We’re in the closing moments of Carson McCullers’s 1946 novel "The Member of the Wedding." The setting: a well-worn kitchen in a small Southern town during the Second World War. There’s little in the room: a chair, a stove. Everything else has been packed up—everything, that is, except the memories of the two women in the room, as they supervise the noisy comings and goings of movers. They are Berenice Sadie Brown, a middle-aged colored housekeeper, and Frankie Addams, a thirteen-year-old motherless white girl who has grown up in the house under Berenice’s charge. A year ago, McCullers writes, Frankie felt like "an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid." Her fears—which were largely existential; no mere adolescent quirks, these, since Frankie serves as McCullers’s stand-in—dominated her home. Then she fell in love with the romance—or her idea of the romance—between her brother and his fiancée, her "we of me," as she called them. Berenice tried to warn Frankie against the sad allure of a love that remains forever beyond one’s grasp. To illustrate her point, she talked about her late husband, Ludie, and the men she’d been drawn to since his death:
"I loved Ludie and he was the first man I loved. Therefore, I had to go and copy myself forever afterward. What I did was to marry off little pieces of Ludie whenever I come across them. It was just my misfortune they all turned out to be the wrong pieces. My intention was to repeat me and Ludie. Now don’t you see?"
"I see what you’re driving at," [Frankie] said. "But I don’t see how it is a warning applied to me.". . .
"You and that wedding. . . . That is what I am warning about. . . . You think you going to march down the center of the aisle right between your brother and the bride. You think you going to break into that wedding, and then Jesus knows what else."
Now Frankie is moving on, away from Berenice’s "preaching." In the 1952 film adaptation of "The Member of the Wedding," the director, Fred Zinnemann, draws a telling visual comparison between Berenice’s heavy black body draped in black—a Masha of the Mason-Dixon Line—and Frankie’s lithe white figure darting here and there, her speech glowing with a nearly unbearable romanticism, like a Nina, unmindful of her imminent fall. James Baldwin once said that whites cleaved to the very thing that he, as a black person, could not afford: the romance of innocence. As Ethel Waters plays Berenice, we see in her face Baldwin’s sad realization: Frankie may choose to be an outcast, but Berenice has no choice. Frankie claims to dream of belonging, but, as Berenice knows, she has little interest in fulfilling that dream. She has invested too much in her own sharply defended and defensive outsiderness. Her emotional satisfaction will come from blaming "freaks" like Berenice (her closest point of identification and thus resistance) for keeping her from weddings that she doesn’t really want to go to, anyway—since being included would interfere with the comfort she takes in being "unjoined."Today, Berenice could be read as what Toni Morrison calls the "Africanist presence"—the black female figure whose marginal status defines the privilege of others. "Africanism has become . . . both a way of talking about and a way of policing matters of class, sexual license, and repression, formations and exercises of power, and meditations on ethics and accountability," Morrison writes in her illuminating study "Playing in the Dark." But McCullers, rather than using Africanism to offset whiteness—as Melville, Twain, and others have—seems to use it as a way of identifying her own unjoined self. Can a white writer, a woman, who came to maturity in relatively secure circumstances during the Depression and the Second World War, be described as Africanist in spirit? (In some circles, this would be called having soul.) In a review of McCullers’s first novel, "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" (1940), Richard Wright remarked:
To me, the most impressive aspect of [this book] is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race. This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressure of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.
In fact, as far as the description of black characters goes, "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" is McCullers’s most imperfect work. One black male has woolly hair and lips that seem "purple against his black skin." There is the taint of a "Negro smell" in a cabin. Strange dialect and syntax separate "educated" blacks from laborers. Ultimately, these tics seem best passed over—they are the sloppy reflex of the liberal testing her boundaries, excited to be in the presence of the "exotic" but having no new language with which to describe it; she falls back on the vocabulary of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Margaret Mitchell. What Wright sensed was actually McCullers’s lack of Southernness. Unlike so many other writers from the region, she didn’t luxuriate in rhetoric or try to break down the blood knot of race and class that kept Faulkner in Yoknapatawpha County. Nor did she share Katherine Anne Porter’s skill for writing intellectual political parables. In her essay "The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing," McCullers admitted to having little interest in history—the Southern writer’s most consistent trope. Such shortsightedness accounts for some of the very real limitations of her work. But it also accounts for her ability to understand and identify with those unmoored from their surroundings or searching for a self in the modern world. It’s impossible not to notice, while reading through the Library of America’s newly published edition of McCullers’s five novels, that almost all of her characters—from the wayward children to the deaf-mute, the alcoholic Communist, the hunchback dwarf, the pederast, and the closeted homosexual Army captain—are Africanist, in that each defines the status quo by existing outside it.
She was born Lula Carson Smith, on February 19, 1917, in Columbus, Georgia, a town where dogwood and wisteria bloomed along the avenues in early spring. Nearby were Fort Benning and the brown waters of the Chattahoochee River, which, since the early nineteenth century, had been used to power the local cotton mills and factories. McCullers’s father, Lamar Smith, was a mild-mannered watch repairman from Tuskegee, Alabama, who in 1910 had moved to Columbus in pursuit of work. There he met and married Vera Marguerite (Bebe) Waters, a small woman of Irish extraction and great ambition. Unlike their neighbors, the Smiths weren’t very interested in religion, and promoted social awareness instead—a Yankee sensibility that was at odds with the town’s conservatism. Marguerite enjoyed tweaking the townspeople with such remarks as the now famous "Oh, yes, my daughter Lula Carson"—then a teen-ager— “and I have such a good time smoking together. We do almost everything together, you know."
Neither of the couple’s two younger children—Lamar, Jr., born in 1919, and Margarita Gachet, born in 1922—was doted on in the way Lula Carson was. According to Lamar, Jr., quoted in Virginia Spencer Carr’s tenderhearted and thorough 1975 biography, "The Lonely Hunter," Lula Carson was spoon-fed a sense of her own exalted status long before she had actually achieved anything. ("I’m going to be both rich and famous," she told a young playmate.) Nevertheless, writing was not McCullers’s first love. She wrote plays and skits to amuse her parents, but her real passion was music. Between the ages of ten and seventeen, she trained to become a concert pianist, and in 1930 she began studying with Mary Tucker, a former soloist and the wife of a career officer stationed at Fort Benning. Tucker’s commitment instilled in her young protégée the discipline she would eventually put to use as a writer. In return, she grew to love Tucker and her family—McCullers’s first "we of me," which she favored over her own family simply because it was not her own. McCullers’s relationship with her mother was intense, and she feared that she would never be free as an artist until she was away from Marguerite’s prying eyes. (McCullers’s adolescent characters rarely have mothers.)
In 1932, Lula Carson took to her bed with rheumatic fever, which was misdiagnosed as pneumonia. After a few weeks of recovery, she decided that she lacked the genius and the physical stamina to undertake a concert career. Moreover, she would not be content, she concluded, to be the interpreter of someone else’s aesthetic architecture. In her 1948 essay "How I Began to Write," McCullers recalled that her first novel, "A Reed of Pan," which she wrote when she was fifteen (the manuscript has been lost), embodied her longing to get out of Columbus, to see New York, and to familiarize herself with the unfamiliar. "The details of the book were queer," she wrote. "Ticket collectors on the subway, New York front yards—but by that time it did not matter, for already I had begun another journey. That was the year of Dostoevski, Chekhov, and Tolstoy—and there were the intimations of an unsuspected region equidistant from New York. Old Russia and our Georgia rooms, the marvelous solitary region of simple stories and the inward mind." In Decision, in 1941, McCullers explained that the rigid social order portrayed by the "Russian realists" mirrored what she had observed in her own part of the world: "The Southerner and the Russian are both ’types,’ in that they have certain recognizable and national psychological traits. Hedonistic, imaginative, lazy, and emotional—there is surely a cousinly resemblance."Still, it was McCullers’s music and not the products of her "inward mind" that got her to New York in 1934. Her parents gave her the money to study at Juilliard, and with five hundred dollars pinned to her underwear she left Columbus. Shortly after she arrived in New York, however, the money was gone. Her friend Tennessee Williams told the story:
According to the legends that surround her early period in the city, she first established her residence, quite unwittingly, in a house of prostitution, . . . and had not the ghost of an idea of what illicit enterprise was going on there. One of the girls in this establishment . . . undertook to guide her about the town. . . . While she was being shown the subway route to the Juilliard School of Music, the companion and all of her tuition money, which the companion had offered to keep for her, abruptly disappeared. Carson was abandoned penniless in the subway, and some people say it took her several weeks to find her way out.
McCullers was now launched on the sort of life that is familiar to young artists struggling in a city unmoved by their dreams. During the next couple of years, she worked at a humor magazine and as a dog walker. She answered telephones and typed in a real-estate office. She lived in a series of boarding houses. She sat in phone booths to read and watch the passing throngs. And she took writing classes at New York University and Columbia, with Sylvia Chatfield Bates and with Whit Burnett, the editor of the renowned Story, a magazine devoted to emerging writers. In December, 1936, Burnett published a story by the nineteen-year-old Carson Smith.
"Wunderkind" was an elegant evocation of McCullers’s failure to become a pianist, and it detailed the enormous price the gifted child pays in order to fulfill the ambitions of adults whose own time has passed. The story’s heroine—McCullers’s first Frances—is a high-school student in Cincinnati. For several years, the center of her world has been the gemütlich studio of her Eastern European piano teacher, Mr. Bilderbach, and his wife, Anna. But now things have changed. Frances feels that she is no longer the wunderkind Bilderbach says she is. She performs badly in a recital, alongside another student, who is a truly talented violinist. She is ashamed of her defeat. But she is equally ashamed of her envy of the other student, who is beginning to attract notice. Maybe, Frances thinks, he plays better than she does because he is a Jew—the first of McCullers’s outsider characters.
Nothing is more chilling for the prodigy than the thought of her golden spotlight being turned off—or directed, instead, at the youth standing beside her. By the time Carson Smith published "Wunderkind," she had hit upon several ways to hold on to her own uniqueness, and to make the world recognize it. There was her writing, of course. And there would be, for the next thirty years or so, until her death, a multitude of infirmities and physical calamities, real and imagined, that demanded large amounts of sympathy and attention from anyone who dared to offer them. Who would be the mother to nurse her through it all? His name was James Reeves McCullers, Jr.
Reeves, as he was called, was the eldest of four children in a family from Wetumpka, Alabama. A small man, he was a dreamer attracted to big, capable women. (He called his paternal grandparents Big Mama and Little Papa.) When he was an adolescent, his father, an alcoholic, abandoned the family, and to ease the financial burden Reeves and his sister were sent to live with various relatives. As an adult, he pined for the kind of approval that children who see themselves as a burden seek in the larger world. "Querulous, sometimes vain, Reeves wanted desperately to be somebody," Carr writes in "The Lonely Hunter."
When Reeves met Carson in Columbus, in the summer of 1935, he had been in the infantry at Fort Benning for four years and had already got to know Carson’s mother. Marguerite, in her daughter’s absence, had become something of a local Elsa Maxwell, arranging informal "drop-ins," where the town’s artistically inclined came to drink punch and listen to classical recordings. She regaled the young men with tales of her daughter, who was back East pursuing a career as a writer. New York! A writer! Carson was living the life that Reeves had only dreamed of. And, when she returned home that summer, she made the mistake—at first—of believing that she was central to Reeves’s dream. "He was the best-looking man I had ever seen," McCullers wrote in an unfinished autobiography. "I knew he was a liberal, which was important, to my mind, in a backward Southern community. . . . I was eighteen years old, and this was my first love. . . . I did not realize the lost quality of Reeves until he was truly lost." Carson may have dusted off a little of that red Georgia earth when she lit out for New York, but she hadn’t entirely shaken her ties to convention. Becoming Mrs. McCullers would win her the social respectability that had so far eluded her. In Carson, Reeves believed he had found the earth beneath his feet. The couple were married two years later. Carson was twenty, Reeves twenty-four.The plan was this: Carson would finish her book, and then Reeves would quit his job as a debt collector in Charlotte, North Carolina—where they had moved after marrying—and she would support him while he wrote. Somehow, though, Carson never got around to helping Reeves realize his dream. Nor did she have any interest in their domestic situation. ("Reeves gave me moral support and wrung out the wash which was too heavy for me," she wrote.) Her thoughts were elsewhere. She was immersed in the writing of a book that she did not comprehend. "For a whole year I worked on ’The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,’ without understanding it at all," McCullers wrote in "The Flowering Dream." She went on:
Each character was talking to a central character, but why, I didn’t know. . . . Suddenly, as I walked across a road, it occurred to me that Harry Minowitz, the character all the other characters were talking to, was a different man, a deaf mute, and immediately . . . [t]he whole focus of the novel was fixed.
The book is set in an unnamed Southern town, and each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective. There is Mick Kelly, a teen-age girl who lives in a boarding house run by her parents, where the deaf-mute, renamed John Singer, rents a room. There’s Jake Blount, a Communist alcoholic driven half mad by the local provincialism; Dr. Copeland, a black doctor who is dying of tuberculosis; and Biff Brannon, who runs the local diner and is erotically fixated on Mick. As the long, mean days of summer go by, the Depression grinds the town down, and the hopes that sustain the characters turn to dust. Mick is forced to give up her dream of becoming a concert pianist and goes to work in a department store. Dr. Copeland dies. Jake is more or less run out of town. Biff descends into sexual confusion. And John Singer commits suicide. Only after Singer dies does it occur to the others that they had never asked him anything about himself. None of them knew where he’d lived before. None of them knew that he had loved someone once—an "obese and dreamy" Greek named Spiros Antonapoulos, who had been committed to an insane asylum. Talking does not make a difference, McCullers seems to say in this book. We are all in our own cells, writing messages to the world which that world cannot read. Those messages, the stories within the story of "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," include some of the most beautiful writing McCullers ever produced. The simplicity and lyricism here reveal the influence of Isak Dinesen, a writer to whom McCullers returned again and again for inspiration.
"The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," which was published in 1940, was something of a sensation. Among the book’s more compelling reviews was one written by May Sarton for the Boston Evening Transcript. "There have been candid-camera studies of American life, past and present. There have been the usual quota of sensitively recorded novels of personal experience," she wrote. "But we have waited a long time for a new writer." McCullers truly was new. In the early forties, America was at war, and still grappling with the aftereffects of the Depression. The books that sold then—Betty Smith’s 1943 "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," for one—were about the unconquerable adolescent spirit, which is to say, America’s unconquerable Coca-Cola optimism. But McCullers’s book had no happy ending. And she was from the South, a locale that was just about as far as one could get from the glitter and irony of New York publishing circles. "You have to remember that the South was really where nobody went, I mean nobody," the writer Phoebe Pierce Vreeland recalled of that time.After the publication of "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," Carson and Reeves moved to New York and entered the pantheon of famous American literary marriages—Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Paul and Jane Bowles, Robert Lowell and Jean Stafford—that were alternately fuelled and derailed by alcohol, infidelity, rivalry, emotional and physical brutality, and mutual understanding. The twenty-three-year-old McCullers was a publicist’s dream, with a pixie haircut, men’s shirts, and a cigarette-husky voice: an androgyne not only of the spirit but of the flesh. ("I bless the Latin poet Terence, who said, ’Nothing human is alien to me,’ " she was fond of saying.) Thanks to her compulsion for blurring the line between male and female in her work and in her personal life, she enjoyed an exalted status in a milieu dominated by gay editors and writers. Championed in Harper’s Bazaar and Mademoiselle, McCullers, along with Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Jane Bowles, represented a sensibility that was distinctly at odds with that of the writers published in the Partisan Review. They weren’t political, as such—they were writers who spoke not about how the quotidian could be radicalized but about their own personal radicalization. And it was while exploring her own difference that McCullers wrote one of her more shallow and difficult works, "Reflections in a Golden Eye" (1941). The novel begins as every McCullers novel begins—with a description of a town that is soon to be changed forever:
An army post in peacetime is a dull place. Things happen, but then they happen over and over again. The general plan of a fort itself adds to the monotony—the huge concrete barracks, the neat rows of officers’ homes built one precisely like the other. . . . At the same time things do occasionally happen on an army post that are not likely to re-occur. There is a fort in the South where a few years ago a murder was committed. The participants of this tragedy were: two officers, a soldier, two women, a Filipino, and a horse.
The soldier is Private Ellgee Williams, a dark, quiet man who grooms horses. The horse he pays particular attention to belongs to Leonora Penderton, whose husband, Captain Penderton, in addition to being sexually ambiguous, is a thief and a sadist. Leonora is having an affair with her next-door neighbor, whose wife is a bedridden hysteric—after her baby is stillborn, she cuts off her nipples with garden shears. All but one of McCullers’s novels have been made into films, and it’s clear why: on the surface, they have the energy of melodrama. But the subtext of "Reflections in a Golden Eye"—which garnered the bitterest reviews of McCullers’s career, not to mention the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan for its grotesque portrait of Southern whiteness—is the spiritual desolation of marriage, of keeping up appearances, of following ritual for the sake of "belonging." It’s difficult not to see in Marlon Brando’s fascinating portrayal of Penderton in the 1967 film version the sad, defeated eyes of Reeves McCullers, trapped in a sexuality he despises. Poor Reeves was the Africanist presence in McCullers’s real life—a Berenice Sadie Brown with a bigger case of the blues.Through Thomas Mann’s daughter, Erika, who was also a writer and also gay, McCullers met the Swiss writer and adventurer Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, who was to loom large in her imagination. Although it’s unlikely that McCullers had much of a physical relationship with anyone other than Reeves, Schwarzenbach had the kind of androgyny and physical fearlessness that McCullers most admired. When Schwarzenbach died in a motorcycle accident, in 1942, McCullers pursued other attachments. "Please, Katherine Anne, let me come in and talk with you—I do love you so very much," she told Katherine Anne Porter, while standing outside the older author’s door at Yaddo. Virginia Spencer Carr relates:
Miss Porter demanded that Carson leave. She shouted from within that she would not come out until Carson vacated the hall. It was 6:30 p.m., however, and time for dinner. . . . After a brief interval the elder woman cautiously opened the door and stepped out. To her astonishment, there lay Carson sprawled across the threshold. "But I had had enough," said Miss Porter. "I merely stepped over her and continued on my way to dinner."
Throughout her life, McCullers exhibited the self-punishing solipsism and cruelty of the romantic. If you didn’t love her, or if she didn’t love you, you simply didn’t exist; you were banished to the nether regions of a mind that, after the publication of "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," didn’t take in much of anything new. In an essay about Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal wrote, "I could never take any of [his women friends], from Carson McCullers to Jane Bowles to Anna Magnani. . . . Carson spoke only of her work. Of its greatness. The lugubrious Southern singsong voice never stopped: ’Did ya see muh lovely play? Did ya lahk muh lovely play? Am Ah gonna win the Pew-litzuh prahzz?’ "
In 1941, at the age of twenty-four, McCullers had the first of a series of strokes that eventually left her partially paralyzed, and she filed for divorce from Reeves. Adrift, he reënlisted and was wounded in the 1944 D Day invasion. McCullers’s letters to him during this period are filled with tenderness and longing (and written, perhaps, with a view to posterity?). "Reeves, my dearest one," she wrote in early 1945, "I am still in this queer purgatory, waiting and waiting for more news of you. I haunt the hall, waiting for the postman or for a sudden telegram. At times I am seized with the feeling you are on the way home." Remarried in 1945, Reeves and McCullers quarrelled, drank, and fell in love with a variety of men and women, but in the end they were together to the death—his, a suicide, in 1953. McCullers herself died of another stroke, in 1967, at the age of fifty, having outlived virtually all of her powerful relationships. It was as if, in the process of trying to fit her mother, Reeves, Schwarzenbach, and others into the twisted shape of her own soul, she had wholly consumed them.
It was that soul—all of it—that McCullers poured into her most brilliant work, "The Ballad of the Sad Café," which was written in 1942 but not published in book form until 1951. A long short story rather than a novel—the Library of America is fudging a bit by including it in the "Complete Novels"—the work eclipses McCullers’s other efforts. It does not have the whimsy of "The Member of the Wedding," in which, one fears, McCullers was too aware of her role as the grand dame of the adolescent spirit. Nor does it have the awkward construction of her unfortunate last novel, "Clock Without Hands," which is marred by the effects of McCullers’s various illnesses and by its self-consciously rendered "issues": miscegenation, the New South versus the Old, homosexual love.
Inspired by a dwarf McCullers had seen at a bar in Brooklyn Heights, "The Ballad of the Sad Café" begins (again) with a description of a town:
The town itself is dreary. . . . [It] is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world. . . . The largest building, in the very center of the town, is boarded up completely and leans so far to the right that it seems bound to collapse at any minute. . . . Nevertheless, on the second floor there is one window which is not boarded; 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, with two gray crossed eyes which are turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief.
This opening has the power of music, a prelude introducing the story’s themes: a far-off place, grief, estrangement from the self, dreams, isolation. The bearer of the face with the crossed eyes is not, in fact, sexless. She is Miss Amelia, the owner of the building, which was once a café. Before she locked herself in, Miss Amelia was a strong, practical, and greedy woman, who ran a small shop and a liquor still and was wildly litigious. One evening, when she was sitting on her front porch, a man appeared, carrying a suitcase. "The man was a stranger, and it is rare that a stranger enters the town on foot at that hour. Besides, the man was a hunchback. He was scarcely more than four feet tall," McCullers writes. Claiming to be "kin" to Miss Amelia, the dwarf, who would be known as Cousin Lymon, began to cry. Then Miss Amelia did something that no one had ever seen her do before. She offered him a drink from her own hip flask, free of charge, and she invited him to stay.
That was the beginning of Miss Amelia’s love. "What sort of thing, then, was this love?" McCullers asks. She goes on, "The most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love. A man may be a doddering great-grandfather and still love only a strange girl he saw in the streets of Cheehaw one afternoon two decades past. The preacher may love a fallen woman. . . . The value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself." And it is precisely the lover’s need to know the value of the person he loves that, McCullers explains, results in the beloved’s eventual betrayal: "For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved." Cousin Lymon does eventually strip Miss Amelia bare. He falls in love with Marvin Macy, Miss Amelia’s brokenhearted ex-husband, and helps him to trash the café. Cousin Lymon, it seems, was just biding his time with Miss Amelia until he could feel what she felt: the excitement of trying to wrest love from an unwilling subject. He leaves her for a love as impossible as hers, and her grief-stricken eyes turn inward as if to gaze at her own soul.
Never in McCullers’s fiction would her poetic symbols be as perfectly integrated as they are here. In an essay on Isak Dinesen, McCullers wrote, "In the true tale the characters are bound in the end to get what is coming to them. . . . The tale-teller assumes the responsibility of God, and grants to his characters a moral freedom accountable only to the author himself." Accountable only to McCullers, Miss Amelia, Cousin Lymon, and Marvin Macy were aspects of herself: a suite of voices examining McCullers’s determination both to know and not to know, to cling to her romanticism while exploring its cruelty, to hurt others while taking a long and public time to destroy herself. ♦
The Rules of Life that Separate One Person from Another
There are two major components in this, the major theme of the novel. The first is the concept of division between people. McCullers writes that "This was the summer when for a long time [Frankie] had not been a member." This signals to us that Frankie's attempt to find unity with other people serves as the main conflict of the novel. The second element to the theme has to do with life's universal rules. As Frankie attempts to grow up and seek membership into the adult world, she discovers that certain life rules encumber her. The most important rule has to do with the fact that married couples only include two people, shutting Frankie out of her dream of becoming a threesome with Janice and Jarvis. Berenice also helps Frankie to understand with greater empathy what a struggle it is for minorities to deal with the division between the races.
The Way that Surface Changes, Impression and Thoughts Can Belie What Exists Beneath
Frankie's two name changes—to F. Jasmine and then to Frances—mirror her attempts to alter her personality. The F. Jasmine self is supposed to be adult-like and sophisticated, while Frances is more world weary and realistic. But, as we learn, this change is only superficial and does not change the person inside. Furthermore, Frankie has a noticeably large disparity between her thoughts and what goes on in her unconscious. We, as the readers, are given direct access to the surface components of her thoughts and actions, but have little trouble seeing what hidden motivation lies beneath them. For example, when Frankie responds with ignorance to her exposures to sex, we know that she is unconsciously aware of what has happened, though she won't allow herself to recognize this.
Sexual and emotional development, loss of innocence
This is a classic bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel. So Frankie's sexual development plays a central role in the resolution of the conflict. In the classic form of this kind of story, a young and innocent person on the brink of sexual or emotional discovery takes an abrupt plunge into the world of experience. This often involves a journey of some sorts. Frankie's sexual innocence is challenged by her encounter with the Soldier who attempts to sleep with her. And her emotional ignorance is shattered as she realizes that she was kidding herself to think that she could hook up with her brother and his wife. Both of these events take place within the context of a journey to another place: into town and to Winter Hill, respectively. At the end of the novel, we see a changed character, transformed by the mere forty-eight hour period of the novella.
McCullers makes repeated use of vivid primary colors to describe both the physicality of the characters and the landscape around them. She pays particularly close attention to eye color, repeatedly pointing out that Frankie has gray eyes while Berenice has one brown and one blue. The first sentence of the novel says that the summer during which the events take place is "green." McCullers does not specify what she means by this, but we can assume it has to do with newness and the freshness of youth. Red is another important color, mostly because of its rare usage in the novel. When it does finally appear—describing the color of Frankie's blood and of the Soldier's hair—it has a sexual connotation. The reluctance to mention the color mirrors Frankie's fear of and ignorance about sex and menstruation.
Eyes are the window to the soul for these characters, revealing their secrets and the otherwise hidden facets of their personalities. When Berenice says Frankie is jealous of her brother's marriage, she says she knows because of the color in her eye. Berenice has one glass eye, which is blue, while the other is brown. This split plays on the major theme of division and reveals her inner conflict: she is torn between her desires to remain young and free or to settle down with T.T. Eyes also represent the difficulty in seeing things from another person's point of view, speaking to the theme of the division between people. At one point, Frankie tries on John Henry's glasses. She later comes to the conclusion that it is impossible to understand his point of view.
The passage of time
In Part Two, F. Jasmine reflects that her life is divided into three parts: the past, the immediate present, and the future. This may seem self-evident, but it points to the huge importance of this isolated part of her life as a defining moment in her development. This moment is all about moving forward, up and out all the way into adulthood. McCullers employs the use of the imagery of clocks in order to add a feeling of suspense and anxiousness about the passage of time. McCullers toys with the concept of linear time, asking us to alter our usual concept of one event leading logically to the next in a straight line. She skips over a large section of time in Part One and then returns to it in Part Two. Furthermore, any of the parts including Janice and Jarvis are never described first hand, rather in reflection after they happen.
More main ideas from The Member of the Wedding