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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 199

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The themes of "A Summer Tragedy" are aging, freedom, debt, loss of hope, and suicide. Jeff fears if he suffers another stroke he won't be able to take care of Jennie. Jennie is blind, withered, and toothless, but still tries to take care of Jeff. They fear their failing health could soon result in the loss of their independence and dignity. This impending loss of their health and independence leads to a loss of hope. They decide to end their lives while they still have some control over them. They retain their dignity by using their freedom of choice and dressing in their best black clothes before their final drive together.

They have been defeated economically by the sharecropper system under which they have labored. They now see they can never escape falling further and further into debt under this system. They believe they have been cheated by their landlord and have no hope of any future prosperity. The loss of their children is important to their decision since it removes an important reason for living.

The depressing themes capture the bleak daily realities for millions of Americans during the Great Depression when this short story was published in 1933.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

The story’s title words, “summer” and “tragedy,” suggest its theme: the shock of recognition that the cyclical fullness of life inevitably depletes the lives of individuals, calling into question the significance and nobility of human existence.

Historically, the concept of tragedy has implied that human life is very valuable, and that suffering, especially when it results inevitably from the pursuit of happiness, reveals that human life is richly meaningful. The combination of positive and negative connotations in the title hints at the potential for such irony. The author generalizes the truth of his perception by illustrating it with an instance from the common lives of simple people, even persons whose fated suffering would typically be ignored. The universality of what his characters face makes the story broadly applicable, and the way they face their fate demonstrates the possibility of heroic action, even by ordinary people.

The suffering experienced by the characters is easily recognizable by readers as something that could happen to them or someone dear to them. The author gains the reader’s sympathy and even admiration for the tragic protagonist, Jeff Patton, by showing his affectionate goodwill, ability and dedication, mental strength, moral innocence, goodness of purpose throughout his adult life and in his final action, and pain and courageous struggle. Given his world of natural and societal forces that require strengths that those same forces limit and finally take away, Jeff’s purposes—to provide happiness for his family and prevent further suffering by his wife—are likely to be interpreted by readers as reasonable, understandable, and courageous. His tragic decisions to kill his wife and himself, and then in fact driving into the river, challenge the reader to understand these characters’ thoughts, place a value on their lives, and finally make a moral judgment regarding suicide, particularly a suicide and murder that might be interpreted as euthanasia.

Both Jeff and Jennie are grieving over the loss of their own children, the difficulty that daily life poses for persons who are infirm and are becoming a burden on others, the casting off of what good they yet find in their present life, the realization that they do not have the potential of an enjoyable future, and the prospect of death of their beloved partners and themselves, within the hour. Jeff’s suffering is especially significant, because ultimately he must make the decision, exercise the will, and accomplish the action that brings about his own death and his beloved’s.

The African American heritage of these characters, in a racist locale, is important within the context of the principle that labor and life are cheap. Slaves, and then sharecroppers, like mules, have provided inexpensive labor, and therefore have been considered expendable. This story, however, suggests that its characters share with readers of any ancestry a common human reality of fatal suffering. It elevates the psychological and moral status of its characters by showing them taking ultimate control of their lives through difficult and decisive action. While the author leaves it for the reader to judge whether his characters’ actions are wise, their thoughts and feelings serve as an enlightening model of what readers might observe or experience under a similar crisis of age and health.