This is the other Shirley Jackson short story – you know, besides “the Lottery”. I kid. She has MANY great short stories and novels. It’s simply the one everyone thinks of when they think of her work (and the surprise ending that really isn’t a surprise if you’re reading it carefully). Though they do have much in common. Both are about how humanity can let you down (particularly Country Folk who are set in their ways – or any folk who are set in their ways). Both are written in that deceptively simple 1960s no-nonsense fashion where every word has an impact and can be read in more than one way. On the surface of both not much is happening and the audience is lulled into a sense of mundane comfort, not realizing that something terrible is happening…until it’s too late!
I often have to go back and re-read a Shirley Jackson story after I have finished it, because I always get to last sentence with a sense of doom, but can’t figure out why. (Which is what makes her work so magical.) Subtext is the key to her work.
So, with that, let’s exam “the Summer People”. On the surface of it, it’s a simple story. A retired couple, the Allisons, decide to stay a little longer – one more month – at their summer cottage at a lake somewhere in New England instead of packing up and leaving on Labor Day for their home in New York City like all they’ve always done, like all the rest of the New Yorkers who have cabins on the lake have done. The Summer People. The Allisons agree that this seems like a simple thing – they decide this a few days before Labor Day. What could go wrong?
It turns out that the natives, the country folk who call them the Summer People and who have to share their lake with them, are none too plussed to hear that two of “them” are staying on. But they don’t say this, instead their irritation is implied. It’s so subtle that even Mrs. Allison having the conversation with one of them doesn’t catch it.
She brags to her local grocer about staying on. “‘It isn’t as though we had anything to take us back to the city,’ she said to Mr. Babcock, her grocer. ‘We might as well enjoy the country while we can.'”
Now, I want to stop here and dissect this scene a bit, and also tackle the subject of subtext while I’m at it.
Miriam Webster defines subtext as, “the implicit or metaphorical meaning (as of a literary text).” Miriam goes on to explain, “a literary text often has more than one meaning, the literal meaning of the words on the page, and their hidden meaning, what exists ‘between the lines’.” In literature, there’s the text (the literal meaning) or rather the actual words and the subtext, what the words are saying beyond their literal definition (between the lines), or rather what they really mean. Sometimes what is on the page is what is being said, so when you read a news report about a car crash, there’s nothing to interpret. It’s a story about a car crash. But if you read a short story about a car crash, the crash could be symbolic for a crashing of two different worlds, a culture crash, perhaps it’s interpreting the modern world as violent. There are many different interpretations of the words on the page. You can read more deeply into the words that are on the page to understand what the author is implying. The words can have more than one meaning (cars crashing versus cultures crashing), can have a different tone (sarcastic, joking, sardonic) or a different tone based on the emotion underlying the telling. Emotional tone can also change the meaning of the words. If you realize that the character is joyful when a sentence is spoken – “I’ve just crashed my car” – the same sentence is going to mean something completely different if the character speaks it angrily.
In the quoted example Mrs. Allison means what she says, but because “the city doesn’t have anything to take them back to,” she’s implying that she’s starting to no longer be a Summer Person, meaning she realizes that she is getting older and that her personal Autumn is arriving.
But to me, what is more interesting is Mr. Babcock’s reaction to what she says. I doubt that he is hearing her statement as matter-of-fact as we the audience do. We don’t see anything wrong with what she’s just said. “We might as well enjoy the country while we can.” Sounds to me like she likes it there and is treating it as a paradise. But it occurred to me as I re-read it that it might irritate Mr. Babcock who doesn’t get to chose whether he lives in the country or not. He might also read her statement of “enjoying the country” as her treating his home as if it’s something as trivial as a golf course or an amusement park – not important like big and glamorous New York City.
He responds with “Nobody ever stayed at the lake past Labor Day before.” He looks at reflectively into her bag of cookies and says, “Nobody.” It sounds like the solid statement of someone set in his ways – he’s certain that this is how the world is and it cannot change. Perhaps repeating “nobody” is a firmer statement than Mrs. Allison realizes. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, but it won’t. He won’t allow it. The second “nobody” could mean “not even you, Mrs. Allison – oh, no, you don’t!” Perhaps some can hear shock in his voice, but I can hear the unstated anger.
He later berates her after she says, “‘But the city!’ Mrs. Allison always spoke of the city to Mr. Babcock as though it were Mr. Babcock’s dream to go there. ‘It’s so hot – you’ve really no idea. [Ed: Oh, doesn’t he?] We’re always sorry when we leave [the country].”
I can hear how Mr. Babcock might read her statement as demeaning. Why is she assuming that he couldn’t possibly know what the city is like? She’s assuming that he’s never been, or even worse, that he is so simple-minded that he couldn’t possibly understand her point of view.
His response tells it all. “’Hate to leave,’ Mr. Babcock said.” And here the text goes into Mrs. Allison’s point of view and this is where you realize the strangeness in the way he said it to her. “One of the most irritating native tricks Mrs. Allison had noticed was that of taking a trivial statement and rephrasing it downwards, into an even more trite statement.”
After that bit of text, you go back to that quote and you can hear it spoken in monotone as if he were holding back his anger. Perhaps you can even hear that tiny bit of sarcasm in his voice mimicking hers in a demeaning way. You can, can’t you? Yes, it’s there, just not in the written words. Instead she hears it and it takes on new meaning. He’s calling her fake and insincere without barely saying anything at all. Instead of telling her this, he repeats, “Nobody stays after Labor Day.”
The first time he says this, it’s shock, the second is to tell her how it is (explaining the rules to her), but the third time is a threat. Leave or else.
She doesn’t catch it, she just leaves irritated that he doesn’t appreciate that she is staying, or that he is so rude with her. She goes onto a different shop where the clerk there is a kindly old man – who has already heard the news (because news spreads that fast in small towns). He also repeats the phrase, but he’s probably feeling sorry for the Allisons.
He says, “Don’t know about staying on up there to the lake. Not after Labor Day.” This could well be a warning, turn away while you still can. He also repeats the phrase three times, but the last time he deliberately counts back her change as he says it. Perhaps this is his way of subtly telling her to pay attention to what he is saying, “I’m telling you something important.”
So, why don’t they just say, “don’t stay.” That’s a good question. I suppose the speculation is what keeps the reader coming back to the story again and again to dig into why they didn’t just say. Perhaps they believe that it’s rude to say it out right? Perhaps they know better than to tell New Yorkers who believe they know everything what to do? Perhaps to them the rule is that no one stays past Labor Day and that is that – nothing more needs to be said. Perhaps they feel they don’t have to say anything more? Even though that’s exactly what they’re doing just without being direct.
Ironically, Mrs. Allison quips as she leaves the store about how simple and honest country folk are. But they aren’t – not at all. In fact, the brand new dishes that the kindly clerk sold her have a chip in them. They go back to their cabin that has no electricity or running water, they are dependent on kerosene lamps, stoves and a cistern of water (as well as an outhouse). The man who sells them their summer supply won’t sell them any more after Labor Day. He sites reasons that she is able to explain away. Every reason he gives aren’t actually very valid (he somehow isn’t able to sell any more kerosene until November – and he somehow doesn’t barely have enough for one couple for one month even after he admits he has some). In other words, he won’t sell her any. She calls Mr. Babcock at the store to order some, but somehow delivery of kerosene is impossible. His reasons aren’t terribly valid either.
They then discover that their car’s lines have been cut. The phone calls that they had trouble getting through, because no one picked up, now don’t go at all. The phone lines have been cut. The batteries in their radio are dying and a winter storm is approaching.
They get a strange letter from their son in Chicago who they haven’t heard from in months – not a phone call, not even a post card. He congratulates them on staying past Labor Day. A decision that they didn’t make until a few days ago. But the most chilling part of the letter is when it echoes exactly what Mrs. Allison said to Mr. Babcock.
“You ought to get what fun while you can.” (Remember her statement about “enjoying the country while we can.”) It also echoes her statement to Mr. Babcock about the city demanding less of her time. Later it mentions that someone in their son’s office about their age passing away (hint, hint) and finishes with, “and don’t bother hurrying back.”
This statement on its surface seems affectionate to Mrs. Allison when she thinks it’s from her son – even though she mentions that the voice seems a little off, not quite like him, but she can’t place it. But if we the audience consider that it’s been written by someone who has read all of their children’s letters, can mimic their son’s handwriting and actually does know (I mean, how can he) that they’re staying past Labor Day – like they shouldn’t – suddenly the letter sounds less affectionate and more threatening.
Read it, “Dear Mother and Dad…Am glad this goes to the lake as usual, we always thought you came back too soon and ought to stay up there as long as you could. Alice says that now that you’re not as young as you used to be and have no demands on your time, fewer friends, etc., in the city, you ought to get what fun you can while you can. Since you two are both happy up there, it’s a good idea for you to stay… [the text talks about how Mrs. Allison isn’t sure about whether this letter is from her son or not and then continues] “ – and of course if they get measles, etc., now they will be better of later. Alice is well, of course, me too. Been playing a lot of bridge lately with some people you don’t know, named Carruthers. Nice young couple, about our age. Well, will close now as I guess it bores you to hear about things so far away. Tell Dad Old Dickson, in our Chicago office, died. He used to ask about Dad a lot. Have a good time at the lake, and don’t bother about hurrying back.”
The subtext of the letter (it’s underlying meaning) changes when the audience considers that it couldn’t be written by their son. He couldn’t possibly know that they were staying past Labor Day. Perhaps there are other hints – measles isn’t curable, and young couples in the 1960s didn’t play Bridge. But it is easy to imagine that it has been written by someone who knows they’re staying, who still has to deal with measles (certainly not someone in Chicago) and someone old fashioned enough to still play Bridge (like a kindly old store keeper?). The most menacing part of the letter is the last sentence, “Don’t bother about hurrying back.” In the end, they aren’t able to hurry back – ever.