Four Summers

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Four Summers

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading

Joyce Carol Oates


Joyce Carol Oates's short story "Four Summers," initially appeared in The Yale Review in spring 1967 and the next year was included in The American Literary Anthology. Subsequently, the story was included in Oates's story collections The Wheel of Love (1970), Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Stories of Young America (1974), and in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Selected Early Stories (1993). It also appears in anthologies such as Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Fiction (2001). Like many of Oates's early stories, "Four Summers" takes childhood and the family as its subjects and explores the pain and confusion that accompanies a young person's introduction into the adult world. In four short sections, each describing incidents from four summers, Oates chronicles the changes of Sissie, the narrator, as she moves from childhood to adulthood, trying to understand what she should do and who she should be. By using a first-person point of view, Oates gives readers insight into the thoughts and motivations of a young girl who is coming of age. The story's language is spare and accessible, and young women, in particular, will be able to identify with Sissie's responses to events and changing perceptions. Oates draws on her own working-class upbringing in developing her characters.

Author Biography

A celebrated professor at Princeton University and one of contemporary literature's most prolific authors, Joyce Carol Oates comes from humble beginnings. Born in Lockport, New York, on June 16, 1938, to Frederic James Oates, a tool and die designer, and Caroline Bush Oates, a homemaker, Oates began her education in a one-room country schoolhouse, the same one her mother attended decades before her. She developed her interest in storytelling as a child, constructing elaborate illustrated books while still in elementary school. At Syracuse University, where she studied philosophy and literature, she churned out a novel a term, flabbergasting her professors. Her favorite authors during this time included Franz Kafka and William Faulkner. Oates broke into the publishing world in 1959, when she was named co-winner of the Made-moiselle College Fiction Award for her short story "In the Old World," which subsequently appeared in that magazine. In 1960, she received her bachelor's degree, serving as class valedictorian.

The turning point in Oates's career came in 1961 while she was studying for her Ph.D. in English at Rice University in Houston, where she had moved to be with her husband, Raymond Smith. After discovering that one of her stories had been cited in the honor roll in the latest volume of Martha Foley's Best American Short Stories, Oates decided to quit graduate school and become a full-time writer. She published her first novel, With Shuddering Fall, in 1964 and since then has published plays, novels, short story and poetry collections, and critical studies. Though she draws on her childhood experience for much of her early fiction, as evidenced in pieces such as "Four Summers," Oates's subjects in her later work are varied, ranging from boxing to Shakespeare. In interviews, she sometimes describes her writing as a form of daydreaming that she revises minimally. However, critics have praised her technical skills and willingness to experiment with narrative structure as much as they have her intellect and energy.

Since winning the Mademoiselle award, Oates has accumulated a mind-boggling number of prizes for her writing, including five National Book Award nominations. In 1970, she won the award for her novel them. Other awards include more than twenty O. Henry Awards for individual stories; National Endowment for the Arts grants; a Guggenheim Fellowship; a National Institute of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Foundation Award; the Lotos Club Award of Merit; the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Lifetime Achievement in American Literature; the PEN/Malamud Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Short Story; the Bram Stoker Award for Life Achievement; the Bobst Award for Lifetime Achievement in Fiction; and the Rhea Award for the short story. Her books of stories, poems, plays, and criticism have been nominated for scores of other awards as well. Oates's most recent work includes her novel Beasts (2002), her story collection Faithless: Tales of Transgression (2001), and a collection of poems, Tenderness (1996).

Plot Summary

Part 1

"Four Summers" refers to the four summers that Sissie, the narrator, recounts during the course of the story. In this first section, she is with her parents and brothers at a lakefront tavern. It is early afternoon, a parade has recently disbanded, and men in uniforms are all around. The setting resembles that of Memorial Day. While her parents drink beer with their friends from the old neighborhood, the children pester them for a ride in a boat. The boys, Jerry and Frank, play by themselves, and Sissie stays close to her mother. Lenore's cousin, Sue, gives Sissie a sip of beer, which she does not like. The couples discuss people from the old neighborhood such as Duane Dorsey, a "nut" who was always in trouble, and June Dieter, who now has a serious disease. The war they discuss is probably World War II.

At the end of the section, the children see a blackbird flailing in the scum on the water's surface. One of the children pokes it with a stick, and others, including Frank, throw stones at it. Sissie writes: "I watch them throw stones. I am standing at the side. If the bird dies, then everything can die." Sentences like these mark Sissie's innocence and her position as observer.

Much of the dialogue does not have attribution, and so readers have to infer who is speaking from the context. Ernest Hemingway popularized this kind of spare, elliptical writing in his short stories and novels.

Part 2

In this section, Sissy is at the boathouse tavern again with her father and Jerry. Oates marks the passage of time through details about the characters: for example, her mother has had another baby, and Frank is at a stock car race. Jerry is twelve years old, and Sissie says he is "like Dad, the way his eyes look." Jerry says he hates his father, remarking, "All he does is drink." Jerry and Sissie wait for their father to take them on a boat ride to an island in the center of the lake. Throughout the section, Sissie describes the loudness and vulgarity of the tavern and the men who drink there. Sissie's descriptions in this section also focus on her father, whom she both admires and fears. When they arrive at the island, it is different from the way Sissy and Jerry thought it would be. At the end of the section, the children witness their father vomiting into the water, sick from drinking and rowing.

Part 3

In this section, Sissie is fourteen years old and displays all the thinking and behavior of one her age. She is self-conscious, cocky, sarcastic, angry, and hateful towards almost everyone. Lamenting that she cannot attend the show with her friends Marian and Betty, because she has to help her mother take care of her baby sister, she says, "Poor fat Linda, with her runny nose!" The setting is again the boathouse tavern. The characters present include Sissie, her mother and father, her baby sister, and her aunt Lucy and her uncle Joe. In the first part of this section, the adults bicker about how to secure tickets for a game show, with the women speaking admiringly of the emcee, Howie Masterson, and the men claiming he and the show are phony. In the second part, Sissie encounters a man in the tavern who sweet talks her and then attempts to seduce her. Showing her bravado, Sissie walks with him for a bit, and then after he kisses her and becomes sexually excited, she runs away.

Part 4

It is five years later, and Sissie is nineteen years old, married, and pregnant. She and her husband, Jesse, stop at the Lakeside Bar, the same tavern she had come to with her parents in previous summers. Oates uses the proper name of the place now, as Sissie is now an adult. The way she sees the bar is different from the way she remembers it. It is smaller now and "dirtier." Her description is in keeping with the differences between how human beings perceive the world when they are young and when they are adults. Sissie reflects on the times she and her family had come to the bar. She sees a man she thinks might be the same one who kissed her

when she was fourteen, but she is not sure and so says nothing to her husband. Sissie mixes description of the bar with information about what has happened in the last five years, including a mention of her father's accidental death at the factory. She also compares her own life with her parents' and hopes that Jesse, whom she describes as being like her father, will not turn out like him. At the end of the story, readers are left with an image of a young woman who is still struggling to understand her past, the choices she has made, and what has shaped her desires.


Duane Dorsey

Duane Dorsey is a former neighbor of Sissie's family. He is frequently in trouble with the law and was recently arrested for breaking windows in his mother-in-law's house. Harry and Sue's husband discuss Duane's antics at the Lakeside Bar.


Frank is the oldest brother. In the first section, Sissie says he is ten years old and "very big." With other children, he cruelly throws stones at a blackbird drowning in the water's muck. During the second summer he is at a stock car race with his friends.


Harry is Sissie's father. He is handsome, muscular, and suntanned. Sissie describes him as a hard-drinking man who "is always in a hurry to get things done." Although he has a troubled relationship with his sons, Jerry and Frank, he treats Sissie well. Harry works the night shift at the factory, telling Uncle Joe, "I can sleep during the day. What's the difference?" Although he takes Jerry and Sissie for a ride to the island in the middle of the lake during the second summer, he generally ignores his children, spending time at the bar talking with his friends. This is his natural element and the place he is happiest. In conversation, Harry is bitter and angry, saying that his father "is better off dead" and frequently quarreling with his wife. He dies after an accident at the factory, somewhere between Sissie's fourteenth and nineteenth years.


Jerry is the middle child who appears in the first two sections of the story. During the first summer he is around eight years old, and in the second he is twelve, with "pimples on his forehead and chin." Sissie says, "Jerry is like Dad, the way his eyes look." And, like his father, he is angry. Referring to his father, Jerry tells Sissie, "All he does is drink … I hate him." After Jerry, Sissie, and Harry row to the island, Sissie and Jerry watch as their father throws up over the side of the boat.


Jimmy is a young soldier who sits and drinks with the two couples at the Lakeside Bar. He is very young but old enough to drink beer. His face is "raw in spots, broken out," but Sissie says he has "nice eyes." His parents, like Harry's, are from the "Old Country."

Uncle Joe

With his wife, Lucy, Joe appears during the third summer. Sissie says he is tired all the time, that he has a gut, a saggy jaw, and a "bald head with the little fringe of gray hair on it," which Sissie claims to hate. Nonetheless, Sissie describes him as "handsome." Joe agrees with Harry that game show host Howie Masterson is a "phony."


Lenore is Harry's wife and the mother of Frank, Jerry, and Sissie. In the first summer, she is "pretty" and shows Sissie affection and attention. By the third summer, she is a loud-mouthed drunkard who no longer cares about her physical appearance and who tells her youngest child, Linda, that she was "an accident" and that she did not want her. Like her husband, she is prone to angry outbursts.

Aunt Lucy

Aunt Lucy appears during the third summer with her husband Joe. She has false teeth that Sissie believes make "everyone stare at her." Lucy wrote a letter to Howie Masterson, emcee of a game show, which the couples discuss.

Media Adaptations

  • A number of Oates's stories have been adapted into films, including her short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" This story was made into the 1985 film Smooth Talk, directed by Joyce Chopra and starring Laura Dern and Treat Williams.
  • Another adaptation of an Oates's novel is We Were the Mulvaneys (2002), directed by Peter Werne and starring Blythe Danner and Beau Bridges.
  • Released as a two-part television movie, Blonde, an adaptation of an Oates's novel of the same name, was shown in 2001. Joyce Chopra directed the film, which stars Ann-Margaret, Eric Bogosian, and Griffith Dunne.


Sissie is the narrator of the story, who details events from four summers of her life. These summers depict Sissie's childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Since Sissie is the narrator, readers never see her outside of her own self-descriptions. The only physical descriptions she provides are in the third section, when she is fourteen years old. Sissie says of herself, "My legs are too thin, my figure is flat." In the last section, she notes, "My secret is that I am pretty like everyone is … I have a pink mouth and plucked darkened eyebrows and soft bangs over my forehead."

Sissie's emotional development, while typical in some ways, is heavily influenced by her family dynamics. Her parents are working-class drinkers who "chose" the only life they knew. They display the characteristics of people overwhelmed by their circumstances, responding to events rather than initiating them, and settling into a life of lowered expectations, alcoholism, lethargy, and gossip. Sissie's descriptions of her family show an awareness of how she too is being shaped to be like her parents. However, this awareness appears to come too late—after she is pregnant and has married someone just like her father.


Sue is Lenore's cousin, and she and her husband are with Harry and Lenore at the Lakeside Bar during the first summer. Like the others, Sue is drinking. She is enamored of Sissie, calling her "cute" and saying that she wishes she had a daughter like her. From her comment and her husband's response to it, readers can infer that she is perhaps childless. She offers Sissie beer, which disturbs her husband, but Sissie eventually takes a sip after being encouraged by her mother. Sissie describes Lenore as having "darkish" teeth, with pale skin and blotches on her red face.

Sue's Husband

Sissie describes Sue's husband as "a big man with a thick neck." A volunteer fireman who just finished marching in the parade, he is loud and at times violent, cursing at his wife and making comments about her appearance and weight. "His eyebrows are blond, lighter than his hair, and are thick and tufted," Sissie remarks. Sue says that he spends most of his weekends drinking in the backyard, leaving the house in disrepair.



Oates questions the possibility that romantic love provides fulfillment for individuals and the idea that romantic love and marriage are necessarily linked. In doing so, she undermines the notion that romantic love, particularly as it is embodied in the institution of marriage, remains both a means and an end to a satisfying life. Sissie's depiction of her own parents' marriage and that of Sue and her husband suggest, instead, that marriages are often more like contractual obligations from which both parties cannot extricate themselves. Sue's husband belittles his wife, while she in turn mocks his laziness and drinking. Sissie describes the relationships between her own parents as one dominated by drinking and quarreling. She even questions her own marriage to Jesse, hoping, against evidence to the contrary, that he will be different from her father. Of her own marriage, Sissie says, "Like my parents' love, it will subside someday."

Free Will

Western, and especially American, notions of individuality are built upon the idea that human beings are free to choose their own destinies. Sissie's experience suggests just the opposite. Throughout the first three summers, she describes her parents' marriage and her family in generally unappealing terms. Her father works constantly, and when he is not working, he is drinking. She is not close to either of her brothers, and one of them, Jerry, says he "hates" his father. Though she is sympathetic to her mother, she describes her in unflattering terms, writing that she looks "queer" and is "fat," with varicose veins darkening her legs. In the third section, the fourteen-year-old Sissie catalogues what she "hates" and thinks is "ugly." These things include her baby sister, Linda, the boathouse tavern, and Howie Masterson. Yet, in the last section, Sissie is married and pregnant at nineteen, to a man very much like her father—loud and working-class. Though confused by her "choices," Sissie rationalizes them. Her attitude towards her own life is embodied in her description of her husband's. Of him and of men like him, Sissie writes, "Their lives are like hands dealt out to them in their innumerable card games: You pick up the sticky cards, and there it is: there it is. Can't change anything."


Though she never uses the word "class," Sissie's description of her family underscores the idea that human beings are social animals, whose opportunities in life are determined by their socioeconomic status. The activities she describes—beer drinking, card playing, her father's factory work, and so forth—and the desires of her family, such as wanting to be contestants on a television game show, mark working-class life. Sissie describes the trappings of such a life in stereotypical class terms, focusing on how "loud" her parents talk, their constant bickering, and her father's friends' language (e.g., the bartender's use of the word "nigger"). Though she is obviously repelled by these things, Sissie nonetheless finds herself duplicating the very same kind of life.


Point of View

Point of view refers to the perspective from which a story is told. Oates uses a first-person point of view, as Sissie narrates the events of four summers. In these events, Sissie, the story's "I," is alternately observer and participant. Sissie is not, however, Oates herself but a character Oates creates to relay ideas about growing up in a working-class American family. Sissie is a reliable narrator insofar as her actions, language, and perceptions reflect her age in the story's parts. However, her descriptions must be read in light of her character, which both influences and is influenced by those around her. Other stories in The Wheel of Love are told using second- and third-person points of view. In the latter, the narrator presents action without commenting on it and without insight into characters' thoughts; in the former, the narrator uses the pronoun "you" as if addressing the reader.

Topics for Further Study

  • Write a story of your own emotional development from childhood through adolescence or adulthood (whichever is appropriate) following the method laid out by Oates in "Four Summers". Do this by writing about an event or events in four different summers.
  • Reflect on your own experiences as a fourteen-year-old. Is Oates's representation of Sissie's thinking and behavior in the third section typical of someone that age? Discuss as a class.
  • Compose a list of your parents' character traits, and then compare them with the lists of other students. Do you notice traits in your parents that you feel you want to emulate or escape? Evaluate in groups why or how you might take on or deny certain traits, describing how social and economic conditions have shaped your outlooks and observations.
  • Break up into four groups. Each group is charged with adapting one section of Oates's story for the stage and is responsible for writing a script for that section. Make sure that each group member has a role, either writing, acting, directing, or securing and managing props. After each group has performed its scene, discuss the respective performances as a class.
  • What are some of the activities you associate with the following terms: "working class," "middle class," "upper class," "blue collar?" Into what class would you place your own family? Discuss as a class.
  • Sissie describes her parents as arguing all the time. In groups, discuss some of the possible reasons they argue, supporting your claims with evidence from the story.
  • "Four Summers" ends with the nineteen-yearold Sissie married and pregnant, sitting with her husband in the Lakeside Bar. Write the fifth section, picking up Sissie's story five years in the future, when she returns once again to the tavern.


Story refers to what happens; plot refers to how the narrator presents what happens. By organizing the action of "Four Summers" into four sections, each of which details events surrounding Sissie during the course of four days in four summers, Oates is better able to develop her subjects and themes. These include the relationship between free will and determinism, the role of social class in shaping human desire, and the emotional development of a young girl. Since each section of the story deals with events from a different summer, readers have to use their imaginations to fill in what happens to Sissie during the intervening years. By using the present tense, Oates gives the story an emotional immediacy that would otherwise be lost.


Imagery refers to concrete descriptions of the material world that appeal to readers' senses. Symbolic imagery is imagery that resonates with ideas implicit in the text itself. Oates uses symbolic imagery to emphasize the squalidness of Sissie's childhood years and her disdain for the kind of life her parents led. Her descriptions of adults, her parents, and others, for example, highlight the effect of years of drinking and bad food. Sue's face is "blotched … some parts pale and some red," and all the men, except her father, have "big stomachs." In other places, Oates uses symbolic imagery to suggest the situation of Sissie and others like her. For instance, she draws an implicit connection between Sissie and the blackbird trapped in the lake's polluted waters at the end of the first section, writing, "The bird's wings keep fluttering but it can't get out. If it could get free it would fly and be safe, but the scum holds it down."

Historical Context


When "Four Summers" was initially published in 1967, the United States was in turmoil. Not only were American troops fighting the North Vietnamese, but the government was battling antiwar protesters at home. With 429 major and 2,972 minor military bases around the globe, it had set itself up as the world's policeman, often acting covertly to change the political complexion of countries such as the Dominican Republic and Chile. Not only was the Central Intelligence Agency active overseas but President Johnson had also authorized it to conduct surveillance and compile dossiers on protestors at home. The CIA was joined in its efforts by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, run by J. Edgar Hoover, a rabid anticommunist who initiated a wiretapping campaign to discredit civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and directed counterintelligence efforts against government critics. Many of those protesting government involvement in Vietnam belonged to the baby boom generation—those born after World War II. During the 1960s, more than 70 million "boomers" became teenagers and young adults. Those who turned eighteen became eligible for the military draft. It is quite possible that Jimmy, the soldier from the old neighborhood who sits with Sissie's parents at the boathouse tavern in the first section, was drafted.

In the second section of the story, Sissie overhears the bartender of the boathouse use the word "nigger." Such epithets were common in the 1950s and 1960s (and even today) among people who practiced discrimination (consciously or not) against others who were not like them. The Civil Rights movement attempted to change such behavior. Black leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael led peaceful protests and sitins, often joined by non-blacks, advocating for greater representation and equality in law for blacks. In 1964, the Twenty-third Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, outlawing the poll tax, a measure many southern states used to keep blacks from voting, and in 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed, abolishing literacy tests and leading hundreds of thousands of blacks to register to vote. However, resistance to greater black participation in Johnson's "Great Society" continued, and during the mid and late-1960s protests and riots erupted throughout the country in major urban centers such as Detroit, Newark, and Los Angeles. Oates lived in Detroit, teaching English at the University of Detroit between 1962 and 1967, and in her 1969 novel, them, she provides a fictionalized account of events in this city during the summer of 1967, when hundreds of buildings were burned to the ground in a violent week of rioting. During the late 1960s, the term "black" became an acceptable replacement for the word "negro," as leaders such as Malcolm X preached about black pride and groups such as the Black Panthers advocated black separatism. In 1968, Otto Kerner, head of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, blamed the racial unrest on institutionalized white power and racism and claimed the country was moving towards two societies.

Working-class families like Sissie's from small towns and rural America, however, were not rioting in the streets. When children finished their school-work and the adults came home from a day at the factory, they often turned on the television and watched quiz shows, like the one that Sissie's parents and her aunt Lucy and her uncle Joe discuss at the tavern. The possibility of winning "easy money" was irresistible to people like Lenore and Lucy, and shows such as The Price Is Right, People Are Funny, and Do You Trust Your Wife? capitalized on the fantasies of working-class women.

Critical Overview

The reviews for The Wheel of Love were good, though some reviewers had reservations. Writing for Publishers Weekly, Barbara Bannon is effusive in her praise, claiming The Wheel of Love "May well be Joyce Carol Oates's finest collection of short stories yet … the effects on the reader are apt to linger long after he has finished the individual stories." A reviewer for Kirkus Reviews writes, "These rich, intent stories … have the supra-reality of the bleak hours before dawn as Miss Oates' characters, taut with awareness, suffer the last turn on the wheel of love." In a somewhat mixed review for The New York Times Book Review, Richard Gilman calls "Four Summers" one of the best stories in the collection, remarking that it "create[s] a verbal excitement, a sense of language used not for the expression of previously attained insights or perceptions but for new imaginative reality."

Academic critics are paying increasing attention to Oates's work as well. For example, in her essay "Joyce Carol Oates's Craftsmanship in 'The Wheel of Love,"' appearing in Studies in Short Fiction, Joanne V. Creighton makes connections between Oates's narrative techniques and the content of her stories, suggesting that Oates's stories fail as often as they succeed. Creighton argues, "The characters of the collection offer a dismal view of the human being's incapacity to enjoy a healthy and wholesome emotional life." In his study Understanding Joyce Carol Oates, Greg Johnson notes that The Wheel of Love contains a mix of traditional and experimental stories. Johnson writes, "Oates displays the impressive range of fictional technique and subject matter that characterizes all her short story volumes." Johnson praises Oates's ability to "manipulate … formal conventions in order to revitalize the genre."

Compare & Contrast

  • 1960s: Race riots consumed major American cities such as Los Angeles, Detroit, and Newark as African Americans protested economic and political exploitation and police harassment.
    Today: Most Americans see racial conflict and division as major social issues, though the number of violent protests has considerably diminished.
  • 1960s: Television quiz shows such as Play Your Hunch, Concentration, Truth or Consequences, and The Face is Familiar appeal to working- and middle-class American fantasies of easy riches.
    Today: Television quiz shows such as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, The Weakest Link, and The Chair appeal to working- and middle-class American fantasies of easy riches.
  • 1960s: The minimum wage for Americans is $1.00.
    Today: The minimum wage for Americans in 2002 is $5.15.


Chris Semansky

Semansky is an instructor of English literature and composition who writes about literature andculture for various publications. In this essay, Semansky considers the narrator's emotional growth.

Psychologists often chart the development of human beings in stages or phases. Eric Erikson, for instance, lists eight stages of psychosocial development that human beings typically pass through during their lives, including the oral-sensory stage, the stage of adolescence, and the maturity stage. Other psychologists have different models. In "Four Summers," Oates shows Sissie's emotional development through her behavior towards her family and peers, emphasizing both her interconnectedness with others and her quest for individuation.

In the first section, Sissie describes her surroundings in generalities, beginning her story, "It is some kind of special day." Her sentence structure and descriptions are similar to those of a young child. For example, she writes of her mother: "She is pretty when she laughs. Her hair is long and pretty." She refers to her father as "Daddy" and desires to stay by her mother's side rather than play with her brothers Jerry and Frank. Sissie never tells readers how old she is, but she does mention that Frank is ten and "very big." From her descriptions and language, readers can infer that Sissie is around six years old. By primarily using dialogue in this section, Oates dramatizes the action and characterizes Sissie through her responses to what is happening around her. Sue, her mother's cousin, dotes on Sissie, repeatedly calling her "cute," and her father refers to her as "baby." She cannot refuse the adults' desire that she have a sip of beer, remarking, "I have to say yes." The key marker of Sissie's emotional development is her response to the scene at the end of the section, in which her brothers and other children are pelting a drowning blackbird with stones. Sissie remarks, "I watch them throwing stones. I am standing at the side. If the bird dies, then everything can die." This awareness of death and of her own mortality marks Sissie's exit from the world of innocence and her entrance into the world of experience.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Raymond Carver, like Oates, frequently wrote about his working-class upbringing. His collection of stories Cathedral (1983) was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize.
  • Oates's novel them (1969) concerns the race riots in Detroit in the late 1960s, when Oates lived in the city. The novel received the National Book Award in 1970.
  • In 1987, Oates published the critically acclaimed nonfiction study On Boxing, which led to her television appearance as a commentator for a boxing match.
  • Oates often discusses her own working-class background and its influence on her fiction. For a clearer understanding of the work world in America, read Studs Terkel's Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do (1974). Terkel presents the true-life stories of more than one hundred Chicago working people, from the prostitute to the waitress to the rich businessman, taken from interviews with Terkel.

The first section of the story establishes the point of view, and in doing so it draws readers into the story. It is hard not to be sympathetic with a young girl, especially one so passive, innocent, and trusting as Sissie. Since readers understand things that Sissie can only describe but cannot comprehend, they feel a kind of paternal empathy towards the girl. This response only deepens as the adults' behavior becomes more unsavory. Oates also does something else in the first section: she withholds information. By setting her story in four days of Sissie's life, each representative of a phase of her development, Oates creates suspense. Readers become emotionally invested in the story, desiring to discover the trajectory of Sissie's growth.

In the story's second section, readers learn that Sissie has a new baby sister, a fact that will be elaborated on in the third section. Sissie never states her age, but readers can infer that she is younger than her brother Jerry, who is now twelve and "up on the sixth-grade floor." Oates mixes a good dose of Sissie's self-reflection in this section into the dialogue and description. Typical of many ten-yearold girls, Sissie is full of admiration and awe for her father. For example, she describes the men he speaks with at the bar but comments that her father's stomach is not big like the others. She writes, "He has his shirt sleeves rolled up and you can see how strong his arms must be." Sissie dotes on her father, describing how fast he rows and how he smiles. Sissie also notes her older brother Jerry's contempt for their father. Jerry says of their father that, "All he does is drink." When the three are rowing to the island, Harry and Jerry exchange words, and Sissie says her father's face reddens "the way it does at home when he has trouble with Frank." Sissie's father never has a cross word for her, however, calling her "sugar" and generally treating her as his favorite child. Her description of his behavior, however, and of his relationship with her brothers, suggests a dysfunctional family in which open communication is a struggle.

Much of the family's problems stem from the parents' heavy drinking, especially Harry's. For the children, the drinking is a problem; for the adults, it is not. This is typical of how alcoholics view their behavior. Drinking is a regular part of Harry's day, helping him deal with the stress of having four children and a low-paying factory job. In every scene Sissie describes, beer plays a central role. Whether the adults are relaxing at a table or the father is rowing the children across the lake, beer is present, lubricating Harry's every moment. Not only is compulsive and regular drinking part of the alcoholic's lot but so is drinking to excess, which Harry does in the second section, vomiting into the water once he reaches shore.

The father's anger at his children for needing attention and the children's anger at the father for not providing it are also traits of a family marked by alcoholism. Sissie notes that, already at twelve, Jerry has adopted his father's propensity for anger. Aggressive behavior is common among children of alcoholics, and the boys, and Sissy in the third section, show it. Sissie's observation of her brother's similarity to her father foreshadows her own budding awareness in the last section that her own desires have in large part been shaped by her family dynamics.

In the third section, Sissie is fourteen, displaying all the behaviors and attitude of someone that age. She is obnoxious, obsessed with her body, and contemptuous of adults. Her anger is catalyzed by her rampant hormones and shaped by years of watching her parents drink themselves through the day, fighting. Once again, she is inside the tavern with her mother and father, only this time she can no longer stand it. Sissie says, "Inside me there is something that wants to run away, that hates them. How loud they are, my parents!" Being embarrassed by one's parents is a common enough feeling for young teenagers, but the intensity of Sissie's rage asks readers to look more deeply than to mere adolescent growth pains. One place to look is Sissie's description of her mother, whom she describes as oblivious both to her own personal appearance and to her baby, Linda. Sissie recalls her mother screaming at the baby, "Nobody wanted you, it was a [g——d——] accident." Sissie is no longer the cloying six-year-old she was at the story's opening. She is now beginning to individuate, to see herself as separate from her mother and the adults around her. She says, "I narrow my eyes and watch my mother … and think that maybe she isn't my mother after all, and she isn't that pretty girl in the photograph, but someone else." Sissie is also developing an awareness of her own sexuality, flirting with a man she meets in the tavern. Though she is becoming aware of her powers, she is still largely ignorant of her own body, panicking when the man begins to kiss her and asking, "What is he doing? Do they all do this? Do I have to have it done to me too?"

Cut to the last scene in the story, and Sissie is nineteen, pregnant, and married. Oates marks the changes in her perception of the world by having Sissie describe the tavern in detail for the first time. The Lakeside Bar is now "that big old building with the grubby siding, and a big pink neon sign in front, and the cinder driveway that's so bumpy." These details underscore the attention that Sissie now pays to her surroundings as she attempts to make sense out of her life. Like many adults looking back on places of their childhood, the Lakeside Bar does not measure up to her memories. Sissie also pays more attention to herself. In this section, she is consumed with questions about the decisions she has made, and she is tortured by the possibility that she has made a colossal mistake in marrying Jesse. Her responses to the men in the bar, one of whom may be the man she flirted with five years ago, suggest that she is second-guessing her choice of a mate. The paragraphs in this section are the longest in the story and primarily comprise Sissie's thoughts. Rather than delve more deeply into what her responses are telling her, Sissie instead buckles down and attempts to accept her life, to convince herself that all will work out. She says:

I let my hand fall onto my stomach to remind myself that I am in love: with this baby, with Jesse, with everything. I am in love with our house and our life and the future and even this moment—right now—that I am struggling to live through.

One can imagine her mother doing the same thing when she was Sissie's age.

Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on "Four Summers," in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Keith Cushman

In the following essay, Cushman provides an analysis of "Four Summers," asserting that Oates is "more interested in psychology than sociology," and finding the story "another version of American Gothic."

Joyce Carol Oates's "Four Summers" is a rich, rewarding, complex story that has received no critical attention. Featured in James H. Pickering's popular anthology, Fiction 100, the story is being read these days by a large number of students and teachers. In this essay I will try to account for the story's effectiveness.

Mary Kathryn Grant has pointed out that in "Oates's works three themes—women, city, and community—merge into all-too-real nightmare." All these ingredients are present in "Four Summers." The protagonist and narrator, Sissie, is a girl who, like almost all of Oates's heroines, is a victim. The beaten-down characters in the story exist on the periphery of urban life. Community is not possible in such a world; the extremity of Sissie's isolation makes us keenly aware of the absence of community. "Four Summers" contains no overt violence, but the story is sufficiently nightmarish just the same.

The characters in the working-class milieu of "Four Summers" are trapped by their own limitations and by the conditions of American life. They are poorly educated and unable to communicate meaningfully. They yearn to escape from their empty, dreary lives, but no escape is possible. Indeed the abortive effort to escape is a unifying motif in the story.

The social milieu is sharply realized, but social commentary is not the central concern of "Four Summers." Oates feels compassion for the characters in her story and outrage at the system they are part of. Yet she is more interested in psychology than sociology: "Four Summers" is above all a portrait of Sissie. Though she is sensitive and intelligent, she is also unhappy, afraid, and profoundly insecure. In the final analysis "Four Summers"—like so much of Oates's fiction—can be understood as another version of American Gothic. Sissie, an abused, exploited female child, belongs in the same company as such other victimized American heroines as Maisie Verver, Maggie Johnson, and Candace Compson.

"Four Summers" doesn't exactly have a plot. Plot depends on progression and development, but in "Four Summers" people grow older but cannot change. Instead Sissie records four summer outings at the same lakeside tavern. Sissie's compelling descriptions of these four summer days are deeply colored by her anxieties. I will briefly summarize each section of the story here so that I will be able to organize my argument topically and thematically.

Sissie is about five in the first section. The grown-ups sit around playing cards though the children clamor for a boat ride. To amuse themselves Sissie's mother and her mother's friend give the terrified girl a drink of beer. The section ends with one of her brothers, frustrated and angry, and other children stoning a bird caught in some scum while Sissie stands watching. In the second section Sissie's father rows her, now about ten years old, and a brother to a nearby island, but this attempt at parental concern is just as wretched as the neglect in the first section. The island turns out to be a miniature wasteland, and the father, sick from too much exertion after too much beer, starts throwing up. In the third section Sissie is fourteen, rebellious but afraid to rebel. She leaves the tavern, flirts with a man outside, and then runs back into the tavern when he starts to molest her. In the fourth section Sissie, nineteen, married, and pregnant, tries to convince herself that she is happy, but she knows she isn't.

"Four Summers" is bound together not only by its unity of place and mood but also by its careful manipulation of imagery and motifs. Sissie grows in sophistication and self-awareness throughout the story, but at the end she is just as frightened as she was at the beginning. The final section provides resolution only in the sense that after all her yearning to escape from her parents' world, she is now irrevocably trapped by her marriage and pregnancy. "Four Summers" is painful to read because it forces the reader to experience Sissie's entrapment in all its oppressiveness and does so four times over. Even though the reader soon realizes that there is no exit for Sissie, he cannot help hoping that somehow she will escape.

Oates's clever control of point of view is an important element in the story's effect on the reader. Sissie narrates the story of each of the four days. This narration is so convincing in the way it captures both Sissie's character and the world she describes that it is possible to overlook the sleight-of-hand act that Oates is performing.

Consider, for example, that Maisie Verver's developing consciousness is presented to the reader only via James's narrative mediation. James translates his young heroine's thoughts and feelings into his own elevated language. This is often handled for comic effect, but, more importantly, he solves the technical problem of how to present the consciousness of a character too young to create an extended narrative. Mark Twain allows Huckleberry Finn to tell his own story, but often Huck becomes merely a mask for Twain's own voice and sensibility.

In "Four Summers" Oates must convince us that a very young child can tell her own story. It's not even possible to explain logically the relationship between Sissie's words and her audience. She isn't telling her story to anyone, nor is there any premise that she is writing it down (which in any case would be impossible except in the fourth section). Neither is the narration a representation of her stream-of-consciousness, for it is neat and coherent. The story is not logically credible as a narrative presented by Sissie unless it is the mature Sissie who is conjuring up in retrospect those earlier days and earlier selves. Sissie the child could not possibly present such polished accounts of her miserable summer days. Furthermore, she is sometimes endowed with a reflectiveness beyond her years. It is not likely that a five-year-old, watching older children throw stones at a bird, could observe that "if the bird dies, then everything can die."

And yet for the most part the reader accepts the narrative without question. Oates relies in part on the conventional nature of first-person narrative and the reader's willingness—and eagerness—to accept that convention. We also accept Sissie's narration because in each section Oates convinces us that she is accurately conveying the sensibility of the growing girl. This sensibility is so strikingly captured that most readers are not apt to notice the violation of credibility. Let me briefly illustrate how Oates registers the consciousness of her young heroine at four different ages.

"It is some kind of special day," the five-yearold Sissie reports at the beginning of the story, articulating the child's dim perception of the mysterious workings of the adult world (and in retrospect making the reader wonder what the ordinary days must be like if this one is special). The diction is understandably at its simplest in this section, and so are the perceptions: "When I run around her chair she laughs and hugs me. She is pretty when she laughs. Her hair is long and pretty." When a courting couple rows up to the dock, laughing together, Sissie—too young to be aware of sexual relationships—simply observes "two people come in, a man and a woman." Sissie is the little sister, tagging along after her brothers with her "bag of potato chips."

Sissie at about ten in section II is more able to generalize about herself and her world. She notices that "Jerry is like Dad." She has a changed relationship with her father, "always in a hurry to get things done," who is now "like a stranger." The fact that her father's appearance "surprises" her reveals her greater awareness. Her mother has changed from "Ma" to "Mommy." Sissie at ten can relate present to past. The men who hang around the tavern "are familiar. We have been seeing them for years."

Sissie at fourteen is in the throes of puberty, worried that "my legs are too thin, my figure is flat and not nice like Marian's." She now has fantasies of running away from her parents, whom she finds embarrassing. Oates masterfully captures the sensibility of the young teen-aged girl at this awkward age: "Where would I rather be? With Marian and Betty at the movies, or in my room, lying on the bed and staring at the photographs of movie stars on my walls—those beautiful people that never say anything—while out in the kitchen my mother is waiting for my father to come home so they can continue their quarrel." She has become openly scornful of family members: "And my aunt Lucy and uncle Joe, they're here. Try to avoid them." Self-conscious and insecure, she crosses "through the crowded tavern, … conscious of people looking at me."

Only in the final section has Sissie evolved into full consciousness. Her voice is now mature though self-divided. The completeness of her self-awareness means only that the trap is closed. She is now able to perceive her world with great clarity: "It's the Lakeside Bar. That big old building with the grubby siding, and a big pink neon sign in front, and the cinder driveway that's so bumpy. Yes, everything the same. But different too—smaller, dirtier." Sissie's insights now display a high level of awareness and even poignancy, as when she wonders why the worn-out men in the tavern are "always tired" and why they "flash their teeth when they smile, but stop smiling so quickly." Sissie at nineteen is very much the same person she was at five, ten, and fourteen, but Oates makes us believe in the growing-up and in the changes in consciousness along the way.

Sissie is finally a very typical Joyce Carol Oates heroine, which means, as Grant has put it, that she is one of those "frustrated, neurotic human beings psychically crippled by the events of their lives and the tragic frustrations with which they cannot cope." Sissie is dominated by her fear and insecurity. Though she wants to act, she is paralyzed by her self-doubt.

Sissie's parents are not cruel people. Instead they are insensitive, too absorbed in their own unhappiness to pay much attention to Sissie, the third of their four children and their first daughter. We never learn Sissie's real name. She is simply "Sissie," most likely a child's diminutive for sister, a detail which suggests her neglect. Sissie's brothers have to fend for themselves too, but since they are boys, this sort of independence receives support. Sissie's lot has always been to tag along: "The boys run out back by the rowboats, and I run after them." Though the brothers tolerate Sissie, "they don't like me, I can see it."

Above all Sissie feels unwanted. At one crucial point she remembers her mother screaming at her little sister:

"Well, nobody wanted you, kid," she once said to Linda. Linda was a baby then, one year old. Ma was furious, standing in the kitchen where she was washing the floor, screaming: "Nobody wanted you, it was a goddamn accident! An accident!" That surprised me so I didn't now what to think, and I didn't know if I hated Ma or not; but I kept it all a secret …

This nightmarish scene must have left a big impact. It resonates against—and contributes to—Sissie's own feelings of being unwanted.

Sissie's personality is dominated by fear that leaves her nearly paralyzed. It is inadequate to remark that she is a detached, isolated outsider and observer: except for the dialogue with the man who paws her in the parking lot, we scarcely even see her talking. Instead we watch her "standing at the side," observing intensely, consumed by her fear.

That fear is everywhere in the story. In the first section as she looks at a man leaning against the railing overlooking the lake, she is "afraid it will break and he will fall into the water." The scene in which the unthinking adults make her drink the beer vividly captures the terror of childhood. She is also frozen with terror as her brother and the other children kill the bird caught in the scum.

Sissie's fear is also explicitly present in each of the other three sections. In the second section as her father rows her and her brother toward the island, she sits "very still, facing him, afraid to move." She is "afraid to look at" the brother "when he's mad." When they reach the island, "the boat bumps; it hurts me. I am afraid." When she sees her father throwing up, she runs after her brother, "afraid." In the third section as she begins to flirt with the man, she tells herself five times that she isn't afraid—heavily underscoring her fear. Just before the man begins to kiss and caress her, she acknowledges that "something frightens me;" he "sees I'm afraid." When the kissing begins, "something dazzling and icy rushes up in me, an awful fear, but I can't move." In the final section the married Sissie thinks she sees the man who had molested her five years earlier. Thrown into the past, she imagines hearing the voices of her parents and aunt. As the man at the bar starts to leave, she is "terrified at being left" by herself with the presences of her family. Sissie's fears are so deep and abiding because of her own lack of inner security. Nothing lasts, nothing is safe.

Sissie's habit of intense, detached observation is related to her fear. Like the young Stephen Dedalus, she is keenly sensitive to the sights and sounds around her. What makes her remarkable is her habit of focusing on the ugliest details available. Even as a small child, when she looks at the boats she observes that "the paint is peeling off some of them in little pieces." She notices the "pink lipstick smudges on the glass" of beer and the "darkish" teeth of her mother's friend.

In the second section as her father rows toward the island, Sissie fixes on his "throat, the way it bobs when he swallows:" "His face is getting red, the way it does at home when he has trouble with Frank. He clears his throat and spits over the side; I don't like to see that but I can't help but watch." That inability to look away is expressive of the inner disturbance. Sissie needs to fix on the ugliness, as if such sights confirm her sense of reality. The second section culminates with the vision of "napkins and beer cans, … part of a hotdog bun, with flies buzzing around it" and with her father "throwing up in the water and making a noise like coughing."

Sissie relentlessly seeks out the squalid. The young teenager stares at her aunt's "false teeth" and the "white scalp" beneath her uncle's hair, and she watches her little sister "sleeping in Ma's lap, with her mouth open and drooling on the front of her dress." In the final section Sissie observes that the ground outside the tavern consists of "bare spots and little holes and patches of crab grass, and everywhere napkins and junk." Inside is no better: "there is a damp, dark odor of beer and something indefinable—spilled soft drinks, pretzels getting stale?" Her husband picks the label off his beer bottle with his "thick squarish fingernails."

The ugliness is not imaginary. People come to the grim, depressing Lakeside Bar to escape for a little while from the treadmill of their lives, not realizing that the tavern is itself a station on that treadmill. Oates is conveying a social reality in her depiction of unattractive people inhabiting the squalid world of the tavern.

But the point is that throughout the story Sissie's state of mind is more important than any objective reality. Though the ugliness is there, the most notable fact is that Sissie's eye always goes right for it and fixes there tenaciously. The squalid world of "Four Summers" is at least half created by its young narrator. Sissie's fixation on ugliness is finally inseparable from her fear.

At the same time the unhappy Sissie is extraordinarily sensitive and self-aware. Though she is perhaps partly self-victimized, she is also acutely intelligent. Only Sissie seems troubled by the world she inhabits and by the clumsy behavior of her family. Only Sissie is able to reflect and make generalizations about life, and in the fourth section these generalizations are particularly perceptive. She yearns desperately to escape her destructive environment, and yet at the end she is trapped, a princess who has somehow not been rescued from the prison of the Lakeside Bar. Why isn't she able to escape?

Sissie above all needs to develop a sense of her own worth, but the story provides no way that this could have happened. The only patterns for emulation available to her are the blighted lives of her parents and their friends. Though Sissie is so conscious of the emptiness and so eager to find something better, she does not know where to turn. The best she can do is marry a man whom she first met when he was "wearing a navy uniform"—a pathetic glimpse of the world beyond the tavern.

Indeed one of the bleakest motifs in "Four Summers" is that of the cyclical pattern of life, repeating mindlessly from generation to generation. This motif contributes powerfully to the story's feeling of claustrophobia. The more we react against our fathers and mothers and struggle to develop our own identities, the more we become like our fathers and mothers—in fact, the more we replace them. When a writer like Tolstoy shows that the important events in a human life, both joyful and sorrowful, happen to everyone, he presents this situation as a triumph for human community. The very commonplace quality of the crucial experiences brings us together. Oates's perception is similar, but her perspective is quite antithetical. We are doomed to repeat our parents' lives and experiences no matter how intensely we attempt to escape.

The courting couple at the beginning of the story is a reminder that Sissie's parents were once a young, handsome courting couple themselves. Sissie's mother even comments that "Sue and me used to come here a lot," though "not just with you two, either." The generational motif is picked up by Sissie's father when he talks about his father's desire to return to Europe:

He looks as if something tasted bad in his mouth. "My old man died thinking he could go back in a year or two. Stupid old bastards!"

"Your father was real nice. …" Ma says.

"Yeah, real nice," says Dad. "Better off dead."

"I hate him, I wish he'd die," Jerry says of his father before the ride to the island. In "Four Summers" each son grows up to hate his father.

In the second section Sissie observes that "Jerry is like Dad, the way his eyes look:" he hates his father, he is becoming his father. A snapshot Sissie talks about in the third section further emphasizes the unhappy cycle of life:

There is a photograph taken of her when she was young, standing by someone's motorcycle, with her hair long. In the photograph she was pretty, almost beautiful, but I don't believe it. Not really. I can't believe it, and I hate her.

Beautiful Sissie, with the intolerance of youth, cannot accept that her mother was once young and beautiful. Though she hates her mother, she follows in her mother's footsteps in marrying a man much like her father. By the end of the third section, as the man paws her in the parking lot, she must realize that she is trapped in the same cycle: "I think, What is he doing? Do they all do this? Do I have to have it done to me too?" "Girls your age are all alike," the man has observed. This man, like the man Sissie marries, reminds her of the one man she cannot escape: "His breath smells like beer, maybe, it's like my father's breath … "

Sissie at nineteen is all too aware that she has reached the end of the line in marrying a younger version of her father. Jesse drinks beer, just as her father did, and "when he laughs Jesse reminds me of him." When she holds Jesse at night, she thinks of "my father and what happened to him." She prays that Jesse will be different, knowing full well that he won't be.

When Sissie and Jesse were courting, they were simply going through the motions required by that part of the cycle: "Before we were married we went to places like this, Jesse and me and other couples. We had to spend a certain amount of time doing things like that." They had courted as her parents courted, they will become as her parents became: "He still loves me. Our love keeps on. Like my parents' love, it will subside someday." In the first section the grown-ups sit around playing cards instead of taking the children for a boat ride. The card game reappears, climactically and rather too obtrusively, near the end of the story. People are trapped within inherited genes and inherited patterns:

Jesse is young, but the outline of what he will be is already in his face … Their lives are like hands dealt out to them in their innumerable card games. You pick up the sticky cards, and there it is: there it is. Can't change anything …

If the cycle of generations functions as a trap in the story, so does the Lakeside Bar. The tavern is dark and stale, and the popular music always playing on its jukebox is a strained, unsuccessful attempt at gaiety. Even when Sissie is outside the bar, there is no escaping the bar. As the children stone the bird caught in the scum—a bird obviously emblematic of Sissie and her fate—Sissie can hear that "inside the tavern there is music from the jukebox." The second section plays off the first, for after staying to play cards in the first section, the father rows his children to the island in the second. But the island, ugly and strewn with garbage and litter, is neither improvement nor escape: "On the other side we can look back at the boathouse and wish we were there."

In the third section Sissie, who now hates "this noisy place and these people," restlessly leaves the tavern. But her attempt at romance leads only to molestation, and she turns to "run back to the tavern." (At least Humbert Humbert takes Lolita away.) The idea of no exit is especially strong in the final section, for Sissie has made her ultimate mistake. As she sits with her husband in the tavern, pregnant and entrenched, she has become the next generation.

The characters in "Four Summers" have nowhere to run. Sissie's aunt fantasizes about a television quiz show host, while at fourteen Sissie tries to lose herself in staring at the photographs of movie stars in her bedroom. Oates presents antisocial behavior as another response to the entrapment these characters feel. Duane Dorsey, the local punk (and obviously admired by Sissie's mother and aunt), has landed in jail in the first section. His offense? "He was breaking windows in his [mother-in-law's] house," clearly an allusion to the motif of attempted escape. Broken windows lead Duane Dorsey not to freedom but to jail.

And of course the men in the story attempt to escape through drink. No recent American story is more awash with beer than "Four Summers," but it's not the sort of story that would sell more Budweiser. The beer the men drink is associated with the futility of their lives and with their entrapment. Usually they drink too much, attempting to blot out the lives they live. The men drink because they are broken and because they have become self-destructive.

It is not every story that has beer as its dominant image. Sissie's mother asks her husband to "leave off drinking" and take the children on the boat ride. There are beer cans on the island, there is beer on the breath of the man in the parking lot, and Jesse drinks beer. Beer is even cunningly associated with death. In the first section the grown-ups cluck their tongues over the "kids or somebody" who "was out in the cemetery and left some beer bottles." Beer and death are unmistakably joined, for the beer drinkers of the story are walking dead men. "Why do they grow old so quickly, sitting at kitchen tables with bottles of beer?"

Beer figures most importantly and ingeniously in the episode in which the young Sissie is forced to drink beer. The mother's bored friend is responsible for this dim idea. Sissie's father angrily protects her, but the women are persistent:

"Who's getting hurt?" Ma says angrily.

Pa looks at me all at once and smiles. "Do you want it, baby?"

I have to say yes. The woman grins and holds the glass down to me, and it clicks against my teeth. They laugh. I stop swallowing right away because it is ugly, and some of it drips down on me. "Honey, you're so clumsy," Ma says …

This is the story's most Gothic moment. The monstrous adults force the terrified child-victim to drink alcohol, they laugh at her, and then they criticize her when she unhappily closes her mouth and some beer spills. The scene is also a cruel ceremony of initiation. The drink the grown-ups give Sissie, however, is no magic potion but rather the liquid of their futility and entrapment. After this rite of passage Sissie is symbolically one of them.

It is rarely wise to speculate about a character's fate beyond the boundaries of the story, but I believe that Oates points us in exactly that direction. Sissie is on her way to spending some fifth summer recuperating from a nervous breakdown. I have already elaborated upon her psychic fragility, her fears and insecurities, her extreme isolatedness, her tendency to seek out ugliness. In the final section not only has her entrapment become irrevocable, but she is also conscious of it. Sissie's good looks have been the only source of her sense of self-worth, but now even this has no value: "My hair is long, down to my shoulders. I am pretty, but my secret is that I am pretty like everyone else." If she is "proud of my legs," she also realizes that she has "little else."

Even worse, she knows her marriage is a mistake. It is five years since the episode in the parking lot, but she thinks she sees the same man in the bar, "wearing a cheap gray suit," looking "tired" and "years older." Sissie must be close to the edge if an encounter with this man produces tears and a feeling of lost opportunity. She fantasizes that she could have "gone with him to his car" at the age of fourteen and somehow escaped, somehow broken out of the cycle. It is hard to imagine a more threadbare fantasy.

So Sissie is left trapped inside the bar and inside her life. Her only recourse is to try to pretend that she is happy and that everything will turn out well:

I think of the baby all the time, because my life will be changed then; everything will be different. Four months from now … It will be different with me because my life will be changed by it, and nothing ever changed my mother …

As hard as she tries to believe this, she cannot:

I let my hand fall onto my stomach to remind myself that I am in love: with this baby, with Jesse, with everything. I am in love with our house and our life and the future and even this moment—right now—that I am struggling to live through.

This young woman is under a great deal of strain. The conflict between the reality of her situation and her fierce desire to transform that reality into something better could lead to a nervous breakdown. At that, the Oates country has its share of nervous breakdowns: think of Clara in A Garden of Earthly Delights and Karen in With Shuddering Fall.

Critics take Joyce Carol Oates to task for writing too much and too self-indulgently. Often, especially in the recent novels, her urgent need to communicate her bleak vision of contemporary American life has ridden roughshod over artistic considerations. Even the award-winning them spins out of control after the brilliant first half. Furious and unrelieved passionate onrush can grow wearisome.

"Four Summers" is an excellent story precisely because the characteristic Oatesian vision has been artistically contained. The despair feels earned rather than imposed. All the emotional power and empathy of Oates at her best are present. The story succeeds, however, not because of the quality of feeling behind it but because that feeling has been controlled by a tightly organized, richly harmonious artistic structure. "Four Summers" seems to demonstrate that for Joyce Carol Oates less can be more.

Source: Keith Cushman, "A Reading of Joyce Carol Oates's 'Four Summers,"' in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring 1981, pp. 137–47.


Bannon, Barbara, Review of Wheel of Love, in Publishers Weekly, August 10, 1970, p. 47.

Creighton, Joanne V., "Joyce Carol Oates's Craftmanship in 'The Wheel of Love,"' in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 4, Fall 1978, pp. 375–84.

Gilman, Richard, "The Disasters of Love, Sexual and Otherwise," in the New York Times Book Review, September 25, 1970, p. 4.

Johnson, Greg, Understanding Joyce Carol Oates, University of South Carolina Press, 1987, pp. 92–117.

Joslin, Michael, "Joyce Carol Oates," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2: American Novelists Since World War II, First Series, edited by Jeffrey Helterman, Gale Research, 1978, pp. 371–81.

Oates, Joyce Carol, "Four Summers," in Fiction 100, edited by James J. Pickering, Prentice-Hall, 2001, pp. 1109–21.

Review of Wheel of Love, in Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1970, p. 825.

Further Reading

Bastan, Katherine, Joyce Carol Oates's Short Stories: Between Tradition and Innovation, Peter Lang, 1983.

Bastan provides an overview of some of Oates's short fiction, focusing on her style and the relation of her stories to those of other major authors.

Johnson, Greg, Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates, Dutton, 1998.

Johnson has written two other critical studies of Oates's work. He was given access to Oates's letters and archival materials for his biography, the only one on Oates.

Matusow, Allen J., The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s, HarperCollins, 1984.

Matusow describes the political climate of America during the 1960s, focusing on the major voices of liberal social and economic policies.

Wagner, Linda W., ed., Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates, G. K. Hall, 1979.

Wagner collects some of the more important essays written on Oates up until 1978.