Study Guide

The Ballad of the Sad Café

by Carson McCullers

The Ballad of the Sad Café Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

A weird love story, The Ballad of the Sad Café was dedicated to David Diamond, her husband’s lover. The story elevates elements of their triangular relationship to archetypal significance. Once a dingy old building in the middle of a town where “there is absolutely nothing to do,” the café itself becomes a symbol of the human heart. Like a magic lantern, it may be lit by love—in this case, the love of a tall, muscular woman, Miss Amelia, for an itinerant hunchbacked dwarf, Cousin Lymon. Townsfolk are flabbergasted when Miss Amelia offers him room and board, for she has cared nothing for the love of men and seldom invited them inside except to trick them out of money. After three days, they suspect that she has killed him. When a delegation arrives to investigate, however, they are surprised to find Cousin Lymon strutting around as if he owned the place. Miss Amelia has been completely transformed. Once stingy and shrewd, she now treats them with hospitality and generosity. Love has converted the town from boredom to joy, as the café hums with merriment and fellowship.

Six years later, the lantern is shattered when Miss Amelia’s jilted husband, Marvin Macy, returns from prison. Years ago, their bizarre marriage had scandalized the town. On their wedding night, the bride bolted from the bedroom within half an hour. Whenever the groom came within reach, she gave him a violent drubbing. On the tenth day, he left town, vowing revenge. Before this marriage, Macy had been a terrible character, known as a defiler of young women and a...

(The entire section is 640 words.)

The Ballad of the Sad Café Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Ballad of the Sad Café depicts a triangular romance similar to the complicated relationship involving Carson McCullers and Reeves McCullers, David Diamond, and Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach. Diamond loved Carson and Reeves; Reeves loved Carson and Diamond; and Carson loved Diamond and Annemarie and felt ambivalent toward Reeves, whom she was divorcing. In the novel Miss Amelia Evans owns a café in a Southern mill town. When Cousin Lymon, a dwarf and hunchback, appears and claims kinship with her, she invites him to live with her. She falls in love with Lymon, and the café becomes a lively place where isolated townspeople gather and form a community. When Amelia’s former husband, Marvin Macy, gets out of prison, he returns to the café to seek revenge upon Amelia for humiliating him.

In The Ballad of the Sad Café McCullers portrays bisexuality and androgyny. Although living with Amelia, Lymon longs for a male lover, and Macy seeks Lymon’s affection to spite Amelia. Lymon becomes obsessively in love with Macy, and Amelia allows Macy to stay with her for Lymon’s sake. Justifying her actions, Amelia says, “It is better to take in your mortal enemy than face the terror of living alone.” A loner with masculine qualities, Amelia denies her feminine identity. Her masculine characteristics are expressed in her attire, her attitudes, and her unconsummated marriage to Macy.

Mythic qualities combined with folktale...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

The Ballad of the Sad Café Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The action of the story covers the period from the time Cousin Lymon arrives in town until his departure with Marvin Macy almost seven years later. The narrative, however, includes incidents and explanations of circumstances from Amelia’s early childhood until several years after Lymon and Marvin have gone. The story begins with a description of the dreary, isolated town, the hostile climate, and the central building there—a shabby, boarded-up former café. From the upstairs window the dim, grief-stricken face of Miss Amelia can occasionally be seen gazing out. The story of the café and the story of Miss Amelia are one. She was born there in the upstairs living quarters, was reared as a solitary child by her widowed father, and was heiress to both the property and the business when her father died. She is a woman of many talents: a sharp business negotiator, a renowned liquor distiller, a compassionate and knowledgeable doctor, and a strong and independent person.

Amelia’s independence and solitary habits of existence are well known, and when Lymon, the little sickly hunchback, arrives and claims to be her cousin, the townspeople are astonished and baffled that she takes him in. He quickly becomes the center of her life and encourages her to convert the store into a combination store-café, where not only the traditional supplies and moonshine are dispensed but also meals are served and a general festive gathering of the townsfolk takes place on Saturday nights. Lymon is the center of the café activities. He enjoys the company of the townsfolk, and Amelia becomes more sociable and friendly, even to the extent of wearing dresses instead of the rough, masculine work clothes she had always worn before.

Her love for Cousin Lymon is obvious, though incredible, to the townspeople, especially as they recall her one previous experience with love, when she was courted and wed by Marvin Macy. Marvin was a wild young man who had been abandoned by his parents when he was a small child. He was handsome, reckless, and a notorious seducer of romantic, trusting young women. When Marvin Macy met Amelia, however, his life changed. He fell in love with her, reformed his character and behavior, and patiently waited two years before declaring his love and asking her to marry him. Amelia did marry him but with the belief that the marriage was a business...

(The entire section is 970 words.)