Carson McCullers Essay - McCullers, (Lula) Carson (Vol. 12)

McCullers, (Lula) Carson (Vol. 12)


(Lula) Carson McCullers 1917–1967

American novelist, short story writer, poet, and playwright. Despite a small literary output, McCullers is considered a leading writer of the American South. She was born and grew up in Georgia, and her novels are deeply rooted in her southern background. Her pervasive themes of spiritual isolation and the loneliness of the individual give unity to her work but have also proved to be a limiting factor. She was often placed in the category of southern Gothic writers who concerned themselves with decay and the grotesque and used horror for its own sake. McCullers, however, used the physical incapacity of her grotesque figures as a symbol of their spiritual incapacity to love or receive love. McCullers originally intended to become a concert pianist but was forced to abandon her plan due to lack of money. Consequently she turned to writing, and often drew on her knowledge of music for the structure of her works. She published her first book, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, at the age of 23. Her autobiographical portrayals of adolescence as a period of questing, loneliness, fantasy, and rebellion have been called both touching and accurate. In The Member of the Wedding, Frankie Addams desperately searches for her identity, which she calls "the we of me." The dramatization of this novel won McCullers the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Mick Kelly, the teenager in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, looks for love and meaning as she faces adulthood. McCullers' portrayals of southern blacks have also been praised for their depth and understanding. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Louis B. Salomon

Around the pivotal character of John Singer, a deaf-mute, and around the theme of man's vital craving for a sympathetic, understanding confidant, Miss McCullers drapes the rather loosely woven texture of [The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter], a book flavored with compassion and a gentle melancholy but never with despair….

While Miss McCullers harps perhaps a little too persistently on the one plaintive string of her theme, she leaves several of her people hauntingly engraved in the reader's memory; and she displays a most praiseworthy frankness and lack of affection. The acuteness of character-perception revealed is quite remarkable in an author who … is a girl of twenty-two.

Louis B. Salomon, "Someone to Talk To," in The Nation (copyright 1940 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), July 13, 1940, p. 36.

Richard Wright

With the depression as a murky backdrop, ["The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter"] depicts the bleak landscape of the American consciousness below the Mason-Dixon line. Miss McCullers' picture of loneliness, death, accident, insanity, fear, mob violence and terror is perhaps the most desolate that has so far come from the South. Her quality of despair is unique and individual; and it seems to me more natural and authentic than that of Faulkner. Her groping characters live in a world more completely lost than any Sherwood Anderson ever dreamed of. And she recounts incidents of death and attitudes of stoicism in sentences whose neutrality makes Hemingway's terse prose seem warm and partisan by comparison. Hovering mockingly over her story of loneliness in a small town are primitive religion, adolescent hope, the silence of deaf mutes—and all of these give the violent colors of the life she depicts a sheen of weird tenderness….

I don't know what the book is about; the nearest I can come to indicating its theme is to refer to the Catholic confessional or the private office of the psychoanalyst. The characters, Negro and white, are "naturals," and are seen from a point of view that endows them with a mythlike quality. The core of the book is the varied relationships of these characters to Singer, a lonely deaf mute….

The naturalistic incidents of which the book is compounded seem to be of no importance; one has the feeling...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Clifton Fadiman

I have rarely read a work of fiction like "Reflections in a Golden Eye," a novelette in which are held, in unstable equilibrium, a certain not unimpressive intuitive quality (pointedly reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence), a feverish concern with distorted and neurotic types, and a kind of innocence, as if the author had never encountered any of the experiences she describes but were making them up, as a child invents a magical tale. The net effect is completely unconvincing.

Mrs. McCullers' characters make Mr. Faulkner's seem like the folks next door. (p. 78)

Mrs. McCullers was herself in her first novel. In her second effort she seems to be borrowing from her reading of others. This mimicry gives an effect of falseness which is further strengthened by her too obvious desire to create people and situations that are strange and startling. She has undeniable talent. It would grow more harmoniously if she could, right at this point in her development, give herself a humorous once-over. If she did, she might find something to laugh at in the grotesque and forced hallucinations of which "Reflections in a Golden Eye" is composed. (p. 80)

Clifton Fadiman, in The New Yorker (© 1941 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), February 15, 1941.

In its sphere, [Reflections in a Golden Eye] is a masterpiece. It is as mature and finished as Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, though still more specialized. Its story is about life as Carson McCullers sees fit to create it in a Southern Army camp, and is almost desperately psychomedical. Within its 183 pages a child is born (some of whose fingers are grown together), an Army captain suffers from bisexual impotence, a half-witted private rides nude in the woods, a stallion is tortured, a murder is done, a heart-broken wife cuts off her nipples with garden shears.

In almost any hands, such material would yield a rank fruitcake of mere arty melodrama. But Carson McCullers tells her tale with simplicity, insight, and a rare gift of phrase. She makes its tortures seem at least as valid as the dull suburban tragedies from [James T.] Farrell's or [Theodore] Dreiser's Midwest, commonly called lifelike. Reflections in a Golden Eye is the Southern school at its most Gothic, but also at its best.

"Masterpiece at 24," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1941), February 17, 1941, p. 96.

Basil Davenport

["Reflections in a Golden Eye"] is a sad disappointment, not only after [Miss McCullers'] remarkable first novel, "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," but after its own opening pages. It is instantly plain that the book is by some one who can write, with a haunting power and suggestiveness that can be felt at once; but it all too soon becomes clear that the story is a vipers'-knot of neurasthenic relationships among characters whom the author seems hardly to comprehend, and of whose perversions she can create nothing. On the first page she promises us a murder on an army post, involving "Two officers, a soldier, two women, a Filipino, and a horse"; and it is no joke, but the simple truth, to say of this cast, the horse is the only one for whom one can feel comprehension of his character and pity for his tragedy….

Such a collection of sick and unnatural souls could become the stuff of tragedy only if handled with the greatest comprehension, and woven into a pattern which gave some logical conclusion to the bent of each character. Neither of these conditions is here fulfilled. The murder which we have been promised comes as an anticlimax, not because the preceding emotions are too great, but because so many of the narrative threads do not lead to it, and because it is no resolution even of those which do: the book does not culminate in tragedy, it trails off into futility. And to Miss McCullers her characters' vagaries seem merely something to be cold-bloodedly chosen for their bizarrerie, contemplated, and set down, without pity or comment or any sort of use. (p. 12)

Basil Davenport, in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright, 1941, by The Saturday Review Co., Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 22, 1941.

Fred T. Marsh

[Miss McCullers' concerns in "Reflections in a Golden Eye"], and ours, is what she sees going on within, for her people are masks underneath which pulse strange, distorted psyches.

Miss McCullers is young, but quite of age…. "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" proved that. It was youthful in its special intensity and in its probing candor, its certain relentless, merciless quality. But it was a remarkable novel, placing a strange, original talent on display…. The present much shorter and slighter novel exhibits to some degree the same quality. But it is vastly inferior. Quite unlike the other, it suggests the youthful prodigy; and one suspects it was written first and unwisely pressed into service by the publishers to follow up the success of the first novel. Either that or it has been over-hastily written.

"Look!" cries the Filipino sitting before the fire, staring at the glowing embers, "a peacock of a sort of ghastly green. With one immense golden eye. And in it these reflections of something tiny and"—

"Grotesque," suggests the Major's wife. That gives us title and mood. These people, shifting shadow shapes, are distortions, dancing reflections in a glowing eye shining through an epicene penumbra. And it is, of course, entirely proper for the literary as the pictorial artist to treat of the grotesque and arabesque, of masks and puppets, of distortions and of horror and evil, of things unreal and unknown things, darkly hidden, if such be his way of approach to verity. But the six principals here …, moving two by two through a puppet show that appears to be a mere masquerade, seem only costumed….

No one could say, however, that Miss McCullers has not succeeded in making her genuine talent felt, a talent which is less of subtlety than of infant-terrible insight expressed with quite grown-up precision, as yet unmellowed and unhallowed. It should not be forced in order to take advantage of a passing vogue, for it will surely crack up in the hurly-burly of competition. It is a brave talent; but not, I think, a very sturdy plant. It calls for a gentle handling and careful cultivation.

Fred T. Marsh, "At an Army Post," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1941 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 2, 1941, p. 6.

Edmund Wilson

Carson McCullers is a writer of undoubted sensibility and talent who seems to have difficulty in adjusting her abilities to a dramatically effective subject…. ["The Member of the Wedding"] has no element of drama at all.

The whole book is a formless chronicle of Frankie's musings as she walks about the town, and of her interminable conversations in the kitchen with the maid and the little cousin. These kitchen scenes are very well done in the sense that they create an atmosphere and that the characters are droll and natural: the maid is particularly good; the way she is made to talk is perfect. But they have no internal structure and do not build up to anything. The whole story seems utterly...

(The entire section is 178 words.)

George Dangerfield

["The Member of the Wedding"] is Carson McCullers's third book; and we have now, I should think, sufficient evidence for remarking that, while there are quite a few writers who unfortunately resemble her, she fortunately resembles nobody else. She is unique….

["The Member of the Wedding"] is not just a study of adolescence. Frankie Addams, it is true, conforms to a possible pattern of behavior. She does nothing which a twelve-year-old girl might not do. Yet the further you read into "The Member of the Wedding" the more you realize, it seems to me, that Frankie is merely the projection of a problem that has nothing much to do with adolescence.

The three chief characters are Frankie...

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Marguerite Young

Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding, astutely and frugally designed, is a deceptive piece of writing, and its candor may betray the unwary reader into accepting it as what it first seems, a study of turbulent adolescence…. [McCullers' portrait of childhood is composed of] a com-plexus of unreal, real, and surreal events, in a pattern which is itself as delusive as the dream of a total happiness. Merely by thinking in terms of the individual childhood here presented rather than in terms of the many and carefully erected symbols employed by the author in an argument concerned with man in his relation to various kinds of reality, the reader may miss the importance of this curiously spiritual book…....

(The entire section is 1326 words.)

Tennessee Williams

[Reflections in a Golden Eye] is a second novel, and although its appreciation has steadily risen during the eight or nine years since its first appearance, it was then regarded as somewhat disappointing in the way that second novels usually are. When the book preceding a second novel has been very highly acclaimed, as was The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, there is an inclination on the part of critics to retrench their favor, so nearly automatic and invariable a tendency that it can almost be set down as a physical law. But the reasons for failure to justly evaluate this second novel go beyond the common, temporal disadvantage that all second novels must suffer, and I feel that an examination of these...

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Coleman Rosenberger

Here in one omnibus volume ["The Ballad of the Sad Café"], which includes her three novels, a half dozen short stories, and an unfamiliar longer one which gives the volume its name, is the whole fabulous world of Carson McCullers: the dwarfed and the deformed, the hurt and the lonely, the defeated and the despised, the violent and the homicidal—all the masks and symbols which she has employed over a decade of writing to shock the reader into a shared experience of her own intense sense of human tragedy. When "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" was published in 1949, it was widely recognized as an original and mature work, and the acclaim for it was mixed with mild astonishment that the book should be the work of a...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

William P. Clancy

The art of Carson McCullers has been called "Gothic." Perhaps it is—superficially. Certainly her day-to-day world, her little Southern towns, are haunted by far more masterful horrors than were ever conjured up in the dreary castles of a Horace Walpole. It seems to me, however, that the "Gothic" label misses the essential point. Because Carson McCullers is ultimately the artist functioning at the very loftiest symbolic level, and if one must look for labels I should prefer to call her work "metaphysical." Behind the strange and horrible in her world there are played out the most sombre tragedies of the human spirit; her mutes, her hunchbacks, speak of complexities and frustrations which are so native to man that...

(The entire section is 287 words.)

Dayton Kohler

[Few writers] are as consistent and thoroughgoing as Carson McCullers in creating a sustained body of work. This underlying unity is partly the result of her prevailing theme of loneliness and desire, partly the working of the special sensibility which colors her perception of people and events. Her writing has both center and substance…. (p. 1)

[Even] though Mrs. McCullers' purpose was frequently misread, there was never any doubt as to the vividness of her writing. She possessed from the first those qualities which distinguish the born writer: the ability to recreate with fidelity and rich complexity a world of sense impressions, an intimation of the mystery surrounding our circle of awareness,...

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V. S. Pritchett

Miss Carson McCullers [is] the most remarkable novelist, I think, to come out of America for a generation. Coverage is ignored by her. She is a regional writer from the South, but behind her lies that classical and melancholy authority, that indifference to shock, which seem more European than American. She knows her own original, fearless and compassionate mind. The short novels and two or three stories now published in The Ballad of the Sad Café—the singsong Poe-like title so filled with the dominant American emotion of nostalgia—make an impact which recalls the impression made by such very different writers as Maupassant and D. H. Lawrence. What she has, before anything else, is a courageous...

(The entire section is 1083 words.)

Jane Hart

To all appearances Carson McCullers belongs to a School, the Gothic School of Southern writers unconsciously established by William Faulkner, a school supposedly concerned with the grotesque and the abnormal, with an outlandish love for the morbid, conveniently provided with characters of the decadent aristocracy and depraved poor whites which supposedly make up the population of the South. But whereas other Southern writers, perhaps Eudora Welty and Truman Capote, seem often to have capitalized upon interest created simply by differences and to have delved into strange creatures with artistic and precise surgery, Carson McCullers seems to have been concerned with a larger vision—in which the abnormal figures, it is...

(The entire section is 823 words.)

Frederic Carpenter

With greater complexity and greater realism, although perhaps with less art [than J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye], Carson McCullers embodies [the] same problems of adolescence, and its confrontation of the evils of experience, in her novels The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding. The latter more resembles The Catcher in the Rye, in that it focuses on the failure of the adolescent to adjust to the confusions of the adult world. But The Heart … is a larger and richer book. (pp. 63-4)

[The disturbed adolescent in The Member of the Wedding], Frankie Addams, embodies in exaggeraged form all those traits of immaturity which other...

(The entire section is 379 words.)


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 is a symbol of their spiritual incapacity to love or receive love—their spiritual isolation.

To understand a work, it is important for the artist to be emotionally right on dead center: to see, to know, to experience the things he is writing about. (p. 274)

I understand only particles. I understand the characters, but the novel itself is...

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Rumer Godden

[For] me not a word could be added or taken away from this marvel of a novel ["Clock Without Hands"] by Carson McCullers.

Her talent is extraordinary: the name of her first book "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" might be a description of it: the steady life-giving beat that is the core of every book: the pursuit of the quarry she sees and would catch and hold for us, often something so fleeting and ephemeral that most authors would quail at trying to catch it in words—and Mrs. McCullers' words are the coin of every day, plain, frank, slangy, unemotional. Above all her gift is apart, aloof, inevitably lonely: it owes nothing to any other writer and is paradoxical, a sure sign of richness: it is...

(The entire section is 318 words.)

Gore Vidal

It is hard to believe that twenty-one years have passed since The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, the first novel of Carson McCullers, was published. For those of us who arrived on the scene in the war years, McCullers was the young writer. She was an American legend from the beginning, which is to say that her fame was as much the creation of publicity as of talent. The publicity was the work of those fashion magazines where a dish of black-eyed peas can be made to seem the roe of some rare fish, photographed by Avedon; yet McCullers's dreaming, androgynous face in its ikon elegance subtly confounded the chic of the lingerie ads all about her. For unlike other "legends," her talent was as real as her face....

(The entire section is 933 words.)

Catharine Hughes

[Clock Without Hands] probes intensely the human spirit, yet captures indelibly the sights and the sounds, the sorrow and the tensions of the South [Mrs. McCullers] knows so well. Incisively exploring the minds and the motivations, the yearnings and dreams of the young, it at the same time conveys the longing and frustration, the sense of intruding death, of the old….

[Mrs. McCullers'] talent, the dreamlike—almost trancelike—quality of her fiction seemingly precludes her ever being completely uninteresting. Yet, somehow, the reader occasionally finds himself looking for something that is not there. Perhaps it is merely a sense that Mrs. McCullers has seldom permitted her characters to go...

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Donald Emerson

All outward experience of the characters of Clock Without Hands … is conditioned by a sense of moral isolation, a feeling of despair, and baffled search for an identifiable Self. (p. 15)

Mrs. McCullers is most herself as the novelist of inward experience, but in Clock Without Hands she attempts to add another dimension by making her characters stand for the whole South. It is a mistake. The private and the symbolic roles are not fused; the individual and the representative do not merge. The result for the reader is confusion arising from what seems to have been Mrs. McCullers' uncertainty about her objective. There is also a looseness of structure which weakens the novel and which...

(The entire section is 1353 words.)

Chester E. Eisinger

[Carson McCullers] is governed by the aesthetics of the primitive. This means that her overview is essentially anti-realistic. She has cut herself off from the world of ordinary experience and ordinary human beings who might entertain ordinary ideas. Her people are bizarre, freakish, lonely, hermaphroditic. This aesthetic dictates an intense concentration on man's most urgent emotional needs: a communion of dialogue and love. For her, further, the truth of the fable is the truth of the heart. It is not concerned with abstractions about the structure of society or with ideological conflicts in the contemporary world. She has banished these sociological and intellectual matters from her fiction, narrowing its range,...

(The entire section is 2569 words.)

Klaus Lubbers

Together with such other writers as Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty, Mrs. McCullers forms a Southern triad that has carried on and modified the basic Faulknerian themes of lust, disease, mutilation, defeat, idiocy and death. All of these notes, with a shift in emphasis, are played in her fiction over and again: disease crops up in the form of permanent distortion in the figures of the cretin, the crippled and the incurable; the theme of death is effectively pitted against that of adolescence; the idea of defeat is narrowed down to personal disillusion resulting from tragic initiation into life or from the failure of a misdirected lifework—it does not carry the historical implications as in Faulkner's concept...

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Jack B. Moore

Carson McCullers has frequently employed mythic patterns to explicate the psychological tensions urging her characters…. The people in her books, stripped of all irrelevant behavioral flesh, present the heart's core of action that we also see played out for us in legend, fairytale, and folk-story.

Yet her books—such as Reflections in a Golden Eye, Clock Without Hands, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter—are contemporary reports of life in America…. As a novelist one of her gifts has been the ability to fuse the demands of verisimilitude and romance, one of her difficulties the occasional splitting of the two—as in Clock Without Hands—to the detriment of her work's impact…....

(The entire section is 245 words.)

Oliver Evans

[The Square Root of Wonderful] is to a large extent autobiographical. When it appeared in book form, the author explained in her preface:

In The Square Root of Wonderful I recognize many of the compulsions that made me write this play. My husband wanted to be a writer and his failure in that was one of the disappointments that led to his death. When I started The Square Root of Wonderful my mother was very ill and after a few months she died. I wanted to recreate my mother—to remember her tranquil beauty and sense of joy in life. So, unconsciously, the life-death theme of The Square Root of Wonderful emerged.


(The entire section is 1108 words.)

Robert Drake

In the preface to the published version of her play The Square Root of Wonderful (1958), the late Carson McCullers posed and answered a question that every writer has come to terms with sooner or later:

Why does anyone write at all? I suppose a writer writes out of some inward compulsion to transform his own experience (much of it is unconscious) into the universal and symbolical. The themes the artist chooses are always deeply personal. I suppose my central theme is the theme of spiritual isolation. Certainly I have always felt alone. In addition to being lonely, a writer is also amorphous. A writer soon discovers he has no single identity but lives the lives of all the...

(The entire section is 1132 words.)

Jeanne Kinney

In a sense [The Mortgaged Heart] is a writer's dream—to have everything one ever wrote, including a rough outline for a novel, published. What more could an artist hope for? On the other hand, for a perfectionist like Carson McCullers, who rewrote over and over again until the gem was sufficiently polished, it might have been a horror…. [As] a specialized collection, it will prove a valuable appendage to devotees of the author's major works….

Her dramatic sense of detail was there from the beginning in character sketches and evolved to maturity in her later stories and essays. The essays are remarkably lucid prose. Worth the price of the book are the seven brief essays on "Writers and...

(The entire section is 220 words.)

John Alfred Avant

When a writer dies leaving early work uncollected, it is often uncollected for a very good reason; and readers who come to The Mortgaged Heart without previous exposure to Carson McCullers may wonder whether her reputation is justified. This posthumous collection contains 14 stories …, an outline for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, some nonfiction magazine pieces, and five poems. The stories are clearly apprentice works, some of them from the "How I Grew Up Last Summer" school. They use typical McCullers subjects (painful adolescence, loneliness in the big city, youthful exposure to adult sexuality), but what is beautifully fragile in her best writing is too slight in these early exercises to hold one's...

(The entire section is 229 words.)

Joseph R. Millichap

The use of the bizarre theory of love offered by the narrator of [Ballad of the Sad Café] as a formula for interpreting all of McCullers' fiction has hampered analysis not only of the novella itself but of her other works as well. The description of her narrative as a ballad, so obviously presented in the title, provides a key to understanding which unlocks the novella's difficulties of literary mode, point-of-view, characterization, and plot structure. (p. 329)

McCullers' ballad concentrates on the strange love triangle formed by a manly giantess, a selfish dwarf, and a demonic bandit. The action unfolds in a few weird events which culminate in an epic battle waged purposely on...

(The entire section is 1222 words.)


When one reads the novella [The Ballad of the Sad Café] in the understanding that the narrator is a character in the story, he notices a subtle but significant shift in the story's form and subsequent themes. Such a reader finds himself absorbed not so much with the bizarre goings-on in the old café as with the changing perceptions of a person in the process of intense introspection….

The first clue to the actual point of view is the fact that the story begins and ends in the present tense. In itself, the present tense does not a fictive narrator make. Considered in the context of the references to "here" and "now," though, the use of the present suggests a person who is describing the...

(The entire section is 844 words.)

Richard M. Cook

The limits of McCullers's accomplishments are real. One reads through her works with a sharp sense of the highly individual, almost eccentric nature of her achievement, but also with a growing sense of their author's restricted range of interest and abilities. And when one looks closely at the whole course of her career, one is even more struck by its disappointments and unfulfilled promises. For there is something initially inspiring but eventually dispiriting about McCullers's life as a writer. It is almost as if the disappointment felt by the would-be wunderkind of her first published story were a prophesy for her own career. (pp. 122-23)

Her fiction does not grow out of a broadening...

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Richard Gray

There is a peculiar quality of isolation about Carson McCullers's work … that owes some of its intensity perhaps to her own status vis-à-vis the South. She does not belong to the great generation of the "renaissance," that is clear enough…. But she does not really belong to the new wave of Southern writers either, since apart from Clock Without Hands—a book dealing, among other things, with the issue of desegregation, which was not published until 1961—all of her more important fiction had been written by 1946; and was collected into a uniform edition some five years later. Her major period of creativity was very brief, consisting of about five years in all; and the last twenty or so years of her life...

(The entire section is 2313 words.)

Robert Phillips

[If we take Carson McCullers] at her word, and I believe we should, [the] theme of spiritual isolation is the cornerstone to her house of fiction. One of the smallest rooms of that house is the region of her short stories [published in The Mortgaged Heart and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe]…. Certainly all are typical McCullers, with this exception: they are all less likely to be labeled "Gothic" or "grotesque" when compared to her novels. For whatever reason, there is less physical abnormality in the stories. Instead of mutes and dwarfs, what we generally encounter here are people isolated by circumstance rather than physical appearance or malady. Instead of freaks we find an inner freaking-out…....

(The entire section is 1664 words.)