Carson McCullers | Critical Essay by Virginia Spencer Carr

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Carson McCullers.
This section contains 4,163 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Virginia Spencer Carr

SOURCE: "The Ballad of the Sad Café," in Understanding Carson McCullers, University of South Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 53-69.

In the following essay, Carr discusses events in McCullers' personal life that were incorporated into The Ballad of the Sad Café. The love-triangle between the characters of Amelia Evans, the hunchback Lymon, and Macy grew out of relationships in McCullers's life, according to Carr.

The monotony and boredom that permeated the author's life with her husband in 1939 before their move from Fayetteville, North Carolina, contributed not only to the completion of Reflections in a Golden Eye, but also to her novella, The Ballad of the Sad Café, published for the first time in 1943 in a single issue of Harper's Bazaar. More important to the story line of the tale than McCullers's southern discomfort, however, was her predicament in New York in 1940 and 1941. She had hoped for a committed relationship with her new friend Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, having fallen deeply in love with her, but it became apparent to McCullers soon after their involvement that nothing further would develop.

To suffer in despair was her destiny as a mortal, she reasoned, turning once more to fiction to express what she saw as her truths. Although McCullers had been working for many months on a manuscript that she referred to as "The Bride and Her Brother," its design and technique had not yet revealed themselves to her (a metaphysical experience McCullers described later as "the grace of labor"). She realized while in the nurturing environment of her native Columbus that she could put off no longer the strange tale of thwarted love that had grown out of her tangled relationships with her husband and her Swiss friend. That winter she wrote her editor (Robert Linscott) that passion and tension in her life were necessary if she were to write at all, but that she needed it in smaller doses. With her husband, there had been too much tension, and passion had been replaced by disillusionment, ennui, and disgust. But now, removed physically from the two people with whom she had been most deeply involved, she found herself writing well once more. Her new tale was better than anything else she had done, she reported.

McCullers told a number of friends while she was at work on her "folk tale" during the summer of 1941 at Yaddo Artists Colony that she had written the "music" for it years earlier as a result of her experiences with people she loved. Her lyrics, however, were more recently inspired. In the first week of her stay at Yaddo, she became enamored of Katherine Anne Porter, a fellow guest and the reputed grande dame of the colony, a crush that added still another dimension to her tale. According to Porter, McCullers lost no time in making her infatuation known and followed her about the colony in the very manner in which the characters she was creating moon over one another in The Ballad of the Sad Café.

Although the pivotal character in the tale that McCullers was writing bears a resemblance to any number of individuals in her life (and even, to some extent, to the author herself), Cousin Lymon owes his creation, in part, to an actual hunchback whom McCullers saw in a Sand Street bar that she frequented in Brooklyn Heights when she lived at 7 Middagh Street, near the old Brooklyn Naval Yard. In her essay "Brooklyn Is My Neighborhood," McCullers described him as "a little hunchback who struts in proudly every evening, and is petted by everyone, given free drinks, and treated as a sort of mascot by the proprietor." But even more relevant to his development as a character was McCullers's wry humor and sheer delight in reading and hearing recounted tales of folk epic and classical mythology, as well as of bizarre situations found within her contemporary world. Mary A. Gervin has written convincingly of certain "frames of reference" and mythic parallels between Amelia/Macy and Artemis/Orion.

Still another situation in McCullers's life found its way into her tale that summer, too: her abandonment by Reeves and his love affair with their best friend, David Diamond. McCullers wrote Diamond from Yaddo when she finished her "strange fairy tale," as she repeatedly described it, that it was for him. (Diamond, in turn, dedicated his ballet The Dream of Audubon to both McCullers and Reeves and set to music her recently published poem, "The Twisted Trinity," yet another handling of her troubled life.) In the fictional tale, Amelia is abandoned by Cousin Lymon—whom she loves inordinately—in favor of Marvin Macy. The two men team up against her, steal her treasures, wreck her café and distillery, and leave town together.

Critic Margaret Walsh has argued cogently that The Ballad Of the Sad Café is not a "fairy tale" but an "anti-fairy tale," for "unlike the redeeming love of fairy tales, love in McCullers's tale is the spell that weakens the will, the enchantment that can dwarf giants"; thus to "lay oneself bare to love is to be open to disloyalty, to be meek, powerless, and defenseless, to be at the mercy of love's unpredictability."

The twisted, ill-fated triangles that haunt the lives of McCullers's fictional characters repeatedly haunted the author in reality as well. The theme of abandonment (that had prevailed in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter) is important not only to The Ballad of the Sad Café, but even more so to the longer work in progress that summer, the novel that eventually became The Member of the Wedding. McCullers finished her novella at Yaddo during the summer of 1941, then put it away for two years, intending to write two more tales of about the same length and to publish them as a trilogy in one volume. Caught up in the writing of The Member of the Wedding, however, she never worked on the other tales she envisioned, and The Ballad of the Sad Café was published in 1943 in a single issue of Harper's Bazaar. Eight years later, it became the title story in her omnibus collection, The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Works, which included all of the long fiction published to date and six of her short stories.

The narrator of McCullers's novella maintains a relatively objective distance from the scene and situation that he (or she) describes in much the same manner as the narrator does in Reflections in a Golden Eye. He is not a specific character within any scene, but his commentary and subtle forewarnings function like a Greek chorus. He sees the dangers inherent in the triangle of Amelia, Lymon, and Macy, but is powerless to act. He does not pretend to know everything, but his omniscient voice sets the mood and pace of the action to follow, shifting from formal, stylized, poetic, and at times archaic, to the colorful and colloquial folk patterns of the simple mill people who frequent Miss Amelia's café.

Over the years McCullers's narrator has evoked more critical discussion than has any other aspect of the tale. Robert Rechnitz argued cogently in 1968 that the author's "childlike style" served her especially well in The Ballad of the Sad Café, for it enabled the narrator to hide behind a facade of childlike innocence that became a "kind of buffer to fend off what would otherwise be unbearable." A later essay, Dawson F. Gaillard's "The Presence of the Narrator in McCullers' Ballad of the Sad Café," posits that the empathetic presence of the narrator makes it impossible for the reader "to distance himself from the emotional impact of the act," and that it is the oral quality of the tale and the personal balladeer's response to the café that lifts the café to mythic proportions. Critics have generally agreed that the narrator's most striking characteristic is his (or her) compassion for the three principal characters, whose traits are employed by McCullers as symbols of the moral isolation and pain to which one inevitably falls heir in the absence of any kind of meaningful communication with another human being.

Told as one long flashback, the story actually begins at the end. Unlike her first two books with their three- and four-part divisions, The Ballad of the Sad Café is tightly compressed into one continuous narrative that relies upon narration alone and an occasional space break to emphasize passage of time or an extraordinary turn of events.

When the reader first encounters Amelia Evans, by far the most pitiful and tragic figure in the tale, she is living alone behind boarded-up windows in a large, sagging house on the main street of a small town in what appears to be the hills of North Georgia. It is August, and "sometimes in the late afternoon when the heat is at its worst a hand will slowly open the shutter and a face will look down on the town. It is a face like the terrible dim faces known in dreams—sexless and white." The solitary Miss Amelia is a freakishly tall, pale woman whose "two gray crossed eyes" are turned so sharply inward that they seem to be exchanging with each other "one long and secret gaze of grief." Amelia is six feet two inches tall and has bones and muscles like a man's. She cares "nothing for the love of men," although she identifies with them in her labors of sausage making, bricklaying, and carpentry. The town's only general practitioner, she doles out her homemade medicines, but is uncomfortable with women and refuses to treat any "female complaint." Like Private Williams in Reflections in a Golden Eye, Amelia was reared in a motherless home. She had no idea what might be expected of her in a romantic relationship and had no basis for remorse over her violent expulsion of Marvin Macy from the bridal bedchamber or of her abuse of him later. When Amelia, in turn, is abandoned by Lymon, she evokes the towns-people's pity.

The town itself is dreary and undistinguished, for "not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where the workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street only a hundred yards long. On Saturdays the tenants from the nearby farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world." Nature imposes itself upon the hapless people with short, raw winters and summers that are "white with glare and fiery hot." In such a godforsaken place, the "soul rots with boredom," and one's only relief, suggests the balladeer, is "to walk down the Forks Falls Road and listen to the chain gang."

In the process of telling his tale, the narrator overcomes his boredom and, as critic John McNally has carefully demonstrated, adds a meaningful dimension to his own banal existence. But the town was once quite different, and so was Amelia, insists the narrator. In addition to having been the richest woman in town, she also ran the only local general store and made the best liquor in the county from an illegal still deep in the nearby swamp. Obviously displeased over the state of affairs in the community, she was ill at ease with the rest of the townspeople because they could not "be taken into the hands and changed overnight to something more worthwhile and profitable." Amelia's indifference to others was seen most clearly in her strange, ten-day unconsummated marriage to Macy, whom she drove out of her house—and out of town—after getting him to turn over all of his worldly possessions to her. Macy's humiliation by Amelia caused him to revert fiercely to his old, cruel habits that had shocked the town and gained him notoriety throughout the state. Captured, finally, he was charged for murder and any number of shotgun robberies and sent off to the penitentiary outside of Atlanta.

The narrator explains that some eleven years have passed since that event, however, and that Miss Amelia's independence and meanspiritedness are legendary. Thus the townspeople are amazed beyond belief when a tubercular and repulsive-looking hunchback struts into town one day and claims distant kinship with her. She calls him Cousin Lymon, and overnight he becomes the focus of her world. Lymon looks like a sick pelican with his thin crooked legs, oversized head, and great warped chest, and he is described repeatedly through distasteful bird imagery. For the first time in Amelia's life she feels pity, moved first by his tears, then by love—a love that she offers freely, having intuited that the little hunchback is no threat to her sexuality. Critic Joseph R. Millichap has aptly described Lymon as "a man loved without sex, a child acquired without pain, and a companion" whom Amelia found "more acceptable than a husband or a child."

In one of the most frequently quoted passages from McCullers' sentire canon, the narrator addresses mankind (and womankind) in general regarding the nature of the lover and the beloved:

First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons—but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world—a world intense and strange, complete in himself.

McCuller's balladeer makes it clear that the lover can be "any human creature on this earth," and that "the most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love":

A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp. A good man may be the stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a tender and simple idyll. Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself. It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.

When The Ballad of the Sad Café first appeared in Harper's Bazaar, McCullers sent a copy of the magazine to a young army private she had recently met, Robert Walden, and in the margin beside her treatise on the failure of eros, she scribbled in pencil: "This is true, Bob, only when you are not in love." Later, McCullers insisted in her essay "The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing" that the "passionate, individual love—the old Tristan-Isolde love, the Eros love—is inferior to the love of God, to fellowship, to the love of Agape—the Greek god of the feast, the God of brotherly love—and of man. This is what I tried to show in The Ballad of the Sad Café in the strange love of Miss Amelia for the little hunchback, Cousin Lymon." Whereas McCullers does reveal the eventual failure of eros and its destructive powers upon the trio in her tale, the characters achieve no redemption through agape (in the sense of communal affection), except for the temporal relief afforded by the café.

One could argue that McCullers's claim regarding her intentions in a work written fifteen years earlier when her emotions were deeply involved in the fiction is not wholly true. Louise Westling has pointed out that McCullers's statement that The Ballad of the Sad Café was intended to show the inferiority of passionate individual love to agape" by no means accounted "for the individual peculiarities of her characters and the sexual dimensions of their problems in love." Just as McCullers herself had experienced abject grief upon her painful discovery of the transitory nature of love and the impossibility of a lasting relationship with her Swiss friend, so, too, does Amelia suffer profoundly through her extraordinary love for Lymon, and for the café itself.

Six years after Lymon became ensconced in the café, Marvin Macy returns to town bent on revenge. The two men stare at one another with "the look of two criminals who recognize each other," and Lymon becomes instantly transformed into a spirited lover. He performs every trick he knows to get Macy's attention, while Macy, in turn, alternately ignores and insults his suitor. The strange triangle takes its final turn when Amelia is reduced to accepting the role of the frustrated lover, and this time it is Lymon who cruelly spurns her, choosing instead the swaggering, revengeful husband who puts up with the hunchback merely to gain an ally against his wife. Lymon flirts shamelessly with Macy, apes and insults the grieving Amelia to her face, and invites her husband to move in with them. Amelia does not rebel, knowing that if she drives her rival away, Lymon will follow. The thought of being alone again, having abandoned the last vestige of her strident independence to the dwarf, is intolerable. The narrator intercedes at this point to declare that "it is better to take in your mortal enemy than face the terror of living alone." Amelia's futile efforts to regain Lymon's favor parallel Macy's former attempts to woo her. Until he courted Amelia and was mysteriously transfigured by love, Macy's meanness was legendary throughout the region.

A bitter confrontation between Amelia and Macy is inevitable, an event that McCullers describes in mock-heroic fashion. The couple square off one evening in the center of the café before all the townspeople, who have watched the trio fearfully since the day Macy arrived. It is the dead of winter after an extraordinary snow, and there have been countless strange interruptions to nature's rhythms that the townspeople attribute to Macy. Along with other ominous signs a few hours before the fight begins, "a hawk with a bloody breast" flies over the town and circles "twice around the property of Miss Amelia." Thirty minutes after the fight commences, Amelia's advantage is unmistakable. She pins Macy to the floor and straddles him, her strong, big hands at his throat, but the hunchback intervenes. From the counter twelve feet away where he has perched to watch the fight, Lymon sails through the air "as though he had grown hawk wings," lands upon Amelia's back, and claws furiously at her neck. When the townsfolk come to their senses, Amelia lies motionless on the floor. The narrator explains that "this was not a fight to hash over and talk about afterward; people went home and pulled the covers up over their heads."

Amelia's pathetic defeat echoes the scene at the close of Reflections in a Golden Eye, but Amelia is not afforded the release of death. Trapped in the abyss of loneliness and isolation, she sobs fitfully "with the last of her grating, winded breath," her head in the crook of her arm. The destruction of her café and still, the theft of her worldly possessions, the sausage and grits laced with poison left behind—all mean nothing compared to the physical and spiritual decay that sets in irrevocably with the hunchback's sweeping leap. A victim of complete abandonment, the pathetic woman sits every night for three years on the front steps of her sagging house and gazes forlornly down the road upon which Lymon had first appeared. At last, in an admission of defeat, Amelia lets her hair grow ragged, and day by day her gray eyes become more crossed, "as though they sought each other out to exchange a little glance of grief and lonely recognition." Finally, she hires a carpenter to board up the premises of the café, and there is, as a result, no good liquor to be had anywhere. It is rumored that those who drink from the still eight miles away will "grow warts on their livers the size of goobers" and "dream themselves into a dangerous inward world." The rest of the townsfolk, in their boredom, have little to do except "walk around the millpond, stand kicking at a rotten stump, figure out what [one] can do with the old wagon wheel by the side of the road near the church," and as a last resort, "go down to the Forks Falls highway and listen to the chain gang." But Amelia allows herself no such relief. She does not go to the highway like the others to seek solace in the voices of the chain gang. Yet McCullers's coda, "The Twelve Mortal Men," stands as a paean to survival and a moving illustration of the power of brotherhood, even when the union is brought on by chains of bondage.

For a recording made in 1958—seventeen years after writing The Ballad of the Sad Café—McCullers read the final passage of the novel, the coda of the chain gang. Although her spirits were low and her health wretched, McCullers's voice was steady and strong until she reached the final line. "Just twelve mortal men who are together," wept McCullers, her breaking voice a vital part of the recording. In her canon, the word just had a special connotation that heightened its irony. "Just is too small a word for pity," explained Mollie Lovejoy, a character she had created some fifteen years after The Ballad of the Sad Café. "It's like saying just food, just God."

The Ballad of the Sad Café provoked no serious attention from reviewers until its appearance in the 1951 omnibus edition. In a front-page review in the Sunday New York Herald Tribune, Coleman Rosenberger declared the title story "condensed and brilliant writing, which carries the reader along so easily on the waves of the story that he may not at first be aware how completely he has been saturated with symbolism." William P. Clancey, reviewing for Commonweal, called McCullers's work "metaphysical" and spoke admiringly of the "metaphysical fusion of horror and compassion" by the author whose "young American talent" was of the "very first order." Robert Kee informed readers of the British Spectator that McCullers's style had an "Olympian dispassionateness which is designed to strengthen the violence of the human emotions with which she is often concerned. It is the same sort of effect which Hardy achieved for his characters in far more clumsily contrived sentences." V.S. Pritchett insisted that McCullers was the "most remarkable novelist to come out of America for a generation" and declared that her compassion gives her characters "a Homeric moment in a universal tragedy."

In his notable argument, "The Myth of the Sad Café," Albert J. Griffith contrasted McCullers's impressive mythic imagination with that of such moderns as James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and John Updike, stressing that her fellow writers had created contemporary parallels to various well-known myths, whereas McCullers shaped "her own new myth out of primitive elements."

A strong body of feminist criticism of The Ballad of the Sad Café, as well as of McCullers's other works, emerged in the mid-1970s. Panthea Reid Broughton provided the first significant feminist reading, which viewed the tale as a fable that "shows us that rejecting those characters labeled as exclusively feminine bounces back on the rejecter and renders men and women alike incapable of love." Charlene Clark's study of "male-female pairs" in both The Ballad of the Sad Café and The Member of the Wedding demonstrates effectively how McCullers's aggressive females dominate the passive males with whom they are paired and that these women vent their aggression through violence as a means of dominating the men. Another notable feminist reading is Claire Kahane's "Gothic Mirrors and Feminine Identity," which treats The Ballad of the Sad Café as a "redefined modern Gothic fiction" and places McCullers closer to Flannery O'Connor than to any of her other contemporaries. Both Robert S. Phillips and Louise Westling have addressed Isak Dinesen's considerable influence through her tale "The Monkey" upon The Ballad of the Sad Café. Westling perceives a significant difference between the work of the two writers, noting McCullers's attempt to deny the feminine entirely and to allow a woman to function successfully as a man.

The Ballad of the Sad Café has continued to stand up well under the scrutiny of critics. Many contend that, all things considered, it is still her best work.

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