27 pages 54 minutes read

Arna Bontemps

A Summer Tragedy

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1931

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Summary: “A Summer Tragedy”

“A Summer Tragedy” is a short story written by poet and fiction author Arna Bontemps. It was originally published in 1933 in Opportunity and has since been included in multiple anthologies, including Bontemps’s 1973 short story collection The Old South: “A Summer Tragedy” and Other Stories of the Thirties. Focusing on an elderly Black couple who have endured a difficult life of share farming, “A Summer Tragedy” addresses the themes of Desperation and Hopelessness, The Confines of Masculinity, and The Toll of Poverty.

This guide refers to the version included in the 2004 anthology Ebony Rising: Short Fiction of the Greater Harlem Renaissance Era, edited by Craig Gable.

Content Warning: This story features discussions and depictions of death by suicide.

The story’s events take place over the course of a single summer afternoon. The main characters are two elderly Black people: Jeff Patton, a share farmer, and his wife, Jennie. It is clear from the start that the couple is experiencing the physical decline that accompanies aging. The story opens with Jeff and Jennie getting dressed up for a trip. Jeff is unable to tie his bow tie because of his trembling fingers, and as he struggles, he displays a “hideous toothless grimace” (349). Although she has gone blind, Jennie attempts to tie his bow tie for him. The couple’s physical deterioration is mirrored by the decay around them; Jeff’s swallowtailed coat is full of moth holes, while Jennie is dressed in “frayed and faded petticoats” (349).

The dim interior of the couple’s small house is contrasted with the beautiful summer day. As Jeff waits for Jennie to get dressed, he “tenderly” gazes over the acres of land that he has farmed for the past 45 years. Jennie urges him to bring their car around to the front of the house, but he finds himself stuck in place as he thinks about the trip he and Jennie are planning to take. The mixture of fear and excitement that he feels is the first indication that this is a momentous trip.

Jeff limps around the small house to the shed, where their car, a T-model Ford, is kept. While the car at one time was a “peculiar treasure,” it has broken down over the years. Despite the car’s “sputtering and banging” (351) when he first turns it on, Jeff is confident that it will hold up for their trip. As he starts the car and drives it around to the front of the house, his mind keeps returning to the trip he and Jennie planned. Jeff helps her to the car as they discuss whether they should lock up the house or not, eventually deciding there is no use in doing so. As Jeff assists Jennie in getting into the car, he trembles, and she observes that he must be scared. Though he assures her that he is not scared, he finds himself wishing the car would not start so easily so he would have more time to think about the trip.

As they drive across the countryside, Jeff’s mind begins to wander. He reflects on the difficulties of working as a share farmer for Major Stevenson, who did not provide the necessary resources for his share farmers. Despite this, Jeff finds pride in his strength and looks down on the men he deemed too weak for the challenges of share farming. Jeff’s thoughts also drift to his own children, although he quickly redirects his train of thought. He and Jennie lost all five of their grown children in a span of two years, and Jeff worries that if his thoughts linger on them, he will accidentally say something to upset his wife. He reflects instead on his declining strength, noting that he is increasingly weak and fearful in his daily life.

As they continue driving, Jennie asks whether they have passed Delia Moore’s house yet. Delia is a well-known figure in the community who earned the dislike of women like Jennie because she conducted herself improperly; the other women in the community view her as a threat because of her “ways with menfolks” (353). Jennie is especially suspicious of Delia because of the way she used to smile at Jeff when they were all younger. As they pass by Delia’s house, Jennie inquires whether Delia is sitting outside and can see them. She is satisfied to hear that Delia likely saw them; she hopes that Delia will “chew her gums and fret” (353) as she wonders where Jennie is going dressed in her best clothes.

The road smooths out, indicating that Jeff and Jennie are nearing the river that runs through the countryside. They discuss how many bales of cotton they currently have on their farm, noting that no amount will be enough to get them out from under the debt they owe Major Stevenson. Soon, Jennie begins to cry, observing how sad it is that they are leaving behind everything they know. She begins to question whether they should really take this trip; although Jeff is terrified to hear that Jennie is also having doubts, he reassures her that it is the best thing to do. He notes to himself that he and Jennie are both too old and frail to continue living independently.

As the car approaches a slope from the road to the river below, Jeff becomes terrified and tells Jennie that he can’t go through with the trip. She is not listening to him; he observes that she no longer appears upset or scared. As they sit in the car, Jeff remembers his younger self, the people he knew, and the events that brought him to Greenbrier Plantation to be a share farmer. Feeling a sudden sense of calm, Jeff steers the car onto the slope and pushes down on the accelerator. The car crashes into the water and disappears; a little while later, one of the wheels appears above the water as the crushed, flipped car becomes stuck in a shallow part of the river.

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