The Ballad of the Sad Café
(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.
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.
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.