The Ballad of the Sad Café Essay - Critical Essays

Carson McCullers

The Ballad of the Sad Café McCullers, Carson


The Ballad of the Sad Café
McCullers, Carson

(Full name Lula Carson Smith McCullers) American novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, and poet. See also The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter Criticism, Carson McCullers Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 4, 10, 12, 100.

The following entry presents criticism on McCullers's novella The Ballad of the Sad Café, first published in August, 1943 in Harper's Bazaar.

The Ballad of the Sad Café (1943) is generally considered one of McCullers's best works of fiction and her most successful exploration of her signature themes: loneliness and the effects of unrequited love. McCullers was twenty-four-years-old when she began writing the novella during the winter of 1941. Citing her remark that "everything significant that has happened in my fiction has also happened to me," McCullers's biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, noted that The Ballad of the Sad Café was most likely inspired by several events in her life at this time. For example, the story's depiction of unreciprocated love is often seen as a grotesque representation of her own one-sided infatuations with the Swiss journalist and novelist Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach and the American writer Katherine Anne Porter. Similarly, the motif of the romantic triangle is regarded as a distorted rendering of the situation between McCullers, her husband, and the American composer David Diamond.

Plot and Major Characters

The Ballad of the Sad Café is set in a small mill town in Georgia, where Miss Amelia Evans lives alone in a boarded-up building. Most of the story is told in a flashback that explains how "Miss Amelia" came to her present situation. We learn that the building she lives in was a general store she inherited from her father. Miss Amelia is described as a tall, somewhat masculine woman who becomes the richest person in town from her earnings with the store and a very prosperous still that produces the best liquor in the county. A grim and solitary person, Miss Amelia surprises the town when she agrees to marry Marvin Macy. A handsome and apparently industrious man, Macy has a history of nefarious and sadistic activities: he used to carry with him the ear of a man he killed in a razor fight; he has chopped off the heads of squirrels; and he has abused several young girls. His marriage to Miss Amelia lasts only ten days, mainly because, having married only to gain companionship, she refuses to consummate the marriage. Disgusted by his attempts to seduce her, Miss Amelia puts him out of the house. Macy leaves town vowing revenge and quickly returns to his old ways, robbing gas stations and supermarkets and becoming a suspect in a murder. He is eventually arrested and sentenced to serve time in a penitentiary near Atlanta.

One April evening eleven years later, Miss Amelia and several townspeople are sitting on her porch when a hunchbacked stranger named Lymon Willis shows up. Claiming to be a distant relation of Miss Amelia, "Cousin Lymon," as he comes to be known, is a sociable if somewhat shallow character who has "an instinct which is usually only found in small children, an instinct to establish immediate and vital contact between himself and all things in the world." Miss Amelia takes him in. The next day, however, Cousin Lymon is nowhere to be seen. The third day after his arrival, Miss Amelia stays holed up inside her house, leading one of the townspeople to speculate that she has murdered Lymon for something he had in his suitcase. By nightfall, with the rumor having spread throughout the town, a number of men come to Miss Amelia's house and watch from the porch as she writes at the desk in her office. When she gets up to close her office door, the men sense that the moment has come for action and walk into the store. At that point Cousin Lymon emerges from the top of the stairs and begins chatting with everyone. Miss Amelia comes out of her office and asks if anyone needs anything. She then breaks her rule against liquor being consumed in the building and brings out some bottles and glasses and serves the men drinks. This is how the café starts. Over the course of the following four years it gradually expands: tables and chairs are brought in and meals are served. The café's growth is due largely to Miss Amelia's compassion for Cousin Lymon's fear of the night: the company and pleasure the customers bring help him pass the hours. Six years later Macy returns to town. Cousin Lymon, hearing that he has been to Atlanta and been in jail, becomes infatuated with this dangerous character and follows him around. For his part, Macy shows nothing but contempt and disgust for Lymon. Miss Amelia endures Cousin Lymon's refocused affection, tolerates his giving Macy liquor, puts up with his making fun of her gangly walk, and even bears with his asking Macy to live with them, because she knows that if she were to drive Macy away, she would lose Cousin Lymon. The climax of the story occurs when the hatred between Miss Amelia and Macy explodes in a fist fight. After thirty minutes or so of struggling, Miss Amelia is about to win the fight when Lymon suddenly leaps onto her back and claws at her throat, enabling Macy to get the upper hand. During the night Macy and Lymon destroy the café, steal Miss Amelia's belongings, and break her still; by morning, they have left town. For three years Miss Amelia waits for Cousin Lymon to return. Eventually giving up hope, Amelia boards up the house and locks herself in.

Major Themes

As many critics have pointed out, The Ballad of the Sad Café reflects McCullers's fascination with freaks, misfits, and grotesques. For her, such characters best embodied the loneliness and isolation that she regarded as the basic condition of human existence. Other themes—all of which bear on the novella's central concern with loneliness—include the failure of communication, the anguish of unrequited love, the psychological phenomenon that causes human beings who are worshiped to despise the worshiper, and the redemptive and transformative effects that even transitory and ultimately doomed love can have on an individual and his or her community. Critics note that McCullers was particularly interested in the paradox of shared isolation, a term that describes the relationships among the three main characters and between the three and their community as well.

Critical Reception

On the initial publication of The Ballad of the Sad Café, Tennessee Williams wrote that it is "assuredly among the masterpieces of our language in the form of the novella." V. S. Pritchett considered it evidence that McCullers was "the most remarkable novelist... to come out of America for a generation." William Clancy stated that the work's "metaphysical fusion of horror and compassion" represented "an achievement equaled by few other contemporary American writers." The critical reaction has not been unanimously favorable, however. Robert Drake has called The Ballad of the Sad Café "ridiculous . . . with its fabricated primitivistic folkishness." Lawrence Graver has argued that while the novella is "by far the best of Mrs. McCullers's excursions into the grotesque . . . it is not without reminders of the penumbral insistence that mars her worst work," namely the sense that "too much is made of dark nights of the soul and of things going on there that only God can understand." Nonetheless, The Ballad of the Sad Café is generally regarded as one of her best works of fiction. The 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s saw renewed interest in McCullers's body of work. During these decades numerous studies appeared on the novella that focused on issues such as the role of the narrator, the nature of love, the relationship between the text and the traditional ballad form, its mythical qualities, its connection to the Southern Gothic tradition, and its representation of sexuality and gender.


Coleman Rosenberger (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: A review of The Ballad of the Sad Café: The Novels and Stories of Carson McCullers, in The New York Herald Tribune, June 10, 1951, pp. 1, 13.

[In the following favorable review, Rosenberger discusses McCullers's short fiction and calls The Ballad of the Sad Café her most intense achievement.]

Here in one omnibus volume, which includes her three novels, a half dozen short stories, and an unfamiliar longer one which gives the volume [The Ballad of the Sad Café: The Novels and Stories of Carson McCullers] its name, is the whole fabulous world of Carson McCullers: the dwarfed and the deformed, the hurt and the lonely, the defeated and...

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Robert S. Phillips (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Dinesen's 'Monkey' and McCullers' 'Ballad': A Study in Literary Affinity," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 1, No. 3, Spring, 1964, pp. 184-90.

[In the following essay, Phillips compares Isak Dinesen's short story "The Monkey" (1934) with The Ballad of the Sad Café and argues that Dinesen's tale was a likely source of inspiration for McCullers.]

Originality is the quality most remarkable in the writings of Carson McCullers. Her novels and stories, with their poetic simplicity and Gothic elements, their freakish characters and malevolent plots, hold a unique place in contemporary American literature. Because her work has been unique, the fiction of...

(The entire section is 2599 words.)

Albert J. Griffith (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Carson McCullers' Myth of the Sad Café," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXI, No. 1, Spring, 1967, pp. 46-56.

[In the following essay, Griffith examines the ways in which McCullers imbues The Ballad of the Sad Café with mythic elements.]

Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Café is as grotesque in characterization and incident as anything in American literature. The simple summarizing of the situation reveals its perverseness: a dark, masculine, cross-eyed giant of a woman develops strange, possessive love for a dirty, mischievous, hunchbacked dwarf of a man, who in turn worships a handsome, guitar-strumming robber and seducer, who in...

(The entire section is 4496 words.)

Lawrence Graver (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Carson McCullers, University of Minnesota Press, 1969, pp. 24-33.

[In the following excerpt, Graver argues that The Ballad of the Sad Café is McCullers's best work of "grotesque" fiction. He concludes, however, that this novella is not quite as fully realized as The Member of the Wedding.]

The Ballad of the Sad Café is a good deal more rewarding [than Reflections in a Golden Eye]. Instead of trying to compete with writers of much greater psychological awareness and architechtonic skill, Mrs. McCullers here wisely moves in a limited area more suited to her talents—the alien, elemental world of legend and romance. Like all good...

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Dawson F. Gaillard (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "The Presence of the Narrator in Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Café," in The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. XXV, Fall, 1972, pp. 419-27.

[In the following essay, Gaillard argues that it is through the consciousness of the narrator in The Ballad of the Sad Café that the reader experiences the mythic qualities of the depicted characters and events.]

The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

—William Faulkner, Nobel Prize
Acceptance Speech.

A voice speaks to us in the...

(The entire section is 3135 words.)

Joseph R. Millichap (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Carson McCullers' Literary Ballad," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXVII, No. 3, Fall, 1973, pp. 329-39.

[In the following essay, Millichap argues that the musical ballad form provides the key to understanding The Ballad of the Sad Café.]

Carson McCullers' novels, particularly The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940) and Member of the Wedding (1946), often have been misread as Gothic and grotesque fictions, categories derived by critics from her works in these modes, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) and Ballad of the Sad Café (1943). Strangely enough, the same critics, intent on demonstrating their Procrustean theories in all of...

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John McNally (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "The Introspective Narrator in The Ballad of the Sad Café," in South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, November, 1973, pp. 40-4.

[In the following essay, McNally examines the point-of-view of the narration in The Ballad of the Sad Café, arguing that when the reader views the narrator as "a character in the story, he notices a subtle but significant shift in the story's form and subsequent themes."]

Carson McCullers' novella, The Ballad of the Sad Café, is intriguing for a number of reasons. First there is the incredibly grotesque gallery of characters who people the little dreary town in which the story takes place. Then, of...

(The entire section is 2006 words.)

Panthea Reid Broughton (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Rejection of the Feminine in Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Café" in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 20, No. 1, January, 1974, pp. 34-43.

[In the following essay, Broughton asserts that the characters in The Ballad of the Sad Café regard tenderness and the expression of emotion as inherently feminine and, for that reason, "weak" qualities. She argues that their attitudes toward the feminine cause them to reject qualities that are essential to the survival of the human community.]

Well over a century has passed since Alexis de Tocqueville astutely observed that compulsive individualism, so idealized in America, might indeed foster...

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Richard M. Cook (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "The Ballad of the Sad Café," in Carson McCullers, Frederick Unger, 1975, pp. 84-104.

[In the following excerpt, Cook suggests that The Ballad of the Sad Café celebrates the capacity of love to transform a community and is an elegy to the ephemerality of such love.]

After working on drafts of The Member of the Wedding for two years, in the fall of 1943 Carson McCullers interrupted her work, took a trip to Saratoga Springs and in six weeks' time wrote what is now her best-known work, The Ballad of the Sad Café. Like McCullers's other novels, The Ballad of the Sad Café is the story of lonely people falling in love; but it is...

(The entire section is 6860 words.)

Richard Gray (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Moods and Absences," in Carson McCullers, Chelsea House Publishers 1986, pp. 77-85.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1977, Gray argues that the sense of isolation that permeates McCullers's fictionwhich he claims has often been commented upon but never satisfactorily accounted foris attributable to her having produced most of her fiction in a transitory period between the "renaissance" in Southern fiction and its "new wave, " as well as to specifics of her childhood. He further states that The Ballad of the Sad Café exemplifies the ways in which McCullers created a new kind of fiction, one cut off from recognizable tradition, out of what...

(The entire section is 4213 words.)

Margaret B. McDowell (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Ballad of the Sad Café, " in Carson McCullers, Twayne Publishers, 1980, pp. 65-79.

[In the following excerpt, McDowell provides an overview of The Ballad of the Sad Café, addressing topics such as the novella's combination of comic and tragic elements, the relation between the story and McCullers's personal life, and its mythical, Gothic, and ballad-like features.]

In The Ballad of the Sad Café McCullers achieved an intricate blending of the real and the mythic, of the comic and the desolate, and of the provincial and the universal. She attained in this short novel an extraordinary compression, control, objectivity, and sense of...

(The entire section is 5880 words.)

Barbara C. Gannon (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "McCullers' Ballad of the Sad Café," in The Explicator, Vol. 41, No. 1, Fall, 1982, pp. 59-60.

[In the following essay, Gannon argues that the final paragraph in The Ballad of the Sad Café—in which the chain gang from the beginning of the novella reappears"recounts, in the manner of an envoy, the whole ballad. "]

Carson McCullers' Ballad of the Sad Café is bracketed with the observation that the town is dreary. The narrator suggests in the introduction and again in the closing lines that one listen to the chain gang, presumably for diversion. But in the introduction the gang's appearance is a promise; in the final paragraph...

(The entire section is 638 words.)

Louise Westling (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Carson McCullers' Amazon Nightmare," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3, Autumn, 1982, pp. 465-73.

[In the following essay, Westling argues that while many feminist critics have demonstrated an interest in androgynous characters, the nature of McCullers's Miss Amelia has not been adequately examined. She argues that this character's "freakishness" represents an ambivalence McCullers's part toward female identity.]

Miss Amelia Evans is a monstrous creature, really, and yet Carson McCullers lavished admiring care in picturing her many talents, her forbidding strength, and her control of the squalid village world of The Ballad of the Sad Café...

(The entire section is 3613 words.)

Mary Ann Dazey (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Two Voices of the Single Narrator in The Ballad of the Sad Café" in The Southern Literary Journal Vol. XVII, No. 2, Spring, 1985, pp. 33-40.

[In the following essay, Dazey argues that the narrator of The Ballad of the Sad Café has two distinct voices: one that interprets the story and laments the town and the actions of the characters, and one that tells the story in a relatively objective manner.]

When The Ballad of the Sad Café was first published in Harper's Bazaar in 1943, Carson McCullers was twenty-six, and at that time most critics pointed to the work as evidence of the great promise of the young writer. Today, however, it...

(The entire section is 3021 words.)

Todd Stabbins (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Café," in The Explicator, Vol. 46, No. 2, Winter, 1988, pp. 36-8.

[In the following essay, Stebbins briefly discusses the final section of The Ballad of the Sad Café, arguing that this "coda" demonstrates the harmony that is possible, however temporarily, between human beings.]

In The Ballad of the Sad Café, Carson McCullers shows us a carefully crafted world where people struggle to escape the isolation that oppresses each of them. The Ballad's famous love passage predicts that each person will use love for another as his or her means of escape. McCullers' skillful use of settings—the town, the...

(The entire section is 877 words.)

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Fighting for Life: The Women's Cause," in No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Volume 1: The War of the Words, Yale University Press, 1988, pp. 104-12.

[In the following excerpt, Gilbert and Gubar argue that The Ballad of the Sad Café dramatizes the retribution exacted on a woman who attempts to rebel against patriarchal social conventions.]

McCullers shows in her dreamlike mythic narrative of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe the culturally determined psychic logic that condemns the autonomous woman as a freak who must necessarily be sentenced to the defeat that is femininity. In fact, like her friend and contemporary...

(The entire section is 3110 words.)

Virginia Spencer Carr (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "The Ballad of the Sad Café, " in Understanding Carson McCullers, University of South Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 53-71.

[In the following essay, Carr introduces The Ballad of the Sad Café, discussing, among other things, thematic parallels between the novella and McCullers's other fiction, connections between McCullers's life and work, and the critical response to the novella.]

The monotony and boredom that permeated [McCullers's] life with her husband in 1939 before their move from Fayetteville, North Carolina, contributed not only to the completion of Reflections in a Golden Eye, but also to her novella, The Ballad of the Sad...

(The entire section is 4476 words.)

Further Reading


Allen, Walter. "Welty, McCullers, Taylor, Flannery O'Connor." In The Short Story in English, pp. 313-18. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.

Argues that McCullers's "extremely idiosyncratic view of human beings" is most successfully articulated in The Ballad of the Sad Café.

Baldanza, Frank. "Plato in Dixie." The Georgia Review 12 (Summer 1958): 151-67.

Discusses the use of Platonic parables in southern fiction, remarking that the theory of love expounded by the narrator of The Ballad of the Sad Café is reminiscent of Plato's Socratic dialogue, Phaedrus (c. 5th-4th century BC).


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