The Summer People by Shirley Jackson: Analysis & Summary

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Virginia has a Master's degree in Curriculum and Development and a Ph.D. in English

'The Summer People' is a rather creepy and mysterious short story by author Shirley Jackson. A New York City couple encounter sinister resistance when they decide to stay at their summer cottage past Labor Day.

About the Author

Shirley Jackson is a noted 20th century American writer, best known for her short story 'The Lottery,' which depicts a sinister and gruesome ritual taken for granted as normal in a small American village. Another of her works, the 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, has been described as possibly the best ghost story ever written. Jackson died of heart failure in 1965 at home in Vermont, at the relatively young age of 48. 'The Lottery' has continued to be a staple of literature education in the US.

The Plot of 'Summer People'

The short story 'Summer People' has a similar tone and style as ' The Lottery.' This particular story takes place in a small town north of New York City, where many folks spend the summer to escape the heat and confinement of their city life. At the beginning of the story, nothing seems unusual at all: Mr. and Mrs. Allison have spent many summers in their quiet and primitive summer cottage by the lake.

An Ordinary Summer Cottage
Summer Cottage

However, this year, they have determined to break their habit and remain for a while after Labor Day. After all, their children are grown and they're retired, so they may as well stay on and enjoy the quiet, simple life. At this point in the story, the reader will probably feel that this will be a pleasant, relatively uneventful short story - unless that reader is familiar with Jackson's style. In that case, you might find yourself looking for a sinister tone running through the gentle plot.

As the Allisons spend a shopping day in the village, buying extra supplies for their extra time in the country, they mention to each merchant that they are not returning to the city as usual.

A Shopping Trip in the Village
Country Store

And each villager voices the same skeptical reply: 'Nobody ever stayed at the lake past Labor Day before.'

Even so, Mr. and Mrs. Allison return home and resume their peaceful cottage life. However, when the kerosene delivery man is called out to the house, Mrs. Allison receives the troubling news that there will be no kerosene available (at least not for city people) after Labor Day. Nothing she says can change the man's mind.

The next strategy to get some kerosene delivered is to call Mr. Babcock at the general store. He claims he can't deliver because, after Labor Day, his summer delivery help is gone. Yet, the couple are still not alarmed. Mr. Allison determines to go into town the next day to fetch a supply of kerosene.

But when he goes out to start his errand the following day, the car won't start. As a reader, you now must surely be wondering what's going on. It seems there is some kind of force working against the innocent middle-aged couple. Mr. Allison tries to call the mechanic in town, but there is no answer.

The Allisons try to rationalize their difficulties, and Mr. Allison goes to get the mail. To their delight, there is a letter from their son, Jerry. As they read the letter, however, they both realize that the wording and tone of the letter sound absolutely nothing like their son. What is going on?!

Mr. Allison tries once again to call the mechanic, and finds that the phone is now dead. Realizing that there is indeed some plot against them afoot, they must admit that the phone wire has been cut - and the car engine has been tampered with.

Now, there is a storm coming in. Dark clouds are threatening, and the poor couple are entirely cut off from any help.

The Storm Coming In
Storm

Finally, it becomes apparent to the reader that there is something very wrong with the idyllic picture first presented of the happy couple in their summer cottage. After all, they stayed after Labor Day. And that is obviously against the rules.

Analysis

If you have read 'The Lottery' when you first encounter 'Summer People,' you might be looking for twists in the simple plot from the start. The foreshadowing of the final outcome really begins with the first time one of the locals informs the Allisons that no one ever stays past Labor Day. At first, it just seems rather eccentric, maybe even rude, but certainly not sinister.

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