Arna Bontemps

A Summer Tragedy

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A Summer Tragedy Summary

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“A Summer Tragedy” is a short story by Arna Bontemps. First published in Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life in 1931, it follows a struggling elderly couple who decide to drive their car into the river, taking control of their own deaths rather than wait for a less dignified end. The story has since appeared in numerous anthologies. Bontemps was a prominent American poet, librarian, and novelist, who played a significant role in the Harlem Renaissance. Despite his extensive body of work, Bontemps received little recognition or remuneration for his writing during his lifetime.

Jeff and Jennie Patton are an elderly African American couple living in 1930s New Orleans. They have spent their lives working as impoverished sharecroppers, and they have no prospects. Although they can still work on the farm, they are growing frail with age, and they are worried about what the future holds for people like them.

When “A Summer Tragedy” begins, Jennie and Jeff are in their rundown shack on a Sunday afternoon. Jeff is putting on his best clothes—the formal suit he only wears to weddings or on very special occasions. He is watching Jennie limp towards him; it pains him to see her frail form wasting away. Although she tries to hide it, she struggles to fix his bowtie because her bones ache when she sinks down beside him.

Jennie, although she’s blind, doesn’t want his help dressing. She takes pride in being able to look after herself, as she puts on her best black silk dress. While she is dressing, Jeff looks out over his fields. He has been living on these fields for forty-five years, and they feel like home to him. He will miss them when he leaves with Jennie. At this point, their destination isn’t clear.

Jeff is distracted from his thoughts by Jennie asking him to get the car ready. He goes around back to bring it to the front door. Jeff drives an old T-model Ford that miraculously still runs after so many years. He is glad that they’re taking their treasured family car on this journey and not some new model. Again, it’s still not clear where they’re going, only that it’s somewhere important, and it doesn’t look as though they’re coming back.

Although Jennie seems determined to get going, Jeff’s thoughts consume him. He is suddenly hit by the gravity of what they are about to do, making it difficult to concentrate. Only Jennie’s steady presence reassures him that it is the right decision, and that they will both be happier this way. He helps her from the house and into the car. They don’t bother locking the door.

Jennie asks Jeff if he’s frightened because he’s acting strange. He denies it, but Jennie knows him better than that. She stops talking and waits patiently for him to drive off. As he drives them down the dirt road through the fields, he reflects on how well some of his crops have done and how he wishes his children could see them. As it happens, his five grown children are all dead. There’s a sense that neither Jennie nor Jeff feel they have anything left to live for.

They pass a house owned by Delia. Although Jennie can’t see her, she’s happy to think that Delia is seeing her in her best clothes. She doesn’t like Delia very much, because Delia always wanted Jeff, and so she’s glad that she can show the woman whom Jeff belongs to.

Before Jeff drives the car much further, Jennie starts crying. Jeff asks if she’s scared, or if she wants to turn back, but she says no. She says that she is feeling overwhelmed at the thought of leaving their lives behind, but that there’s no other option. Jeff reluctantly agrees. They’re in a lot of debt and they have no way of paying it off. If they don’t leave, they will end up homeless.

Now it is Jeff’s turn to be strong and to keep Jennie focused. She asks him if they should reconsider what they’re doing, but he tells her that it’s too late to turn back. He originally wanted more time to think, to make sure this was the right choice for them, but Jennie pushed him into making the decision. Now that he is committed, he isn’t turning back. Jennie continues crying silently.

Jeff reflects on his life one last time. He knows he can’t work the farm anymore because of his bad legs, and Jennie would struggle on her own because of her blindness if anything happened to him. They could live for many more years, but that means living in a lot of pain. He is worried he will have another stroke, and then he won’t be able to look after Jennie or the house. He does not want to be a burden on her, either. Leaving is, as far as he is concerned, the only option.

When they reach the river, Jeff accelerates, launching the car into the water. As the story ends, the car lies upturned in the water, with Jeff and Jennie still inside. The suicide in “A Summer Tragedy” is meant to be interpreted as a resolved choice made by a strong elderly couple and a dignified end.