How to Understand "Early Autumn" By Langston Hughes

A Short Story of Loss

Image courtesy of Jason Paris.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) is best known as a poet with poems like "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" or "Harlem." Hughes has also written plays, nonfiction, and short stories such as "Early Autumn." The latter originally appeared in the Chicago Defender on Sept. 30, 1950, and was later included in his 1963 collection, Something in Common and Other Stories. It has also been featured in a collection called The Short Stories of Langston Hughes, edited by Akiba Sullivan Harper.

What Flash Fiction Is

At fewer than 500 words, "Early Autumn" is yet another example of flash fiction written before anyone was using the term "flash fiction." Flash fiction is a very short and brief version of fiction that is generally a few hundred words or less as a whole. These types of stories are also known as sudden, micro, or quick fiction and can include elements of poetry or narrative. Writing flash fiction can be done by using a few amount of characters, shortening a story, or starting in the middle of a plot. 

With this analysis of the plot, a point of view, and other aspects of the story, the following will lead to a better understanding of "Early Autumn." 

A Plot Involving Exes

Two former lovers, Bill and Mary, cross paths in Washington Square in New York. Years have passed since they last saw each other. They exchange pleasantries about their jobs and their children, each of them perfunctorily inviting the other's family to come visit.

When Mary's bus arrives, she boards and is overwhelmed by all the things she has failed to say to Bill, both in the present moment (her address, for instance), and presumably, in life.

The Story Begins With a Point of View of the Characters

The narrative starts with a brief, neutral history of Bill and Mary's relationship.

Then, it moves to their current reunion, and the omniscient narrator gives us some details from each character's point of view.

Almost the only thing Bill can think about is how old Mary looks. The audience is told, "At first he did not recognize her, to him she looked so old." Later, Bill struggles to find something complimentary to say about Mary with, "You're looking very... (he wanted to say old) well."

Bill seems uncomfortable ("a little frown came quickly between his eyes") to learn that Mary is living in New York now. Readers get the impression that he hasn't thought much about her in recent years and is not enthusiastic about having her back in his life in any way.

Mary, on the other hand, seems to harbor affection for Bill, even though she was the one who left him and "married a man she thought she loved." When she greets him, she lifts her face, "as if wanting a kiss," but he just extends his hand. She seems disappointed to learn that Bill is married. Finally, in the last line of the story, readers learn that her youngest child is also named Bill, which indicates the extent of her regret for ever having left him.

The Symbolism of the "Early Autumn" Title in the Story

At first, it seems obvious that Mary is the one who is in her "autumn." She looks noticeably old, and in fact, she is older than Bill.

Autumn represents a time of loss, and Mary clearly feels a sense of loss as she "desperately reach[es] back into the past." Her emotional loss is emphasized by the setting of the story. The day is almost over and it's getting cold. Leaves fall inevitably from the trees, and throngs of strangers pass Bill and Mary as they talk. Hughes writes, "A great many people went past them through the park. People they didn't know."

Later, as Mary boards the bus, Hughes re-emphasizes the idea that Bill is irrevocably lost to Mary, just as the falling leaves are irrevocably lost to the trees from which they have fallen. "People came between them outside, people crossing the street, people they didn't know. Space and people. She lost sight of Bill."

The word "early" in the title is tricky. Bill too will be old one day, even if he can't see it at this moment.

If Mary is undeniably in her autumn, Bill might not even recognize that he is in his "early autumn." and he is the one most shocked by Mary's aging. She takes him by surprise at a time in his life when he might have imagined himself immune to winter.

A Spark of Hope and Meaning in a Turning Point of the Story

Overall, "Early Autumn" feels sparse, like a tree nearly bare of leaves. The characters are at a loss for words, and readers can feel it.

There is one moment in the story that feels noticeably different from the rest: "Suddenly the lights came on up the whole length of Fifth Avenue, chains of misty brilliance in the blue air." This sentence marks a turning point in many ways:

  • First, it signals the end of Bill and Mary's attempt at conversation, startling Mary into the present.
  • If the lights symbolize truth or revelation, then their sudden brightness represents the irrefutable passage of time and the impossibility of ever recovering or re-doing the past. That the lights run "the whole length of Fifth Avenue" further emphasizes the completeness of this truth; there is no way to escape the passage of time.
  • It's worth noting that the lights turn on right after Bill says, "You ought to see my kids" and grins. It's a surprisingly unguarded moment, and it's the only expression of genuine warmth in the story. It's possible that his and Mary's children might represent those lights, being the brilliant chains that link the past with an ever-hopeful future. ​
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Sustana, Catherine. "How to Understand "Early Autumn" By Langston Hughes." ThoughtCo, Sep. 10, 2017, thoughtco.com/how-to-understand-early-autumn-2990402. Sustana, Catherine. (2017, September 10). How to Understand "Early Autumn" By Langston Hughes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-understand-early-autumn-2990402 Sustana, Catherine. "How to Understand "Early Autumn" By Langston Hughes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-understand-early-autumn-2990402 (accessed October 20, 2017).