Summer of My German Soldier Essays and Criticism
by Bette Greene

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The Themes of Racial, Social, and Self-awareness In Greene's Summer of My German Soldier

(Novels for Students)

Silence and deferred knowledge—both historical and personal—play crucial roles in Summer of My German Soldier. That which is unsaid, or unrealized, lies at the heart of Greene's novel. Just as Patty is slowly adding to her vocabulary word by word, day by day, so the book gradually adds to her consciousness. Significantly, her favorite words—those she will share with her little sister— include the key psychological term, "ego." Patty is building her sense of self, her ego, through language. Her first-person narrative becomes structured as an infinite series of epiphanies that culminate in key revelations, the most obvious of which is her realization that she doesn't like her parents. Her thought processes leading up to this revelation are carefully laid out—the unconscious anger, harsh language, and continual self-editing creating the outlines of an emotion that Patty cannot bring herself to name until the final pages of her story.

In the same way, the more pointedly social unconscious links and drives of the world inside and around her are densely crowded on Patty, her town, and the text. Throughout Summer of My German Soldier, historical and social silence are elevated to such a degree that the town of Jenkinsville becomes, finally, devoid of all meaning. When the townspeople shout, "Jew Nazi!" they compound two concepts that can only be connected in conditions of willful blindness—thus revealing themselves as participants in a hypocritical cultural and linguistic system. An early example in the novel sets up this paradigm of simultaneous recognition and silence. In her memory of the Chu Lee grocery story—whose owners have been evicted in a quasi-lynching—she evinces a careful and fragile reconstruction of the palpable reality of hatred in front of her, saying, "there's probably a simple logical explanation. It couldn't be what I think." What she thinks is of course what actually happened, and her textual self-silencing—the process by which she indicates her knowledge of the real while removing it from her linguistic reality—is abetted and caused by her parents, especially her father. In response to her questions about the incident, he tells her that she is "never in [her] life to mention it again."

This simultaneous presence and absence of "what Patty thinks" is the key element in her evolving relationship with Ruth. Patty's immersion in a world of racial division and prejudice is worked through most clearly by her gradual reshaping of the language associated with Ruth, and the linguistic boundaries of cultural vision. The most critical instance of this comes early in the novel, when Ruth explains why she should dress neatly to visit her mother at work: pride. Patty thinks to herself: "Pride. Maybe that's what it is, what Ruth has. What makes her different... Ruth isn't one bit uppity. Merely prideful." Her previous interpretation of Ruth's behavior is here signified through its negation. Patty does not reveal her racist understanding of Ruth (the active application of the racially loaded signifier "uppity") but her reformed racism instead. Ruth is not uppity but prideful— the racial signifier unpacked, deconstructed, and reassigned in a positive linguistic pattern from which can be formed a new interpretive paradigm.

The associations that Patty is unaware of are as equally apparent from her linguistic associations as they are from her deliberate self-silencing. In a technique very similar to the narrative experimentation of stream of consciousness, the operations of Patty's mind reveal themselves through free association and pattern making of images, thoughts and words. Just as Ruth's comments on pride spark the reorganization of linguistic and racial paradigms, so Patty's observations change over the course of her narrative as she develops.

At the very beginning of the novel, her perception of the world is filtered through a semiotic set of cultural determinants, images, and pressures. This is evident in...

(The entire section is 3,094 words.)