A Summer’s Reading by Bernard Malamud
In A Summer’s Reading by Bernard Malamud we have the theme of appearance, change, loneliness, escape, fear, paralysis, compassion and connection. Taken from his The Complete Short Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Malamud may be exploring the theme of appearance. George likes the fact that his neighbours are beginning to treat him differently because they believe he is spending his time reading. It is as if their new found appraisal of him boosts his confidence. No longer is he just a twenty year old man who lives with his father and sister above a butcher’s shop but rather he has the potential to be somebody. Though the reader is aware that George has put in no effort to make the changes he would like to make in his life. As to why this might be is difficult to say but it is possible that George finds his environment overwhelming. It is also possible that George doesn’t understand that for change to occur he must do something (like read). He knows he wants to leave the neighbourhood but is putting in no effort to make the required changes that are needed for him to move on. If anything he remains paralyzed.
Malamud also appears to be exploring the theme of loneliness. Not only does George spend all day in the apartment (which would also suggest a paralysis in George’s life) but it is obvious that he misses being educated though he appears to be too proud or stubborn to enrol in night school. When George walks the streets of the neighbourhood at night time he stops and talks to only one person, Mr Cattanzara. Apart from talking to his sister and Mr Cattanzara, George talks to no one else. Which may suggest that George is not only disconnected from others but he is lonely too. It is also clear to the reader that George likes Mr Cattanzara not only because he used to give him a nickel when he was younger for a lemon ice but because Mr Cattanzara educates himself by reading the more reputable daily newspapers. However it is interesting that Mr Cattanzara does tell George that ‘don’t do what I did.’ This line though vague may be important as it is possible that Mr Cattanzara rather than remain in high school or progress to college abandoned any plans he had with regard to education. Which in many ways mirrors what George is doing. It is also noticeable that throughout the story George makes a connection with Mr Cattanzara.
George also appears to be genuinely afraid that he will be found out. That people will begin to realise that he isn’t reading. Though on the surface this may seem insignificant it is nonetheless important because George is thriving on appearance and other people’s assumptions that he is educating himself. What is also interesting about the story is the setting. Malamud makes no reference to George having any friends. It is possible that they have already moved out of the neighbourhood and George remains one of the last of his age group to be still there. It may also be significant that not only is there no mention of George’s friends but there is also no mention of any young people with the exception of George and his sister Sophie. Who appears to be working a dead end job and may be stuck where she is. Living in the neighbourhood with her father.
There is also some symbolism in the story which may be important. When George sits down on the bench in the park Malamud describes the flowers as ‘blooming.’ This may be important as symbolically Malamud could be comparing George to the flowers. Just as the flowers are blooming or growing so too will George. The nickel that Mr Cattanzara offers George for the lemon ice may also be important as though it is less than the dollar a week he gets from Sophie. Symbolically it can do a lot more. Not only does it show that Mr Cattanzara still has faith in George’s abilities but the fact that it is for a lemon ice is significant. Throughout the story the weather in the neighbourhood is warm or hot yet by telling George to buy a lemon ice Mr Cattanzara is in many ways assuring that George will be different to the other people in the neighbourhood. Though it is interesting that George refuses the nickel which may suggest that not only is he not ready to be different to those in the neighbourhood (and actually read books) but he may also feel defeated. Aware that he is living a lie.
The end of the story is also interesting as George appears to have a moment of realization or an epiphany. No longer does he spend his time walking the neighbourhood or staying in his apartment but rather he starts to visit the local library and begins reading. As to what the trigger is for George’s change of heart is unsure. Though it is possible that he has begun to realise that unless he does something about his situation he will end up like those who remain in the neighbourhood. It is as if he has taken Mr Cattanzara’s words to heart. It may also be important that Mr Cattanzara did not tell the other neighbours that George had been lying about reading. As this would suggest that Mr Cattanzara continues to have faith in George and knows just how difficult it is to escape from the neighbourhood. Though he could have shattered George’s new found confidence he didn’t. He allowed George to find his own way without being critical of him. If anything Mr Cattanzara throughout the story has showed George compassion as he tries to escape from the paralyze that exists for him in the neighbourhood.