“The Gay Old Dog” Summary: Edna Ferber Short Story

The Gay Old Dog Edna Ferber Summary
“The Gay Old Dog” Summary

“The Gay Old Dog” is a short story by Edna Ferber from 1917. It was selected for the anthology 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories and can be read in the Amazon sample (30% in). It’s about a man who spends his life caring for his sisters while his own life passes him by. Here’s a summary of “The Gay Old Dog”.

“The Gay Old Dog” Summary

Jo Hertz is a plum and lonely bachelor of fifty. He’s a “loop-hound”, someone who frequents the retail, eating, and cultural center of Chicago, Illinois. He dresses and acts younger than he is and eats with relish at the restaurants.

He wasn’t always like this. At twenty-seven, Jo’s mother got him to promise on her death-bed that he wouldn’t marry until his three sisters were provided for. Eva, the oldest, keeps house and has a knack for sewing. Carrie, the middle one, is a teacher. Stell, the youngest, is the best looking although she’s not really beautiful, and is known as Babe.

Jo’s sisters dominate his life. He caters to them and spends money on them, although he often gets them the wrong thing. They complain that he doesn’t bring home any male friends for them to meet. Jo dreams of being a suave, urbane man with a beautiful and witty wife in their own place.

One Sunday evening, Carrie invites a friend, Emily, to dinner. She’s not like the usual drab women his sisters invite over. She’s small with a golden tinge in her brown hair and Jo is immediately attracted to her, which is obvious to everyone present.

After that night, he suggests his sisters invite Emily with them when they go out. He’s happy but also miserable without her. He realizes he wants to marry her, but remembers his promise. His business, harnesses, is on the downswing, with horses being replaced by automobiles.

Jo makes his feelings known to Emily, explaining he can’t support two households. She’s willing to wait but also sets to work at helping find husbands for Jo’s sisters. She arranges meetings for them with all the men she’s ever known.

Three years pass without any matches getting made. Jo suggests them marrying and all living together. Emily knows she would want to run her own household and interact with her husband without prying eyes always on them. Jo knows it wouldn’t work too. They know there’s no hope of a future together. Within a year, Emily is married to someone else.

Surprisingly, things start changing at the house. Eva marries an older man and moves to the North Side. Babe takes over managing the house and complains about the budget, comparing it to what Eva gets from Ben. Jo gets angry and tells her to find a Ben of her own, which she does, meeting a young man in the brokerage business.

Jo insists on buying Babe’s wedding trousseau, which leaves his funds depleted. He sells the house and he and Carrie move to a small flat. Carrie does Social Service work now and puts as little time as she can into the housekeeping. After a while, she accepts a promotion and moves away.

Jo takes a room in an old mansion. He’s free to do what he wants now but he doesn’t want to do much. He’s older, heavier and fussier with thinning hair. On Thursday evenings he has dinner at Eva’s and on Sundays he goes to Stell’s. He tries to talk business with their husbands but they’re not interested in his outdated and limited ideas.

Eva tries to match Jo with someone but the women talk about things he doesn’t really understand and they don’t seem to need a husband. Eva moves to Winnetka, to a house in a suburb, so Thursday dinners end. Stell and her husband start driving into the country on Sundays, so those visits end. His family doesn’t make a point of getting in touch much. Jo starts eating alone in second-rate restaurants.

“The Gay Old Dog” Summary, Cont’d

The War breaks out causing a huge demand for American made harnesses and Jo becomes rich. He speaks with prominent foreigners ordering for their countries. He buys expensive gifts for his ungrateful nieces. He stays at fancy hotels and buys a car. He rents a large, expensive apartment and hires a servant. He’s very lonely.

One day at a shop looking for a hat, Eva sees Jo sitting there, waiting for a woman who’s trying on expensive hats. She’s shocked and leaves suddenly. She calls Stell and describes the pretty woman unflatteringly and is disgusted that Jo, at his age, is going around with this woman.

Some time later, Stell sees them both in a restaurant and then Ethel, her grown daughter, sees them at a theatre party. They both feel their evenings were ruined by the encounter and Ethel thinks her life has been ruined.

Eva complains about the disgrace to Ben but he doesn’t judge Jo harshly, nor does he think Ethel’s suitor will be scared away by it. Eva and Stell decide to confront Jo at his apartment.

When Eva and Stell reach the city it’s packed with somber people watching the young troops who are being sent to France marching out. Jo isn’t home when they arrive. They wait in his rose-colored room, viewing it with disgust. Eva looks in his bedroom, which is a contrast to the garish decoration in the rest of the place.

Meanwhile, Jo was watching the boys march out. As he was preparing to leave, an anxious woman tried to move him out of the way so she could see. It’s Emily and they recognize each other immediately. Jo helps her get to the front so she can see her son, who’s also named Jo, march out. Her husband, Fred, didn’t want her to come because she’d be too emotional.

Emily points him out and Jo recognizes the young man as her son. He’s nineteen, has a girlfriend and doesn’t really want to go but feels obligated. Jo suddenly looks like a sad old man. He remembers being thirty and in love.

Emily’s son walks out of sight. She cries and clings to Jo, lamenting her son’s departure. Jo comforts her by praising his decision to volunteer, referring to him as “our” boy. He walks her to her car and they say an awkward goodbye.

When Jo enters his lobby his eyes are red. He finally comes home a little after six. Eva confronts him aggressively, saying she and Stell want his behavior with that woman to stop. He should have a sense of decency and consider his sisters and nieces.

Jo shakes and stands in a rage. He reviles his sisters as murderers who didn’t consider him twenty years ago. They killed his boy who belongs to someone else. He calls them selfish and miserable and orders them out of his house.

The phone rings and when Jo finally answers he recognizes Gert’s voice right away. He’s invited to a poker game but declines. Gert persists, speaking gently about how comfortable he’ll be if he comes. Jo imagines the procession of boys marching by.

Gert realizes something is the matter and wants to come over but Jo yells to be left alone and hangs up. He walks into his ridiculous rose-colored front room that now looks drab. Life seems pointless and he’s just a tired, old man.

“All the light had gone out of everything. The zest had gone out of life. The game was over—the game he had been playing against loneliness and disappointment.”

I hope this summary of “The Gay Old Dog” by Edna Ferber was helpful.