The Ballad of the Sad Café

by Carson McCullers

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 640

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 brawler guilty of many crimes. In his pocket Macy carried the salted ear of a man he killed in a razor fight. His love for Miss Amelia transformed him, however, and he became religious and well mannered. His heart has been hardened, however, by his wife’s rebuff.

When he returns, townsfolk expect trouble. To their surprise, Cousin Lymon falls madly in love with him. In fact, he makes a public spectacle of himself, following the handsome wastrel around and moaning when Macy snubs him. Miss Amelia bears this abuse with chagrin, until matters came to a head on Ground Hog Day. Miss Amelia squares off against Macy in a brutal fight. Physically an even match, they grapple destructively but indecisively until Cousin Lymon pounces on Miss Amelia and begins choking her. She is beaten before anyone realizes what has happened. Victorious, the two men wreck her moonshine still, ransack the café, and leave town together.

In humiliation, Miss Amelia’s heart turns cold. She raises the price of everything to one dollar, and customers stop coming to the café. Brooding in solitude, she lets her hair grow ragged and her body become thin. Once again, the town reverts to empty dreariness in which “the soul rots with boredom.”

In a noteworthy passage, the balladeer reflects upon love. At the heart of love’s mystery, he finds a cruel paradox: Love is not a mutual experience, but very different for lover and beloved. The quality of love is determined solely by the lover, as the pairings in the story show. Macy is reformed by love for a woman who rejects him. She is similarly tempered by an unreciprocal feeling for the dwarf, who is himself transmogrified by an unrequited homosexual infatuation. Love proves no cure for radical loneliness of the soul, but rather intensifies its pain.

The story has a haunting, lyrical beauty. Characters are portrayed concretely, not dramatically. There is almost no dialogue, and virtually all events are related in flashback. The story is bracketed by references to the lyrical song of the chain gang. Perhaps Miss Amelia is more imprisoned by loneliness than the convicts are by chains, for their voices rise above their suffering and despair to recognize their unity.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

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 elements create a surreal atmosphere that explores the complications of romantic love and the search for communal identity. The climax occurs when Amelia and Macy physically battle for the love of Lymon. Amelia is winning the fight, when Lymon leaps onto her back and helps Macy. Macy and Lymon defeat Amelia, rob her of her possessions, and leave town. Deeply depressed, Amelia awaits Lymon’s return for three years, then closes the café.

The story of Amelia, Lymon, and Macy is told through the use of flashbacks, repeatedly interrupted by narrative comment. Narrative commentary blends with the plot, demonstrating the paradox of romantic love and human isolation. McCullers suggests that love is both a powerful and destructive form of identity that enigmatically attracts and repels: “The lover and the beloved . . . come from different countries. . . . The beloved fears and hates the lover. . . . The lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved.”

In the opening and closing descriptions of the town, references to a chain gang are made. The novel ends with an epilogue describing twelve men working on a chain gang. The chain gang represents the human condition, implying that escape from solitude is only possible through chained connections with others. Connecting with others paradoxically provides freedom from loneliness and personal bondage.

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