Carson McCullers | Critical Essay by Robert S. Phillips

This literature criticism consists of approximately 23 pages of analysis & critique of Carson McCullers.
This section contains 6,756 words
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Critical Essay by Robert S. Phillips

SOURCE: "The Gothic Architecture of The Member of the Wedding," in Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Winter, 1964, pp. 59-72.

In the following essay, Phillips discusses how McCullers' works fit into the genre of the modern Gothic novel.

The Modern Gothic in American literature, the genre of the grotesque, is currently the subject of much discussion by Leslie Fielder, William Van O'Connor, Irving Malin and other critics. The novels of the South written in this century—works by William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers—are in particular classified as Gothic. A plethora of Faulkner studies have already been published. Capote and Miss O'Connor, on the other hand, are writers in mid-career. Carson McCullers, however, has produced a distinguished body of fiction during the past three decades, a corpus which is only beginning to receive a deserved recognition. The novels of Mrs. McCullers are perhaps the most typical and most rewarding exemplars of Southern Gothicism in this century. The purpose of this essay is, first, to define those themes and fictional devices which constitute Gothicism in the contemporary American novel, and secondly, to examine their particular use by Mrs. McCullers. The Member of the Wedding has been chosen for close study because, of all the author's fiction, it has reached the widest audience—as a novel, a successful Broadway play, as a film—and at the same time being the most misinterpreted. Other critics writing on the element of the grotesque in her works invariably examine Reflections in a Golden Eye and The Ballad of the Sad Café, two dark tales indeed, consigning The Member of the Wedding to the ranks of popular novels about troubled adolescence. As late as 1961, in a review which appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Irving Howe refers to the novel as both "sentimental" and "lovely"! This essay attempts to place Wedding at last in its proper context, within the world of Mrs. McCullers' Gothic imagination.

The Southern Gothic novel is characterized by violent themes; in this respect it resembles the work of Matthew Gregory Lewis, Anne Radcliffe, and other early English Gothicists whose work centered about brutality and torture. The contemporary Gothic novel is not Gothic in the sense that it widely employs the properties of tombs, dungeons, passageways, supernatural phenomena such as ghosts and fireballs, pestilential diseases and the like. However, the South has, through the multitude of nightmarish novels, taken on the symbolic overtones associated with Italy in some early Gothic novels, which Leslie Fiedler (Love and Death in the American Novel) has characterized as, "… a background of miasmic swamps, death, defeat, mutilation, idiocy, and lust continues to evoke in the stories of these writers a shudder once compelled by the supernatural."

While the symbolic backgrounds of the early Gothic novels and the twentieth-century Southern Gothic novels resemble one another at times, the narrative action differs. The active agent of terror in the eighteenth-century Gothic tale was the villain. His function was to pursue the heroine throughout the castle's vaults and labyrinths—which pursuit constituted the bulk of the plot. The modern novel for the most part no longer indulges in such melodrama. The mind of the serious artist has turned inward, and with the acknowledgement of Freudian psychology and Freud's interpretation of dreams, the focal point of fiction has shifted from the action of the chase to the mind of the chased.

The new Gothic novels are tales of tormented souls who view the world as a maze. The problems which confront them are as complicated and terrifying as the twisted labyrinths of the Gothic castle. A typical modern Gothic theme involves rites of passage for the innocent into a violent world. The hero often is an individual who feels persecuted and inferior, and who withdraws from the actual world into a world of magnified fears and nightmares. This withdrawal results in a state of personal dissociation from society, a state of gnawing loneliness. Frequently frustrated in love, the hero either lives out his days in terrible isolation or becomes in one way or another sexually perverted, the search for a sexless, dim ideal, a manifestation of the hero's avoidance and fear of reality.

The theme of the modern Gothic novel is, then, spiritual isolation. In one of her infrequent essays (Esquire, Dec. 1959), Mrs. McCullers has stated her conscious concern with this theme:

Spiritual isolation is the basis of most of my themes. My first book was concerned with this, almost entirely, and all of my books since, in one way or another. Love, and especially love of a person who is incapable of returning or receiving it, is at the heart of my selection of grotesque figures to write about—people whose physical incapacity to love or receive love—their spiritual isolation.

All Mrs. McCullers' characters are doomed to solitary confinement within the cell of self. Sometimes they make pitiful attempts at escape—as in the child Bubber's running away from home down the state highway in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, or the Negress Berenice Sadie Brown's replacing her bad eye with one of light blue glass in The Member of the Wedding. Such attempts to change one's situation, to avoid reality, are futile. Each is eternally isolated with his problems, like, writes Mario Praz, "the unfortunate persecuted maiden" of the Gothic novel.

Mrs. McCullers writes of a no-exit world, and it is not accidental that all her novels are set in the slow, unbearably hot and monotonous summer months when "there is nothing whatsoever to do" in a town that "is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world," in fact, an inferno. Attempts to escape hellish isolation through communication are impossible; time and again in her novels thought and deed are misunderstood or ignored. In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter the most eloquent of the characters is Singer, a deaf-mute, eloquent because only he seems to communicate comfort, to sing the soul's songs, to all who seek his company. The inclusion of a pair of mutes in the novel is not morbidity on the part of the author, as has been frequently charged; it is instead a brilliant symbolization of man's condition. Even "normal" adults in the novels cannot escape their frustrations and feelings of alienation through the process of loving or confiding in one another. Love too often is thwarted and the lover suffers all the more for his longings, a thesis which is the very basis for The Ballad of the Sad Café. Rather than comfort we find fear: the terror which comes from the knowledge that one is alone in an indifferent or hostile universe.

This theme of the failure of love is a corollary of the Gothic theme of spiritual isolation. It is a theme which obsessed an earlier writer of Gothic stories in America, Edgar Allan Poe. Love fails because its ecstasy is an ephemeral thing. As D. H. Lawrence observed in Studies in Classic American Literature, "the first law of life is that each organism is isolate in itself, it must return to its own isolation." All the tales of Poe are, according to Praz, a "symbolical, mythological translation of the same thirst for unrealizable love and of the desire for that complete fusion with the beloved being which ends in Vampirism." The same futile quest for unity in love is a recurring theme in Mrs. McCullers' fiction. This theme illustrates Fiedler's statement about modern Gothicism in the American novel, that "the primary meaning of the Gothic romance, then, lies in its substitution of terror for love as a central theme." The figure at the center of the McCullersnovel, in his confusion and desperation, is unable to find solace in another soul and therefore is terrified at his enforced solitude and inadequacy.

Other themes which relate more directly to the Gothic as it has descended from the graveyard poets can be found in Mrs. McCullers' treatment of the taboo. Homosexuality and perversion and miscegenation often are explicit in her work. Fiedler has noted that, "Our great novelists, though experts on indignity and assault, on loneliness and terror, tend to avoid treating the passionate encounter of a man and woman, which we expect at the center of a novel…." While one cannot totally agree with Mr. Fiedler, and call all American literature a Gothic literature, it is clear that the work of Carson McCullers belongs within that body of our literature which is Gothic in theme and method. Instead of romantic couples or brave heroes and heroines we find homosexuals and lesbians, flowers of evil dotting a grotesque landscape. The perverted and pusillanimous characters of McCullers experience no love affairs of permanent value. The lover is forever rebuked, unrecognized, or the subject of mistaken intentions. Often the mental unbalance of these characters is symbolized by their physical infirmity. Mrs. McCullers has told us of her characters being "People whose physical incapacity is a symbol of their spiritual incapacity to love or receive love." Her novels are highly symbolic and often nearly allegorical. Her symbolic method will be discussed shortly.

Many of the plots in Mrs. McCullers' novels abound in frightful torture scenes and violent deaths. The inclusion of such atrocities is prompted by both the central theme and the symbolic method of her work. In a sense the theme of her novels is violation—the ravaging of the spirit by a cruel universe. The inhumanity carried on in the South has given Mrs. McCullers and her regional contemporaries much to contemplate, and it is perhaps this violence and the accompanying psychological guilt which have produced the "Southern Gothic" novel. The problem of segregation serves to illustrate Mrs. McCullers' frequent theme of isolation, and the treatment received by the Negroes underscores the element of terror. Violence in the McCullers Gothic novel is functional: it serves to illustrate the world as she sees it. This is how the modern Gothic novel resembles the works of the Romantics, those writers for whom "beauty was enhanced by exactly those qualities which seem to deny it, by those objects which produce horror; the sadder, the more painful it was, the more intensely they relished it." There are horrible visions in McCullers because this is what she finds in our age, and because that is what obsesses her. It is not a long jump from the torture chamber scenes in the novels of "Monk" Lewis to the white-supremist inspired atrocities in her fiction. The wandering of the McCullers heroine from one frightful scene to another is a parallel to the plot of the early Gothic novel. If her novels seem sensational as a result, I suspect her intentions have in part been realized. The modern Gothic novel is sensational because it is written, at least partially, to be didactic, to shock the reader into recognition. In the concluding paragraph of William Faulkner's most terrible and Gothic novel (Absalom, Absalom) the hero, when asked why he hates the South, insists: "I don't hate it I don't. I don't. I don't hate it! I don't hate it!" The Southern Gothicist writes about mutilation and awful sin because that is what deeply concerns him about his region. Another Southerner whose sensationalism is often called lurid is Tennessee Williams. In an introduction to one of Mrs. McCullers' novels, Williams has stated that the modern Gothicist uses symbols of the grotesque and the violent "Because a book is short and a man's life is long. The awfulness has to be compressed." He sees the American Gothic novel linked to the French Existentialist novel, with the common denominator being "a sense, an intuition, of an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience." It is this dreadfulness in our quotidian lives that has been the primary theme of Mrs. McCullers' five novels.

Mrs. McCullers often adopts Gothic properties as a means of projecting this awful image of the world. The presence of an ominous setting, the casting of a spell of melancholy and dread, through descriptions of decay and torture, are sometimes important in her craft. Many of the Southern Gothicists employ the decaying plantation manse in place of the ruined castle as symbol of the collapse of an order. This fall of the Old South is equivalent to the character's sense of loss and insecurity, his dissociation. Mrs. McCullers' fictional method for the most part, however, employs the Gothic as an element rather than a controlling situation or definite setting. We should therefore look not so much for actual fallen mansions in her work, but rather for the metaphorically fallen mansions, the disorder and insecurity and lack of moral center which so disturb the minds of her Southern characters. These characters are so tormented that they feel compelled to perform such actions as Jake Blount's driving a nail through his outstretched palm (Lonely Hunter), Sherman Pew's hanging his friend's dog by a clothesline (Clock Without Hands), and Alison Langdon's cutting off her nipples with garden shears (Reflections in a Golden Eye). These are violent actions and often the criticism is raised that McCullers' novels contain too many such scenes. Yet the frenzied pitch of the Gothic plot, often drawing upon sadistic and masochistic emotions, helps project the particular vision which is Mrs. McCullers' world. She has obviously felt the need to employ the terrible world of the Gothic to find images and actions of adequate emotional impact, just as the Marquis de Sade justified the "new novel" of Europe in his time:

For those who knew all the miseries with which scoundrelscan oppress men, the novel became as hard to write as it was monotonous to read…. It was necessary to call hell to the rescue … and to find in the world of the nightmare … images adequate to "tell the history of man in this Iron Age."

One of the means by which Mrs. McCullers conveys the sense of a nightmare world is through her gallery of grotesque characters. The background of her novels is seldom the recognizable South, with a normal pattern of activities. Her world is populated with abnormal beings. It is in this symbolic method that she literally calls "hell to the rescue" and creates a nightmare vision. The physical deformity of her characters serves to symbolize their isolation, since freaks are singular beings not acceptable to our society. Freaks of course have long been stock characters in Gothic tales: the hunchback, the scar face, the Frankensteinian monsters which endanger the body and spirit of the beholder are familiar nightmare constituents. Among those naturally deformed, Mrs. McCullers' characters include two deaf mutes, two hunchbacks, two giant-sized women, a chinless girl, several deformed babies, and numerous ruptured and impotent men. Others of her characters are deformed by man's violence: the negroes Willie and Wagon both have their legs sawed off; Sherman Pew is shocked into a permanent speech impediment; Lon Baker's throat is slit from ear to ear. There are also natural diseases which distort the spirit as well as the body: three cases of cancer, leukemia, a diseased ovary, a paralyzed hand—all found among her cast of characters in five novels.

These unfortunate, persecuted characters reveal the author's obsession with the classic problem of evil. This problem, as posed by the unknown author of the Book of Job, and by other religious thinkers, is the question: Given a good Creator, how can there be evil in the creation? Time and again in Mrs. McCullers' fiction we find good people who suffer and are overcome by their suffering. John Singer, of Lonely Hunter, is an upright man who is afflicted with muteness, and whose only love object is removed by death. Mick Kelly, of the same novel, wishes to become a great musician, but is forced by family poverty to work in a five-and-ten. In this sense a good many of the Gothic characters in the McCullers canon are grotesque in form only: repulsively hunchbacked or frightfully oversized, but inwardly not evil. The original Gothic novels employed grotesquely featured people as personifications of the evil in the world; Mrs. Shelley's monster was ugly because he performed ugly deeds and caused others to suffer. Mrs. McCullers' monsters, however, are ugly because their appearance is a projection of their internal suffering. Instead of being the menacers, they are the menaced; instead of the victimizers, they are the victims. Hugo McPherson notes in an article which appeared in Tamarack Review, "her characters, like Kafka's and Truman Capote's, are the ill-prepared and the ill-equipped; they seek not victory over life but a secure haven, and the struggle is not a glory but an almost unbearable violation of the self."

These deformities or illnesses so affect the unfortunate characters that they withdraw into the world of self. Such loneliness and frustration are portrayed in another set of characters as well. Supplementing the freaks in her novels are the self-conscious adolescents. Members of this group are equally isolated, belonging neither to the child's world or the adult's. Mrs. McCullers sees the figure of the groping adolescent as another symbolic realization of our life of fear. Writes Fiedler, "The child's world is not only asexual, it is terrible: the world of fear and loneliness, a haunted world." To this group belong Mick Kelly, Frankie Adams of Member of the Wedding, and Sherman Pew of Clock Without Hands. A third classification of characters in the novels is those belonging to minority groups, the violated Negroes and persecuted Jews who suffer in their segregation and torment.

The author's chief characters possess an ambiguous and troubled sexuality. Some are asexual, like Miss Amelia of The Ballad of the Sad Café. The boy-girls of adolescence go by names like "Mick" and "Frankie," names that characterize their neuter nature. Others are inverted sexually, their deviation further isolating them from the normal world. These adult sexual deviates are plagued by their perverse wills and long to experience the normal love which is not open to them. In her first novel, Biff Brannon is impotent, thus incapable of any active sexual activity—normal or devious—which could afford him gratification. In Biff's case, the result is the development of strong feelings for young children, feelings both paternal and maternal. John Singer, Captain Penderton of Reflections in a Golden Eye, and Jester Clane of Clock Without Hands, are all bisexual; these characters of conflicting male-female emotions can be compared to the androgynous mythological figure of Tiresias. The figure of the wandering spirit, blind and yet seeing, torn between the opposing sides of a dual nature, personifies the frustrated characters of McCullers. There is something frightening about these, their abnormal actions, their secret desires. In this respect the androgynous figures in her novels implement the feeling of dread, being both "sexless and lascivious" and a part of the Gothic machinery.

We have illustrated that the actions of these sexually thwarted souls are often violent. Especially so are the several attempts at self-emasculation of the male, de-sexualization of the female. There are also attempts at self-crucifixion. Not all of the characters take such drastic physical action. Some simply sit and daydream in a state of somnambulant lethargy, or are visited by terrible nightmares. Several have necrophilistic visions, haunted by dreams of beautiful babies rotting in their tiny coffins. Others are drawn in horrified fascination to the caskets of dead relatives, lingering more out of curiosity than sympathy. Surely these are Gothic scenes, and Mrs. McCullers spares no detail. The ruminations of Alison Langdon on the death of her child in Reflections in a Golden Eye are typical:

for a long time she had been obsessed by the sharp, morbid image of the little boy in the grave. Her horrified brooding on decay and on that tiny lonely skeleton had brought her to such a state that at last, after considerable red tape, she had had the coffin disinterred.

There are terrible death scenes in the novels, especially the deaths of Lon Baker, Uncle Charles, and John Henry. The supernatural is suggested in one novel, and miscegenation spelled out in another.

Just as the castle's dungeon was the prevailing setting for the English Gothic novel, many scenes drawn by Mrs. McCullers are similarly oppressing sites. Jail houses figure symbolically in several of the novels, and the trapped occupants are representative of man's fate. These jails are described as dark, vile, and inescapable. Freak shows and asylums also are used with similar effect.

Carson McCullers' writing, then, employs Gothic elements both in theme and method. Her five novels stand, as Mr. Fiedler has pointed out, not merely as parables of "terror filling the vacuum left by the suppression of sex in our novels, of Thanatos standing in for Eros," but in addition they project a dark vision of the contemporary American and his "obsession with the violence and his embarrassment before love"—his isolation and failure in communication. In their search for identity which becomes inwardly directed, these characters are like the heroines of the Gothicists, whose flights were from "out of the known world into a dark region of make-believe." Having failed to understand man's inhumanity to man and their own personal dissociation, her characters resort to daydreaming, and are plagued by horrible nightmares—a fate far worse than physically battling the rigors of the universe; for as Fiedler exclaims, "The final horrors are neither gods nor demons, but intimate aspects of our own minds." The minotaur in the labyrinth of self is not easily overcome.

Leslie Fiedler has stated in An End to Innocence that "images of childhood and adolescence haunt our greatest works as an unintended symbolic confession of the inadequacy we sense but cannot remedy." The Member of the Wedding (1946) is a very intentional use of the adolescent as symbol for that sense of inadequacy and helplessness. The novel's title refers to Frankie Addams, a sensitive and fearful child whose thirteenth summer is the subject of the novel. The cast of characters is very small—Frankie primarily associates with only two other people—and the book is a study of her loneliness and isolation. Frankie's fears are the fears of all human beings, and the last name of Addams indicates her archetypal function in her initiation into worldly knowledge. The self-chosen nickname of Frankie (like the name Mick Kelly) is a feeble effort on the part of the adolescent to assert her individuality in a patriarchal culture, as is the crew cut which makes her a neuter being.

The summer during which the novel's action occurs is described as "the summer of fear," and Frankie is plagued by many nightmares and terrible visions. It is for this reason that the novel can be called Gothic, and not because there is "a female homosexual romance between the boy-girl Frankie and a Negro cook" as Fiedler so glibly conjectures. One dream which frightens Frankie is of a beckoning door which slowly begins to open and draw her in. What lies beyond that door—maturity, truth, knowledge—is a mystery to her, and she is frightened by the unknown. Frankie is afraid of her own growth. Having grown four inches in the past year, she towers above her classmates and is fearful that she will become "a lady who is over nine feet high. She would be a Freak." Frankie visits the carnival's Freak House, and has been terrified by the knowing eyes of the grotesques she sees there: "it seemed to her they had looked at her in a secret way and tried to connect their eyes with hers, as though to say: We know you." Frankie feels the grotesques have recognized her own freakish and guilt-ridden soul.

The Freak House is not the only place that frightens the girl: "the jail had scared and haunted her that spring and summer." She also feels the ghastly looking prisoners "know her" for what she is—and that she too is trapped, though she is free to move about and they are not. The very existence of the jail house haunts her: "the criminals were caged in stone cells with iron bars before the windows, and though they might beat on the stone walls or wrench at the iron bars, they could never get out." Frankie imagines herself so trapped, and her confidante, Berenice Sadie Brown, reveals to her that it is the human predicament.

A third house she visits which terrifies her is the residence of Big Mama, an old fortune-telling Negress said to possess supernatural powers. Though Frankie fears her she turns to Big Mama's powers in her search for answers to the ultimate question of human suffering and death, the problem of evil. But Frankie is not satisfied with the answers Big Mama gives her, and she is left with her feeling of "the sense of something terribly gone wrong."

Running away from one frightening scene only to encounter another, Frankie is the Gothic heroine encountering the chambers of horrors. In the course of the summer she is haunted by three gruesome deaths of acquaintances. These deaths are described by Mrs. McCullers in very graphic terms, the verbal intensity matching the strong impressions made upon Frankie's mind. The first of these is the unmotivated murder of the Negro boy, Lon Baker, in the alley directly behind her father's jewelry store:

On an April afternoon his throat was slashed with a razor blade, and all the alley people disappeared in back doorways, and later it was said his cut throat opened like a crazy shivering mouth that spoke ghost words into the April sun.

The silent flapping mouth of Lon's throat parallels Frankie's own inarticulate attempts at communication.

The death of her Uncle Charles is more immediate to Frankie, and his ghastly passing pricks her awareness of mortality and her own insignificance in the cosmos. She fears death:

He lay in the bed, shrunken and brown and very old. Then his voice failed and when he tried to talk, it was as though his throat had filled with glue, and they could not understand the words. He looked like an old man carved in brown wood and covered with a sheet. Only his eyes had moved, and they were like blue jelly, and she had felt they might come out from the sockets and roll like blue wet jelly down his stiff face. She had stood in the doorway staring at him—then tiptoed away, afraid.

Again Frankie is aghast not only because of the pain involved in dying, but also because of the hopeless inability of the dying to communicate to the living.

The greatest shock however comes with the death of John Henry, her only young friend. Sickly and frail, John Henry in his confinement had become associated in Frankie's mind with her own isolation. The two of them seemed to share the same condition as recluses and even outcasts. With the loss of this rapport, Frankie finally feels any meaning to her life has vanished. All that remains is the spirit of John Henry which seems to visit her. Sitting in the kitchen she "felt his presence there, solemn and hovery and ghost-gray." Time and again she is to recall his torturous death:

John Henry had been screaming for three days and his eyeballs were walled up in a corner, stuck and blind. He lay there finally with his head drawn back in a buckled way, and he had lost the strength to scream. He died the Tuesday after the Fair was gone.

This last statement reveals much of what Frankie has had to learn. After the fair—the brief pleasantries of life—comes the blackness of death. But The Member of the Wedding is more than a novel of one girl's initiation; it is impossible to read the account of John Henry's death and still regard the work as a charming account of adolescence as many critics have done. In its cataloguing of death scenes the novel plays upon the reader's fear of death and the dead, a characteristic theme of Gothic novels.

The story's action primarily occurs in a setting which is ominous and depressing to the heroine. There is no dank dungeon in the novel—but the kitchen of the Addams home is a place of confinement and dread for Frankie. Spurned by the other girls because of her unusual size, Frankie finds herself continually sitting in the dark kitchen whose very walls she hates. The kitchen is Frankie's private hell, "a sad and ugly room," and Frankie often feels she will go berserk if she has to remain there any longer. Indeed the kitchen is like "a room in the crazy-house," because John Henry has covered the walls with queer and childish drawings which run together in confusion: "The walls of the kitchen bothered Frankie—the queer drawings of Christmas trees, airplanes, freak soldiers, flowers." Such varied drawings make the walls a projection of the world itself, a microcosm of the macrocosm. Frankie in her confinement seems to sense this, staring at the walls and commenting that "the world is certainly a small place." Life is hell for the adolescent Frankie; she feels there is no escape from her fate, and she hates her environment, thinking she "lived in the ugliest house in town," viewing the sunshine as "the bars of a bright, strange jail." Such imagery clearly reveals the author deliberately giving us another trapped, suffering and helpless female within a Gothic framework, every bit as anguished as Alison Langdon of Reflections in a Golden Eye, her most overtly Gothic novel.

Frankie Addams' problem is that same sense of spiritual isolation which blights all the McCullers characters: "Between herself and all other places there was a space like an enormous canyon she could not hope to bridge or cross." Frankie has felt neglect and isolation to the point that she wails, "I am sick unto death." Her height of course symbolizes her alienation from her peers. She not only is excluded from the girls' club because she is bigger and seems older than the rest, but she has also been ejected from her father's bed which she used to share as a child. Frankie feels the eternal outsider. She cries in anguish over her plight:

All other people had a we to claim, all others except her. When Berenice said we, she meant Honey and Big Mama, her lodge, or her church. The we of her father was the store. All members of clubs have a we to belong to and talk about. The soldiers in the army can say we, and even the criminals on chain-gangs. But the old Frankie had no we to claim.

Frankie watches the soldiers who travel in loud groups about the town, and envies their strong camaraderie (as does Captain Penderton in Reflections in a Golden Eye).

Spurned by her father and the girls her age, Frankie seeks solace in the company of John Henry, her little cousin. This relationship is unsatisfactory, since John Henry is too young to share many of her interests. Frankie's feelings for him are partly motivated by her quest for a father-figure, since her own father is too busy running his jewelry store. John Henry partially fills this gap in her life, and Frankie thinks he looks "like a tiny watchmaker."

The third major character, Berenice Sadie Brown, feels the burden of the color of her own skin, symbolized by her last name. She brings to Frankie her pessimistic philosophy of man's fate, telling her all mortals are caught in a trap:

I'm caught worse than you is. Because I am black. Because I am colored. Everybody is caught one way or another. But they done drawn completely extra bonds around all colored people. They done squeezed us off in one corner by oneself. So we caught that first way I was telling you, as all human beings is caught. And we caught as colored peoples also.

Berenice concludes simply by remarking of mankind, "They were born … and they going to die." Frankie ponders her new knowledge of mortality as well as her increasing catalog of sexual facts and realizes that she must protect John Henry's innocence, to keep him a child as long as possible. She not only pities John Henry because he is sickly; she also pities him because in the doomed John Henry she sees herself: "He looked at her with eyes as china as a doll's, and in them there was only the reflection of her own lost face." John Henry provides a narcissistic image for Frankie, as did Antonapoulos for Singer, in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

Frankie also resembles Mick Kelly of Lonely Hunter, being troubled by sexuality. Throughout the novel Frankie skirts the periphery of sexual experience, and there are five acts of sexual initiation contained in the novel, each more personal than the last. Frankie's adolescence is spent running away from sex, just as the Gothic heroine flees from her seducers. Frankie refuses to believe those "nasty lies about married people" told by the girls in the club. She had had a physical contact with a male and it caused her much mental anguish:

In the MacKean's garage, with Barney MacKean, they committed a queer sin, and how bad it was she did not know. The sin made a shriveling sickness in her stomach, and she dreaded the eyes of everyone.

Her sexual experiences of the summer culminate when a drunken soldier tries to seduce her in a dark room over the Blue Moon Cafe. She fights with her assailant and manages to knock him unconscious with a bottle. She flees the scene and for weeks is possessed by the fear she has killed a man. Frankie does not undergo a complete sexual initiation through intercourse, as does Mick Kelly, whom she so greatly resembles in all other respects. But Mick is more aggressive and has more natural curiosity. Frankie's flight from sexuality is both mental and physical. When she does find someone to love, it is not a teen-age boy, but rather the artistic Mary Littlejohn. Frankie is fascinated by Mary's Catholicism, unknown and Papal affiliations intriguing her: "This difference was a final touch of strangeness, silent terror, that completed the wonder of her love." The fear of Catholicism and the Catholic ritual was, of course, the basis of a number of the earliest Gothic romances.

Frankie clings to Mary because she does not think she will ever be loved by, or be able to love, a man. Mary is a little John, then, a surrogate male lover. In The Member of the Wedding Mrs. McCullers first introduces her theory of love, a theory which received full treatment in her succeeding book, The Ballad of the Sad Café. Berenice rambles on to Frankie about the unpredictable nature of man in choosing a beloved:

I have knew mens to fall in love with girls so ugly you wonder if their eyes is straight. I have seen some of the most peculiar weddings anybody could conjecture. Once I knew a boy with his whole face burned off so that …

Here Mrs. McCullers tells us that in matters of love the appearance of the beloved is of no more moment than the reciprocity of the emotion. The important thing is the release from isolation which the act of loving gives to the lover. Yet we find in The Ballad that the lover suffers all the more through his attempts to escape loneliness in this way. Even Berenice has suffered as a result of her seemingly perfect union with Ludie Freeman. Since his death she has felt a terrible void: "Sometimes I almost wish I had never knew Ludie at all. It spoils you too much. It leaves you too lonesome afterward." Ludies was not a "freeman" at all; being mortal, he too had to die and cause grief to his beloved.

Berenice's search for love parallels Frankie's, though in a later stage of life. She possesses the worldly knowledge that Frankie lacks. The blue glass eye she has bought gives her a "two-sighted expression," which is the physical symptom of her psychic perception. The experience of four marriages contrasts with Frankie's innocence. Berenice's last three marriages have left her unsatisfied. She hysterically calls out for Ludie Maxwell Freeman. These subsequent marriages were desperate attempts to replace him. She marries Jamie Beale because he has a mangled thumb like Ludie. She marries Henry Johnson because he wears Ludie's pawned great-coat. "What I did," confesses the miserable Berenice, "was to marry off little pieces of Ludie whenever I came across them. It was just my misfortune they all turned out to be the wrong pieces."

Both Frankie and Berenice have one opportunity for momentary escape from their dreadful ennui and frustration. The announcement of a wedding for Frankie's older brother Jarvis excites their imaginations, especially Frankie's. Love-hungry, she decides that she will join her brother and his bride and travel to Alaska with them, away from the heat and confinement of the South. Mrs. McCullers, like Hemingway, uses the snowy North as a symbol for escape to a pristine and pure ideal.

A wedding of course is a joining of lives, the creation of a new family. Frankie above all else has needed a close family experience. As a bridesmaid, she would finally be a member of something, a member of the wedding, and would be given identity and purpose. Frankie's plan to join the young couple on their honeymoon is doomed for failure, as are all fantastic plans for escape in the five McCullers novels. Frankie is totally unrealistic in her plans, thinking the move will end all her worries: "We will have thousands of friends, thousands and thousands and thousands of friends. We will belong to so many clubs that we can't even keep track of all of them." She fails to realize she must work out her own future without the couple as a crutch.

From beginning to end the wedding is a nightmare. The chance never comes for Frankie to announce her intentions, and she has to be bodily dragged from the car when she tries to cling to the newlyweds on their departure. After Frankie returns home she concludes that though the wedding has not provided an escape, she will still leave town. Her feelings of isolation are intense that evening as she slips out into the streets. The alleys are gloomy and she imagines the long dark car she sees to be that of a terrible gangster. Alone and frightened, she prays for company: "There was only knowing that she must find somebody, anybody, that she could join with to go away. For now she admitted she was too scared to go into the world alone."

The frail heroine alone in the night—again we find the typical Gothic situation. Frankie is isolated and always will be. The trip around the world with Mary Littlejohn is merely another pipe dream like that of the wedding. On this point I cannot agree with Ihab Hassan, who sees the novel's (Radical Innocence, 1961) conclusion as optimistic and Frankie's actions "a final affirmation of youth's resilience." Hassan sees Frankie as moving "beyond the acrid feeling that the world has cheated her." This does not seem to be the case at all. Both Frankie's mother and John Henry are dead, and Berenice deserts her to marry for a fifth time in her never-ending search for fulfillment. Berenice's departure signals the total collapse of Frankie's "family" (just as the cook Verily's leaving the senile judge in Clock Without Hands creates a void in the life of a white person dependent upon a black). Frankie will continue to be an overly tall, self-conscious and unloved person in the years to follow.

There is a miniature parable contained in this novel. The restless organ grinder and his monkey, forever wandering like minstrels throughout the book, are representative of humanity: "They would look at each other with the same scared exasperation, their wrinkled faces very sad." The novel is sad indeed, but the Gothic method of the author intensifies the grief and terror. "The life which she creates is not the raw documentary of experience that has dominated American fiction since the twenties, but life as the imagination apprehends it, rich in atmosphere but stripped of non-essentials," agrees Hugo McPherson. Universally proclaimed a novel of tender adolescence by the critics, The Member of the Wedding provokes frightening responses in the reader which for too long have been overlooked. With its moribund setting, fear of sexuality, terrifying death scenes, dark dreams and nightmares—even touches of fear of Catholicism and the supernatural—the novel is yet another manifestation of the author's Gothic vision. It is also the novel which best stands comparison with Mrs. McCullers' undisputed masterpiece, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

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Critical Essay by Robert S. Phillips from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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