The Ballad of the Sad Café

by Carson McCullers

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Characters Discussed

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Amelia Evans

Amelia Evans, the owner of the sad café, a tall, powerful, independent woman with crossed eyes. A solitary child reared by her widowed father, she inherits the largest store in the tiny town and becomes the richest woman for miles around. With uncommon industry, as a shrewd businesswoman, a self-educated doctor, a determined litigant, a carpenter, a meat packer, and a moonshiner, she turns things to profit. She is ill at ease with most people in town, and they take keen interest in her scandalous relations with Marvin Macy and Cousin Lymon. Shortly after her father’s death, she had married Marvin, only to storm out of the bedroom on their wedding night. Within ten days, she had run him off her premises and acquired title to all of his property. Years later, she falls in love with a diminutive hunchback who appears out of nowhere, claiming to be a distant cousin. Mellowed by this new love, her heart warms to the community as she gradually converts the store to a café. Her café brings the townspeople a new pride, for there they can forget the cheapness of their lives and let her liquor reveal the secrets of their souls that are obscured by drudgery and petty routine. Amelia’s newfound happiness is ruined, however, when Marvin comes back from prison. She is mortified by Lymon’s fondness for him. Her usual resolve dissolves in emotional confusion. She makes no move to curb Lymon, even when he invites Marvin to move in with them. She tries to poison Marvin once, but the plates get switched and her plan is foiled. After losing a fight to Marvin and Lymon, Amelia turns in on herself. She raises the price of everything in the café. Business falls off, and the place is boarded up. Passersby only occasionally see her grief-ridden face gazing out of the shuttered window.

Cousin Lymon Willis

Cousin Lymon Willis, a hunchbacked stranger who becomes Amelia’s beloved. Standing only about four feet tall on his crooked legs, he shows up one day claiming kinship with Amelia. Frail, moody, and prone to crying fits, he nevertheless possesses an uncanny ability to relate to strangers. Thus, he penetrates her loneliness and engages the townspeople’s emotions, helping to make the café a success. When Marvin comes back from prison, Lymon evinces a weird affinity for the man, following him around in public, tugging at his pants leg, and wiggling his ears to attract Marvin’s attention, though he is violently rebuffed. Lymon precipitates a crisis by bringing Marvin into Amelia’s living quarters. Later, with a flying tackle, he saves Marvin from being beaten in a fair fight with Amelia, and the two men run off together after wrecking the café. Lymon demonstrates the author’s idea that the quality of human love depends on the lover’s ardor rather than the characteristics of the beloved.

Marvin Macy

Marvin Macy, Amelia’s husband, the most handsome man in the region. An abused and abandoned child, he grows up wild, wicked, bold, fearless, and cruel, seducing young girls for laughs, fighting, stealing, and probably killing. His character undergoes a brief reversal during his courtship of Amelia, but he fails to bed her on their wedding night, and the marriage lasts only ten days. She winds up with all of his property, including ten acres of land and a gold watch. After spending years in prison for robbing three gas stations, he comes back to town. There befriended by Lymon, he draws dangerously closer to her by visiting the café, taking meals with her, and eventually rooming with Lymon in her upstairs living quarters. His love-hate relationship with Amelia culminates in a bare-knuckled fight between them in the café, which he would have lost except for Lymon, who intervenes before she can strangle him. After stealing the gold watch and wrecking the café, the two men leave town together.

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