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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 329

A Summer Tragedy is the story of Jeff and Jennie, an elderly couple who plan to drive their car off a cliff and end their lives, as they see no option of living a comfortable life. The story that leads to their decision reveals the host of medical problems they suffer and that are common to elderly people, including vision loss, arthritis, strokes, and memory loss with its accompanying fears. Over time, these problems cause many elderly people to lose their ability to take care of themselves and live independent lives. As they age, elderly couples wading through these medical problems together tend to become increasingly dependent on each other. Such is the case with Jeff and Jennie.

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Jeff and Jennie decide to end their lives together not only because they see no hope of surviving comfortably, but because they see no hope of surviving alone. The characters take care of each other for as long as they can, attempting to help each other manage their challenges. When their quality of life deteriorates (and they know it will continue to deteriorate), they know it is time to carry out their death pact. Though they depend on each other, both characters resist being dependent as a rule; they are proud of their ability to care for themselves and manage their lives without help. Their pact results from the mutual decision that they will not accept living in a state where they are unable to take care of themselves. As poor sharecroppers, they worked the farm to get by, but they did little more than that. When they were unable to work, they saw no future for themselves; with age and ailing health, they lost their independence. We have to wonder how many elderly people face the same challenges and fears as Jeff and Jennie—especially elderly people living in poverty. For many, the loss of independence and the loss of pride that comes with it seems too difficult to bear.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

In simple and straightforward language, such as his characters would use in their thought and conversation, Arna Bontemps tells a deceptively unassuming story about the last day in the life of an elderly couple. Only the literary and quasi-philosophical word “tragedy” in the title signals an alert reader that something portentous might be coming. That word places the story’s protagonist in the company of characters such as Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, William Shakespeare’s King Lear, and Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, men who in old age take fatal action with more or less awareness of what they are doing, and more or less wisdom about the inevitability of human suffering.

Within his first few sentences, however, Bontemps cues the reader not only to his characters’ age and health, but also to their social status, more like a Loman than like a king or conquering general. With a few early details and images, the author foreshadows their impending deaths: Jeff Patton is turning away from vanities, his coat is moth-eaten, his mouth twists “into a hideous toothless grimace” like a skull, his wife’s voice comes like an echo, and she has a “wasted, dead-leaf appearance.” Conversation, like life for this couple, is sparse, and therefore dialogue is used sparingly in the telling of their story, but when it comes, with a touch of the African American dialect of the Delta, the reader hears the direct, plain emotions of affection and fear that permeate the characterization and plot. The way the author establishes the decline and impending loss of life, paralleling the understated, ironic nobility of his characters, evokes the reader’s sympathy and acquiescence in a violent death.

Simplicity of language and detail also creates an unpretentious, realist style of storytelling that makes the reader feel like a neighbor watching this couple pass by. There is nothing unusual or unnatural in the setting; the world is presented just as the Pattons would see it. When Jeff’s or Jennie’s emotions are revealed, they seem normal to the situation. Their thoughts then seem appropriate to both the situation and emotions; and the story’s line of action follows convincingly from the characters’ inner motivation.

There is also a touch of naturalism in the style, as the characters are so driven by the socioeconomic system and the effects of time that the fate of such simple lives might appear to be determined by external forces beyond their control. On the other hand, the author deftly uses mythic motifs of cyclical vitality; the eros of the vegetation of the countryside and of Jeff’s love of the land, his wife, and life itself; the journey that the Pattons are taking; and even the donning of formal attire for a heroic task, to provide an epic dimension to his story, raising his characters above naturalistic victimhood into a conscious acceptance of suffering that glorifies them.

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