One of America's superlative writers, Carson McCullers creates worlds that are as terrible as they are real. With the narrative of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe centered around the complicated love triangle in a narrative that has both folktale and mythical elements surrounding the powerful and uncontrolled conditions of love in McCullers's world, the affect upon the reader is almost surreal.
- The element of setting with the chain-gang working and singing in the beginning and end of the novella is symbolic of the condition of love: While the men are connected to one another, so are they isolated from the world of freedom. And, Amelia's house is as reflective of her and love's conditions as it is "puzzling" because the right side of the porch only has at one time been painted, but is left unfinished and one portion of the house is darker and more deserted appearing that the other. From a shuttered window a face sometimes looks down upon 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 one another one long and secret gaze of grief.
- With the chain gang concept as symbolic of the conditions of love, the interrelationships of the main characters and their loves are bizarre. The mannish Amelia never consummates her marriage to Macy, yet she falls in love with her deformed cousin Lymon, the grotesque in this Southern Gothic narrative, who comes to live with her. But, when Macy returns from serving a sentence in the penitentiary, Lymon falls in love with him. So, Amelia and Macy have a physical battle over Lymon, who in the end leaps upon Amelia's back so that she is defeated.
- Love is described as a strange relationship of two people from different speheres. And, it is this odd condition that is thematic of McCullers' tale:
....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....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. Let it be added here that this lover about whom we speak need not necessarily be a young man saving for a wedding ring—this lover can be man, woman, child, or indeed any human creature on this earth.
- The effort of the lover, then, is one that is both heroic and tragic, one that can elevate the lover to the sublime while at the same time destroying him. Indeed, it is this apprehension of this paradoxical condition of love as they are drawn mysteriously into McCullers's terribly mythic and realistic world which most affects readers of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.