A Summer’s Reading – Bernard Malamud

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A Summer’s Reading by Bernard Malamud

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Setting and Plot
This story appeared in The New Yorker in 1956. The story is set in New York City during one hot summer. The main character is called George Stoyonovich – a 20 year old “neighborhood boy” who quit high school at 16 on an impulse. One summer he had no job and sat around in the hot apartment he shared with his father and sister, who worked all day. He did not feel too happy during the day, but at night he felt better when he walked around the neighborhood and sat in a small park. One night he met Mr. Cattanzara and told him that his summer occupation was reading 100 books to pick up his education. This gave him a certain prestige around the neighborhood, as everyone heard about his project. The truth, which he was always fearful that people would discover, was that he hardly read anything at all. During this summer George is forced to read into his own life and see the truth about himself with the help of Mr. Cattanzara.

Characters
George is both emotionally and financially dependent on others, yet he doesn’t have the motivation or determination needed to change his life. We learn at the beginning that he is uneducated – a high school dropout, and unemployed. Without education, George cannot get a good job or live a better life as he dreams of doing. His dreams are simple and materialistic: a job, a house with a porch on a street with trees, spending-money, a girl and respect from the neighborhood people. He wants to achieve the American Dream. George is trapped; on the one hand, without education he is doomed to live a hard, gray life. On the other hand, without a sense of self-worth he is unable to change himself.

This is where his neighbor and only friend Mr. Cattanzara enters the picture. The fact that Mr. C. works as a changemaker at a subway station is symbolic. On the literal lever, his job is to give change to people who buy tickets. On the figurative level, he is a change-maker – he tries to create a change in George by giving him some insight into his life. He acts as a father figure and role model that George so desperately needs. Through Mr. C. words and actions, George faces some very unpleasant truths about himself (he is childish, immature, a liar and a failure). Mr. C. can understand and sympathize with George since he is an older version of George. He made the same mistakes in life that George is about to make. Mr. C settled for second best and has now become a frustrated man. Mr. C. tries to protect George by giving him both encouragement and warning “Don’t do what I did“.

The two characters are similar in a few aspects.
a. Both are intelligent. Mr. C. reads the New York Times (only the intellectual elite can read this paper). George reads the World Almanac (factual material), he doesn’t like fiction – he is more interested in knowledge. Yet his problem is that he lacks imagination and inspiration. Both of them are thirsty for knowledge but haven’t completed their formal education.

b. Both find a means of escaping their bitter reality. Mr. C. gets drunk (to temporarily escape his fat, sickly, suffocating wife and the boredom of an unchallenging job).
George escapes by:
1. Finding excuses for not doing things, such as going back to school.

2. Lying to himself and others about his reading so as to avoid shame.
3. Shutting himself up in his room.
4. Going to the park in the evening where he can forget about everything and fantasize about a better life for himself.
5. Hiding all day in his room to avoid meeting anyone.

Who is to blame for George’s behavior and will he ever change? It is for us, the readers, to decide. Take the following into account:
1. George himself – is he simply a lazy bum? A dreamer? An immature young man who acts on an impulse? An escapist?
George is a loner. He doesn’t fit in anywhere. He avoids hanging out on the candy store corner with a gang of guys he knows. He also ignores the neighborhood people until they start smiling at him after the first rumor (that he is reading 100 books) is spread by Mr. C. Clearly, when George likes himself, he is able to like others. The most important thing for George is gaining the respect of others but he isn’t willing to work hard for it.

George allows feelings of shame and guilt to paralyze him instead of motivating him. For example, his lack of education and job push him into telling the big lie: “I’m staying home, but I’m reading a lot to pick up my education”. Later on George avoids meeting Mr. C. because he would then have to either admit the truth (that he isn’t reading worthwhile books) or he would have to live up to the rumor (and start reading). Since he is unable to do either, he chooses to escape. Conclusion: George makes no real effort to change his life.

2. The family: George can find no emotional support there. The mother is dead and is not mentioned at all. The father is not a dominant figure in the house. George doesn’t have a warm father-son relationship with his father. The lack of communication between them is made evident when George shuts himself up in his room and all his helpless father can do is cry. Sophie, the older sister, is unable to cope with being a housekeeper, a breadwinner and a substitute mother. She isn’t as passive as the father. Yet her tactics of rewarding George with money when she is pleased with him or yelling at him when she is not are ineffective. Conclusion: the family fails to fulfill George’s needs – no love, no patience, no understanding and no communication.

3. The society and environment – the neighborhood: everyone except for Mr. C. is indifferent towards George. Most of the people are poor and uneducated. George has no role model. Everywhere he looks all he can see is poverty and neglect: broken sidewalks in a business area, everything is “hot and stony” (people are sitting outside fanning themselves because of the heat), no trees or gardens except for the park,

The neighborhood population is mostly made up of immigrant families. These people came to America, the Land of Opportunity, in order to make a better life for themselves. George also wants to achieve the American Dream but he isn’t ready to struggle for it. As a result, he doesn’t get the respect he desires from the people around him.

The names are symbolic: Stoyonivich is Polish for staying in one place, Cattanzara is Italian for chained. These names are symbolic because they shed light on the characters. That is, George doesn’t do anything to change his life and he literally sits in one place – his room. Mr. C is chained to his wife and desperate life without any chance of improving them because he has no formal education.

4. The school system failed to encourage George to complete his studies. George quit out of an impulse – so why didn’t anybody from school try to change his mind? He didn’t drop out because he lacked intelligence but because he “had lost patience”. He wanted to “learn different things than they learn there”. Conclusion: George didn’t get a feeling of self-worth from his family, neighbors or teachers. Thus, he doesn’t believe in himself.

Theme and Moral lesson
Bernard Malamud’s
stories show great insight into the problems of everyday life, and at the same time reveal a basic faith in mankind. In this story he deals with friendship, motivation to achieve life goals and education. First, sometimes what a person needs is some encouragement from a friend to change his life. Mr. C pushes George to change his life. Second, a person needs to be motivated to do something meaningful with his life and achieve his dreams. It takes a whole summer for George to understand that if he doesn’t do something with himself, he won’t be able to achieve any of his dreams. Third, education is important because without it chances are you’ll have an uninspiring job like Mr. C. The story ends on an optimistic note when George finally goes to the library in the fall and starts reading.

The meaning of the title
The story is called A Summer’s Reading although George hasn’t read any significant books at that time. However, what he “reads” or understands is his desperate situation. That is, he reads the book of his life and he doesn’t like it. Eventually, he takes matters into his hands and makes the necessary change.

Hots 

Cause and Effect

Bernard Malamud leaves us to decide whether George will turn his dreams into reality. Is the visit to the library a sign that George is serious about changing? Or is it just another act of impulse? Has Mr. Cattanzara’s use of reverse psychology (a persuasion technique which involves telling someone exactly the opposite of what he expects in order to achieve the wanted outcome) worked?
He tries to help George in the following ways:

Cause Effect 
By giving George respect and encouragement. In the first meeting Mr. C. spreads the rumor that George has begun reading. George is filled with self-confidence and good will. He makes a little effort to start reading.
By keeping silent. Mr. C doesn’t tell anyone the truth. George is filled with guilt and shame. He loses interest in everything “things weren’t so good for him”.
By having a sly, insulting manner with George and finally by warning him “Don’t do what I did”. George shuts himself away, unable to function and is forced to face his lies.
By spreading a second rumor that George has finished reading 100 books. He uses reverse psychology. (This is NOT written specifically – we can infer what he said.) George is relieved and gains the respect of society. Now it is up to him what he will do with his life. If he starts reading, he will do it for himself.

Inferring

There are many things which are not written explicitly in the story but we can infer them. For example, what Mr. C meant when he says:”Don’t do what I did”, or what two rumors he spread and what exactly he has told the people in the neighborhood about George.

 

p. 46-48 ANALYSIS AND INTERPRETATION

A George is the protagonist in the story.

Answers

George’s goal is to achieve the American Dream. He wants a good job, a nice house and enough money to buy things. He also wants a girlfriend, so he won’t be so lonely, and people to like and respect him. To reach his goals, George must first of all overcome his impulsiveness and lack of motivation. He quit school at 16 on impulse, he cleans the flat when he feels like it and he tells Mr. Cattanzara a lie on the spur of the moment so that he will respect him. In order to improve his life, he has to get an education, but he does not have the motivation necessary to do so. George must also break away from his environment. His family is poor and he lives in a poor neighborhood. The people in the neighborhood are simple and uneducated. This is the norm; therefore, he is under no social pressure to better himself.

B symbolism. 

Mr. Cattanzara’s job is to give change in a ticket booth of a subway station. He is a change maker because he literally gives people change for their tickets. On the symbolic level, Mr. Cattanzara is a change maker because he makes a change in George’s life. The name “Cattanzara” means “chained”, and although he is chained to his life and cannot change it, he can bring about change in the lives of others.

C characterization.: appearance, actions, words, thoughts and how the other characters relate to them.

D 3 Possible answers

Yes, he will achieve his goals because he has learned the lessons that Mr. Cattanzara taught him: first, that Mr. Cattanzara believes that George is capable of following through and, second, that he has decided he doesn’t want to make the same mistake Mr. Cattanzara did with his life.

OR

No, he remains the same unmotivated, well-intentioned but lazy person.

E 2 cause & effect: answers.

1. ashamed (page 33, line 3) When he looks for a job, people ask if he has finished school and he is ashamed to admit that he hasn’t.

2. lonely (page 34, line 31) He doesn’t have a girlfriend.
3. unhappy (page 37, line 13) He lies to Mr. Cattanzara, ‘saying that he’s going to read a list of books from the library.
4. feeling fine (page 38, line 30) He feels the neighbors’ approval because they think he is reading.

5. wound up (page 41, line 20) He runs into Mr. Cattanzara on the street one night and is afraid that he will notice him and ask about his reading.

6. afraid (page 42, line 24) Mr. Cattanzara has discovered that he lied to him, so George is afraid to face him again.

7. relieved (page 43, line 24) George discovers that the neighbors are still friendly to him. He understands that Mr. Cattanzara did not tell the people in the neighborhood that he hasn’t read any books.

3 When Mr. Cattanzara asks George the name of one book that he has read that summer, George can’t answer. While outwardly he has managed to keep his composure, inside he feels extremely embarrassed and ashamed.

F 1. George dropped out of school because he ran out of patience. He didn’t like the teachers telling him what to do all the time and he thought that they didn’t respect him.

2. George tells Mr. Cattanzara that he is going to read a hundred books because he wants to impress him. He is ashamed that he doesn’t have a job and he wants Mr. Cattanzara to respect him.

3. George avoids walking past Mr. Cattanzara’s house because he doesn’t want Mr. Cattanzara to ask him about his reading. He is afraid that Mr. Cattanzara will discover his lie.

4. Mr. Cattanzara means that George should learn from Mr. Cattanzara’s mistakes and not waste his life like he did. He is motivated to say this because he likes George and realizes that he has potential. He wants him to get an education so that he can have a better life.

5. Mr. Cattanzara probably starts the rumor because he understands that if George feels respected, he is more likely to complete his reading in order to deserve the respect he is getting. Mr. Cattanzara cares about George and is using reverse psychology because he knows that by expecting the most from George, he will try to live up to those expectations.

G 1. George is a 19-year-old boy who has dropped out of school and does not have ajob. Mr. Cattanzara is an older man who works as a change maker in a subway station. Neither has fulfilled his potential; both are underachievers. Both read the newspaper, but Mr. Cattanzara reads The New York Times, a newspaper read by the educated, whereas George reads the newspapers read by ordinary people. Both live in a poor neighborhood. Mr. Cattanzara drinks in order to escape from the world, while George locks himself in his room. Mr. Cattanzara has the benefit of experience. He can see that he has wasted his potential and does not want George to make the same mistake. He therefore has foresight and understands what will happen to George in the future. George has difficulty seeing the long-term effects of his decisions. Note: You might want to tell the students that both their family names have symbolic meanings.

Cattanzara means “chained” in Italian (he is chained to his meaningless life), and George’s family name, Stoyonovich, means “stands still”. George is inactive at the moment, but can either move ahead or become “chained” like Mr. Cattanzara .

2. The lie George told had short-term and long-term effects. In the short term, George’s life improved. The neighbors were kind and showed their approval. Sophie was kinder to George and gave him a dollar a week. George was in a good mood and enjoyed life more. But after a few weeks, George began to feel uneasy and to avoid Mr. Cattanzara for fear of being discovered.
Once the lie was discovered, it caused George great embarrassment. He had wanted to impress Mr. Cattanzara but ended up feeling that he had lost Mr. Cattanzara’s respect. In the long term, the lie acted as a catalyst. After staying in his room for a week, George couldn’t stand it anymore. He went to the library and began to read; therefore a possible long-term effect of the lie might be that George begins his education and will ultimately achieve his dream – but this is not certain. (When George locks himself in his room for almost a week, he goes through a change, or metamorphosis, like a caterpillar that emerges from its cocoon as a butterfly. George emerges as a changed person, but like a butterfly that has a short life, we do not know if this change is lasting.)

3. for example:

Yes, the ending is satisfying because George goes through a change and begins to take positive steps toward his education.

OR

No, the ending is not satisfying because we don’t know if George’s change is permanent. George is impulsive and we don’t know if he will complete his reading.

4. In the summer George reads only picture magazines, old copies of the World Almanac and old newspapers. This is not reading material that is likely to help his education. To “read” also has another meaning: “to be able to understand something from what you can see”. The writer may have called the story A Summer’s Reading because George “reads”, or understands his situation in the summer, and in the fall, he goes to the library and begins reading books. In addition, to borrow an analogy from nature, summer is a time of ripening, of growing to maturity until, in the fall, the fruits are ready to be harvested. In the same way, George matures in the summer and in the fall is ready to begin his education.

p. 49   BRIDGING TEXT AND CONTEXT

Answer

The story is set in a poor immigrant neighborhood in New York City. We know the characters are immigrants from their names: Cattanzara is Italian and Stoyonovich probably Slavic. George wants to attain the American Dream but is limited by his character and surroundings. He is physically and emotionally isolated from society until the end when he comes out of his room and goes to the library. This action is a positive one that demonstrates he wants more out of life and is ready to face new challenges.

Bernard Malamud

Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) was an American writer who wrote about ordinary people, often immigrants, trying to attain the American middle-class dream. His characters are often awkward and isolated from society. A Summer’s Reading is from a collection of short stories in which many of the characters search for hope and meaning within poor urban settings. How is this reflected in the story A Summer’s Reading? 

Bernard Malamud is the Chekhov of the urban Jewish milieu. Like the elegant short stories of the great Russian author, Malamud’s writings were deeply rooted in social concerns. He was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and the experiences of hard-working immigrants were particularly important to him. Linguistically, Malamud depicted this world using a mélange of English and Yiddish, giving his stories a unique and powerful rhythm. The language further served as a commentary on the cultural mosaic that was (and still is) New York. Within this often-bleak landscape, Malamud saw glimmers of hope and possibility. In doing so, he managed to create honest depictions of the Jewish immigrant experience with lyrical touches that suggested the potential the future might hold.

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Abstract: A Summer’s Reading

George quit school at the age of sixteen, and never went back to school again. Though he thought about going to summer school / night school, the idea did not really appeal to him because of the age difference and the discipline required. Instead, George worked at temporary jobs, and spent most of his free time in his own room simply because he had no money and (lacking a hobby) nothing better to do… In the evenings, however, he did go for walks in the neighborhood.
This story takes place during one summer when George was nearly 20, at a crowded city neighborhood. George  had no job and sat around in the hot apartment he shared with his father & sister, who worked all day. Asked what he did during the daytime, George simply said that he was in between jobs, or looking out for a job. However, due to the social stigma associated with unemployment, George also liked to add that he was catching up on his reading. This sort of situation is typical of an inner city neighborhood with high levels of unemployment. In a small town, and especially on a farm in the country, such a situation would never had arisen. At the farm, there is always plenty to do, and plenty to keep one occupied. Though the money may not have been plentiful, George could easily have kept himself busy doing something or the other. Being a productive member of the local community, he would not have suffered from a sense of alienation, and he would have felt himself part of the locality.
George informs his neighbor (Mr. Cattanzara) that he has drawn up a list of a hundred books that he plans to read that summer. News about his decision soon spreads in the neighborhood, and George is looked upon with a new found respect. Not surprisingly, the person who is most affected by this change in perceptions is George himself…! The only catch is that for George to live up to his new found reputation (as a respected member of the locality), he has to read at least a few books. But this proves somewhat difficult to do, as it involves breaking old habits and forming new ones.
The author tells us that (unable to fulfill his part of the social contract) George has come under tremendous social pressure to read at least a few books. He avoids going out on the streets, he avoids meeting with his old friends, and he even locks himself in his room for an entire week. He even loses his pocket money / allowance as a result. He is told to find some work to do – but the jobs are just not available. Finally, he can bear the pressure no longer; he breaks down, and goes to the public library to read the books that he had promised to do.
What conclusions can one draw (from this story) about George? Is he too lazy to work, not courageous enough to tell the truth, not strong enough to face the world? The author tells us that this is only part of the truth, part of the entire story. There is another way to look at these events: George is a victim. George is not satisfied with his life, but he does not quite know what to do, and so he temporarizes (avoids taking any decision) from day to day. George is a young man yearning to be an adult; he would like a good job, a girlfriend, and a private house. He would like to be a respected – and respectable – member of society. What he lacks is an accurate roadmap that would take him from here to there.

Questions

Level 1 (basic content questions)

  1. •  Who are the main characters in the story?
  2. •  Who are the minor characters?
  3. •  What are their relationships to each other?
  4. •  Who is the author?
  5. •  Where and when does the story take place?
  6. •  Why does George spend most of his days in his room?
  7. •  What does he do all day?  Why?

Level 2 (familiar with content and can make inferences relating to the text)

  1. •  How are George and Sophie different?
  2. •  What does Mr. Cattanzara do for a living?
  3. •  What does George tell Mr. Cattanzara?
  4. •  How do all the other people in the neighborhood find out?
  5. •  Does George do what he says he will?  How does George react when he sees Mr. Cattanzara, and he knows that Mr. Cattanzara will ask him about his reading?  Why does he do this?
  6. •  What are George’s expectations of himself?  Does he live up to them?  Why?  How does he feel about this?
  7. •  When Mr. Cattanzara. finds out the truth, what does he do?
  8. •  How does what Mr. Cattanzara does affect George?

Level 3 (historical, social, psychological inferences)

  1. Why do you think Mr. Cattanzara cares about George?
  2. The story takes place in the summer time.  Is this important?  Why?  How do you think the story would be different had it been set in the winter?  When does the story end?  Why?
  3. What does G. do in the end?  What do you think will happen in the future?

Content questions

  1. Why did George leave school and how did he feel about it?
  2. Why doesn’t he go to summer school?
  3. Describe a typical day in George’s life./ How does G. usually spend his day?
  4. Describe George’s family.
  5. Describe the neighbourhood.
  6. Describe Mr. Cattanzara.
  7. Describe the first/second meeting with Mr. Cattanzara.
  8. What does George answer when he is asked what he does all day? /What lies does George tell and to whom?
  9. Why does he give this answer instead of telling the truth?
  10. What does George read? What does Mr. Cattanzara read?
  11. How does George spend his evenings and nights?
  12. What does he dream about in the park ? Why does he go there?
  13. Who is Mr. Cattanzara ?/ How does he earn a living?
  14. How does Mr. Cattanzara spend his free time?
  15. Why does George like Mr. Cattanzara?
  16. What does Mr. Cattanzara ask George?  What does he answer?
  17. Does Mr. Cattanzara believe George? Why?
  18. What is the reaction of the people in the neighbourhood to George after his meeting with Mr. Cattanzara?
  19. To what factor does George attribute this change of attitude?
  20. How does Sophie act towards him now?
  21. What advice does Mr. Cattanzara give George?
  22. Why doesn’t George leave his room during the following week?
  23. Why does he finally go out one night?
  24. Do people ask him the question he is afraid of?
  25. Why did George go to the library? Do you think he will begin to read?
  26. What happens at the end of the story?

Inference questions

  1. What led George to spend so much time alone?
  2. What are George’s activities ?  What do they show about him?
  3. In George’s social context why is education important?
  4. How do George’s dreams and desires compare with his reality?
  5. What was the American dream for people like George and what were the ways of achieving it?
  6. Why is it mentioned what George reads? What Mr. Cattanzara reads?
  7. What lessons does George learn from Mr. Cattanzara  and his experience in life?
  8. What are the results of the different lies told in the story?
  9. Do you believe George ever really intended reading the books he said he was going to read?
  10. How does George’s image as a serious reader affect his life?
  11. George’s need for respect is a main idea in the story. Discuss.
  12. Public opinion can force people to do things they would otherwise not do. Discuss.
  13. Which kind of reprimanding hurts more – verbal or silent? Discuss.
  14. How old is George? Does he act his age?
  15. Sophie is willing to give George a dollar a week to support his reading and everyone in the neighbourhood respects serious reading. Why ?  Why don’t more people in the neighbourhood read?
  16. “George knew he looked passable on the outside, but inside he was crumbling apart.”…years later when he opened his eyes he saw that Mr. Cattanzara had, out of pity, gone away.”
  17. “Don’t do what I did.”  Discuss.
  18. Why do you think Mr. Cattanzara drank so much?
  19. Why is Mr. Cattanzara interested in George’s reading? Why does he stop asking George questions about it?  Why does he start the rumour that George has finished reading all the books?
  20. What do you think really causes George to go to the library and begin to read, or at least choose books?
  21. • What did Mr. Cattanzara mean when he said, “George, don’t do what I did”? What effect
  22. did this have on George?
  23. • Do you think George will ever fulfill his ambition of attaining the American dream?
  24. Support your opinion with evidence from the story.

Literary Questions

  1. “The first paragraph in a short story foreshadows the future.”  Discuss the ending in this light.
  2. What might the title “A Summer’s Reading” imply?/ Why do you think the story is called “A Summer’s Reading” and not “A Winter’s Reading”?
  3. Follow George’s attempts throughout the story to “escape”.
  4. Discuss the symbolic use of the term “the change maker”.
  5. Discuss the themes of loneliness and lack of relationship.
  6. What do you think is the importance of the names of the characters in the story? Why aren’t they standard American names?
  7. What does the park symbolize?
  8. Mr. Cattanzara is both a negative and a positive character.  Explain: How does this relate to the theme of education in the story ?
  9. Stoyonovich means stand still, Cattanzara means chained.  Can you relate this to the theme of education?
  10. Mr. Cattanzara is George’s role model for success in life, but he is a failure. Why do you think that the writer has chosen to make this so?
  11. Malamud has chosen to tell the story from George’s point of view.  What is the advantage of this choice?
  12. Does Malamud make us feel sympathy for George, despite his limitations? Why or why not? How?
  13. How does the environment encourage/discourage George from changing his lifestyle?
  14. Why didn’t Malamud really end the story? What do you think happens ?
  15. What are the different meanings of U in the story?  Who reads what and what does it show us?  Why was George unable “to read” in the beginning of the story and was able to do so at the end?  Why is the story called A Summer’s Reading?
  16. Mr. Cattanzara is a change maker.  Explain the double meaning of the phrase in the story.

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