly devises stories and scenarios designed to win their lasting affection. Her father brutally beats her, and her mother ridicules her appearance and behavior, but Patty too often blames herself for their abuse, rationalizing that if only she were prettier or more talented, her parents would love her the way they do her younger sister, Sharon. Patty's father considers Sharon—a cute, pampered little girl—the next Shirley Temple.
Patty's first-person narration of the story reveals her wit, imagination, and intelligence. Her favorite pastime is reading the dictionary, and she seriously applies herself to a study of language. Patty, demands precision of meaning: "When I read a book," she says, "I want to understand precisely what it is the writer is saying, not just almost but precisely." After meeting Charlene Madlee, a newspaper reporter who encourages her interest in writing, Patty aspires to a career in journalism.
Harry Bergen, Patty's father, puts running his dry goods store ahead of caring for his children. He is portrayed as a monstrously cruel man, but Greene hints that his violent behavior is the result of deep insecurities and psychological instability. Patty's mother, Pearl, is depicted as a cold, controlled, and consistently unsympathetic character.
Anton Reiker, the prisoner and the son of a German professor, serves as a counterpoint to Patty's father. Where Mr. Bergen is brutal and sadistic, Anton is sensitive and understanding. Unlike Mr. Bergen, Anton, who was a medical student before the war, accepts "plain" Patty as "a person of value." With Anton, a former soldier for an army that kills Jews, Patty ironically finds someone who can comfort her, someone who considers her important. Anton even risks his life for Patty, coming to her defense during a particularly savage beating by her father. During World War II, many Americans fiercely hated the Germans and refused to consider them as individuals. Anton, who does not approve of Hitler and who is a kind, caring person, is the victim of social prejudice in Jenkinsville.
Ruth, the Bergens' maid, is loving, loyal, and constant like Anton. When Patty befriends Anton, Ruth assists her, and when Patty is incarcerated at the Arkansas Reformatory for Girls, Ruth is her only visitor. She teaches Patty to like and respect herself: For her love and loyalty, however, Ruth loses her job, another of Greene's comments on injustice. Ruth lives in Nigger Bottom, the black neighborhood in the segregated town of Jenkinsville. In addition to suffering the effects of generations of racial persecution, Ruth also bears the anxiety of knowing that her only son, Robert, whom she has painstakingly prepared for college, is now a conscripted soldier, fighting overseas. Her strong faith in God and her compassion for others help her endure these trials.
Harry is Patty's abusive, ill-tempered father. A violent man full of repressed rage and self-hatred, he takes his frustrations out on Patty. As the only Jewish merchant in a Protestant town, Harry is constantly under pressure to underplay his ethnicity and to go along with his neighbors.
Harry is a complex character who encourages his family to be silent and go along with the majority view. He despises his own roots, and reacts with rage when his brother talks about their childhood poverty. His childhood has led him to become obsessed with the value of money, and he hates his father-in-law because he had to ask him for money to start his store. His history of violence goes back to his very early childhood, when his father had to hold him down on his bed, repeating "you will not be violent" over and over again.
Patricia Ann Bergen
Patricia (also known...
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