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Four Summers Essay - With A Free Essay Review



“Four Summers” is told by Sissie and features her unorthodox upbringing which causes the reader to question her parents’ justification of their actions. She shares her thoughts about her family’s summer lake house over four different summers. The story is told in four different sections, from four different stages of her life. Her developing mind is seen through the growing depth of her thoughts and the realizations she has about her life. She is initially portrayed as a naďve child, simply unhappy with the way her dad, Harry, rushes and drinks; subsequently, she becomes trapped like her mother Lenore eagerly trying to convince herself that she has an ideal life. “Four Summers” is a perfect example of Joyce Carol Oates’s style of writing. She uses her similar past to accurately display the dynamics within a working class background. She often uses tarnished women as the heroines of her stories (Cushman 117). This holds true for Sissie since her decisions are determined by everything except her own desires; she is consumed by her self-doubt and insecurity. Harry’s rapid pace and aggression ruins her chance at a pleasant childhood. He chooses to spend his time drinking and yelling rather than attempting to instill values in his children or spending quality time with them. Lastly, Sissie’s husband is a spitting image of her drunken father; she ends up stuck with him and a life she does not want. Joyce Carol Oates foreshadows Sissie’s future throughout the story, by emphasizing the dysfunctional relationships that manipulated it; her life and marriage will inevitably become her mother’s.

Sissie’s situation from adolescence to adulthood is far from pleasant. Lenore and Harry’s way of raising their daughter affects whether or not she shall harness the opportunities that come her way. She recognizes the unhappiness that both of her parents have with their lives. Sissie shutters when reliving a scene involving her mother and little sister, Linda, “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 know if I hated Ma or not; but I kept it all a secret… only my girl friends know, and I won’t tell the priest either” (Oates 296). Sissie watches her mother’s resentment grow toward her little sister, which causes her to resent her own mother in response to it. She is appalled that Lenore would take aggression out on her baby. Furthermore, from a young age, Sissie is forced to suppress her feelings. She is unsure of her mother as a child; however, she only releases this information to her girl friends, who don’t know any better than she does. Bottling up her thoughts becomes a part of daily protocol; despite what she observes, she will not speak of it. She is a spectator for her entire adolescence. She observes things but is not able to share the way she feels about them, since she has nobody to turn to. Sissie’s unfit parents trap her in the only place that she knows; since she is unaware that she could have better, she simply accepts her childhood and life as is. Oates illustrates the battle Sissie will face in order to escape the life they’re living, “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” (Oates 291). Oates uses the trapped blackbird to symbolize Sissie’s own predicament (“Four Summers” 111). The lake that the siblings were eager to jump into is lined with debris and rubbish. Much like the bird, Sissie is trapped in the low social strata; she has never had a taste for anything better. She was born and raised in the working class; much like the bird being weighed down, her background is weighing her down. As she grows into an adult, she gets closer to escaping, since she gains the option to take herself away from it. There is a possibility of escaping the lifestyle, if she were to take initiative and work toward getting herself out of it. Like the bird, if she could break free of the barriers put up by her parents, she would be free of the issues that arise from her entrapment.

Throughout Sissie’s childhood, Harry, her father, is far from a positive influence on her. She pegged him as a forceful man who was never the father figure that she needed while growing up. Focusing on his inconsiderate behavior, Sissie describes her ill-mannered father, “When we go back by Dad, we see him squatting over the water doing something. His back jerks. Then I see he is being sick. He is throwing up in the water and is making a noise like coughing. Jerry turns around right away and runs back. I follow him, afraid. On the other side we can look back at the boat house and wish we were there” (Oates 294). Oates successfully portrays Harry as a drunk, through the frightened words of young Sissie. He does not feel the need to hide his vomiting from his children. Moreover, he is incapable of hiding this side of him since it has become who he is from the inside out. Contrary to the ordinary father figure, he does not express apparent concern about whether or not his children admire or even approve of him. They react to their juvenile instinct to run away from the situation. Sissie instantaneously follows her older brother, Jerry; she is young and subconsciously puts all of her faith in those who are supposed to be older and wiser. Once they reach the opposite side of the floating garbage dump, the siblings spot the shore. “On the other side we can look back at the boat house and wish we were there,” represents Sissie’s long lived desire to escape. Furthermore, she has no way of getting back to the land without assistance. Without help from a reliable support system, she will never be able to leap out of her downward spiral into an unhappy life. Sissie watches and describes Harry’s familiar aggression as he becomes frustrated, “He starts rowing again, faster. Why does he go so fast? 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” (Oates 294). Sissie’s young mind takes things for what they are. She sees her father as he’s rowing the boat, and wishes he would change his poor attitude. He isn’t taking them on a leisurely boat ride like the siblings had hoped for. Similarly to every other time they are together, Harry proceeds to rush and to get from point A to point B as fast as possible. Sissie would like to enjoy a laid back ride with her father and her brother; however, she knows that that is not what she’s in for. Moreover, Sissie’s Father only slows when he has a beer in his hand. Harry’s tired face turns red. Sissie immediately becomes weary of this since that is the way he looks when he is angry. She sees it enough to recognize it immediately. Oates uses harry to interlace the common themes that are present in most of her works. She often features violence and self-discovery as present topics in her writing. (“Joyce Carol Oates” 1202). Both are apparent in Four Summers, where her father is constantly aggressive which blocks her road to becoming sure of herself and finding who she is. Sissie observes her father from head to toe, and only recognizes him when he is angry and rushing. Harry’s attitude affects the way he is around each and every one of their companions. He takes his aggression out on their alcohol and their family. Although she does not understand this, she expresses how she does not like what she sees. Despite her awareness of the dysfunctional relationships presented to her, Sissie expresses a notion of discontentment with who her parents’ are.

Jesse is a spitting image of Harry; although Sissie becomes aware of this, she avoids the thought, and instead reminds herself that she is in the place she wants to be. Sissie learns more and more about her husband every day. As their relationship continues, she becomes aware of his major flaw: his similar demeanor to that of her father. Sissie ponders about the way her husband may be in the future, “I hope that his quick, open, loud way of talking is just a disguise, that really he is someone else- slower and calculating. That kind of man grows old without jerks or spasms” (Oates 301). From the get-go, Sissie complained of her father’s quick pace. As she was growing up, she only remembered him as rushing through the time that they had together, instead of savoring every moment. She did not receive any fulfillment from their idea of “quality time” together, and the same is to be said of her time with Jesse. She says, “That kind of man grows old without jerks or spasms,” in other words, a man who allows life to run its cycle instead of simply trying to get through it, will have a much easier time throughout life. Jesse and Harry block themselves from fulfilling their lives by drinking away their problems, and using alcohol as the shortcut to avoid their problems. Sissie yearns for a gratifying future, not the day to day struggle which she watched her mother face with her father. The qualities that caused Sissie’s withdrawal from her father are apparent in Jesse; however, Sissie fills herself with false hope that things will change, rather than changing the situation herself. In addition to hoping for change, she also attempts to mentally prepare herself for the path that she knows she is headed toward. During a moment with herself, Sissie lays out her future with Jesse, “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” (Oates 303). Cold feet are a given for a soon to be mother; however, Sissie is concerned with more than just her baby fears. “Reminding [herself] that [she is] in love,” implies that she must continue telling herself this in order for her to remember and believe it. Not only is she ambivalent about her baby and husband, but she is unsatisfied with her entire life. Each moment is a struggle for her to get through, since she knows what will come out of it. She “buckles down and attempts to accept her life, to convince herself that it all will work out… one can imagine her mother doing the same thing when she was Sissie’s age” (Semansky 115). Sissie watched her mother’s resentment grow toward her little sister, which caused her to be afraid and resent her own mother in response to it. She was appalled that she would take aggression out on her baby; however, at the pace Sissie is going, she may very well adapt the same feelings toward her own unborn child. Rather than act upon her gut instinct, she tries to reason with herself to rule out her intuition. Sissie’s life with Jesse is already forming that of her parents’ because she decides to ignore the bold similarities between her husband and Harry.

Sissie’s life is altered by her background; throughout the story, Joyce Carol Oates hints that she will inevitably repeat the life of her mother’s. From the start, Sissie learned it is better to suppress her thoughts than share them. She is like a trapped bird in the scum of her upbringing. Her negative parents’ aggression toward others and each other poorly affected her. It did allow her to see what it looks like to be a part of an unhappy marriage; however, she does not use this background knowledge to her advantage. She notes the bare-faced similarities between Jesse and her father, and yet she still stays with him. Sissie doubts herself to the extent at which she must remind herself that the path she is on is where she should be. She is stuck in her life, and will not make any effort to change it. Sissie is a prime example of what life is like for someone who is not at the forefront of their own decisions. Rather than be a bystander, one must be an advocate for her own life.

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ESSAY REVIEW

Your second paragraph begins with a fairly vague topic sentence: “Sissie’s situation ... is far from pleasant.” There are two aspects of this “situation” that you discuss, and you might consider dealing with them in separate paragraphs, since they are distinct topics: her family life and her class background. However, since both her parents, you tell us, and her socio-economic background serve to trap Sissie, perhaps a more elegant solution to the problem of organization in this paragraph would be make the question of being trapped the topic of the paragraph, and then explain that there are two reasons for her being trapped. That would help clarify the purpose the paragraph serves in the argumentative structure of the essay as a whole. When you introduce a topic in the vague way you do in this paragraph, it gives the impression that the paragraph only serves the purpose of summary (which is dull) rather than argument (which is less dull).

You need, then, to foreground the argument of the essay. Transitions and topic sentences that are clearly focused on the argument will help you do this. For example, your third paragraph begins with the following topic sentence: “Throughout Sissie’s childhood, Harry, her father, is far from a positive influence on her.” That would be fine if all you were doing in the essay is summarizing the story. But obviously you want to do more than that. A transition will help your reader appreciate the continuity in your argument and retain focus on that argument. You want something that looks like the following:

“Another problem that contributes to Sissie’s sense of being trapped is the absence of a father who encourages and supports her; her father is instead an uninvolved drunk.”

That’s not very eloquent, but it at least achieves the kind of thing you want to achieve. The first two words are transitional in that they relate the current paragraph to the previous one. The rest focuses your reader’s intention on the argument of your essay, insofar as that argument concerns the representation of Sissie as a child who is trapped. If you do that, of course, there is no point in going off on a tangent towards the end of the paragraph and talking about Sissie’s “discontentment with who her parents are” unless you want to tie that back in to your concern about her being trapped.

The next paragraph contributes further to the problem of discontinuity and so to the appearance of disorganization. You introduce another character without explaining who he is. You don’t provide any context that would allow us to understand what part of the story you are now addressing. Again, there is no transistion. And the topic sentence is not related to your overall argument. Perhaps you cannot accomplish all of that in one sentence (and you don’t need to), but you need to provide some guideposts for your reader both with respect to the story and with respect to your argument about the story. So tell us that you are talking here about later in the story, when Sissie is a young woman, pregnant, and married to Jesse. And tell us how her current state relates to her situation as a child and how that concerns your argument. If you make a claim concerning that matter in the opening sentence or two of this paragraph, then the purpose of the rest of the paragraph will be much clearer to your reader: the paragraph will aim to demonstrate the truth of that claim.

The essay as a whole summarizes details of the short story that are relevant to making an argument that you don’t really make explicit. So before doing anything else with the essay, you need to define the argument. The argument certainly concerns the question of being trapped, but that in itself is probably not enough and I get the sense from your conclusion that more is going on in the story for you. You have a sense, I take it, that the story is an exploration of the way in which children repeat the mistakes of their parents despite all the desire in the world to do otherwise. Part of your summary suggests that Sissie has no choice in the matter, but you conclude with the observation that “one must be an advocate for one’s own life.” It’s not clear if that conclusion is based on your personal thoughts about life in general or whether instead you think it is part of the meaning (or the message, if you like) of the story. I think you need to clarify that point if you want to keep your last sentence. But mostly you need to foreground the fact that you, as a reader of the story, are concerned with what the story teaches us about how children end up repeating their parents’ mistakes, or end up, despite the desire to escape, creating for the themselves the same kind of prison into which they were born. When I say you need to foreground that fact, I mean, quite simply, announce that fact in your introduction in the form of a clear, specific thesis statement; and then make the desire to communicate clearly your argument about that issue (i.e., your interpretation of the meaning of the story) the organizing principle of the essay.

Best, EJ.

P.S. Quotations: If you are integrating a quotation into a sentence, that integration needs to result in a complete sentence. You also need to provide at least some context so that the reader understands what is going on (otherwise quotations will also contribute to the problem of discontinuity). Finally, you don’t need to use quotations to provide support for sentences that merely aim to summarize details of the story; only use them to support arguable, interpretive claims, and as an occasion for textual analysis.
Submitted by: brennaodonnell
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