The Ballad of the Sad Café

by Carson McCullers

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Coleman Rosenberger (essay date 1951)

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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 the despised, the violent and the homicidal—all the masks and symbols which she has employed over a decade of writing to shock the reader into a shared experience of her own intense sense of human tragedy. When The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published in 1940 it was widely recognized as an original and mature work, and the acclaim for it was mixed with mild astonishment that the book should be the work of a twenty-three-year-old writer. Something like that first astonishment is induced by the present collection, which exhibits what an impressive and unified body of work has been produced by Mrs. McCullers at an age when many another writer has hardly started upon his career. For The Ballad of the Sad Café makes abundantly clear, which was not generally seen at the time of their separate publication, that Reflections in a Golden Eye and The Member of the Wedding extend and broaden the themes of her first book, as do the shorter pieces, so that each takes its place in an expanding structure in which each part augments and strengthens the rest.

A recurring theme throughout Mrs. McCullers' work—perhaps the central theme—is the human tragedy of the failure of communication between man and man, and the sense of loss and separation and loneliness which accompanies that failure. The theme is examined and illuminated through minor characters as well as major ones. We see the drunken Blout in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter pouring out his torrent of words to the deaf mute and exclaiming "You are the only one in this town who catches what I mean." Or the old man of "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud," in his wild and earnest pre-dawn monologue directed at the uncomprehending paper boy. Or Frankie in The Member of the Wedding running beside the man on the tractor to shout words he could not hear through the noisy excitement.

In Mrs. McCullers' world of symbols, the urgent need to communicate is most often presented in the guise of the physically maimed or deformed, who are at once the favored and the damned. Frankie ticks off the freaks she had seen at the Chattahoochee Exposition—The Giant, the Fat Lady, The Midget, The Wild Nigger, The Pin Head, the Alligator Boy, the Half-Man Half-Woman—and recalls that "it seemed to her that they had looked at her in a secret way and tried to connect their eyes with hers, is though to say: we know you." And the artist, with his own compelling need to communicate, is one of the freaks of the world. Anacleto in Reflections in a Golden Eye lists himself with the "people behind footlights, midgets, great artists, and such-like fabulous folk."

The establishment of communication, the breaking down of the barriers of a torturing separateness, is the ultimate achievement of Mrs. McCullers' characters. The urgency which drives Frankie to become "A Member...

(This entire section contains 1265 words.)

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of the Wedding" is the conviction that "All other people had a we to claim, all other except her. The soldiers in the army can say we, and even the criminals on the chain-gangs." Again the theme is stated explicitly in the Twelve Mortal Men, the brief epilogue to the story of Miss Amelia. The voices of the twelve chained convicts on the road gang join in an intricately blended music: "And what kind of gang is this that can make such music? Just twelve mortal men, seven of them black and five of them white boys from this county. Just twelve mortal men who are together."

The six short stories which are here printed in book form for the first time, and the title piece, have apparently been drawn from Mrs. McCullers' whole writing career. The stories are not dated—the earliest copyright is 1936, when Mrs. McCullers was nineteen—and there is little to suggest the possible order of composition. If one were to guess, it would be that "Wunderkind" is the earliest. It is the story of the heartbreak of a fifteen-year-old girl who knows that she will not be a great pianist, a Wunderkind.

Such a brief gloss can give little of the quality even of the shorter pieces, such as "The Jockey" or "Madam Zilensky and the King of Finland." The jockey, dressed carefully in his tailored suit of green Chinese silk, is seen for a moment when he is on the edge of disintegration brought on by the injury of his companion and their separation. Madam Zilensky, composer and teacher is also seen in a moment of crisis. She inhabited a private world in which she lived vicariously in the imagination, but in response to a story of hers about seeing the King of Finland, Mr. Brooks coldly observed: "But there is no King of Finland." And "never afterward could Mr. Brooks forget the face of Madam Zilensky at that moment. In her eyes there was astonishment, dismay, and a sort of cornered horror. She had the look of one who watches his whole interior world split open and disintegrate."

"The Sojourner" and "A Domestic Dilemma" and "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud" are, in their various ways, stories or the separateness which may exist in the "we" of man and wife. It is, however, in the title story, The Ballad of the Sad Café, that Mrs. McCullers achievement is seen at its most intense. A short novel, or long short story, or novella—it runs to some sixty pages in the present closely printed volume—it is condensed and disciplined and brilliant writing, which carries the reader along so easily on the wave of the story that he may not at first be aware how completely he has been saturated with symbolism. The story opens and closes with Miss Amelia's house as it now is, lonely, estranged, separate, boarded up. Between is an account of the coming and the departure of the hunchback and Marvin Macy. The hunchback, the deformed, the freak, the artist, was possessed of the "instinct to establish immediate and vital contact between himself and all things in the world." Before disaster came at last, Miss Amelia pushed back the barriers of separateness for a time, and the strange café was established as a place of warmth and fellowship in the desolate town. Miss Amelia and the hunchback and Marvin Macy, the instrument of the disaster, are a grotesque crew. But as Mrs. McCullers patiently explains: "The hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes. The heart of a child can shrink so that forever afterward it is hard and pitted as the seed of a peach. Or again, the heart of such a child may fester and swell until it is a misery to carry within the body, easily chafed and hurt by the most ordinary things." Mrs. McCullers' freaks are not to be dismissed: they are Everyman.

Robert S. Phillips (essay date 1964)

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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 Mrs. McCullers has been subjected primarily to textual analysis. A few isolated critics have noted the correspondence between Mother Lovejoy, in the 1958 McCullers play, The Square Root of Wonderful, and Amanda Wingfield, of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie (1944). But Square Root has been universally acknowledged to be Mrs. McCullers' least inspired creation. No one, however, has noted the influence of Isak Dinesen upon her work. Especially revealing is a comparison of Miss Dinesen's long story, "The Monkey" [in Seven Gothic Tales, 1934], with Mrs. McCullers' celebrated novella, The Ballad of the Sad Café.

The following discussion is not to be construed as a conjecture that Mrs. McCullers has deliberately borrowed from the Danish author. But "The Monkey" can be seen as a very probable inspiration for the McCullers work, and affords a partial understanding of the sources and invention of a work which in our time has become a minor though cryptic classic. Brewster Ghiselin has noted that for any artist production .. . a process of purely conscious calculation seems never to occur. The writer uses the sum total of his past to fabricate the new. An artistic creation is an extension of life, and as such "is not an elaboration of the established, but a movement beyond the established" [Ghiselin, The Creative Process: A Symposium, 1955]. Such is The Ballad of the Sad Café, which marks a movement well beyond the established characterizations and action of "The Monkey" it resembles in many aspects. The result, of course, is another individual work of art.

We know that Mrs. McCullers is familiar with the work of the Danish author. Indeed, she was moved by the death of Miss Dinesen to write one of her infrequent essays ["Isak Dinesen: In Praise of Radiance," Saturday Review, March 16, 1963]. In that piece Mrs. McCullers stated that she first read Seven Gothic Tales—in which volume "The Monkey" was published-in 1938. (The Ballad of the Sad Café was published in 1943.) Mrs. McCullers praised the tales for their brilliance, control, and deliberation, three qualities very much evident in every piece she herself has written. The case is clearly one of affinity for a kindred spirit.

Part I of "The Monkey" establishes a world very analogous to that of The Ballad. The Prioress ruling over Closter Seven performs a role similar to that of Miss Amelia in the small Southern town. Amelia provides necessities through her store, cares for the sick, and owns most of the town's property. The Prioress' pet monkey, furthermore, is curiously reminiscent of Amelia's companion, the dwarf Lymon. Of the former we are told, "When she was at her card table, a place where she spent some of her happiest hours, the monkey was wont to sit on the back of her chair, and to follow with its glittering eyes the course of the cards as they were dealt out and taken in." Lymon continually surveys Miss Amelia and her customers in the café, and is humoured as a plaything. Both the monkey and Lymon are small love objects for strong, sexless women. The protective attitude of the Prioress toward the monkey when children bombard it with chestnuts is akin to Amelia's protection of Lymon from the scorn and derision of the town. Both stories employ a group of characters who function as a chorus, and articulated conscience. The old women of Closter Seven, sitting in the sun and commenting on the strange actions, parallel the gossips of The Ballad, who conjecture the existence of hideous atrocities where there are none.

Boris, of "The Monkey," is the counterpart of Marvin Macy. Both men possess fabulous reputations: Boris is described as appearing to be "a young priest of black magic." Later in the tale we find Boris being pursued by authorities as one of the "corrupters of youth." Marvin Macy, we are told, "was not a person to be envied, for he was an evil character. . . . For years, when he was a boy, he had carried about with him the dried and salted ear of a man he had killed in a razor fight. . . . Yet in spite of his well-known reputation he was the beloved of many females in this region. . . . These gentle young girls he degraded and shamed." Boris remains constant to the character and actions performed by Marvin Macy throughout the story.

The Prioress, Boris' beloved Aunt Cathinka, named after the deity of mercy, resembles Amelia in her compassion for the sly and unloved. She and Amelia, in addition, both have a fondness for property. The Prioress, determined and strong, too old to possess her handsome nephew, sees a surrogate in young Athena Hopballehus, and achieves sublimation by proposing that Boris marry her. It is at this point that the character we may recognize as a true prototype for Miss Amelia is introduced.

Athena lives in a house which is "now baroquely dilapidated and more than half a ruin." Miss Amelia's house is "very old. There is about it a curious, cracked look that is very puzzling until you suddenly realize that at one time, and long ago, the right side of the front porch had been painted, and part of the wall—but the painting was left unfinished and one portion of the house is darker and dingier than the other." Both tales take place in autumn, and the landscapes are described in images of despair, with a feeling for what Miss Dinesen calls "the sad heart of autumn."

Athena lives alone with her father, a man who is continually involved in a great lawsuit. Of Amelia we learn, "She would have been rich as a Congressman if it were not for her one great failing, and that was her passion for lawsuits and the courts." The duplication of this detail seems singularly fortuitous. The most striking parallels, however, are to be found in the appearance of the two characters. "Athena was a strong young woman of eighteen, six feet high and broad in proportion, with a pair of shoulders which could lift and carry a sack of wheat." Mrs. McCullers describes Amelia as "a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles like a man." Amelia Evans is six feet, two inches tall. Boris looked at Athena and "wondered if she had ever heard of love." Mrs. McCullers states, "Miss Amelia cared nothing for the love of men."

Both Athena and Amelia are prevented from having a normal love affair by an obstacle greater than that of physical size. Each possesses a latent incestuous desire for her father; both have been sheltered too long by the male parent. Athena is, in her father's words, "the key of my whole world." Amelia's most prized possession is a large acorn she picked off the ground on the dark day her father died. Athena and Amelia have grown up in a male world, and their dress and actions underscore their inability to accept the traditional feminine role. Insecure, they foster their great strength as a protection against the demands of the normal world.

To each of these stalwart heroines, a proposal of marriage is most alarming, and apparently unmotivated. Both stories explore what Miss Dinesen has termed "the tender and dangerous emotions of the human heart." Mrs. McCullers elaborates: "Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain." It is obvious that Amelia consents to marry Macy in hopes of securing a replacement for her deceased father. When Macy tries to consummate the marriage—thereby destroying the father-image-she rejects him. Amelia seems devoid of any sexual feeling, much less of desire. Athena likewise rejects Boris, and is shown to be totally innocent of sexual knowledge.

A key to both stories is the legend which Boris recalls, "the old ballad about the giant's daughter, who finds a man in the wood, and surprised and pleased, takes him home to play with. The giant orders her to let him go, telling her that she will only break him." In each case, the giantess is indeed capable of breaking the body as well as the spirit of the beloved. Both Athena and Amelia will not tolerate being loved by any other than their fathers. This ancient ballad recalled by Boris is, in fact, the "ballad" of the sad café. That subconscious incestuous love is the motivation here is reinforced in part VIII of "The Monkey" when the Prioress recalls a tale said to be in her great-grandmother's memoirs, a tale concerning the Duchess of Berri, who was allegedly pregnant by her father.

Cousin Lymon's appearance fosters new emotions in Amelia. She loves Lymon as a possession, a pet, a beloved object incapable of attempting the role of sexual lover. In addition to his alleged kinship to Amelia, which should prohibit cohabitation, it is clear that his twisted body and broken back make physical love an impossibility. Lymon, then, is the monkey idol of Dinesen's Gothic tale, one of those "symbols which seem to have been the common property of all pagan iconoclasts," perhaps "due to the idea of original sin." Isak Dinesen gives us a Wendish idol for the goddess of love an idol whose front is the face of a beautiful woman and whose back is the face of a monkey. This juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness, the human and the bestial, is a personification of the dual nature of love. Mrs. McCullers expands upon this theme in The Ballad:

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.

Now, the beloved can also be of any description. The most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love. . . . A good man may be the stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a tender and simple idyll. Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself.

The proposal of marriage, because unforeseen and unwanted, is a great shock to Amelia and to Athena. It breaks into their solitude, their proud isolation.

"Now, the beloved can also be of any description. The most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love . . . A good man may be the stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a tender and simple idyll. Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself." The proposal of marriage, since unforeseen and unwanted, is a great shock to Amelia and to Athena. It breaks into their solitude, their proud isolation.

The Prioress, eager to see Boris succeed, gives him an amber-colored love potion, which will make him forget himself for a few hours and seduce the unwilling Athena. In The Ballad Miss Amelia is first known for her homebrewed liquor which "has a special quality of its own . . . once down a man it glows inside him for a long time afterward. . . . Things that have gone unnoticed, thoughts that have been harbored far back in the dark mind, are suddenly recognized and comprehended."

The most salient similarity between the two stories is in the battle royal that occurs at the conclusion of each—Athena's fight with Boris when he enters her chamber to seduce her, and Amelia's fight with Macy over rights to Lymon. A brutal fistfight between lovers can scarcely be called a common conception for fiction; yet such is to be found in these two tales. In both stories, the bizarre fight is shown to be predictable and inevitable.

The fight in "The Monkey" is described to the length of three pages. A sample of the graphic scene will suffice:

Her powerful, swift and direct fist hit him in the mouth and knocked out two of his teeth. The pain and the smell and taste of the blood which filled his mouth sent him beside himself. He let her go to try for a stronger hold, and immediately they were in each other's arms, in an embrace of life and death.

Mrs. McCullers' version is equally fierce:

Then, like wildcats, they were suddenly on each other. There was the sound of knocks, panting, and thumpings on the floor. They were so fast that it was hard to take in what was going on—but once Miss Amelia was hurled backward so that she staggered and almost fell, and another time Marvin Macy caught a knock on the shoulder that spun him round like a top. So the fight went on in this wild violent way with no sign of weakening on either side.

Just as Marvin Macy never succeeds in making love to Amelia, Boris' struggle to seduce Athena is equally unsuccessful.

The morning after the fight, Athena promises the Prioress she will marry Boris, but that "whenever I can do so, I shall kill him." Her regard for Boris, prior to the fantastical metamorphosis of the Prioress at the conclusion, remains identical to that of Amelia for Macy. When the monkey attacks the Prioress, and forces her to the floor, we have Cousin Lymon leaping on Amelia in the Ballad's terrible climax. In the transmogrification of the Prioress, the iconic face of human love once more prevails, and under its benevolent aegis, Boris and Athena become partners together in life. Mrs. McCullers' ballad has no such happy ending.

There are other important similarities between the two tales. Miss Dinesen's wandering crew of hangmen, who have seen so much horror that they can weep on command, parallel Mrs. McCullers' sad chain gang. Miss Amelia at the conclusion of the Ballad, her face sexless and white, resembles for all the world the old Prioress, one of those beings whom Miss Dinesen describes as "old enough to have done with the business of being women." Miss Amelia was done before she had begun.

Despite the similarities, it should be noted that both stories are constructed upon the foundation of ancient fairy tale and myth, in which the world of giants (the supernatural order) is juxtaposed with the world of men (the natural order). The "larger than life" has proved invaluable to storytellers of all ages who wish to illuminate the little world of man. Swift's Gulliver discovers in the land of the Brobdingnagians the perils of the supernatural for life when he becomes the plaything of a giantess. That his end was a happy one, like Boris', proves nothing more than that the comic mask has temporarily displaced the tragic on the face of a neutral universe. Miss Amelia, having looked upon the tragic mask, must forever wear it.

Albert J. Griffith (essay date 1967)

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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 his turn had previously so desired the giant woman that he had contracted a miserable ten-day unconsummated marriage with her.

Yet the quality of the novella most frequently cited by critics is the mysterious beauty which encompasses the whole work. Even the violence of the denouement—a primitive bare-fisted agon between the woman and her one-time bridegroom over the hunchback—fails to mar the poetic serenity of the tale for most readers. The story as a whole is neither a morbid Gothic monstrosity perpetrated for mere shock effect nor a specimen of the extreme naturalism, a la Erskine Caldwell, sometimes associated with the South. Somehow The Ballad of the Sad Café sublimates its unpromising ingredients.

The reason for the paradoxical charm of this grotesque story is not difficult to find. From its first appearance, critics have recognized the lyricism of the McCullers narrative style, which can render even sordid subject matter in poetic terms. They have also noted the aura of legend which surrounds the incidents recounted, embuing them with a peculiar remoteness in both time and space. They have even sensed the allegorical structure which gives significance to otherwise preverse literal details.

What has not been sufficiently noted, however, is that these elements—the quasi-poetic stylistic devices, the fairy-tale atmosphere, the non-literal meanings—are the marks of the mythic imagination, and their combination in this story suggests the making of a modern myth. The Ballad of the Sad Café may be set in a twentieth century Southern town and speak of things like Greyhound buses and brick privies and marijuana cigarettes, but the imagination which informs it is in many important ways close kin to the imagination of those ancient authors who set their stories on Olympus, in Valhalla, and in Camelot and spoke of winged sandals and golden thrones and magic potions.

This is not to say that Mrs. McCullers in The Ballad of the Sad Café was writing a contemporary parallel to some well-known myth, as Joyce, Faulkner, Eliot, Welty, Updike, and many other modern authors have done. Mrs. McCullers' story seems to have sprung from her own imagination, but she has invested it with some of the same qualities which distinguished the archetypal literature of past cultures. She has not parodied an old myth but created her own new one out of primitive elements.

The mythic quality, discoverable in both the characters and the incidents, does not perhaps inhere so much in the subject itself as in the author's attitude toward the subject. It is the implied presence of a personal narrator in The Ballad of the Sad Café which transforms the story. The bare incidents, stripped of the narrator's poetic presentation, are ugly, ludicrous, even repulsive; no paraphrase could ever begin to convey their significance, much less their beauty. The characters, presented out of context, would be unreal, aberrant, unfathomable; the setting, bizarre, contrived; the theme, sentimental, foolish. In context, the grotesqueness remains but is turned towards a purpose, becomes part of a whole which is not grotesque, transcends the human and moves into the numinous.

The trio of principal characters, for instance, seems to step right out of the world of folk imagination. Each of them has physical characteristics, personality traits, and community functions which set him off, not only from others in the story, but in some ways from all humankind. Miss Amelia, the dominating figure in the story, is perhaps the most impressive of the three. She is first presented as a face looking down on the town from the one unboarded window of the deserted café: "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 each other one long and secret gaze of grief." This phantasmagoric impression remains even in the later descriptions of Miss Amelia in the days before her withdrawal from the life of the town. "She was," we are told, "a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles like a man. Her hair was cut short and brushed back from the forehead, and there was about her sunburned face a tense, haggard quality." Throughout, she appears with a kind of barbaric regal dignity, towering above the lesser mortals of the town, always moving surely and deliberately in a "slow, gangling swagger," asserting with a "proud and stern" face her authority over all who venture near her premises.

Strong and domineering as an Amazonian queen, Miss Amelia is in personality as inscrutable as a visitant from Asgard or Olympus. Her expression has been known to have a "look that appears to be both very wise and very crazy" and her ways and habits are "too peculiar ever to reason about." Her reticence is such that the people of the town resort to wild conjectures ("I know what Miss Amelia done. She murdered that man for something in that suitcase") to explain her behavior, for she provides no explanations herself, acting always in confident self-righteousness. Her pattern of life is both solitary and independent; she makes her own schedules (often spending "whole nights back in her shed in the swamp, dressed in overalls and gum boots, silently guarding the low fire of the still") and ignores whenever she pleases the conventions of the community (not warming "her backside modestly, lifting her skirt only an inch or so, as do most women when in public," but pulling up her red dress "quite high in the back so that a piece of her strong, hairy thigh could be seen by anyone who cared to look at it"). Using everything about her with great success, she is in fact ill at ease only with people. Even here, her chagrin is that of a demiurge over the recalcitrance of creatures: "People, unless they are nillywilly or very sick, cannot be taken into the hands and changed overnight to something more worth-while and profitable. So that the only use that Miss Amelia had for other people was to make money out of them." Her penchant for lawsuits is reminiscent of the endless litigations the classical divinities entered into with mortals.

Yet Miss Amelia is not totally estranged from the life of the town. She plays, indeed, the beneficent role of a bucolic Vesta, presiding over the private and public hearth. She is the "richest woman for miles around" and, even before the founding of her café, runs a country store from which the staples of life (feed, guano, meal, and snuff) are dispensed. Furthermore, from her still three miles back in the swamp, she runs out the best liquor in the county—liquor with a "special quality of its own," "clean and sharp on the tongue" and capable of bringing out "that which is known only in the soul of a man" the way fire brings out a message written in lemon juice. Her whisky is veritably a mystic potion:

Things that have gone unnoticed, thoughts that have been harbored far back in the dark mind, are suddenly recognized and comprehended. A spinner who has thought only of the loom, the dinner pail, the bed, and then the loom again—this spinner might drink some on a Sunday and come across a marsh lily. And in his palm he might hold this flower, examining the golden dainty cup, and in him suddenly might come a sweetness keen as pain. A weaver might look up suddenly and see for the first time the cold, weird radiance of midnight January sky, and a deep fright at his own smallness stop his heart. Such things as these, then, happen when a man has drunk Miss Amelia's liquor. He may suffer, or he may be spent with joy—but the experience has shown the truth; he has warmed his soul and seen the message hidden there.

Like a tutelary deity, too, Miss Amelia rules over the rituals at the changes of season. It is she, who, when the first frost comes, goes out to "judge the day." Already she has led the town in preparations for the new season: she has made a new and bigger condenser for her still, ground enough sorghum to dizzy her old grist mule, scalded her Mason jars, and put away pear preserves. People "come in from the country to find out what Miss Amelia thought of the weather"; they await her word for the ritual slaughtering of the first hog. When her command is given, the scene is reminiscent of a pagan sacrifice: "There was the warm smell of pig blood and smoke in the back yard, the stamp of footsteps, the ring of voices in the winter air." Only the unprecedented snowfall near the climax of the Ballad catches Miss Amelia unprepared; she simply shutters herself up in her house and ignores it so she will not "have to come to some decision" about it.

Miss Amelia's final attribute is also one which in folklore often attests to a superhuman status: she is a great healer. "She possessed great imagination and used hundreds of different cures," we are told. "In the face of the most dangerous and extraordinary treatment she did not hesitate, and no disease was so terrible but what she would undertake to cure it." The fact that "female complaints" are the one exception to her healing skills foreshadows another fact that the story will bring out, that Miss Amelia is helpless in dealing with her own sexual weakness, her love for the hunchback, Cousin Lymon.

Contrasted with Miss Amelia is another godlike personage, Marvin Macy, the loom-fixer destined to become first her lover, then her rival:

. . . Marvin Macy was the handsomest man in this region—being six feet one inch tall, hard-muscled, and with slow gray eyes and curly hair. He was well off, made good wages, and had a gold watch which opened in the back to a picture of a waterfall. From the outward and worldly point of view Marvin Macy was a fortunate fellow; he needed to bow and scrape to no one and always got just what he wanted.

With hyacinthine locks and golden talisman, Marvin Macy is the composite image of the great Greek gods and heroes: a young Adonis, the beloved of all the pastoral nymphs "with tender sweet little buttocks and charming ways"; a country Orpheus, parading "up and down the road with his guitar" and descending into the underworld of the penitentiary near Atlanta; a thieving Hermes, carrying "forbidden marijuana weed to tempt those who were discouraged and drawn toward death" and holding up the A & P (Apollo's?) Store of Society City; a muscular Heracles, fighting for the girdle, as it were, of the Amazonian queen; a passionate Phoebus, finding his Daphne struck by the frigid tip of the leaden arrow.

Marvin Macy's whole personality and upbringing sets him apart from the others of the town. As one of seven unwanted children deserted by wild young parents who only "liked to fish and roam around the swamp," Marvin Macy developed early a heart "hard and pitted as the seed of a peach." He chops off the tails of squirrels in the pinewoods "just to please his fancy," degrades and shames gentle young girls, and carries with him "the dried and salted ear of a man he had killed in a razor fight." His demonic degeneracy is stressed in the imagery: the narrator says "his heart turned tough as the horns of Satan"; Miss Amelia vows he will never set his "split hoof on her premises; Cousin Lymon is "possessed by an unnatural spirit" on first sight of him; and all the townspeople know that he never sweats even in the summer, "surely a sign worth pondering over." Furthermore, his evil is "not measured by the actual sins he had committed," for, quite apart from his innumerable crimes, "there was about him a secret meanness that clung to him almost like a smell." And to the one marvelous event in the story—the unheardof snowfall—Marvin Macy lays claim, since he alone of the townsfolk has had the prior experience to cope with it and to use its suspected preternatural significance to his advantage. In short, Marvin Macy is also created of heroic stature, a worthy antagonist to the established tyrant of the town, Miss Amelia.

The third of the principal characters, Cousin Lymon, springs perhaps from deeper sources in the mythopoeic subconsciousness. Although he has certain affinities with the deformed gods (Haephestus, for instance) and monsters (the Sphinx, the Minotaur, the Harpies) of Greek mythology, he is most ways probably closer to the oneiric creations of the Teutonic mentality—Loki, the fickle mischief-maker of Asgard; Rumpelstiltskin, the mysterious little man who appears from nowhere and bargains for favors; and all the trolls, dwarfs, elves, and gnomes who haunt the forests of the north.

Cousin Lymon appears first as the Mysterious Stranger, the visitant from an unknown world:

The man was a stranger, and it is rare that a stranger enters the town on foot at that hour [toward midnight]. Besides, the man was a hunchback. He was scarcely more than four feet tall and he wore a ragged, dusty coat that reached only to his knees. His crooked little legs seemed too thin to carry the weight of his great warped chest and the hump that sat on his shoulders. He had a very large head, with deep-set blue eyes and a sharp little mouth. His face was both soft and sassy—at the moment his pale skin was yellowed by dust and there were lavender shadows beneath his eyes. He carried a lopsided old suitcase which was tied with a rope.

He is mistaken at first for a calf, then for a child; later he is compared to a fly, a mosquito, a hawk, a magpie, a child of a swamphaunt. Because Cousin Lymon sniffles and weeps, the loafers on Miss Amelia's porch call him "a regular Morris Finestein," a reference to "a quick, skipping little Jew" who had lived in the town years before and moved away under the force of calamity, a reference that thus links Cousin Lymon indirectly with the saga of the Wandering Jew. Further, no one is ever able to guess his age and he himself professes not to know whether he has been on the earth for ten years or a hundred.

Cousin Lymon, bedecking himself like a little king in knee-breeches, stockings, and lime-green shawl, quickly comes to fill an important role in the town, a role unfilled before his advent. For Cousin Lymon, we are told, is "the type of person who has a quality about him that sets him apart from other and more ordinary human beings"—the instinctive ability "to establish immediate and vital contact between himself and all things in the world." His magical camaraderie brings "the air of freedom and illicit gladness" that changes Miss Amelia's business-like store into a warm and genial café. Despite the fact that he is a great "busybody" and "mischief-maker," who without a word is capable of setting people at each other "in a way that was miraculous," he is "most responsible for the great popularity of the café." "When he walked into the room," the narrator says, "there was always a quick feeling of tension, because with this busybody about there was never any telling what might descend on you, or what might suddenly be brought to happen in the room. People are never so free with themselves and so recklessly glad as when there is some possibility of commotion or calamity ahead." And commotion and calamity is, of course, exactly what Cousin Lymon brings with him.

Surrounding these three principals are the townspeople. None of these are developed as three-dimensional characters and only a few—Henry Macy, Merlie Ryan, Stumpy MacPhail, the Rainey twins—are individualized at all. The townspeople function in the story as a single character; they are, indeed, a kind of Greek chorus, reacting to and commenting on the action, occasionally forcing an issue and precipitating a crisis. Thus, when rumors circulate that Miss Amelia may have murdered the hunchback, the chorus reacts:

Some eight or ten men had convened on the porch of Miss Amelia's store. They were silent and were indeed just waiting about. They themselves did not know what they were waiting for, but it was this: in times of tension, when some great action is impending, men gather and wait in this way. And after a time there will come a moment when all together they will act in unison, not from thought or from the will of any one man, but as though their instincts had merged together so that the decision belongs to no single one of them, but to the group as a whole. At such a time no individual hesitates. And whether the matter will be settled peaceably, or whether the joint action will result in ransacking, violence, and crime, depends on destiny.

When the time comes and the "instinct to act" is felt, the group all at once enters the store "as though moved by one will." "At that moment," we are told, "the eight men looked very much alike—all wearing blue overalls, most of them with whitish hair, all pale of face, and all with a set, dreaming look in the eye." Not only do they look alike and act in unison, they also share a common font of experience:

Now the names of the men of the group there on that evening were as follows: Hasty Malone, Robert Calvert Hale, Merlie Ryan, Reverend T. M. Willin, Rosser Cline, Rip Wellborn, Henry Ford Crimp, and Horace Wells. Except for Reverend Willin, they are all alike in many ways as has been said—all having taken pleasure from something or other, all having wept and suffered in some way, most of them tractable unless exasperated. Each of them worked in the mill, and lived with others in a two- or three-room house for which the rent was ten dollars or twelve dollars a month. All had been paid that afternoon, for it was Saturday. So for the moment, think of them as a whole.

If the people of the town are to be thought of "as a whole," it is even more necessary to think of the "twelve mortal men" of the chain gang as a whole. Their single shared personality is emphasized by their prison uniform, the chains linking their ankles, their common labor, and their har-monious singing. The chain gang functions, then, as a kind of second chorus, more removed from the action of the story and commenting only indirectly through their song on the great issue of the story, the problem of love and alienation. The very existence of these "twelve mortal men who are together" is itself the most telling commentary possible.

The mythic aura which surrounds the characters extends to the events as well. In the first place, Mrs. McCullers sets the action in the remembered past, so that we do not see it directly as it happens but retrospectively as it is recalled, re-created, interpreted. We are allowed to glimpse first the present desolation of the town, then to have the cause of the desolation explained as the ballad unfolds. The style is presentational, however, rather than representational: we are always aware of the mediating influence of the narrator. The narrator's panoramic vision opens before us in the very first lines of the novella, those hauntingly poetic lines that merge past and present, intimacy and mystery, fact and mythic imagination in the evocative decription of the dreary town. "These August afternoons—when your shift is finished there is absolutely nothing to do; you might as well walk down to the Forks Fall Road and listen to the chain gang," we go on to read, unconsciously being affected by the colloquial tone, the second person address, the intruding interpretations of a personalized viewpoint. In Percy Lubbock's terms, this is a "pictorial" work in which we face toward the story-teller and listen to him, instead of a "scenic" work in which we would turn toward the story and watch it. "So let the slow years pass and come to a Saturday evening six years after the time when Cousin Lymon came first to the town," the narrator will say, reminding us that the story has its primary existence in his memory and imagination.

The events as narrated seem, furthermore, to be fore-ordained, the result of destiny, not free will. Motivation for the peculiar actions of the characters is sometimes suggested, but never clearly specified. Why Marvin Macy loves Amelia, or Amelia, Lymon, or Lymon, Marvin Macy can only be conjectured. The famous disquisition on love—"Now some explanation is due for all this behavior. The time has come to speak about love," etc.—is no psychological explanation at all; at best it is a philosophic hypothesis which only begs the question.

Moreover, the characters often seem helplessly impelled toward a certain course of events. The chorus moves because "the time had come" or "the instinct to act" came upon them. Cousin Lymon behaves as if bewitched by Marvin Macy. Miss Amelia seems "to have lost her will" when she reacts to Marvin Macy's charming of the hunchback, makes no protest when Marvin Macy moves in on her, and stands "helpless" when Marvin Macy bounces her curses back upon herself. The climactic brawl at the end of the story comes precisely at seven o'clock in the evening—a time instinctively "known to everyone, not by announcement or words, but understood in the unquestioning way that rain is understood, or an evil odor from the swamp." Each of the three principals fills his role as if the whole action had been "arranged in some manner before-hand."

Omens and natural portents provide clues to what destiny has in store. When Cousin Lymon first comes upon the scene, a dog begins "a wild, hoarse howl." When Miss Amelia is suspected of murdering Cousin Lymon, it is noticed that the lamps in the houses make "mournful, wavering flickers" and that the wind comes not from the swamp but from the cold black pinewoods to the north. At Miss Amelia's wedding the sun shining through the ruby windows of the church puts a "curious glow" on the bridal pair. On the day that Henry Macy gets word his brother is out of the penitentiary on parole, little children are fretful, Cousin Lymon compulsively tells a weird lie about stepping on an alligator in Rotten Lake, Henry Macy himself develops a nervous tic, and somewhere in the darkness a woman sings "in a high wild voice" a tune that has "no start and no finish" and is "made up of only three notes" repeated endlessly. Marvin Macy brings back with him "bad fortune, right from the first, as could be expected"; the weather turns suddenly and unseasonably hot, the freshly slaughtered pork spoils, and an entire family dies from infected meat at a reunion. Sadly, it is "a time of waste and confusion" and Marvin Macy is "the cause of all this."

The most impressive of all the ominous signs that winter is the unprecedented snowfall that covers the town the day Marvin Macy moves into Miss Amelia's house. The snow makes most people "humble and glad about this marvel" so that they speak in "hushed voices" and say "'thank you' and 'please'" more than is necessary. The day of the violent denouement turns out to be Ground Hog Day and the ground hog sees his shadow: a sign bad weather is ahead. Further, a "hawk with a bloody breast" flies over the town and circles twice around the property of Miss Amelia. Significantly, the happenings at the sad café have reverberations in the whole chain of being.

Most of the major events of the Ballad are carried out in a solemn and ceremonious manner, suggestive of rituals, both sacred and satanic. The gossiping about Miss Amelia has the quality of an "evil festival" or an "unholy holiday." The opening of the café provides a primitive agape in which bottles of Miss Amelia's whisky shared among friends create an almost eucharistic bond; the people respond to the love feast with dignified circumspection, allowing no "rambunctiousness, indecent giggles, or misbehavior whatsoever," becoming "polite even to the point of a certain timidness," and exemplifying the atmosphere of a proper café: "fellowship, the satisfactions of the belly, and a certain gaiety and grace of behavior." Marvin Macy's courting of Miss Amelia is preceded by a two-year period of reform and atonement and accomplished by the chivalric presentation of symbolic gifts—"a bunch of swamp flowers, a sack of chitterlins, and a silver ring." Miss Amelia likewise gives talismanic presents to Cousin Lymon, including her own kidney stones which she has had set as ornaments in a watch chain.

The violent clash which ends the story is no private skirmish entered into in the heat of passion but a public encounter with all the ceremony of a gladiatorial contest or a knightly joust. It is prepared for by several ritualistic confrontations in which the antagonists take their fighting postures without actually coming to blows. As if on cue, the whole town automatically gathers for the fray at the mystically chosen hour. Cousin Lymon, the proximate cause of it all, hops onto the counter where he sits like a victor's trophy until he awards himself at the last minute to Marvin Macy by attacking the nearly triumphant Miss Amelia. The rubrics of destruction are fulfilled by the final ritualistic devastation of the café, the surrogate enemy, the avatar of Miss Amelia herself.

Both the characters and the events in The Ballad of the Sad Café, then, have the remoteness, the mystery, the numinousness of myth. This is not gratuitous, however, for Mrs. McCullers' central insight in this work—that the operations of love are not amenable to nor explainable by reason-is not one to be demonstrated scientifically, but by an appeal to those very sources of irrational knowledge from which love itself springs. To treat of love "wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp," Mrs. McCullers has elevated her primitive characters and their grotesque actions to the wild, extravagant, and beautiful level of myth.

Lawrence Graver (essay date 1969)

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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 ballads, her story is urgent, atmospheric, and primitive, and yet, in its melodramatic swiftness and simplicity, tells us more things memorable about human life than all the devious sophisticated posturings of Reflections in a Golden Eye.

In the background are the physical facts of life that count for so much in the ballad world: a dingy southern town cut off from the accommodations of civilized society, boundaries of swamps and cold black pinewood, weather that is raw in winter and white with the glare of heat in summer. Only those who must come here: the tax collector to bother the rich; an investigator to refuse credit to Ryan, the weaver; a lost traveler to find his way back to his destination. Decayed buildings lean in imminent collapse and intimations of mortality are everywhere. The moon makes "dim, twisted shadows on the blossoming peach trees," and the odor of sweet spring grass mingles with the warm, sour smell of a nearby lagoon. Strangers arrive suddenly, often at night, and they have intimate ties with the twilight world of animals. The hunchback's hands are like "dirty sparrow claws," and he perches on a railing the way "a sick bird huddles on a telephone wire," to "grieve publicly." Much depends on the cycle of the seasons and the climactic events of the plot often have their effective climatic correspondences. Autumn begins with cool days of a "clean bright sweetness," but when the villain comes home from prison, the weather turns sticky, sultry, and rotten. A month before the famous wrestling match that brings the story to a close, snow falls for the first time in living memory.

The boldness and precision with which she creates the sense of a town estranged from the rest of the world is the first of Mrs. McCullers' successes in The Ballad of the Sad Café. Unlike those narrators in the earlier novels who move uneasily from realism to myth and back again, the invented voice in this story has an obvious authority and grace. Beginning simply in the present, she tells us that things are dismal now but once upon a time there was gaiety and color in the human landscape. No attempt is made to mask the calamitous outcome; ruin is announced at the start; our interest will be entirely in how it was accomplished. Since she is confident in her grasp of the moment and the milieu, Mrs. McCullers assumes a relaxed, colloquial style, punctuating the narrative with phrases like "time must pass" and "so do not forget."

Knowing that her gruesome story might, if too solemnly told, seem wildly melodramatic, she skillfully uses folk humor to sweeten the Gothic tale. When the shambling, toothless Merlie Ryan spreads the rumor that Amelia has murdered the newly arrived Lymon, Mrs. McCullers casually reports: "It was a fierce and sickly tale the town built up that day. In it were all the things which cause the heart to shiver—a hunchback, a midnight burial in the swamp, the dragging of Miss Amelia through the streets of the town . . ." But then, moments later, she parades her little peacock proudly down the stairs. Throughout the narrative, understatement and playfulness humanize the actors and make their behavior seem less morbid. Often, in dialogue, they use an idiom full of the comic hyperbole so common in country speech. Amelia claims to have slept as soundly as if she were drowned in axle grease, and when she is dizzy with apprehension and love, the neighbors speak of her being "well on her way ... up fools' hill," and they can't wait to see how the affair will turn out.

It turns out badly. The Ballad of the Sad Café is the story of Miss Amelia Evans, a quirky amazon who sells feed, guano, and domestic staples in the town's only thriving store. Tall, dark, and unapproachable in a rough, masculine way, Amelia is an uncompromising merchant with a passion for vindictive lawsuits and a beneficent witch doctor with a genuine desire to ease human pain. Both her business acumen and her healing powers are legendary; what she shrewdly extracts in trade she gives back in the free and effective dispensation of a hundred different cures. Since her liquors relieve melancholy, her foods hunger, and her folk remedies pain, this perverse cross between Ceres, Bacchus, and the neighborhood medicine man is the one indispensable person in town.

That the hard-fisted Amelia has the living touch is demonstrated at the arrival of a sniveling hunchbacked dwarf who asks for food and shelter. His worth, he claims, is based on the urgency of kinship, and his weird unraveling of cousins, half sisters, and third husbands is a neat parody of the mysterious genealogical links in ballad and romance. Miss Amelia immediately acknowledges the tie, lightly touches his hump, and offers him liquor, dinner, and a bed. Soon, Cousin Lymon is installed in Amelia's sanctuary, sharing rooms rarely seen by living eyes, and a bizarre relationship, very much like love, transforms them both. As lover, she becomes softened, graceful, communicative, eager to extend the rewards of companionship to others; he, the beloved, becomes proud, perky, aristocratic. Even the townspeople benefit. The liquor that Miss Amelia used to dispense on her doorstep is now served inside, and gradually the store evolves into a café featuring the exotic hunchback and some palatable food and drink. Warmth, affectionate fellowship, "a certain gaiety and grace of behavior," momentarily replace suspicion, loneliness, egotism, and rough-hewn malice—the rigorous truths of the world outside. Niggardly Amelia puts free crackers on the counter, customers share their liquor, and the flourishing café provides the one bright page in the history of this melancholy town.

Unhappily, the festive interlude lasts only six years before the sins of the past exact their tribute and the catastrophe announced at the start is set in motion. Some years before the appearance of Lymon, the young Amelia had been married for ten stormy days to Marvin Macy. Handsome, mercurial, vicious, and cunning, Macy had been a most notable young scoundrel, the demon lover of every "soft-eyed" young girl in town. Miraculously enough, he had fallen passionately in love with the haggard Amelia and became her long-suffering romantic knight. As a disdainful mistress, Amelia needed little instruction; after their marriage, she rejected his advances, sold his presents, and battered his face with her punches. Macy, disconsolate and swearing vengeance, ran off to a life of crime and an eventual stretch in the Atlanta penitentiary. Afterwards, Miss Amelia cut up his Klansman's robe to cover her tobacco plants.

Once Macy reappears in town, the tempo quickens and everyone prepares for the inevitable confrontation of the two epic antagonists. Most of the wise money is on Amelia, for she had beaten more than her weight several times before. The twist, however, in this tale is provided by Cousin Lymon, who completes the eccentric triangle of love relationships by falling desperately for the roguish Macy. This time it is Amelia's turn to suffer at the hands of a capricious beloved. While Lymon slavishly follows the scornful Macy about town, she becomes increasingly distraught at the turn in his affections; but nothing can be done. Lymon announces that Macy will move in with them and Amelia comes to the mournful recognition that "once you have lived with another ... it is better to take in your mortal enemy than face the terror of living alone."

Step by step, Amelia and Macy prepare for the hand-to-hand combat that everyone knows must come. On the second of February, when a bloody-breasted hawk gives the signal by flying over Amelia's house, all the townspeople move as spectators toward the café. At seven o'clock, the two contestants begin to pound one another with hundreds of bone-cracking blows. After a savage half-hour, when boxing has turned to wrestling, Amelia puts her triumphant hands to the throat of her fallen adversary; but with astonishing swiftness, Cousin Lymon flies at her back, pulls her off, and gives the victory to Macy. That night, to celebrate their triumph, the two men smash up Amelia's property and disappear. In the months that follow, Amelia lets the café and her healing practice fall into ruin, and she eventually becomes a recluse. The town returns to its desolate, mechanical ways; "the soul rots with boredom"; and the tale ends with the swelling song of a chain gang.

Much of what is permanently haunting in this grotesque little story is the product of Mrs. McCullers' easy relationship with the properties of the ballad world. Experience heightened far beyond the realm of plausibility is given a valid, poetic truth by the propriety of those conventions that make the miraculous seem oddly real. Dreams, superstitions, omens, numbers, musical motifs, all operate here to provide an authentic atmosphere for this perverse triangle of passions, and to make the inexplicable longings of the characters seem like dark elemental forces in the natural world. Enigmatic melodies are heard in the night: wild, high voices singing songs that never end. Macy, the demon lover, plays the guitar, and when he sings the tunes glide "slowly from his throat like eels." As a doctor, Amelia depends on a stunning variety of secret herbs; her Kroup Kure, made from whiskey, rock candy, and an unnamed third power, is a wonder drug, while her liquor has been known to bring up messages from the bottom of the human soul. When she guards the low fire of her ritual still, Amelia likes to untie knots in rope, and in her parlor cabinet she keeps an acorn and two small stones. The acorn she picked from the ground the day her father died, and the stones had once been removed from her kidney. If she wants Lymon to come along to Cheehaw, she asks him seven times and when he continually refuses, she draws a heavy line with a stick around the barbecue pit and orders him not to trespass that limit. Naturally, when the time must be set for the epic fight, seven o'clock is chosen. Miss Amelia is not the only character to be given a powerful armory of signs and talismans. Lymon sits regularly on a sack of guano and is rarely without his snuffbox. Years earlier, Macy had courted his love with a bunch of swamp flowers, a sack of chitterlings, and a silver ring; and when he returns from prison the neighbors fear him as more dangerous than ever because while put away he "must have learned the method of laying charms." Always called devilish, Macy never sweats, not even in August, and that—Mrs. McCullers reminds us—is surely "a sign worth pondering."

By relying so heavily on charms and rituals, the characters emphasize the fated, irrational quality of so many of their decisive acts. Like most works in its traditional genre, The Ballad of the Sad Café illustrates the consequences of moral choice but does not probe it; analysis is less vital than the starkness of dramatic presentation. Yet an evocative atmosphere and a strong story line would not in themselves ensure success if the illustration were not thematically absorbing as well. The richly patterned, sinister dance in which Macy, Amelia, and Lymon play at different times the roles of lover and beloved dramatizes the wayward nature of human passion and the irreconcilable antagonism inherent in every love relationship.

At one point in his poem "Prayer for My Daughter," William Butler Yeats, speaking of the splendid contrariety with which females choose their lovers, describes how beautiful women sometimes eat "a crazy salad with their meat." The Ballad of the Sad Café is about the "crazy salad" of every man: ugly and beautiful, heiress and outlaw, dwarf and amazon—they all choose love objects in ways that demonstrate that passion is the most permanent and amazing of all the human mysteries. In the McCullers world, the lover occupies the highest seat in the pantheon, for he has the restlessness and imagination to wish to break free from the constrictive prison of ego and connect with another person. His choices are often arbitrary and improbable, but once made he worships them with a constancy that can only inspire amazement. Everyone wants to be a lover because the lover is the archetypal creative spirit: dreamer, quester, romantic idealist. If love compels, it can also soften. When Macy is smitten with Amelia, he becomes improved in civility; and Amelia's passion for Lymon not only refines her temperament and reduces her lawsuits, but results in the establishment of the café. Product of her love, the café is the symbol of the ability of human affection to create intimacy and delight where only barrenness existed before. Yet, if love can sweeten and refine, it can also leave the lover defenseless. Having created the beloved in the image of his own desperate desire, the lover is open to rebuff and betrayal, for he tempts the one permanent quality of any beloved—his cruelty. InThe Ballad of the Sad Café the beloved is a static figure, chosen by someone else. Easily resentful of being considered a token, he is also quick to recognize the assailability of his admirer and the extent of his own manipulative powers.

In Mrs. McCullers' triangle, each character is revealed successively in the roles of lover and beloved. In his suit of Amelia, Macy is meek with longing and easily swayed by others: he saves his wages, abandons fornication, and goes regularly to church. But in response to Amelia's chilling rejection, he becomes more brutally antisocial than he had ever been before. On his return to town, cast as his wife's revenger and Lymon's beloved, he alternates between abusiveness and complete indifference, calling the sullen dwarf "Brokeback" at one moment and ignoring him the next. Like Macy, Lymon is also violently contradictory in both roles. Admired by Amelia, he gains forceful self-assurance, but also learns to exercise the hateful tyranny of a spoiled child. Finicky, boastful, self-absorbed, he becomes wildly obsessive in his demands for personal gratification. Yet when he falls for Macy, his reversal is perhaps even more disagreeable. Obsessed now by his desire to attract Macy's attention, he flaps his ears and mopes about pathetically like a small dog sick for love.

The most memorable metamorphosis, however, is experienced by Amelia. Chosen by Macy at nineteen, she spits in contempt and strikes out fiercely at every opportunity. Hardhearted, peremptory, and self-sufficient, she does not let her rage affect her capacity to turn a deal in her own favor, and she quickly strips her husband of everything he owns. At thirty, however, when she chooses Lymon, a remarkable change occurs. The rudest misanthrope in town turns genial, even cheerful, moving easily among people, sharing her liquor, forgetting to bolt the door at night. Instead of overalls and swampboots, she occasionally dons a soft red dress, and as she rubs Lymon twice a day with pot liquor to give him strength, her hatred of physicality relaxes. Suddenly nostalgic about the past, she turns candid about the present, confiding in the dwarf about trade secrets and the size of her bank account. As lover for the first time in her life, Amelia takes emotional risks by putting herself in a position of extreme vulnerability. Staring at Lymon, her face wears the fascinating expression of "pain, perplexity, and uncertain joy"—the lonesome look of the lover. When she learns that Macy may return, she—in her pride—miscalculates Lymon's fickleness and her own power over his life; and after his affection is alienated, she becomes frightfully distracted, pursuing those contradictory courses that lead to her downfall.

Because she has the capacity to change and the energy to pursue her awakened desire for companionship, Amelia turns from a harridan evoking awe to a woman worthy of compassion. By learning to love she has become more human—more tender, gracious, amiable, perceptive; but also more obviously exposed to the inevitable stings of loneliness, betrayal, and suffering. As healer, hostess, and lover, she is—despite her rudeness and suspicion—a force for good in the community, and the destruction of her dream is a cause for genuine mourning. The Ballad of the Sad Café is an elegy for Amelia Evans, and it has all the brooding eloquence and eccentricity to stand as a fitting tribute to that very peculiar lady.

Although The Ballad of the Sad Café is by far the best of Mrs. McCullers' excursions into the grotesque, it is not without reminders of the penumbral insistence that marks her worst work. Too much is occasionally made of dark nights of the soul and of things going on there that only God can understand. Because the things that go on in The Member of the Wedding are available to everyone and are recorded with vivacity by an artist who understands them, it is the best of all her books.

Dawson F. Gaillard (essay date 1972)

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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 first paragraph of Carson McCullers'The Ballad of the Sad Café, a flat, inflectionless voice, adjusted to the dreariness it describes as we go on a walking tour with the speaker to the center of town. There, we find an old house leaning dangerously near collapse. The voice changes. No longer flat and inflectionless, it describes a face which looks down on the town, a face "sexless and white" like those "terrible dim faces known in dreams." And then the voice is flat again as it recalls the present dreariness of the August afternoon when, having nothing to do after work, "you might as well walk down to the Forks Falls Road and listen to the chain gang."

The voice continues. It tells us of a time when things were not always dreary, a time when "this very town" had a café, "unlike any other place for many miles around." The reader-listener is now captured, not by a glittering eye, but by the warm presence of the narrator, reliving his memory, telling us what we want to know: why has the town changed? The ballad has begun.

In The Classic Line [1966], Albert Cook says, "Like epic, the ballad refers to the communal life amid which it is originally performed. Like epic, it characteristically tells a story, of the human spirit persisting through and beyond mortality. . . ." That the narrator of McCullers' Ballad is a member of the community where changes for the worse have occurred is central to the power of the novel. To these changes (the sadness of the "Sad Café") the narrator responds with a spirit that persists "through and beyond mortality." The spirit is contained in his telling, a telling characterized by wisdom and reflections that give to the ballad a sense of timelessness, moving the story out of history (the record of irreversible events) into tradition, or myth.

That the narrator is a member of the town and, therefore, a part of its history is suggested, as I have already implied, in the beginning paragraphs of the story. Also his descriptions suggest a sense of place, which results from having lived in that place for a long while. First, the similes he chooses have their source in the rural community. Cousin Lymon's hands are compared to "dirty sparrow claws"; his fluttering eyelids look like "pale, trapped moths"; two old people resemble "two little walking peanuts"; Miss Amelia's voice is "soft, and sad as the wheezy whine of the church pump-organ." Secondly, his description of the landscape reveals a response and knowledge of detail that come from personal experience:

The sky was the color of a blue swamp iris, the moon clear and bright. The crops that spring promised well and in the past weeks the mill had run a night shift. Down by the creek the square brick factory was yellow with light, and there was the faint, steady hum of the looms. It was such a night when it is good to hear from faraway, across the dark fields, the slow song of a Negro on his way to make love. Or when it is pleasant to sit quietly and pick a guitar, or simply to rest alone and think of nothing at all.

That he may very well have been on the spot where the history of the sad café occurred as surely as were Merlie Ryan, Horace Wells, and Rosser Cline causes the reader to regard the narrator as convincing. However, says Wayne Booth [in The Rhetoric of Fiction, 1961],

No narrator or central intelligence or observer is simply convincing: he is convincingly decent or mean, brilliant or stupid, informed, ignorant, or muddled. Since there are few such qualities that even the most tolerant of us can observe in full neutrality, we usually find our emotional and intellectual reactions to him as a character affecting our reactions to the events he relates.

McCullers' speaker is neither neutral nor ignorant. He takes sides. He treats with respect the rituals of the people in his area. For example, recalling the verbal battle between Marvin Macy and Miss Amelia, the narrator accepts as fitting Marvin Macy's means of winning:

"Bust a gut!" she would repeat, in a shout.

But always Marvin Macy had the answer ready for her. He would . . . reply with slow, sure insolence.

"Everything you holler at me bounces back on yourself. Yah! Yah!"

Miss Amelia would have to stand there helpless, as no one has ever invented a way out of this trap. She could not shout out abuse that would bounce back on herself. He had the best of her. . . .

The narrator's wisdom is evident in the homey reflections regarding what has occurred in the town. He is particularly perceptive in his observations of the secrets of the human heart and common experiences of man. Characteristically, the speaker uses the pronoun "you" as if he is assured that he speaks to a sympathetic audience from a reservoir of common experience: "Once you have lived with another, it is a great torture to have to live alone. The silence of a firelit room when suddenly the clock stops ticking, the nervous shadows in an empty house it is better to take in your mortal enemy than face the terror of living alone." He knows what brings despair to the human heart:

Life could become one long dim scramble just to get the things needed to keep alive. And the confusing point is this: All useful things have a price, and are bought only with money, as that is the way the world is run. You know without having to reason about it the price of a bale of cotton, or a quart of molasses. But no value has been put on human life; it is given to us free and taken without being paid for. What is it worth? If you look around, at times the value may seem to be little or nothing at all. Often after you have sweated and tried and things are not better for you, there comes a feeling deep down in the soul that you are not worth much.

The narrator's seriousness, empathy, and sympathy for man's soul-pains and his assurance that he speaks from common experience bring to the telling the presence of a human being trying to make sense of the events he recalls. Because of this presence, the reader cannot, I feel, distance himself from the emotional impact of the action. Such is the magic of the oral quality in literature.

What the speaker relates is the story of a town, which found one period of time when "the deep bitter knowing that you are not worth much in this world could be laid low," the golden age of Miss Amelia's café. The reflections of the narrator give to that café a special quality: it is an archetypal place of renewal in his mind.

He perceives what its value was to the townspeople, whose lives before the café had been devoted to work and an awareness of damnation only: "They met to work in the mill. Or on Sunday there would be an all-day camp meeting—and though that is a pleasure, the intention of the whole affair is to sharpen your view of Hell and put into you a keen fear of the Lord Almighty." The people were without those activities that could relieve the dull sameness of their lives, a sameness manifest in their collective life style: "Each of them worked in the mill, and lived with others in a two- or three-room house for which the rent was ten dollars or twelve dollars a month."

The café changed these dull lives. It became a sanctuary from dullness and, particularly, from the "deep, bitter knowing" by providing the townspeople with "a certain pride that had not hitherto been known in these parts." For Cousin Lymon, who "had a deep fear of death," the café was a refuge of light and activity. For Miss Amelia, it was the outward creation to share that which cannot, ultimately, be shared—"a whole new inward world," a world of strangeness in which a lover must suffer alone, for

love is a joint experience between two persons—but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. . . . 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. And somehow every lover knows this. 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.

It is the outward model which is in danger. It is subject to time.

As the narrator says, "Now time must pass." The recognition of necessity is present in the narrator's word choice, "must." With time's passing comes inevitable change.

The change began with the return of Marvin Macy, whom earlier the narrator has asked us to remember, "as he is to act a terrible part in the story which is yet to come." When Miss Amelia heard that he was out of prison, "she shivered although the night was warm." The narrator's flair for dramatic detail prepares the listener for a conflict which has hints of unpleasant results. In causing these results, Miss Amelia's beloved played a central role. When Cousin Lymon and Marvin Macy first confronted each other, it was with "a peculiar stare . . . like the look of two criminals who recognize each other." About this first evening of Marvin Macy's return, the narrator recalls other details, seemingly from having been an eyewitness: "It had grown late. The red winter sun was setting, and to the west the sky was deep gold and crimson. Ragged chimney swifts flew to their nests; lamps were lighted. Now and then there was the smell of smoke, and the warm rich odor of the barbecue slowly cooking in the pit behind the cafe." The tension of the scene is recreated by the narrator's focus on the vivid sensory impressions which contrast with the silence of the crowd that gathered slowly in Miss Amelia's backyard with heavy hearts. "Not a living soul in all the town was glad to see him [Marvin Macy]."

He is the evil principle, which myth and folk tales include. He is Frankenstein's monster and Milton's Satan, but given a rural identity by the vernacular of a back-country narrator. Alienated, his heart twisted into a curious shape, shrunk as "hard and pitted as the seed of a peach," Marvin Macy wanted, like the monster of Frankenstein, to express his rage. And Miss Amelia was his target. Like Frankenstein's monster, he took the beloved of that person who denied him a companion. Like Milton's Satan, he destroyed the pleasant existence of others. The center of the universe, the café, "the warm center point of the town," was destroyed by the battle between Marvin Macy and Miss Amelia.

Their battle occurred during a winter people still remember, says the narrator, a winter when "[a] great thing happened. People woke up on the second of January and found the whole world about them altogether changed. Little ignorant children looked out of the windows, and they were so puzzled that they began to cry." The phenomenon was snow. To the people in this section of the country it was as if the apocalyptic signs had begun.

The reactions to the phenomenon were varied. The narrator, as is characteristic of him, recalls sensory impressions—"soft colors of blue and silver" in the snow, the "gentle shining gray" of the sky, and "the dreamy quietness of falling snow—when had the town been so silent?" Miss Amelia closed her shutters; Marvin Macy sneered at the timid; Reverend Willin tried to use the phenomenon in his sermon, and a "few weak characters, of course, were demoralized and got drunk." The sign of change had forecast truly, for after the snowfall, Marvin Macy "crowded into Miss Amelia's home." The narrator's reflection about man's terror of living alone, a reflection I have already mentioned, makes sense of such an unbelievable event.

And after the snow melted another sign of coming change appeared: Miss Amelia's punching bag. The narrator recalls the day of the fight, which "took place on Ground Hog Day," a day of "neutral temperature" that year. He says, "A hawk with a bloody breast flew over the town and circled twice around the property of Miss Amelia." The signs were in keeping with the tension of the atmosphere, tension created by an awareness that something of major significance was to be decided that day.

As the daylight became twilight people gathered for the fight. And serving as an eyewitness, the narrator mentions the three boys from Society City who usually appeared at gatherings of violence or emotional fervor: they "wore yellow rayon shirts and caps put on backwards—they were as much alike as triplets, and could always be seen at cock fights and camp meetings."

At the stroke of seven (the apocalyptic number of Revelation), Miss Amelia and Marvin Macy appeared. The narrator describes how Miss Amelia looked—"she had an iron strength band around her right wrist"—and how the fight progressed "in this wild violent way with no sign of weakening on either side." The impression he creates is that this was a fight between two Titans. During such a fight, says the narrator, "it is worth-while to turn from the confusion of the fight itself and observe the spectators," which is what he did. He recalls, for example, that Merlie Ryan swallowed a fly before he realized it. Such details, in addition to relieving the tenseness with recollections of humor, keep the reader simultaneously on the spot of the specific back-country event and in the perspective of mythology with its recurring patterns and archetypal figures. We witness the metamorphosis of time into timelessness taking place in the mind of the narrator, a happening which dramatizes man's way of dealing with time and change.

With the overthrow of Miss Amelia, the world she had created was at an end. The narrator's reflection indicates the seriousness with which the people responded to the outcome of the battle, as if they were aware of the future to come: "This was not a fight to hash over and talk about afterward; people went home and pulled the covers up over their heads."

The story of the café is a story of irreversible changes, which result in the loss of more than goods or a physical gathering place. The changes in the story lead to a loss the soul must bear—Miss Amelia's, the townspeople's, the narrator's, whose "soul rots with boredom." With the loss of the café, the narrator almost instinctively seeks to fill the dark void of his soul by listening to the singing of the twelve mortal men of the chain gang. Their music is the music of life itself, being "both somber and joyful." This moment cannot last, but like the café, it can provide, for a short time, a sanctuary from total darkness of the soul. And like the music of the twelve mortal men, the balladeer's tale can cause the heart of the reader-listener "to broaden and the listener to grow cold with ecstasy and fright."

The narrator's presence, his telling, lifts the story beyond the commonplace facts, beyond the immediate, and beyond history. He recreates in his own image the events which caused a sad change in his world by responding to those events with sympathy and thoughtful reflections. He finds serious significance in the events, now that he has his present perspective; the significance makes the events larger than history. His vision is like that of his fellow townspeople, who see in "a quick skipping little Jew who cried if you called him Christ-killer, and ate light bread and canned salmon every day" a representative type of man: "if a man were prissy in any way, or if a man ever wept, he was known as a Morris Finestein." Morris Finestein, the factual, historical person, has become less important than his essential qualities; we see the mythmaking imagination at work.

Similarly, the café, because of the narrator's response to it, takes on mythic proportions. It is placed in the perspective of the ideal when the narrator calls it a "proper café" and then describes such a café: "[T]he atmosphere of a proper café implies these qualities: fellowship, the satisfactions of the belly, and a certain gaiety and grace of behavior." His perspective transforms the café from a physical place into a state of mind. Thus, the demise of the café results in the loss of what it signified, not just the physical place alone. The pattern of gain and loss goes beyond the specific irreversible history of Miss Amelia's café. It is a pattern of loss which man has experienced throughout time; and the repetition of the pattern makes it not easier to bear, but harder because it must be accepted as a condition of life.

The presence of the narrator dramatizes for us the human spirit in action, bearing the burden it must because of time and mortality. Just as Miss Amelia, without exactly knowing why, picked up an acorn the day her father died, the narrator listens to the music of the chain gang. He also tells his story, as a balladeer sings his song, and in these actions of vocalizing the spirit of man, the speaker or singer dramatizes one moment of victory over time and mortality, one period of time when "the deep bitter knowing that you are not worth much in this world could be laid low." It is the sound of the human voice, the action of a human mind coming to grips with what has occurred in time that provide the power of The Ballad of the Sad Café.

Joseph R. Millichap (essay date 1973)

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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 her work, often misunderstand Ballad by insisting on the universality of elements which are obviously peculiar to the point of aberration. The use of the bizarre theory of love offered by the narrator of Ballad as a formula for interpreting all of McCullers' fiction has hampered analysis not only of the novella itself but of her other works as well. The description of her narrative as a ballad, so obviously presented in the title, provides a key to understanding which unlocks the novella's difficulties of literary mode, point-of-view, characterization, and plot structure.

The literary ballad evolved from the ballad of tradition, which in turn is rooted in folklore, because the literary artist wished to exploit the archetypal energy of the ballad world and the formal simplicity of the ballad structure. Professor Gerould, the best known authority on the ballad, has provided in The Ballad of Tradition a succinct definition based on a wide knowledge of the genre. "The ballad is a folk song that tells a story with stress on the crucial situation, tells it by letting the action unfold itself in event and speech, and tells it objectively with little comment or intrusion of personal bias." Though McCullers' ballad is neither song nor folk art, and though its narrator certainly intrudes a great deal of personal opinion, the narrative also presents many of the characteristics Professor Gerould mentions in his definition and develops in his elaboration of it. McCullers' ballad concentrates on the strange love triangle formed by a manly giantess, a selfish dwarf, and a demonic bandit. The action unfolds in a few weird events which culminate in an epic battle waged purposely on Groundhog Day to decide the death or rebirth of love. The setting is a romantic wasteland where piney woods and swamps counterpoint the stunning heat of August afternoons. The concrete symbols of the ballad world both explain and motivate the action; buildings lean in precarious decay; trees twist grotesquely in the moonlight; birds and animals provide mysterious analogues to human action.

Clearly this is the traditional world of the ballad, a world of passion and violence, of omens and portents, of the full wild impulsiveness of archetypal human behavior. The particular world of this ballad is a Georgia mill village, a place like all the Southern back country, "a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world." The Southern hinterlands preserved the folk qualities as well as the folk songs of the Scotch border country. Therefore, the line between the real world and the ballad world is often indistinct in the American South and in McCullers' fictions which are set there. Unlike the larger mill city which serves as the setting of most of her fiction, the mill village is not used to probe economic conditions or regional problems in a realistic manner. Even the chronological setting is unimportant; it might be 1920 or 1940; for the village in Ballad exists in the temporally imprecise world of human passion.

Of course, McCullers' ballad is a literary one, wrought by a modern, conscious artistry not by the folk mind or by an artless imagination. The literary ballad has always been a difficult form; it can be hauntingly effective, as in Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," resoundingly dull, as with many of Scott's attempts, or unintentionally humorous, as Longfellow's "The Wreck of the Hesperus." The structural and stylistic integrity of the story, especially of narrative voice marks her literary ballad as an unqualified success. McCullers presents a narrator who can spin the fine fabric of romantic fiction from the raw materials of mill-village life without violating either realm. In Ballad a ballad-maker evokes from the world of the Georgia back-country a timeless, compelling story of human passion. His voice fixes the style of the novel—a perfect blend of the literate and colloquial, the objective and personal, talky observation. The existence of this filtering personality assures the novella's achievement.

Neither McCullers nor the typical third person omniscient voice, narrates; the ballad-maker tells the tale. A part of the town himself, he knows people, places, and history, often commenting like a chorus of spectators from the village (the refrain of the ballad sometimes has this same function). At the same time he is possessed of knowledge that only an omniscient author could have. Therefore, he must be creating the narrative from the history of this particular mill-village and demonstrating the operations of human passion to his listeners.

This device also releases McCullers from responsibility for the universalization of the fantastic observations on the mutual exclusiveness of love so often ascribed to her by earlier critics (such as Oliver Evans, Ihab Hassan, and Klaus Lubbers). The narrator defines love as "joint experience between two persons," the lover and the beloved. The experience between them is not necessarily the same for each party, for the lover and the beloved "come from two different countries." The lover attaches his love to some person, often without rational purpose. He creates an imaginary world surrounding the beloved and then releases his stored creative energies on this dream vision. "Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself." The narrator continues: "It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain."

The ballad-maker's theory of love is substantiated by the character relationships in the novella, but the limited number of cases prevents immediate acceptance of it as a universal law of human nature; it clearly remains the narrator's hypothesis, not McCullers'. The theory depicts one facet of the love's dynamics, but other loves have other patterns. In her later novels and stories love does live for a few people, at least for a time. Yet the earlier novels have partially demonstrated this pattern. In Heart, Singer often lashes out against the lonely hearts, who have forced themselves on him as lovers, though he is most often simply puzzled by their behavior. The tangled relationships of Reflections are sometimes marked by hate, for example, Leonora's hatred of Capt. Penderton, but most often by indifference. In the limited context of this novella, the ballad world, this one tragic aspect of love is exaggerated to the point where it looms as its totality. The ballad creates a picture without delicate shading; therefore, the projection of one tragic aspect of love can be accepted romantically as the whole definition of this complex human phenomena. The same fascinating effect exists in many of the traditional ballads, in "Barbara Allen" for instance, where an analogous love-hate relationship exists between the courtly lover and the disdainful beloved.

The narrator's theory of love arises out of the weird triangle that forms the structural center of this novella. There are three characters of importance: Miss Amelia Evans, Cousin Lymon, and Marvin Macy. Miss Amelia is loved by Marvin Macy whom she rejects; she loves Cousin Lymon; he turns from her to an idolatrous love for Marvin Macy, who despi-ses the dwarf. A neat triangular diagram is formed.. .. The ballad relates the story of this diagram, and the story aptly illustrates the ballad-maker's generalizations about love. As in both Heart and Reflections a geometrically patterned rela-tionship of characters is the basis of symbolism and structure.

After the description of the town, which opens the tale, the narrator introduces Miss Amelia. On the hot, empty afternoons of August, the season when the town seems most desolate and isolated, her strange face peers down crazily from an upper window of the town's largest structure which is now boarded up and fast decaying. The building has "a curious, cracked look that is very puzzling," and Miss Amelia's haunted face with her severely crossed eyes provides the human analogue of the structure. The ballad-maker is also the Southern storyteller, the courthouse or country store loafer who will pass this dull August day retelling the story of the building and its strange inmate. The third paragraph introduces the history of the café, and of Miss Amelia, Cousin Lymon, and Marvin Macy. The narrator wanders back to the misty times before the café even existed; the ballad is being spun.

Earlier the café had been a store which Miss Amelia had inherited from her widowed father; "Big Papa" had raised the motherless girl almost like a son. The big-muscled Amazon easily assumed her masculine role and even surpassed her daddy in becoming the leading entrepreneur of the region. She supplies the mill workers and the surrounding farmers with groceries, hardware, and sundries. She also produces for sale her own chitterlings, sausage, sorghum, and whiskey. The quality of her versions of these Southern staples, especially her whiskey, is superior to any others; in fact the liquor becomes almost a magic potion which creates joy and insight. "For the liquor of Miss Amelia has a special quality of its own. It is clean and sharp on the tongue, but once down a man it glows inside him for a long time afterward. And that is not all. It is known that if a message is written with lemon juice on a clean sheet of paper there will be no sign of it. But if the paper is held for a moment to the fire then the letters turn brown and the meaning becomes clear. Imagine that the whiskey is the fire and the message is that which is known only in the soul of a man—then the worth of Miss Amelia's liquor can be understood." Miss Amelia is also the doctor, sawmill operator, and major property owner of the mill-village. Supernatural elements are present in her doctoring, as Miss Amelia's cures are drawn from the folk medicine of the region and her own mysterious researches into the properties of roots and herbs. Her benevolent or white witchcraft adds to the magical atmosphere of the tale. (An example is her use of "pot liquor," the juices left in the pot after cooking vegetables, as a rub for Lymon's frail body; Southern folk superstition still attaches magical healing powers to this brew.) Her whiskey and her medicine are also representative of a basically human, creative nature. Yet there is another side of her always competing with these generous instincts. She is acquisitive and avaricious in all her business dealings, quick to "go to law" or to use her big fists to defend her property rights. The store stands as her citadel; its transition into a café is essentially the story of Miss Amelia's humanization through love.

She has an earlier chance for human contact in her marriage, but it proved a dismal failure. Marvin Macy, her husband, is another larger-than-life character, as legendary in the mill town and its environs as Miss Amelia. An unhappy childhood caused by irresponsible parents made him into a figure of evil. His corruption is belied by his physical appearance. "For Marvin Macy was the handsomest man in this region—being six feet one inch tall, hardmuscled, and with slow gray eyes and curly hair." Moreover he is materially successful with a good job as a loom-fixer at the mill. Yet beneath these bright surfaces some dark force implies him to acts of outrageous evil. He carries as a talisman the salted ear of a man he killed in a razor duel, while another pocket contains "marijuana weed." As the demon lover of the region, he has degraded the sweetest young virgins, performing these depredations as coolly as he cuts the tails off squirrels in the pine woods. Yet Miss Amelia, because she is essentially unfeminine, cannot be seduced; Marvin confuses her asexuality and father fixation with personal strength, and this mistake makes him love her. He imagines that her self-sufficient strength can turn him from his dissolute ways, make him a responsible person, and restore the happiness he lost in childhood. In fact, he is asking her to be a mother to him, to replace his own lost mother.

The incestuous undertones of his love are mirrored in Miss Amelia's acceptance of him; she simply wants someone to take Big Papa's place as a companion and business partner. Both Amelia and Marvin project their unconscious desires onto the other, and both will be mightily disappointed. Marvin's love for Amelia does have an immediately reformative effect, and, until she rejects him, he is serious and well-behaved. Miss Amelia, hating him for his love, despising her own feminine role, and always driving a hard bargain, never allows their marriage to be consummated, not even when Marvin wills her all his possessions, and after ten days she drives him off her property.

Cousin Lymon is the strangest member of this outlandish trio. His past is mysteriously clouded; there can be no proof of his own version of his history, and even the village loafers regard it suspiciously. He does not elaborate in any way on his first revelation. When asked where he has come from, he replies uncertainly, "I was traveling." Even his appearance conceals the past of this mysterious stranger.

His eyes were blue and steady as a child's but there were lavender crepy shadows beneath these blue eyes that hinted of age. It was impossible to guess his age by his hunched queer body. And even his teeth gave no clue—they were all still in his head (two were broken from cracking pecans), but he had stained them with so much sweet snuff that it was impossible to decide whether they were old teeth or young teeth. When questioned directly about his age the hunchback professed to know absolutely nothing—he had no idea how long he had been on the earth, whether for ten years or a hundred! So his age remained a puzzle.

The dwarf has much of the child about him. He possesses "... an instinct to establish immediate and vital contact between himself and all things in the world." His child's love of treats and spectacles movies, fairs, cock-fights, revivals—provides insight into his personality, as does his child's curiosity and quarrelsomeness. Thus in many ways Cousin Lymon seems akin to the fairy children of folk tale and ballad—pixies, elves, leprechauns.

Miss Amelia is attracted to him by these childish qualities. Among people she likes only "the nilly-willy and the very sick," those she can see as easily molded and changed by her strong hands. In a sense the sickly, childish dwarf appears pliable. His physical deformities are also part of his attraction for Amelia and the others; touching a hunch-back's hump is regarded as good luck in folk tradition. He becomes a strange combination of man, child, and pet that Amelia can love as she could not love her husband. He is a man loved without sex, a child acquired without pain, and a companion which her limited personality finds more acceptable than a husband or a child. Their relationship, like Amelia's marriage, is symbolically incestuous and immaturely formed.

The very nature of her attitude toward him ultimately causes his rejection of her for Marvin Macy. Some bond of natural kinship exists between the two adolescent men. When they first see each other they exchange a stare, ". . . like the look of two criminals who recognize each other." Cousin Lymon has a child's fascination with outlaws and an adolescent's admiration of the rebel and outcast. More importantly, the criminal is a father figure; Marvin Macy's tall, straight body and masculine swagger are qualities opposite to Lymon's, qualities which are not a part of the child's role he must play with Amelia. Therefore, he begins to reject Amelia, just as Marvin Macy hates him as representative of his failed marriage. A new dimension of hate is added to the love triangle [involving Amelia, Macy, and Lymon].

Plot is developed tightly and economically so as to dramatize the creation of these triangles and to emphasize the role of the balladeer-narrator. After beginning in the "present" with the description of the town, the narrator shifts back many years to the arrival of Cousin Lymon, the mysterious stranger who completes the triangle. The movement is natural; he switches to the beginning of the café in the relationship between Lymon and Amelia. This movement also initiates the temporal and seasonal motifs which form an important part of the novella's symbolism. Cousin Lymon arrives in April with the spring, symbolic of creation, youth, and love. When the villagers suspect that Amelia has murdered the tiny stranger the weather turns cold once again, but winter's gloom is dispelled by the warmth of the café when Lymon is discovered alive and well. Amelia's marriage took place in winter and the groundhog sees his shadow before the final battle, a portent of the triumph of hate over love and six more weeks of winter. The temporal shift at the opening is to the "once upon a time" past when things were happier, and the season is appropriate for Amelia's love creates the café and both flourish for the following six years.

The narrator quickly moves the story through these years of human growth for Miss Amelia, symbolized by the emergence of the café. Since the events of these years are ordinary and repetitive he merely summarizes them. The seasons pass in their regular order, and the passage of time is productive of joy and love. The store evolves into a real café with tables and chairs, decorations, and a mechanical piano. Like Biff Brannon's New York Café in Heart, Miss Amelia's place has a spiritual function as well as a material one. At the café there were at least a few hours when "the deep bitter knowing that you are not worth much in this world could be laid low." Miss Amelia even neglects to lock the door; clearly a change has taken place.

The years pass in this fruitful manner until Marvin Macy comes back to the village; bad luck follows him to his home town. Though it is autumn the weather turns hot again at his return, spoiling the barbecue and chitterlings just made. A whole family dies from eating spoiled pork. The natural rhythms of the seasons are broken for the first time in six years, when Marvin Macy arrives with the fall like some Hades of Dixie bringing death, desolation, and waste. As the fall turns to winter Marvin Macy's fearful reputation increases, and in direct proportion so does Cousin Lymon's adoration of him. On January 2 it snows, a strange occurrence in the mill-village, and Marvin Macy somehow assumes credit for this meteorological miracle. Miss Amelia in her agitation comes to hate Macy even more deeply than she has in the past. They often circle each other, fists clenched, in ritualistic fashion, and the community waits tensely for the conflict to explode. Miss Amelia's degeneration is symbolized by the poison she puts in Marvin's food; her witchcraft is now destructive, her magic black with hate. After the snow Cousin Lymon brings his beloved to stay in the rooms over the café; this final displacement of Amelia precipitates the total collapse on February 2, Groundhog Day. The date proves significant because Cousin Lymon sees the groundhog observe his shadow, an indication of six more weeks of winter ahead and prefigurement of Marvin Macy's destructive triumph. Other portents are observed on this ominous day: "A hawk with a bloody breast flew over the town and circled twice around the property of Miss Amelia."

The climactic battle begins at seven o'clock, as Miss Amelia sets great store by the mystical number seven. Significantly the fight takes place in the café; the center of companionship and symbol of love has become a place of hatred and combat. The two fighters are evenly matched, and they lunge at each other like wildcats. After a half hour of stunning punches and wild kicks, they become locked in a fearsome wrestling hold.

The ballad-maker points out that this is the style of fighting natural to country people and that the heroic struggle will be decided by this contest of raw strength and will power. After several agonizing moments Miss Amelia emerges as stronger; slowly, she bends her opponent to the floor and gets a strangle hold on him. She has won. But at this instant of victory Cousin Lymon springs onto her back, flying across the room like "a hawk," and turns the advantage to his beloved Marvin. Before the crowd can react Miss Amelia is severely beaten, and left in disgrace. She drags herself into the office, and the crowd disperses. Cousin Lymon and Marvin Macy leave that night, but, before they go, they completely wreck the café: food, whiskey, decorations, the mechanical piano. The café ends as Miss Amelia's love ends. Slowly she shrivels into an old maid; her muscles shrink and her eyes cross to look inward. After three years of lonesome waiting for Cousin Lymon to return, she has the store-café boarded up. Retreating into the upstairs rooms, she remains there alone and isolated. The town takes on a new loneliness also; a perpetual August drought envelops it in a claustrophobic malaise. Time hangs heavy and dull.

Yes, the town is dreary. On August afternoons the road is empty, white with dust, and the sky above is bright as glass. Nothing moves—there are no children's voices, only the hum of the mill. The peach trees seem to grow more crooked every summer, and the leaves are dull gray and of a sickly delicacy. The house of Miss Amelia leans so much to the right that it is now only a question of time when it will collapse completely and people are careful not to walk around the yard. There is no good liquor to be bought in the town; the nearest still is eight miles away, and the liquor is such that those who drink it grow warts on their livers the size of goobers, and dream themselves into a dangerous inward world. There is absolutely nothing to do in the town. Walk around the millpond, stand kicking at a rotten stump, figure out what you can do with the old wagon wheely by the side of the road near the church. The soul rots with boredom. You might as well go down to the Forks Falls highway and listen to the chain gang.

The chain gang illustrates the prison house aspect of the human condition. The coda, entitled "Twelve Mortal Men," emphasizes how man can achieve creativity, in this case the beautiful work songs and ballads of the gang, even in the most difficult situations if there is harmony and cooperation. The last sentence of the novella points out that they are only "... twelve mortal men who are together." The picture of the chain gang contrasts with the reader's final vision of Miss Amelia. She could release her creative efforts when she was "together" with Cousin Lymon; alone she can accomplish nothing. Where love and harmony exist much can be created; sadly enough, they exist in few places and for short times—human failings quickly frustrate them, and they are often replaced by hate and isolation. McCullers' other novels demonstrate this condition in the modern social world; the strange ballad of the café that becomes sad traces the roots of these difficulties in the timeless province of the lonely human heart.

John McNally (essay date 1973)

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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 course, there is the enigmatic epilogue, "The Twelve Mortal Men," which seems at first glance to have been an after-thought of the author. And there is the disturbing plot with its love triangle so reminiscent of Sartre's curious ménage à trois in No Exit. But perhaps the most disturbing feature of the whole novella is the point of view which informs the piece.

On the surface of it, the narration ofThe Ballad of the Sad Café is third-person omniscient with an occasional authorial intrusion. The narration employs the present tense for three introductory paragraphs, shifts to the past tense for the whole flashback section—virtually the whole story unfolds in this section and returns to the present tense for the final three paragraphs, two of which comprise the chain-gang epilogue. Simple? Yes. And no.

Yes, the point of view is simple at first glance; however, a careful examination of the tense-shifts, the so-called intrusions and digressions, and the appended "Twelve Mortal Men" shows that McCullers has fashioned a very complicated fictive narrator from whom the reader receives the details of the story and about whom he is left to speculate. When one reads the novella in the understanding that the narrator is a character in the story, he notices a subtle but significant shift in the story's form and subsequent themes. Such a reader finds himself absorbed not so much with the bizarre goings-on in the old café as with the changing perceptions of a person in the process of intense introspection—a process he shares with his listener-reader.

The first clue to the actual point of view is the fact that the story begins and ends in the present tense. In itself, the present tense does not a fictive narrator make. Considered in the context of the references to "here" and "now," though, the use of the present suggests a person who is describing the café "on the spot." For example, in the first paragraph the narrator says "the winters here are short and raw," and "here in this very town there was once a café," suggesting his presence on the scene he is describing (italics mine throughout). Then, speaking of the café which "has long since been closed," he says that "it is still remembered." In not pointing out who specifically in the town remembers the café, he suggests that it is he, the narrator, who remembers it as he sits there looking at its boarded up remains. A further suggestion of the narrator's actual physical presence comes from the comment that on "These August afternoons—. . . there is absolutely nothing to do; you might as well walk down to the Fork Falls Road and listen to the chain-gang." In referring to "these August afternoons" the narrator places himself in a more or less specific time; in suggesting that you "walk down to the Fork Falls Road and listen," he fixes himself in space. He is in the town, most probably right in front of the café on an August afternoon which is "white with glare and humming hot."

To perceive the narrator as an actual person who is in the little town on a hot August afternoon is not merely to observe one of the story's nicer nuances. To read the story in the light of this perception is to read a very different story indeed—it is to read a story in which, for one thing, the apparent authorial intrusions and digressions are no longer flaws in the narrative but actually key passages in the story's curious network of meanings.

When the narrator "digresses" to explain the significance of the whisky, for example, he now takes on the credibility of one who has actually tasted of it and felt its effects. Now he is one who knows from experience that the whisky is "clean and sharp on the tongue" and that "once down a man it glows inside him for a long time afterward." He is one who knows that the experience of drinking Miss Amelia's liquor is one in which a person is "shown the truth;" he, himself, is a person who has "warmed his soul and seen the message hidden there." As an actual character, then, the narrator is less to be faulted for digressing than would a simple omniscient narrator—for real people do digress when they tell stories.

But there is more to this than mere verisimilitude. As the concern of a character-narrator, the "digression" is more clearly related to the later section in the story in which the narrator describes the effects of the music of the chain gang. For, just as Miss Amelia's liquor had once "warmed his soul," "shown the truth" and the "message hidden there," so now the music causes his "heart to broaden," his soul to "grow cold with ecstasy and fright." The café he had once visited gone, the narrator seeks truth in the music of "the earth itself," of the "twelve mortal men who are together."

Besides the liquor "digression" and the enigmatic chain-gang passage, there are other frequent points in the narrative at which the narrator asserts his personality—points at which he speaks directly to the reader (or, perhaps, a fictive listener) to tell him, in effect, to pay attention, to remember this detail or that, to see things this way or that. Fairly early in the flashback section of the story, the narrator says "Now this was the beginning of the café. .. . It was as simple as that. Recall that the night was gloomy as in wintertime." Somewhat later he says, "for the moment regard these years from random and disjointed views. See the hunchback marching in Miss Amelia's footsteps. . . . See them working on her properties. .. . So compose from such flashes an image of these years as a whole and for a moment let it rest." Still later, the narrator says "So do not forget this Marvin Macy as he is to act a terrible part in the story which is yet to come." In each of these instances the tone is clearly conversational, the mild imperatives suggesting direct address. We may not see the narrator as a character at this point, but it is virtually impossible not to hear him as one.

If in these passages the narrator reveals something of himself, what is it? In other words, who is he? What does he mean?

It should be remembered that in the second paragraph of the story, the narrator suggests that "you might as well walk down to the Fork Falls Road and listen to the chain-gang." At this point the comment smacks of cynicism: given the choices of staying or leaving, one might as well leave, for, after all, there is nothing to do. But the narrator doesn't leave—not yet. Intrigued by the setting or, perhaps, merely discouraged by the August heat, he stays to reminisce (To himself? To a listener? Who can be sure?) about the café that once was. It is here that the verbs shift tense and the café and its people come back to life—but they are seen through the filter of the narrator's power of recollection. The whole story he remembers—digressions and all—has the effect of changing his perceptions of himself and his present predicament. He realizes, for example, that the characters he has recalled were incapable of sharing love, that each was the other's hell. He recalls a pageant of grotesquery and violence that eventually turns the nostalgia to bitterness and pain. More than anything else, though, he experiences the contrast between the proprietress in her prime and the bent, broken and inward-turned terrible face she now shows at the window.

The recollection done, he is a man who sees himself in the town in which he sits, who sees the town—like the remembered café—as a reflection of his own static image. It is here—after the flashback—that he repeats "Yes, the town is dreary. . . ." It is so dreary that "the soul rots with boredom." It is so dreary that he "might as well go down to the Fork Falls highway and listen to the chain-gang." This last paragraph suggests, then, that the narrator is a man who realizes he has refused to obey his impulse to move—to go listen to the chain-gang. It shows him to be a man who has wrestled with the past and who has used the past to reinterpret the present. It shows that he knows that when nothing moves—the spirit dies; "the soul rots with boredom."

The so-called epilogue, "The Twelve Mortal Men," seen in the context of the character-narrator's struggle becomes not a cryptic appendix to a gothic tale but, instead, the positive act of a man of changed perspective. In this section the narrator fulfills his own earlier inchoate suggestion to "go down to Fork Falls highway and listen to the chain-gang." This time, though, there is less of the cynicism which characterized the initial suggestion—for now to go to listen is to save one's soul from rotting. The whole section is seen in direct contrast to the flashback section of the story. Where in the café reminiscences the narrator found free people unwilling or incapable to share love with one another, in the epilogue he finds people in chains who share their suffering and who, in sharing, bring music from the earth and sky. Such music is what keeps the narrator's soul alive.

It has not been my purpose here to insist that the inside story—the flashback about the café that is still remembered—is of minor significance. On the contrary, that story is an intriguing one: it is a grotesque delineation of love's power to destroy. It has been my purpose, though, to show that its chief significance lies in what it reveals about the character who, in recalling it, gives it its shape and who, in reaction to it, finds new meaning in his own existence.

Let me call on the narrator in just two more instances to help make my position clear. At one point in the story, the narrator says something which could easily be taken as a key to this story's significance. "There are great changes," he says, "but these changes are brought about bit by bit, in single steps which in themselves do not appear to be important." Then, later, speaking of Marvin Macy, he provides what, I believe, is a clue to his own situation. "But though the outward facts of this love [read: story] are indeed sad and ridiculous, it must be remembered that the real story was that which took place in the soul of the lover [read: narrator] himself."

What we have in The Ballad of the Sad Café, then, is a beautifully sculptured piece of writing in which we overhear the internal monologue of a character whose haunting recollections enable him to overcome his own ennui and to resist the atrophying pressures of the familiar world; a character to whom, like Marlow in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the "meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine." The Ballad is a song of the human spirit.

Panthea Reid Broughton (essay date 1974)

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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 personal isolation. Tocqueville surmised that the inescapable isolation of the individual American was as much economic as political and that, though its causes might indeed be material, its ultimate significance was spiritual; for Tocqueville concluded that, as it throws a man "back forever upon himself alone, [democracy] threatens in the end to confine [that man] entirely within the solitude of his own heart" [Democracy in America, Vol. II, edited by Phillips Bradley, 1963].

The spiritual solitude Tocqueville sensed in the America of the 1830's has hardly lessened with the passage of years. Indeed, as our literature of alienation abundantly testifies, man's sense of isolation has been exacerbated in the intervening years. But the so-called literature of alienation frequently is so lacerated with hatred and self-pity that it fails to offer any really mature understanding of the phenomena of alienation. Not so with the fiction of Carson McCullers; for McCullers, who made personal alienation the explicit single concern of all her fiction, treats the solitude of the heart with both objectivity and compassion and, ultimately, with an understanding born of the blending of head and heart.

Mrs. McCullers once said of her work "my central theme is the theme of spiritual isolation. Certainly I have always felt alone" ["Preface," The Square Root of Wonderful, 1958]. In her The Ballad of the Sad Café, the setting itself serves as metaphor for such spiritual isolation. She begins this novella by establishing the dreariness, lonesomeness, and sadness of a setting which seems "estranged from all other places in the world." The largest building in the town, we are told, is old, boarded up, and leans far to one side. The house has "about it a curious, cracked look" which results, we discover, from its having once been haphazardly half-painted. The house is not, however, uninhabited. On hot afternoons a face may linger at the window for an hour or so before the shutters are closed once more: "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 each other one long and secret gaze of grief."

All of this sounds curiously gothic. We have the impression that the town itself is a grotesque, warped by its isolation, and that the building, with its cracked appearance, its dilapidated one-sided construction, and its boarded-up façade, might serve as symbol for whatever life remains in it and in the town. For life here is hopelessly inward, separated, and estranged. Selfhood means only confinement in the solitude of one's own heart.

With D. H. Lawrence, Carson McCullers believed that "we need one another" and that we attain our very individuality itself in living contact, the give-and-take of human relations. Lawrence felt that without such relationships, we are nonentities. In The Ballad McCullers presents us with an unnamed Southern town and with a woman, Miss Amelia Evans, who together almost manage to escape aloneness and nonentity. The effort, however, is as abortive as the abandoned paint job on the front porch of her house.

When the building Miss Amelia owns becomes a café rather than a dry goods store, Miss Amelia and the townspeople as well almost succeed in breaking out of their separateness. On the occasion when Miss Amelia first breaks her rule and allows liquor to be drunk on the premises, an atmosphere of "company and genial warmth" suddenly emerges. "For," McCullers writes, "the atmosphere of a proper café implies these qualities: fellowship, the satisfactions of the belly, and a certain gaiety and grace of behavior."

In other words, through the café people do manage to overcome their aloneness. They begin to share their liquor, and when the café closes, Miss Amelia for the first time forgets to bolt her door. Trust in one another, founded on a new sense of human dignity, pervades. The change may best be seen in Miss Amelia who, along with Cousin Lymon, becomes actually sociable and is "not so quick to cheat her fellow man and to exact cruel payments."

Most studies of The Ballad emphasize only McCullers' theme of spiritual alienation and irreparable loneliness; they seem to disregard the fact that aloneness was, for a time at least, actually overcome. But Carson McCullers is very explicit about the achievement of "an air of intimacy . . . and a vague festivity" in the café. Her theorizing about the café is crucial enough to deserve quoting at some length:

But it was not only the warmth, the decorations, and the brightness, that made the café what it was. There is a deeper reason why the café was so precious to this town. And this deeper reason has to do with a certain pride that had not hitherto been known in these parts. To understand this new pride the cheapness of human life must be kept in mind. There were always plenty of people clustered around a mill—but it was seldom that every family had enough meal, garments, and fat back to go the rounds. Life could become one long dim scramble just to get the things needed to keep alive. And the confusing point is this: All useful things have a price, and are bought only with money, as that is the way the world is run. You know without having to reason about it the price of a bale of cotton, or a quart of molasses. But no value has been put on human life; it is given to us free and taken without being paid for. What is its worth? If you look around, at times the value may seem to be a little or nothing at all. Often after you have sweated and tried and things are not better for you, there comes a feeling deep down in the soul that you are not worth much.

But the new pride that the café brought to this town had an effect on almost everyone, even the children. . . . Children love to sleep in houses other than their own, and to eat at a neighbor's table; on such occasions they behave themselves decently and are proud. The people in the town were likewise proud when sitting at the tables in the café. They washed before coming to Miss Amelia's, and scraped their feet very politely on the threshold as they entered the café. There, for a few hours at least, the deep bitter knowing that you are not worth much in this world could be laid low.

Although, then, the "people in this town were unused to gathering together for the sake of pleasure," they do manage for a time to do so and consequently to escape the humdrum everydayness of their lives and the sense of their own worthlessness. But the effort cannot be maintained; the café is closed and the people retreat once again into their own separateness and aloneness. The convivial nights in the café end ostensibly because Marvin Macy and Cousin Lymon have ransacked the place, carving obscene words on the tables and bringing shame and sadness to Miss Amelia. But I should like to suggest that the café's violent end was already inherent in the consciousness of Amelia and her patrons.

McCullers makes a comparison between useful commodities which have a clearly established value and human lives which do not. The comparison is seminal here because it is a lack of confidence in their own human worth which renders the townspeople incapable of sustaining the transcendent affirmation which was the café. For the dreary desperation of the town with its one-industry economy has conditioned the people to hoard themselves as well as their money. As Tocqueville long ago surmised, spiritual isolation is closely aligned with competitive capitalism. Here the normative pattern for dealing with the world and its people is the transaction. Now the transaction may be efficient, abstract, uninvolved, and profitable, but it is also dehumanized. In the business transaction people are used, not respected. Their worth is calculated in terms of dollars and cents. Of course, as McCullers writes, there is "no feeling of joy in the transaction," only the determination not to risk too much. And so, among a people "unused to gathering together for the sake of pleasure" the experience of joy cannot be sustained. To expend the soul in an open give-and-take relationship with another is too much of a risk; it seems safer, and more expedient, to approach another only to take rather than to risk being taken.

The three central characters exemplify this habit of defining human relationships pragmatically. Ravishing the young girls in the town, Marvin Macy has exploited human relationships to assert his will. Miss Amelia has exploited them to make a profit. (We learn that until the arrival of Cousin Lymon, she has never invited anyone to eat with her, "unless she were planning to trick them in some way, or make money out of them.") And even Cousin Lymon, who has "an instinct to establish immediate and vital contact between himself and all things in the world," exploits these contracts for excitement; for Lymon, who loves a spectacle, tries to create tension in the café by badgering and setting hostilities on edge. Furthermore, each of these characters, when he is the beloved, only exploits the other's affection. Amelia appraises Marvin's gifts and then shrewdly puts them up for sale; Lymon uses his sickliness, like his trick of wiggling his ears, whenever he wants "to get something special out of Miss Amelia." And Marvin, of course, uses Lymon's devotion to get his own back from Amelia.

Now, John B. Vickery may suggest that there is comedy in the characters' inability to synchronize their successive roles as lover and beloved ["Carson McCullers: A Map of Love," Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Wintes, 1960]; I would insist, on the other hand, that the situation is tragic. For these characters simply do not know how to love. As the lover, each is a slave; as the beloved, each is a tyrant. None can achieve a satisfactorily balanced human relationship. He cannot love without sacrificing his own individual integrity, nor can he be beloved without exerting his power and superiority. His problem directly results from the deeply ingrained assumption that one approaches a human relationship only to exploit, not to enjoy. These characters cannot overcome a value system in which it is better to subjugate than to share, better to use than to love. They live in the world that McCullers describes in her poem "Saraband:"

The world that jibs your tenderness
Jails your lusts.

[The Mortgaged Heart]

In this world, the virtues of openness, receptivity, tenderness, and compassion are held in such contempt that no one can comfortably express them.

In this town if a man shows his feelings he is labeled contemptuously a "Morris Finestein," Finestein, we are told, was a little Jew sensitive enough to cry whenever people called him a Christ-killer and foolish enough to live in this town (before, that is, an unnamed but easily imagined calamity overcame Finestein and he was compelled to move away to Society City). The reference to Finestein is important because it reveals the town's concept of sexual roles. McCullers writes "if a man were prissy in any way, or if a man ever wept, he was known as a Morris Finestein." In other words to be sensitive, to weep, is to be effeminate. The human virtues of tenderness and sensitivity are considered to be exclusively feminine and decidedly superfluous and downright contemptible by a pragmatic and rationalistic society. The human psyche has then been split, "cracked," if you will, into qualities which are feminine and contemptible on the one hand and masculine and admirable on the other.

Sexual characteristics, then, are so rigidly dichotomized that they cannot be held in balance. One is either servile and feminine, or, preferably, dominant and masculine. Ideally, as the psychoanalyst Karl Stern writes in his study entitled The Flight from Woman, "Man in his fullness is bisexual" or, as Carson McCullers herself puts it, "By nature all people are both sexes" ["The Heart is a Lonely Hunter": the Novels and Stories of Carson McCullers, 1951]. But here, in this novella, people cannot be both sexes at once. Marvin Macy, for instance, who is described as the "cause" of all the trouble, is ruthlessly masculine. With his razor and knife and the sharpened stick he uses to pick his teeth, he is viciously phallic. McCullers describes him as an "evil character" with a "secret meanness" about him. She explains:

For years, when he was a boy, he had carried about with him the dried and salted ear of a man he had killed in a razor fight. He had chopped off the tails of squirrels in the pinewoods just to please his fancy, and in his left hip pocket he carried forbidden marijuana weed to tempt those who were discouraged and drawn toward death. Yet in spite of his well-known reputation he was the beloved of many females in this region—and there were at the time several young girls who were clear-haired and soft-eyed, with tender sweet little buttocks and charming ways. These gentle young girls he degraded and shamed.

Macy, then, dominates and destroys others in order to enhance his own ego. To admit his need of another is equivalent, in this frame of mind, to abolishing his own ego. That is why Marvin Macy's attachment to Miss Amelia is such a pathetic thing. Her indifference only provokes further, more desperate, acts of self-abasement from him, but to no avail. Miss Amelia continues to ignore the man Macy and to turn his gifts to profit. It is only normative though, as McCullers remarks in one of her short stories, that "you hate people you have to need so badly." [In The Mortgaged Heart], Thus Macy cannot but resent Amelia, not only for spurning him, but for making him so despicably servile. And so Marvin Macy vows to get even, and he does.

Macy's behavior represents the extremes of sadism and masochism which Erich Fromm tells us are not emotionally dissimilar. And I should like further to suggest that his unhealthy behavior, whether aggressively masculine or servilely feminine, results from a social ethos which has destroyed a human sense of balance. Karl Stern describes this contemporary psychic phenomenon as a "Flight from Woman" and explains that, with modern men and women "The very possibility of being in the least dependent or protected, or even being loved, amounts to nothing less than a phantasy of mutilation or destruction."

Certainly, with Miss Amelia, the experience of having an operation for kidney stones was an experience of mutilation. She seems to have been unable to survive the experience of being totally helpless and dependent, unless she could justify it in pragmatic, business-like terms. Thus she kept the kidney stones and later has them set as ornaments in a watch chain for Cousin Lymon. McCullers writes, "It had been a terrible experience, from the first minute to the last, and all she had got out of it were those two little stones; she was bound to set great store by them, or else admit to a mighty sorry bargain." Miss Amelia, then, has real difficulty in justifying any experience unless, that is, she can extract from it something practical and tangible, preferably in the shape of a profit. And so that is why the café and love seem doomed from the start. The pattern of pragmatism is too deeply entrenched for these people to sustain, for long, the experience of delight for its own sake.

Here each person has such a deep-seated fear of tenderness that he cannot admit his need of another without selfeffacement, followed by hatred of the self and resentment of the needed one as well. Karl Stern describes this psychic phenomenon as "an undue emphasis on the technical and the rational, and a rejection of what for want of a better term we call 'feeling,' [which] go with a neurotic dread of receiving, a fear of tenderness and of protection, and are invariably associated with an original maternal conflict." Now both Marvin Macy and Amelia Evans, and apparently Lymon too, have been deprived of the security of motherly love, and each of them has a real dread of receiving and an inability to show tenderness or love except at the price of self-abandonment.

With her father, himself described as a "solitary man," Amelia may have been, despite her six-foot-two-inch stature, known as "Little" but with everyone else she is the big one, the dominant force. Amelia is "like a man," then, not because she wears overalls and swamp boots, nor because she is six feet two inches tall (though McCullers does remark that Amelia's height is indeed "not natural for a woman"), nor even because Amelia settles her disputes with men by a wrestling match; Amelia is "like a man," instead, simply because of her insatiable need to dominate. The assumption here is that it is masculine to dominate, to force one's shape upon matter, whereas it is feminine to be receptive and malleable. In these terms, Miss Amelia is as masculine as Marvin Macy; for we learn that "with all things which could be made by the hands, Miss Amelia prospered." But also, that "It was only with people that Miss Amelia was not at ease. People, unless they are willy-nilly or very sick, cannot be taken into the hands and changed overnight to something more worthwhile and profitable. So that the only use that Miss Amelia had for other people was to make money out of them. And in this she succeeded." Unless they are sick, she deals with people only to make a profit (until, that is, the café opens). And she deals with sick people because they are malleable. With them she can achieve a symbiotic union which confirms her sense of power even more than litigations and profit-making do. Thus this fiercely materialistic woman need charge no fees for doctoring, for power is its own reward. Miss Amelia, however, is incapable of dealing with female complaints. At the mention of a female problem she reacts "like a great, shamed, dumb-tongued child;" she is then, as much as the cruelly phallic Marvin Macy, in flight from the feminine.

With the coming of Lymon and the opening of the café, of course, Miss Amelia tries to change, to become female. She still wears overalls and swamp boots, but on Sundays she now wears a dress. She is "not so quick to cheat her fellow man." She becomes more sociable and even takes Lymon into her confidence about "the most delicate and vital matters." But these matters are mostly details about her property—where she keeps bankbook, keys, and whisky barrels. Certainly she never confides in Lymon about her ten-day marriage to Marvin Macy.

Miss Amelia tries very hard to be open and tender, for she does love Lymon, but she simply does not know how to show that love. She gives him presents when he is cross, and she spoils him as a foolish mother does a child, but she is unable to maintain a reciprocal relationship with him. Instead she smothers him in a symbiotic relationship which must itself be the cause of his deep fear of death, for, as McCullers explains, "the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved."

Miss Amelia is then no more capable of manifesting a healthy femininity than Marvin Macy is. She is alternately hard and soft, but cannot manage to balance the qualities or to be both at once. She is, as McCullers explains, "divided between two emotions." Thus when Marvin Macy returns, she puts aside her overalls and wears always the dark red dress as symbol of her accessibility. She tries giving Marvin free drinks and smiling at him in a "wild, crooked way." But she also sets a terrible trap for him and tries to poison him. And she is no more successful at destroying him than she is at attracting him. She remains then the figure in the boarded-up house, white and sexless, the eyes turning increasingly inward upon themselves.

Amelia is left in the prison of her aloneness because the stereotyped patterns by which she encountered others were exclusively those of dominance or subjugation. She has known no way to love without self-abasement. Nor has Marvin Macy. Nor has Cousin Lymon. And self-abasement can only result in resentment and eventual retaliation, so Marvin Macy has his turn taking from Amelia and then, with Lymon's help, destroys the café in order to get his own back from her.

All these relationships are organically incomplete because no one knows how to give without vitiating his own integrity and no one knows how to take without enhancing his sense of personal power. These characters need to dismiss the sexual stereotypes of extremity and to learn to be strong without cruelty, tender without servility. The problem, then, is to reclaim the virtues of tenderness and receptivity from their exclusive association with whatever is female and weak, and to reinstate them as virtues which are essential to all humanity; for, without accepting these virtues as a dignified aspect of mankind, the human community cannot survive.

In a recent article entitled, "The Hard and the Soft: The Force of Feminism in Modern Times," Theodore Roszak quotes from the Tao Te Ching:

What is hard and stiff
Belongs to death;
The soft and tender belong to life.

The soft and tender, therefore, may not be excluded or rejected from life. Roszak's thesis is that "Saving the compassionate virtues is not the peculiar duty of women. On the contrary; the sooner we have done with the treacherous nonsense of believing that the human personality must be forced into masculine and feminine molds, the better" [Roszak, "The Hard and the Soft," in Masculine/Feminine: Readings in Sexual Mythology and the Liberation of Women, edited by Betty Roszak and Theodore Roszak, 1969]. The feminine virtues must not be rejected; they must be reclaimed by all humankind.

Once toward the end of McCullers' story, Marvin Macy laughs at Miss Amelia and says, '"Everything you holler at me bounces back on yourself.'" His denunciation provides an apt image for the entire novella. For The Ballad of the Sad Café may be interpreted as a fable which shows us that rejecting those characteristics labeled as exclusively feminine bounces back on the rejector and renders men and women alike incapable of loving and thereby escaping the prisons of their own spiritual isolation.

Now, we may have learned from contemporary cinema that we have "a failure to communicate" and from the popular song that "what the world needs now is luv, luv, luv," but only modern fiction has, to date, been subtle and serious enough to bring us to some understanding of why we have a communication gap and of how love can bridge that gap. In this tradition, McCullers' Ballad is especially significant; for to read it is to experience the solitude of the heart and to understand how misconceptions of love only reinforce that solitude.

Richard M. Cook (essay date 1975)

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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 more than that. It is a celebration of the power of love itself and an elegy on its passing. It is, as the title indicates, a ballad, a short oral tale, transcribed into written prose, that in Frankie's words has a beginning and an end, a shape like a song—a song about love and its miraculous effect on a town and its inhabitants. Using such traditional ballad motifs as natural and supernatural signs, magic potions, and grotesque characters resembling birds and animals, McCullers tells the story of a strange and tragic love affair between a mannish giant of a woman, Miss Amelia Evans, and a hunchback dwarf, Cousin Lymon, that turns a small backwater town in Georgia into a stage of high, albeit bizarre, drama and romance. The extreme physical grotesquery of the story's characters, the remoteness of its setting—"the town .. . is like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world"—and the quaint, almost childish story-telling language of the narrator, combine to remove the events of the tale from the realm of most of McCullers's fiction, the South in the 1930s and 1940s, to a mythic, timeless realm of elemental passion and violence. Love in this archetypal, fairy-tale world is not merely a matter of a private susceptibility or idiosyncrasy; rather it is shown to be a "stored up," almost magical power within all human beings, which if triggered by the right circumstances—and it is impossible to say what those circumstances will be—will effect a complete transformation of the lover and make itself dramatically felt in the world at large.

The miraculous power of love in The Ballad of the Sad Café to change people and places is implicit in its nostalgic, flashback structure. The novel begins with a brief description of the town as it is now, a dreary desolate place, "a place where there is absolutely nothing to do," and moves quickly back into the history of Miss Amelia's past love affair with the hunchback, Cousin Lymon. This love affair, now long since over, lasted six years and created in the duration Miss Amelia's wonderful café, which turned the town into an exciting, lively place where people came from miles around on a Saturday night to talk and have a good time. The love affair and the café both came to a disastrous end, however, when Miss Amelia's former husband, "a terrible character," returned to the town, caused ruin and then went on his way again. The Ballad concludes where it began, back in the present, the love affair long passed, the café boarded up, and the town so wearisome and dull that "the soul rots with boredom." Like a gold-rush town out West, the town in The Ballad now sits in the hot sun, abandoned and falling to ruin. Yet the very extensiveness of its dilapidation and the occasional appearance of a "terrible dim" face in the upstairs window of the boarded-up café suggest a past in which something extraordinary once happened—in which love, not gold, brought an intense if temporary life.

Though Miss Amelia's love for Cousin Lymon is the energizing force in The Ballad of the Sad Café their strange affair is only part of the larger story of the café itself. The café is the true subject of The Ballad, for it is in the café's miraculous growth and sudden destruction that we see the dramatic changes brought about by love—changes in the personality of Miss Amelia and of the town. The café is the creation of love, a rare external blossoming of love's inwardness tying the happiness of the community to the fate of private desire. But the café is also a measure of love's fragility. Its appearance marks the narrow limits within which love is possible. Its fall evokes again that tragic sense of loss encountered in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

The birth of the café comes suddenly and unexpectedly—the result of a surprise of encounter at midnight. Standing on her front porch late one summer evening, Miss Amelia and a number of the local mill workers see a misshapen, solitary figure coming down the road into town. As it slowly approaches they realize that it is not a lost calf, as they had at first supposed, but a hunchbacked dwarf carrying a lopsided suitcase. The hunchback moves haltingly toward the company on the porch and then introduces himself as Lymon Willis, cousin to Miss Amelia Evans. Miss Amelia has never claimed kin to anyone. Thus when the hunchback produces a faded-out photograph of "two pale, withered-up children" to back his claim, he gets only empty stares from everyone present. Miss Amelia stares too. But when the hunchback suddenly begins to cry, she takes two great strides across the porch and "gingerly with one long brown forefinger . . . touched the hump on his back." She then does something that shocks everyone present. She offers the hunchback a drink of free liquor out of her hip flask and invites him in for a meal and a bed.

Miss Amelia has never been one to offer free food and lodging to anyone. Since her father died when she was nineteen, she has lived alone spurning all company. Except for a short, disastrous marriage soon after her father's death, she has especially avoided the company of men. A tall, dark masculine woman "with bones and muscles like a man," who wears swamp boots all day long, Miss Amelia through hard work and cutthroat business practices has become the richest person in town. She carpenters, runs a still in the swamp, and makes a handsome profit in her feed store. She is also a fine doctor, but if a woman comes to her with a "female complaint," she only rubs her swamp boots together in an embarrassed way and turns her away. Except for the doctoring, which she does free, Miss Amelia has nothing to do with people whom she cannot make a profit out of. Certainly she has never "invited anyone to eat with her unless she was planning to trick them in some way, or make money out of them." Taking in an itinerant hunchback thus makes no sense to the townspeople, who begin to think she plans to murder him for something he has in his suitcase. The real reason, as it soon becomes obvious, is more mysterious. She has fallen in love with him.

The café begins three days after Miss Amelia offers Cousin Lymon bed and board. That Saturday evening a selfappointed delegation visits Miss Amelia's store to find out what has happened to the hunchback. But instead of discovering a murder victim, they find Cousin Lymon alive and thriving and Miss Amelia strangely changed. The crowd of men are at first surprised, then fascinated—fascinated especially by Cousin Lymon, who, after looking at each of them carefully, struts over to a full sack of guano, sits down, and begins to talk. What he says is mostly nonsense: lies, bragging, and idle gossip, but there gradually comes over the gawking group as they stand awkwardly around an unusual feeling, like "an air of intimacy in the room and a vague festivity."

The hunchback is partly the cause of this feeling. He has what the narrator describes as "an instinct which is usually found only in small children, an instinct to establish immediate and vital contact between himself and all things in the world." He is "extremely sociable." But Miss Amelia also contributes to the odd sociable feeling in the air. She is behaving in an extraordinary fashion. Instead of staring at the company until they become uncomfortable and leave her premises, she seems to accept them. She even goes back into the kitchen and brings out glasses to serve liquor in the store. (Before she had only sold it secretly by the bottle in her dark backyard.) She then opens up two boxes of crackers "so that they were there hospitably on the counter and anyone who wished could take one free."

Such is the start of the café. For the next six years it grows steadily. Miss Amelia begins cooking catfish dinners for fifteen cents a plate. Cousin Lymon entertains. The café quickly becomes the "warm center point of the town," "the only place of pleasure for miles around."

The growth of the café is rapid and astonishing—the more astonishing in that it obviously reflects the profound changes that have occurred in Miss Amelia's personality. Miss Amelia has become sociable. She acts pleasantly to people, and occasionally she and Cousin Lymon go out on the weekends—to a funeral or a revival meeting.

She starts looking after her appearance, and, though she still wears overalls and swamp boots during the week, on Sundays she puts on a red dress. She even moderates her tough business practices and is "not so quick to cheat her fellow man." Above all she continues to idolize Cousin Lymon. Stingy and mean all her life, she can refuse him nothing. It is for him alone that she has turned her feed store into a café. The café is her most elaborate gesture of affection.

But the growth of the café also reflects a new feeling among the townspeople. A change of heart in a town's most powerful citizen has its inevitable effect on everybody else around. Everyone seems more sociable, and the café becomes the place for general gossip and excitement. Just as Miss Amelia finds in her love for Cousin Lymon an interest in life beyond making money, the people of the town find in the society of the café a "freedom and illicit gladness" that makes them forget their dull work in the factory and their grinding poverty. At the café the people enjoy themselves as social human beings. Instinctively they act with a "certain gaiety and grace of behavior," taking pride in the fellowship the café offers as well as in "the satisfactions of the belly."

The effect of Cousin Lymon's arrival in town is thus little short of miraculous. The hard-hearted Miss Amelia has fallen in love. A café has been started where there was once a feed store. An inert, boring town has been brought to life. Miss Amelia's feed store turned café symbolizes a profound shift in values that has occurred within the community. Following the example of the all-powerful Miss Amelia, the people have become less concerned with matters of economic and practical necessity and more concerned with matters of larger social interest. They have begun to talk to each other and to find each other interesting. More importantly, they have begun to take pride in the fact that there is more to their lives than mere survival. "It was not only the warmth, the decorations, and the brightness that made the café what it was. There is a deeper reason why the café was so precious to this town. And this deeper reason has to do with a certain pride that had not hitherto been known in these parts." That certain pride is the pride in knowing that as human beings they have a special value above and beyond what can be measured in financial terms. It is a pride that makes them act with dignity and finds expression in social ceremony:

The people in the town were . . . proud when sitting at the tables in the café. They washed before coming to Miss Amelia's and scraped their feet very politely on the threshold as they entered the café. There, for a few hours at least, the deep bitter knowing that you are not worth much in the world could be laid low.

Oliver Evans has described the townspeople in The Ballad of the Sad Café as "a symbol of suspicion" and "among the least sympathetic of Mrs. McCullers's characters" [The Ballad of Carson McCullers: A Biography, 1966]. They are, I think, more complicated than that. To be sure, many of them are gossips and heartily enjoy the spectacle of someone being done in "by some scandalous and terrible means." But they can be generous as well: "people in this town will as often as not be kindly if they have a chance." For the most part they welcome the happy change that has come over Miss Amelia, and they hope her good influence on the town will continue. As the ballad-narrator McCullers asks us to think of them "as a whole"; and, as a whole, it is obvious from their activity in the café, that they can behave with unexpected dignity and grace. Like Miss Amelia herself, they show a more human side to their personalities than had hitherto been seen. The café has revealed their own and Miss Amelia's better self.

But the café is doomed. It is doomed by the mysterious force that brought it into being, by the perverse powers of love. In the final reckoning the love felt by Miss Amelia for Cousin Lymon is an unbalanced, disorderly love, containing in its single-minded intensity the seeds of its own destruction. Like the love felt by Singer for Antonapoulos, the love Miss Amelia feels for Cousin Lymon is a possessive, irrational, nonreciprocal love and therefore tragic and doomed. At one point in The Ballad of the Sad Café, the narrator provides an extended, prophetic definition of the love felt by Miss Amelia a definition which doubles as a death warrant for the café and the town:

First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons—but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. 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. And somehow every lover knows this. 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. . . .

Now, the beloved can also be of any description. The most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love. .. . A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp. A good man may be the stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a tender and simple idyll. Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself.

It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.

This description of love is the best-known, most frequently quoted passage from Mrs. McCullers's oeuvre. In a more realistic mode of fiction, such a forthright explanation of love's secrets might have the effect of making love appear mechanical or obvious. In The Ballad, however, it retains the mystery and force of a magic formula.

At the heart of love's mystery, as expressed in this passage, is the blunt, cruel fact that love is a private rather than a mutual experience. The lover, instead of breaking out of his isolation and sharing his experiences with the beloved, creates a charged, illusory world of his own, "a world, intense, and strange, complete in himself," a world in which he blindly idolizes the beloved. One thinks of Mick, Jake Blount, and Dr. Copeland turning Singer into a "chimerical" god and friend, of Frankie turning her brother's wedding into a wedding of her own, and of Berenice turning three of her husbands into replicas of the dead Ludy Freeman. McCullers further emphasizes the absolute separateness of the lover and the beloved, in this passage, by describing the beloved as a mere "stimulus" for the "stored-up love" within the lover. Like a chemical catalyst, the beloved merely precipitates a reaction that was all ready to go off and that runs its course without involving or changing his own interests and needs. There is, in fact, no apparent relation between the personality and appearance of the beloved and the nature of the love experienced: "the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself."

The final paragraph of this description is in many ways the most interesting one. Certainly, it has the most dire implications for the future of the café: "The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved." The beloved's fear and hatred of the lover injects a new destructive element into Mrs. McCullers's love relationships. In her other novels the beloved is either indifferent to, or, at worst, mildly irritated by the lover. Singer misunderstands his visitors and thinks some of them "half crazy," but he does not hate or fear them. Private Williams ignores Captain Penderton; it is doubtful that he even suspects he is beloved. And Janice and Jarvis evidently have no idea that Frankie wants to be part of the marriage. But the love possessing Miss Amelia is a love to excite fear. It is an elementary force, too mysterious, too demanding, even too savage, to ignore or shrug off with indifference. Like the love described in the following two stanzas from W. H. Auden's poem, "The More Loving One," it is a love to inspire dread:

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Unable to return love, the beloved fears love's unknown powers. He fears "with the best of reasons" that the lover will strip him of his individuality, will possess him. It is partly for this reason that Cousin Lymon eventually turns on "the more loving" Miss Amelia and helps destroy the café.

McCullers uses this long passage on the nature of love to introduce Marvin Macy, Miss Amelia's former husband. Marvin Macy's early marriage to Miss Amelia and his return to town are thus to be seen as a working out of lover's contradictions as stated in this elaborate definition. Marvin Macy is the wronged lover and the avenger of love's imbalance. He is the one most responsible for the eventual destruction of the café.

When Miss Amelia was nineteen years old, Marvin Macy had fallen hopelessly and unaccountably in love with her. At that time he was the handsomest and most dangerous man in town. His reputation "was as bad if not worse than that of any young man in the county." But falling in love had "reversed the character of Marvin Macy," just as it was to reverse Miss Amelia's character years later. He changed from being a brutal no-good, who, among other things, "carried about with him the dried and salted ear of a man he had killed in a razor fight," to a perfectly behaved gentleman: "He was good to his brother and foster mother. . . . saved his wages and learned thrift. . . . He attended church and was present at all religious meetings." But he changed to no avail. "The lover and the beloved come from different countries," and though Miss Amelia married him, she did so only to reject him. During the ten days of their "scandalous" marriage, she managed to bilk her husband of all his property without letting him come near her. She then threw him out of her house. Disgraced and desperate, Marvin Macy had left town and shortly afterward was arrested and sentenced to prison in Atlanta for robbing three filling stations and an A&P store in Society City. He had evidently reverted to his old self. Miss Amelia could not have been happier. "Deeply gratified," she sold all the gifts he had given her and cut up his Klansman's robe to cover her tobacco plants.

This "grotesque affair" between Marvin Macy and Miss Amelia reveals a more menacing side to love than that evidenced by the "warm" café; a side, moreover, that cannot stay hidden forever. Housed with Marvin Macy in his Atlanta cell were those darker mysteries of love, which no one in the town was able to forget: "The thought of him trapped in his cell in the penitentiary, was like a troubling undertone beneath the happy love of Miss Amelia and the gaiety of the café." Thus it is no surprise that when Marvin Macy returns home after his release, "not a living soul in all the town was glad to see him"—not a living soul, that is, except Cousin Lymon.

The moment Cousin Lymon catches sight of Marvin Macy strolling idly through town with his tin suitcase, he too falls in love. Before he has been only the "beloved." Like a petted and fawned-over child, he has cried for and got everything he wanted from the foolishly indulgent Miss Amelia. But with Marvin Macy's arrival, Cousin Lymon becomes the lover. As passionate and devoted in his own way as Miss Amelia has been in hers and Marvin Macy had been in his, Cousin Lymon will not let Marvin Macy out of his sight. Whining plaintively, waiting patiently and wiggling his ears (his most enticing gesture of affection), Cousin Lymon follows the handsome ex-convict about as a dog follows its master. When Macy ignores him or treats him rudely, as he often does, Cousin Lymon would then "perch himself on the bannister of the front porch much as a sick bird huddles on a telephone wire, and grieve publicly." Cousin Lymon becomes in effect Marvin Macy's slave, and Macy uses him for his own revenge on Miss Amelia. He encourages Cousin Lymon to sass and ridicule his former wife, and sometimes to please Macy, Cousin Lymon would cross his eyes as Miss Amelia's were crossed and strut around imitating her gestures in a manner that was "so terrible that even the silliest customer of the café . . . did not laugh." Marvin Macy also got Cousin Lymon to serve him free meals at the café, and eventually he moved in on both of them, forcing Miss Amelia out of her own bedroom just as she had forced him out years before.

Marvin Macy's return thus brings the fortunes of love full circle. The wronged husband returns to steal his wife's lover. Miss Amelia, caught between her love for Cousin Lymon and her hatred for Marvin Macy, can only grit her teeth and glare at her husband "in a wild and crooked way." The love that had saved her now traps her. She dares not throw out Macy for fear of losing Cousin Lymon, and the thought of the house silent and empty again is more than she can bear: "Once you have lived with another, it is a great torture to have to live alone. The silence of a firelit room when suddenly the clock stops ticking, the nervous shadows in an empty house—it is better to take in your mortal enemy than face the terror of living alone." She has never been so vulnerable. The comforts of love have opened up depths of terror she could hardly have suspected before. Love's tragic formula is working itself out.

The final event of the novel is a terrific fight between Miss Amelia and Marvin Macy. The fight follows a period filled with strange portents: sudden changes in the weather, erratic behavior from Miss Amelia, a growing intensity in the conversation of Cousin Lymon, and the smell of "a secret meanness" that comes off Marvin Macy. Everywhere in the ballad world there are "signs too plain to be overlooked," signs that make the fate of Miss Amelia's love and the café a matter of apocalyptic importance.

The fight takes place on Ground Hog Day. It is a day in which "there was every sign." The ground hog, according to a report from Cousin Lymon, had seen his shadow, meaning bad weather ahead, and at noon a hawk with a bloody breast had circled twice around the property of Miss Amelia. That evening at seven, "a number of mingled possibilities," Miss Amelia and Marvin Macy enter the crowded café, greased and ready for battle. The fight lasts half an hour. After an exchange of blows Miss Amelia grabs Marvin Macy around the waist, bends him slowly backward to the floor, and goes for his throat. Suddenly, Cousin Lymon, who has been perched on the café counter, springs twelve feet through the air, lands on Miss Amelia's back and clutches at her neck "with his clawed little fingers." After that Marvin Macy easily wins: "because of the hunchback the fight was won by Marvin Macy." Helped by Cousin Lymon, Marvin Macy spends the rest of the night wrecking the place. They broke the piano, "carved terrible words on the café tables," poured syrup over the kitchen floor and went out in the swamp and destroyed Miss Amelia's still. The two then leave town together never to be heard from again.

The café thus comes to its end, a victim to the forces that created it. Its flourishing had always been temporary and problematical, occurring in that uncertain period between love's initial creativity and its inevitable failure. It was only a matter of time before the imbalance of passion that destroyed Marvin Macy's marriage would wreck the café as well. It had happened before; it would happen again. The "signs . . . were too plain to be overlooked."

The events leading up to and following the fight in the café run a dramatic course encountered before in McCullers's novels. It may be described as one of rising hope leading to a sharp, violent confrontation with reality, followed by disillusionment and despair—the pattern of the interrupted fantasy or daydream, of emotional intoxication plummeting into emotional withdrawal. The arrival of Marvin Macy, the uncertain behavior of Miss Amelia, the increasing restlessness of the townspeople, and the myriad signs, all combine to create a charged atmosphere, an "atmosphere of imminent explosion," to use David Madden's characterization of all McCullers's fiction, that threatens to break down the fragile structure of relationships making life in the town so intense and interesting [see Madden, "Transfixed among the Self-inflicted Ruins: Carson McCullers's The Mortgaged Heart" Southern Literary Journal 5 (Fall 1972)]. The fight, like the death of Singer, the shooting of Private Williams, and Frankie's "wrecked" wedding, brings the long-expected and feared return to boredom and isolation.

Only now it is an isolation made the more unbearable by the loss of past hope. Miss Amelia goes into immediate decline. She becomes "thin as old maids are thin when they grow crazy," and her eyes which had always been crossed, "slowly day by day . . . were more crossed, and it was as though they sought each other out to exchange a little glance of grief and lonely recognition." The café is boarded up and now "leans so far to the right that it is . . . only a question of time when it will collapse completely." The town has become oppressively, hopelessly dull:

There is absolutely nothing to do in the town. Walk around the mill pond, stand kicking at a rotten stump, figure out what you can do with the old wagon wheel by the side of the road near the church. The soul rots with boredom. You might as well do down to the Forks Falls highway and listen to the chain gang.

Without love the town is thus left in a state of living death. Miss Amelia's passion may have been unhealthy, possessive, and unbalanced, but it was a temporary salvation from isolation and the boredom of being alone. For better or for worse, it brought people together, gave them something to talk about, and established new relations among them. And it seems that any relationship between people, even one that turns to jealousy and hate, is better than no relationship at all—or one based on the mechanical necessities of money and work. Early in the novel the narrator describes the wonderful whiskey that Miss Amelia made in her still. When drunk, the whiskey acted on the heart in the way fire acted on a piece of paper written on in lemon juice—it revealed its secret message: "Things that have gone unnoticed, thoughts that have been harbored far back in the dark mind are suddenly recognized and comprehended." Love is shown to work in a similar fashion. It too acts as a magic potion, awakening hidden feelings and revealing people to each other as people—not things or blank pieces of paper. What is revealed is not always pleasant: "a love [could be] both violent and debased." It could and did result in jealousy, anger, and violence. But it also brought people out of their solitude, intensified their experiences, and filled their lives with what Robert Frost has called "the shocks and changes that keep us sane" ["On Looking up by Chance at the Constellations"]. It made life complicated, but it made it interesting as well.

The Ballad of the Sad Café does not end, however, with the death of Miss Amelia's love, the vanishing of Cousin Lymon, and the boarding up of the café. In an epilogue entitled "The Twelve Mortal Men," McCullers adds a coda or envoy to her ballad, which, as Ihab Hassan has suggested, speaks out its hidden refrain [Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, 1961]. It is, in fact, a description of the chain gang singing in chorus on the Forks Falls highway, a chorus, which, like The Ballad itself, celebrates a sad joy springing out of boredom, pain, and death:

All day there is the sound of the picks striking into the clay earth, hard sunlight, the smell of sweat. And everyday there is music. One dark voice will start a phrase, half-sung, and like a question. And after a moment another voice will join in, soon the whole gang will be singing. The voices are dark in the golden glare, the music intricately blended, both somber and joyful. The music will swell until at last it seems that the sound does not come from the twelve men on the gang, but from the earth itself, or the wide sky. It is music that causes the heart to broaden and the listener to grow cold with ecstasy and fright. Then slowly the music will sink down until at last there remains one lonely voice, then a great hoarse breath, the sun, the sound of the picks in the silence.

And what kind of gang is this that can make music? Just twelve mortal men, seven of them black and five of them white boys from this county. Just twelve mortal men who are together.

Here again we see McCullers using music to express the underlying message of her story. Trapped in the cruelest and most hopeless of physical conditions, the prisoners display an elemental capacity for joy that transcends and changes, if only for a moment, the miserable conditions of their lives. Like the café, which takes form amidst the white dust of the dreary, bored town, the music "intricately blended, both somber and joyful," rises from the chain gang at their endless labor—a joy apart, celebrating the fact that they are men together. The beauty of their song, that quality "that causes the heart to broaden and the listener to grow cold with ecstasy and fright," is the more intense and upsetting for the extraordinary pain and despair out of which it grows. We are moved by the contradictions in this scene just as we are moved by the contradiction of a giantess falling in love with a hunchback dwarf. The Ballad of the Sad Café is, in fact, Carson McCullers's most daring excursion into the contradictory and the grotesque. It is composed of material so disparate; comic, ugly, drab, and bizarre, as seemingly to defy harmonious organization into art. Yet the strangeness of the mixture is undoubtedly what makes The Ballad so startlingly, hauntingly beautiful. Like the watch chain Miss Amelia gives to Cousin Lymon, that she has had decorated with her own kidney stones, like the table in the café decorated with "a bouquet of swamp lilies in a Coca-Cola bottle," The Ballad and its envoy reveal through all the surface contradictions and incongruities a deeper beauty of shared human feeling, of people who are together.

Oliver Evans has written that "The Ballad of the Sad Café must be among the saddest stories in any language—not merely on the surface level of narrative . . . but also, and far more importantly (because it makes a generalization about mankind), on the level of parable." But if Mr. Evans means by the parable of the story the inevitable failure of love, The Ballad of the Sad Café is not unusual in its parable; rather it is typical of many of the great love stories in Western literature, typical in that such love as Miss Amelia feels for Cousin Lymon can never be fulfilled, can never last, that its end is always woe or, at best, a sweet sadness and never a permanent satisfaction. The love experienced by Miss Amelia resembles in some ways the kind of love we find in fairy tales and folklore, a magical love that might attract a princess to a frog or a beautiful girl to a beast. But it also resembles the love found in ancient romances, the love described by Denis de Rougemont in Love in the Western World, that brings an "exquisite anguish," that heightens life's feelings against its "mechanical boredom," that denies terrestial bliss for spiritual transcendence. Such love is too intense and too fragile to survive into an ordinary present and must therefore be recollected nostalgically from the legendary past. "The happiness of lovers," de Rougemont writes:

stirs our feelings only on account of the unhappiness which lies in wait for it. We must feel that life is imperiled, and also feel the hostile realities that drive happiness away into some beyond. What moves us is not its presence, but its nostalgia and recollection. Presence is inexpressible and has no perceptible duration; it can only be a moment of grace—

And the love described in The Ballad of the Sad Café did have its moment of grace—a sustained moment, that for a period of six years actually transformed the dreary town and its "mechanical boredom" into a place of excitement and heightened life. It may be that The Ballad of the Sad Café is less sad than Carson McCullers's other stories. The café was not, after all, like Singer's friendship with Antonapoulos or Frankie's dream of joining the wedding, an illusion. It was, for a time, anyway, a miraculous if temporary reality.

The Ballad of the Sad Café was reprinted along with Mrs. McCullers's first three novels and six short stories in the spring of 1951. The book, which was essentially a collected edition of Mrs. McCullers's works, going under the title of The Ballad of the Sad Café, proved to be a milestone in the history of Carson McCullers's critical reputation. Critics, who had previously been uneasy about the bizarre, or what they called the "gothic," quality of her work, began to see that the oddities and incongruities in her fiction served a more legitimate artistic purpose than the creation of sensational effects. The extraordinary achievement of The Ballad of the Sad Café forced them to realize the truth of what Carson McCullers had written some ten years earlier in her essay, "The Russian Realists and Southern Literature"—that the strange and the incongruous can be extremely helpful in exposing irrational and inexplicable patterns in all human behavior, that the grotesque can serve the purposes of a more exact moral and psychological realism in art. By abjuring moral judgment and exaggerating rather than resolving contradictions in human experience, the writer, according to McCullers, could reveal the hidden abnormalities in "normal" life. Russian writers had been doing this for some time, and as she noted, it was a technique prevalent in the best of recent Southern literature, especially in the fiction of William Faulkner:

The technique briefly is this: a bold and outwardly callous juxtaposition of the tragic with the humourous, the immense with the trivial, the sacred with the bawdy, the whole soul of man with a materialistic detail.

It is, as I suggested before, a technique that predominates throughout The Ballad of the Sad Café, not only in the obvious area of characterization and plot, an amazon falling in love with a dwarf, but in the homely and shocking details that contribute so much to the tragic, comic, haunting tone of the book. One thinks of Miss Amelia's pathetic, almost freakish, white face appearing in the upstairs window of the café "with two gray crossed eyes which are turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief," of Marvin Macy carrying round with him "the dried and salted ear of a man he had killed in a razor fight," of Cousin Lymon riding through the swamp on Miss Amelia's broad back holding to her ears for balance, and of those nights when the café was lively with jokes and gossip while outside "in the darkness a woman sang in a high wild voice and the tune had no start and no finish and was made up of only three notes which went on and on and on."

Persuaded by "the bold, outwardly callous, juxtaposition[s]" found in The Ballad of the Sad Café, critics began to reconsider all of Carson McCullers's novels, most of them concluding, in the words of the reviewer from Commonweal, that "'the gothic' label misses the point," that the grotesque and the abnormal in her fiction point not to the exceptional bu t the universal:

Behind the strange and horrible in her world there are played out the most somber tragedies of the human spirit; her mutes, her hunchbacks, speak of complexities and frustrations which are so native to man that they can only be recognized, perhaps in the shock which comes from seeing them dressed in the robes of the grotesque. They pass us on the street everyday, but we only notice them when they drag a foot as they go by [William P. Clancy, Commonweal (15 June 1951)].

V. S. Pritchett said much the same thing as this Commonweal reviewer when in The New Statesman he praised Carson McCullers for "a courageous imagination . . . bold enough to consider the terrible in human nature without loss of nerve, calm dignity or love [The New Statesman (2 August 1952)]. The source of this courage and love, which sought no reconciliation between the comic and the tragic, the beautiful and the horrible, is not, however, to be found in any sophisticated theories about human behavior, but rather in what Carson McCullers herself has called (again in "The Russian Realists and Southern Literature") an almost naive acceptance of the facts of life, a humility before experience, a refusal to judge. Perhaps she stated it most succinctly in The Ballad of the Sad Café when she wrote:

Well, all this happened a long time ago, and it is the story of Miss Amelia's marriage. The town laughed a long time over this grotesque affair. But though the outward facts of this love are indeed sad and ridiculous, it must be remembered that the real story was that which took place in the soul of the lover himself. So who but God can be the final judge of this or any other love?

Richard Gray (essay date 1977)

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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 was familiar to her.]

There is a peculiar quality of isolation about Carson McCullers's work, frequently remarked upon but never properly explained, that owes some of its intensity perhaps to her own status vis-à-vis the South. She does not belong to the great generation of the "renaissance," that is clear enough: indeed, she was only twelve years old when The Sound and the Fury was published, and her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, did not appear until after the beginning of the Second World War. But she does not really belong to the new wave of southern writers either, since apart from Clock Without Hands—a book dealing, among other things, with the issue of desegregation, which was not published until 1961—all of her more important fiction had been written by 1946; and was collected into a uniform edition some five years later. Her major period of creativity was very brief, consisting of about five years in all; and the last twenty or so years of her life were so marred by ill health that, in retrospect, it seems remarkable she was able to write the little, during the period, that she did. Certainly, illness offers a sufficient explanation for her gradual lapse into silence. Coming after the great fiction and poetry of the twenties and thirties, but before the more recent examples of southern Gothic (before Wise Blood and Lie Down in Darkness, for example, before even Other Voices, Other Rooms and A Streetcar Named Desire) her novels and short stories occupy, consequently, a particular transitional moment of their own in the tradition. Theirs is a special, and especially separate, place in the history of southern literature, which makes their author seem occasionally like one of her own characters—alone, cut off from all normal channels of communication, and strangely vulnerable.

Other factors, quite apart from her unusual literary situation, probably contributed to McCullers's interest in the dimensions of loneliness. Her childhood, for example, seems to have been a very quiet one. "Almost singularly lacking," as her biographer has put it, "in the excitement of external events," it reflected the particular milieu into which she was born; shabbily genteel, the Smith family of Columbus, Georgia, were inordinately embarrassed by their fallen circumstances and actively discouraged contact or intercourse with anybody from outside the home. Then, when Carson did grow up and move away (to New York and, later, to Europe) her aloof and rather prickly personality tended to complete the process thus begun. Always afraid of a full commitment to others, searching for the possibility of betrayal and claiming to find it even when it was not there, she seemed to draw a magic circle around herself for much of the time, and live in an inner world that was compounded equally of memory and imagination. "I . . . have my own reality," she said once toward the end of her life, made out "of language and voices and foliage"; and it was this reality, I believe, her ghostly, private world, that she tried to reproduce in most of her fiction. She gave it many names, over the years, and placed it consistently in the South. Southern though its geographical location might be, however, it was like no South anybody had ever seen before. It was not the South of newspaper articles and political speeches, nor the South of country humor or magnolia-blossom romance; it was not even the South described so extensively in the Yoknapatawpha novels. In effect, it was another country altogether, created out of all that the author had found haunting, soft, and lonely in her childhood surroundings—a new place offering a new perspective on the experience from which it had been drawn.

Perhaps we can gain a better idea of this new place, the unique map that McCullers offered of her home, by looking at one of her characteristic attempts at depicting it. Her novella, The Ballad of the Sad Café, for example, begins with this memorable description of a town without a name and, in doing so, establishes the climate, physical and emotional, in which all its characters are to move.

The town itself is dreary; not much is there except the cotton-mill, the two-room houses where the workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street only a hundred yards long. On Saturdays the tenants from the near-by farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world. The nearest train stop is Society City, and the Greyhound and White Bus Lines use the Fork Falls Road which is three miles away. The winters here are short and raw, the summers white with glare and fiery hot.

If you walk along the main street on an August afternoon there is nothing whatsoever to do. The largest building .. . is boarded up .. . and .. . looks completely deserted. Nevertheless, on the second floor there is one window which is not boarded; sometimes in the late afternoon .. . a hand will slowly open the shutter and a face will look down on the town .. . as likely as not there will not be another soul to be seen along the . . . street. These August afternoons—when your shift is finished there is absolutely nothing to do; you might as well walk down to the Fork Falls Road and listen to the chain gang.

I have quoted a fairly long passage from the book because, it seems to me, the effect of McCullers's prose is accumulative. She does not work in a series of detached, glittering phrases as, say, Truman Capote does. Nor does she, imitating Faulkner, write sentences that coil up snake-like and then strike, suddenly, before the period. Her language is cool and lucid, almost classical in its precision, her descriptions clipped and occasionally cryptic. A nuance in one place, a repetition or a shading somewhere else: this is all she needs really because, like the painter Edward Hopper, she tends to rely on the resonance given to a detail by its total context—and to use concealment almost as a medium of communication. The inertia, the desolation, and the brooding violence of the small-town South are caught in images that are hermetic, despite their apparent candor, and in incidents brimming with undisclosed biography.

The act is performed so quietly that it may tend to go unnoticed: what McCullers has created here, in effect, is a world where emotion and vision can coalesce—in which, through the agency of her prose, her own particular sense of life can be externalized. The town is no dream kingdom, that is clear enough. It is anchored in this world, in a firm if understated way, by such details as the references to the bus and train services and by an implicit understanding of its economic function. But it is no ordinary place, either—the kind of town we might easily come across in Georgia, in the South, or anywhere else. Why? Because, quite apart from establishing this anchorage, the writer has used every means at her disposal to reorder, rearrange, and so metamorphose; in a way that must be familiar to us by now, she has created another country out of her own known home. In this respect, the anonymity of the prose ties in with the evasiveness of the narrator, the hermeticism of the imagery with the apparent emptiness of the scene. For together they direct our attention to precisely the same subject; a feeling of "lonesomeness" or loss seems to result from them all. This feeling, needless to say, is not imposed on the material: as other writers like Thomas Wolfe could testify, it is there in the Deep South already, waiting to be acknowledged. McCullers has, however, emphasized it almost to the exclusion of everything else and, in doing so, cleverly established a nexus, a point of connection between the geometry of her self and the geography of her childhood surroundings. Gently, she has nudged the regional landscape into the expression of a fresh mood.

McCullers's aims are, of course, not just personal. Quite apart from externalizing her own state she is trying also, through the medium of the South, to anatomize human nature, to chart, in her plan of her region, the coordinates of all our lives. And in order to make this clear she will occasionally punctuate her narrative with little explanatory passages, like the following, which suggest that, remembering her own doubts about the possibility of proper contact between man and man—and, perhaps, experiencing some misgivings about her oblique methods elsewhere—the author is afraid the reader will otherwise miss the point.

There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. 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. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness. .. . So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself .. . ; he must create for himself a whole new inward world—a world intense and strange, complete in itself.

The longing to communicate and the difficulty of ever properly communicating, the delusions attendant upon the human need to love: the themes could hardly be presented more explicitly than they are here (indeed, the existence of a triangular relationship between personal feeling, regional landscape, and moral reference is virtually insisted upon) and this does, naturally, tend to carry its own dangers with it. The "message" may, as a result, seem a little too pat to be convincing, too limited and limiting even for the purpose of fable. The writer may, in short, end up with didacticism of the crudest possible kind. McCullers is saved from such dangers most of the time, I think, though; and what saves her more than anything else is her constant awareness of the human situation—the specifically emotional and imaginative terms into which her ideas have to be translated. Her landscapes, for all their initial sparseness, are inhabited. More to the point, the figures inhabiting them possess a special kind of resonance, that sense of roots and a definite history which marks them out as the descendants of recognizable southern types. They have the substance and immediate credibility of people long brooded over, and so well understood—and to this is added that freshness, the sense of surprise and valuable discovery, which can only come when someone as well known as this is seen from a radically altered standpoint. We may suspect, while we read a McCullers story, that we have seen characters like hers before; in fact, if we have read much earlier southern fiction we are sure we have. But until now, she makes us feel, we have never been properly acquainted with them: there is something about them, some crucial side of them we have somehow managed to miss.

The major characters in The Ballad of the Sad Café offer a perfect illustration of this, the way in which the familiar is suddenly turned into the strange and new. And the nature of their familiarity, at least, is suggested by a bare summary of the Ballad's plot, which is like something borrowed from the comic legends of the old Southwest. There is a kind of crazy, comic logic of frustration behind everything that happens: the beloved is always turning away from the lover to create a false idol of his or her own. So "Miss Amelia" Evans, the central character and the owner of the "terrible, dim" face which appears in the opening portrait of the town, refuses the love of her husband, Marvin Macy, and, having done so, falls in love with a newcomer to the district, the hunchback "Cousin" Lymon. Cousin Lymon, in turn, despises Miss Amelia and worships Marvin Macy—who despises him. Nobody gets what he wants in the story. Everybody is thwarted and, in the process, made to look utterly grotesque. This, for example, is how Miss Amelia is described before the charade has properly begun:

She was a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles like a man. Her hair was cut short and brushed back from the forehead, and there was about her sunburned face a tense, haggard quality. She might have been a handsome woman if, even then, she was not slightly cross-eyed.

By reducing her appearance to a series of conflicting angles, by emphasizing her physical defects and her masculinity (or, rather, her sexual ambivalence), McCullers effectively transforms Miss Amelia into a freak here as much of a caricature in her own way as Sut Lovingood is, say, or any of the subhumans populating Tobacco Road. At least one of the strategies for presenting the character to us, in other words, seems to have been learned from Longstreet, Harris, and their imitators: we are distanced from Miss Amelia, made to inspect her and her country home with a clinical detachment, and then invited to consider her frustrations, such as they are—her utter failure to realize her ambitions in her given world—as at the very least potentially comic. As if to confirm McCullers's debt, there is even an epic fight at the end of the Ballad, between Miss Amelia and Marvin Macy, which in its combination of the macabre and the grotesque (Macy greases himself, for instance, so that he can keep slipping through Miss Amelia's fingers) must remind us of those almost operatic trials of strength which enliven so many of the tales of the southwestern school.

That is not the whole story, though. If it were, we could hardly talk about McCullers making her characters new. Miss Amelia is a grotesque, perhaps, but she is a grotesque for the same reason that most of McCullers's subjects are—because, as the author herself once put it, her "physical incapacity" is being used primarily as "a symbol of [her] spiritual incapacity . . . —[her] spiritual isolation." She is not just the comic loser, nor is she economically deprived in the way that Jeeter Lester and Ty Ty Waiden are. She is, to use that word again, "lonesome," and her lonesomeness is intended eventually to figure our own. Like an image seen in a carnival mirror, she is meant to offer us an exaggerated, comically distorted, and yet somehow sadly accurate reflection of ourselves. Exactly what this means, in terms of the total effect she has upon us, will perhaps become clear if we look at the way she is described toward the end of the story, when both Marvin Macy and Cousin Lymon have deserted her.

Miss Amelia let her hair grow ragged, and it was turning grey. Her face lengthened, and the great muscles of her body shrank until she was thin as old maids are thin when they go crazy. And those grey eyes—slowly day by day they were more crossed,... as though they sought each other out to exchange a little glance of grief and lonely recognition.

This, surely, is to give the familiar caricature a fresh dimension. The details of Miss Amelia's appearance are just as grotesque as they ever were, but they appear to be placed now in a changed, and more sympathetic, context. We are drawn to the woman even while she still seems a little odd to us. The knowledge we have of her by this time has, of course, something to do with this development: we understand why she is odd and, understanding, we perhaps suspect that her oddity touches upon ours. And certain fragments of descriptive detail, which hint at pity as much as ridicule, are possibly relevant as well—the comparison with "crazy" old maids, for example, or the partly funny, partly moving account that McCullers now gives us of Miss Amelia's crossed eyes. But of immeasurably more significance than either of these things, I think, is something almost indefinable—which, for want of a better phrase, we must call the sheer texture of her prose. It goes back, in fact, to what I was saying earlier about McCullers's style, that it manages to be lyrical and colloquial, lucid and enigmatic, at one and the same time. For it is as a direct consequence of this strange combination, really, that we find ourselves held back from Miss Amelia here—and brought close up into a special kind of intimacy with her as well. She is distanced from us by a certain lingering freakishness of expression, a mysterious image, it may be, or a quirky turn of phrase; and yet she is also brought into an immediate contact with us by our sense that this is, after all, a conventional idiom we are listening to—that the language Miss Amelia inhabits, so to speak, belongs to normal, everyday conversation. This is an extraordinarily subtle relationship to set up between character and reader far subtler than anything we are likely to come across elsewhere, in the work of other writers who have experimented with the southern comic mode. It has its origins, of course, in McCullers's belief that a paradox lurks at the heart of experience, naturally attaching itself to the idea of a shared isolation. As for its issue, that we find in the mood or ambiance to which our minds first return when recalling a McCullers novel—our memories of a quiet, but peculiarly inclusive, pathos.

Pathos; it is an unfashionable term partly because, through bad use, it has acquired an odor of sentimentality—become associated with what Ezra Pound once called that most inhumane of emotions, an indiscriminate sympathy. The unlucky man wallowing in his own bad luck, the account of poverty or suffering that begins and ends in moral posturing, without any reference being made to the possible agencies of change: these are the sort of things to which we tend to apply the word "pathetic" now. Nor are matters helped much, I suppose, by the memories most of us have of films that have been described as pathetic—where, more often than not, a patently contrived series of events is used as a pretext for self-indulgence. Pathos, in such cases, becomes the emotional equivalent of beating one's head against the wall—an exquisitely painful way of preparing for the moment when the pain stops, and the release offered by the inevitable happy ending arrives. Still, there is no reason why misuse of a word should blind us to its proper uses; and I would like to suggest that McCullers's fiction, at its best (by which I mean The Ballad of the Sad Café, The Member of the Wedding, and parts of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), can supply us with a valuable corrective to all this. For it shows, I think, how tough and really critical an emotion pathos can be. Her characters are pathetic, but they are pathetic in the finest sense—in the same way that, to continue an earlier analogy, a good Chaplin film is. That is to say, the melancholy we experience while contemplating Miss Amelia Evans or Frankie Addams in The Member of the Wedding stems principally from the shock of recognition, our feeling that part of our own lives has been accurately defined. It encourages us not to escape from problems, still less to accept them, but simply to become more aware—to understand, fully to understand, their general scope. In this way the pathetic is used as an agent of moral instruction more than anything else, a means of telling us, quietly and sadly, what we are and the most we can do and of advising us, by inference, as to how we should behave.

McCullers's is, then, the definitive use of a specific emotional effect—a pathos that at once lends a strange atmosphere to landscape and character, and helps establish an intimate, unusually searching relationship between tale and reader. This is an impressive achievement—showing the kind of subtlety and even deviousness of intent we are perhaps more inclined to associate with more "difficult" fiction—and its very impressiveness has, I believe, led one or two of McCullers's critics into overestimating her. For there is a tendency, noticeable especially among those with a bias toward the New Criticism, to assume that because her work represents a perfect adaptation of means to ends she is, therefore, more or less unsurpassed among writers of her own region. So Walter Allen, in his standard history of the modern English and American novel, places her second only to Faulkner; and Gore Vidal, going one characteristic step further than this, insists, "of all our southern writers Carson McCullers is the one most likely to endure." Such commentary, I think, is exaggerated and unhelpful: the very perfection of McCullers's work depends, after all, upon her own levelheaded acceptance of her limitations. She knows that she can describe, quite subtly, one particular dilemma or area of life and she concentrates almost her entire resources on that. There is no place in her fiction, really, for the rich "overplus" of experience—by which I mean any aspects of behavior that cannot be included under the heading of theme, or any dimensions of feeling that cannot be reconciled with the major effect of pathos. And recognizing this she demonstrates little interest in such matters as the historical and social context, and no commitment either to the idea of a developing consciousness. Her people walk around and around within the circle of their own personalities, their inner world of thought and desire hardly engaging with the outer world at all. They seldom change, except physically, they never reflect more than one aspect of our experience (admittedly, it is a significant one); and to inflate them, their world, or indeed their creator to a major status—to suppose, in fact, that McCullers's novels and short stories are any more important to the tradition than they genuinely are—is, I believe, to be guilty of what used to be called "overkill." It is, in other words, to smother a quiet but effective talent by heaping upon it unearned and patently unacceptable praise.

As for McCullers's actual achievement, though, setting aside all such exaggeration, that surely is certain and secure. She is not a major writer, despite anything that Allen, Vidal, or any other critic may say to the contrary. But she is a very good minor one—so good, indeed, that she seems to reap a definite advantage from her minor status and turn her limitations into virtues. The absence of the historical dimension is a useful illustration of this. With many other writers, and especially southern ones, such an absence might prove fatal—indeed it has proved fatal, I think, in the case of Tennessee Williams and the earlier Capote. With McCullers, however, just the opposite is true; and this because in some strange way she manages to make history function as an absent presence in her work. It seems to be not so much omitted from her writing as concealed, made to disappear, and in such a way that the disappearance itself, like the disappearance of the religious perspective from later Victorian fiction, encourages our active comment. McCullers's characters, we infer, have not even this, the mere possibility of a tradition, to sustain them; they can only hang as Lowell's Czar Lepke does, "oas[es] in . . . [the] air/of lost connections"—so disoriented as to have no point of reference really, no common denominator with which to chart their disorientation. They may suffer pangs of nostalgia; in fact most of them do, it is a natural consequence of their loneliness. But that nostalgia is for a condition they can hardly define. They may be adrift, homesick; but that homesickness is for a place that has never, personally, been theirs. Just as space seems to recede from them even while it is being described, to try to hide from them in a way, so time in its larger dimension appears somehow to mock them by remaining hidden; the vacuum its departure creates is, we sense, there as a positive force in the narrative contributing to their despair. One sometimes wonders if, in all this, McCullers is not trying to add her own idiosyncratic footnote to Nietzsche by suggesting that not only God, that traditional comforter of the lonely and spiritually disfigured, is dead now—history, as a common secular resource and the modern substitute for God, is as well.

Margaret B. McDowell (essay date 1980)

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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 proportion. The narrative voice speaks at times in archaic diction and at times in a tone of leisured elegance; at still other times, in a pithy colloquial idiom. Though the three principal characters are grotesques, rather than fully-developed human beings and the villagers are not individualized, the "balladeer's" compassion for them pervades this book, as does his quiet humor when he pauses in the narrative to comment upon their inexplicable, eccentric, and often perverse behavior.

I. A Turbulent Relationship

Kay Boyle declared The Ballad of the Sad Café a work in which an author "accepted the responsibility of being artisan as well as sensitive artist" ["I Wish I Had Written The Ballad of the Sad Café," I Wish I Had Written That, edited by Eugene J. Woods, 1946]. As in Reflections in a Golden Eye, McCullers attains in this novel an allegorical or "fairy-tale" exaggeration in her characters. Their freakishness, Boyle suggests, moves them beyond the range of ordinary human experience. Nevertheless, the thematic content of The Ballad of the Sad Café is not so remote as Boyle intimates from McCullers' personal life, her search for self-identification, and her exploration of unusual sexual experience. In creating intricate emotional diversities as characteristic of the life of Miss Amelia Evans, McCullers reflects, to a degree, the turbulence of her own life at the time she wrote this work, a turbulence emerging from the compounding of deep conflicts and complex relationships—the love and hate she felt for Reeves, whom she was divorcing; the strong, but frustrated, love she felt for her new friend Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach; and the bewildering, but warm, affection she was discovering for David Diamond, who was attracted both to her and to Reeves. In The Ballad of the Sad Café McCullers assimilated all of these confused loves and disappointments when she conceived and almost completed the tale in the summer of 1941 at Yaddo and announced to Diamond that she would dedicate it to him.

The fact that Reflections in a Golden Eye was dedicated to Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach in the summer of 1940 and The Ballad of the Sad Café to David Diamond the following summer suggests how fully McCullers had by this time confronted her bisexuality and that of her husband, who was during these months living with Diamond in New York. In this novel McCullers explores such themes as sexual ambivalence, destructive infatuation, the pain of being rejected by the beloved, the problematical configur-ations implied in any love triangle, and the paradoxical closeness of love and hate.

McCullers, hoping to return with renewed creativity to the uncompleted The Bride (later The Member of the Wedding), expected, for a time, to publish both of these short works in the same volume. However, the subtle balance of mood, theme, and image she sought in the story of Frankie Adams' adolescence continued to evade her until 1945. In the meantime, she published The Ballad of the Sad Café in Harper's Bazaar, August 1943.

Though Carson McCullers ostensibly used a southern mill town as setting for The Ballad of the Sad Café, the locale is also an imaginatively created milieu inhabited by grotesque and improbable characters—a milieu, for example, in which a female giant, Miss Amelia Evans, possesses, in the eyes of the villagers, awesome powers. As the tale opens and as it closes, life in the village is so static that "the soul rots with boredom," but for a short time between the opening of the story and its final sequence, the town becomes a place where strange and unbelievable events occur and where the three principal participants exist in some indefinable state between the human and the supernatural.

McCullers exhibits in this novel many of the properties of the ballad. Its plot is direct and swift; the action is familiar, rooted in folk tradition; and the language, stylized and intense, derives a quality of artifice from McCullers' studied use of archaic words and phrases. The narrator presents himself as a balladeer with much starkness of vision, an individual who establishes a desolate beginning and end for his tale, before he expands upon the intervening action, which he summarizes quickly in his opening words:

The owner of the place was Miss Amelia Evans. But the person most responsible for the success and gaiety of the place was a hunchback called Cousin Lymon. One other person had a part in the story of this cafe—he was the former husband of Miss Amelia, a terrible character who returned to the town after a long term in the penitentiary, caused ruin, and then went on his way again. The cafe has long since been closed, but it is still remembered.

Although he is responsible for the lively atmosphere in the cafe and provides his townsmen with food, drink, and fellowship, Lymon accentuates the sinister, as well as the comic, tone of the novel. One evening at dusk this dwarf hunchback trudges into the town and identifies himself as Miss Amelia's cousin. The villagers sitting on Miss Amelia's steps find him repulsive: "His hands were like dirty sparrow claws." (McCullers, in fact, uses bird imagery throughout the novel to describe Lymon.) Because Miss Amelia thought that she had no relatives—a situation which sets her apart from other people—she is filled with wonder by the dwarf's insistent claim of kinship. She offers him a drink from the bottle in her overalls pocket "to liven his gizzard" (she owns the best still in the whole region), and she receives the weeping little man into her house.

Miss Amelia is a sorceress of reputation and establishes by her acts and attributes the ineffable atmosphere and eerie tone of the novel. She heals the diseases of the townfolk with her magical potions, and she regulates important events in their lives by telling them, for example, when the weather or the moon will be right for planting crops or for slaughtering hogs. Whenever her hated ex-husband, Marvin Macy, or her beloved dwarfed companion, Cousin Lymon, challenges her power and omniscience, the townspeople grow fearful and surly. While they respect her, they reveal curiosity and excitement about her, rather than deep concern. In their lack of affection, they become a vaguely malevolent force and, as it were, a sinister chorus to comment on the action. Consequently, when the townspeople do not see Lymon for the next three days, they assume that Amelia has murdered him. A self-appointed contingent arrives to investigate, and at this dramatic moment, Lymon makes a grand entrance from the top of the staircase, dressed in Amelia's fancy green shawl, which trails to the floor. He carries what the townsmen, astonished, recognize as the snuff box Amelia treasures because it belonged to her father. Lymon has filled it with cocoa and sugar, which he uses throughout the novel to sweeten his mouthful of decayed teeth.

McCullers' juxtaposition of past and present is notable. The narrator, soon after the opening sequence, moves back in time to reveal Amelia as she was at twenty, ten years before, when her father was still alive and cherished her. He had protected her, talked philosophically to her, and ridiculously nicknamed her "Little"; she slept calmly every night, as if covered with "warm axle grease." The narrator then dwells upon Amelia's present wealth, her ability to brew a liquor with magical properties, and her knowledge of folk medicine. Handsome enough to attract men, she is dark, tall, and muscular. She is a personage to be respected, not to be loved or pitied. Her chief recreation—bringing a lawsuit whenever she has a gambler's hunch that she may win it—suggests her selfishness and her shrewd eye for business.

A solitary individual, Amelia lacks any genuine basis for communication with either men or women. She has never cared for men, nor does she in this tale ever have a conversation with a woman; in fact, this book contains little direct conversation, the narrator more often summarizing the action. Amelia will not treat "female complaints," and blushes whenever talk of them arises. She also wears men's overalls. Though she denies her own femininity, she expresses maternal concern for children and is infinitely gentle in her treatment of them, making sure they are thoroughly anesthetized by drinking enough of her best liquor before she performs any painful operation.

Amelia's unconsummated marriage to Marvin Macy suggests that her denial of feminine identity may prevent her response to physical love from any man. In a large family of unwanted and abused children, Marvin Macy grew up with a stone in place of a heart, and as a young man he violated virgins throughout the land. Inexplicably, he falls in love with Amelia, reforms, and becomes suddenly humble. To the further astonishment of the townspeople, Amelia, soon after the death of her father, agrees to marry Macy. Awkward and uncomfortable in her wedding dress, Amelia amuses the guests as she reaches for the pockets of her overalls to rest her hands in them. In the days after the wedding, the mood of the villagers shifts dramatically from surprise and amusement to shock when they recognize that Amelia denies Macy access to her bedroom, abuses her lovesick groom, and finally orders him off her property.

If Amelia gains some sympathy at the beginning and the end of the book, at the point of her marriage she is almost monstrous, the female who preys upon the male whom she has lured to her abode. Though the townspeople react with disbelief to her humiliation of Macy, they also derive perverse pleasure from the fact that "someone has been thoroughly done in by some scandalous and terrible means." They are tainted by the evil that Amelia herself seems to have let loose in the community.

Vengeance pervades the latter part of the tale when Macy returns to inflict vengeance upon the woman who has betrayed his love. In building toward the physical struggle between Amelia and Macy, which provides the climax for the book, the narrator slows the pace. About six years altogether pass between Lymon's appearance in town and his departure. Lymon immediately falls in love with Amelia's ex-husband and, because Macy does not accept this love, Lymon sits mourning on the porch rail, "like a bird on a telephone wire." Amelia must bury her pride and give Macy the best room in her house, to prevent Lymon's leaving with him. She concludes: "It is better to take in your mortal enemy than face the terror of living alone."

Tension builds from August to Ground Hog Day, when the great confrontation takes place between Macy and Amelia, a struggle with overtones of the Grendel-Beowulf encounter. The townspeople are "recklessly glad" as they anticipate the battle between Amelia and Macy, a struggle of interminable length because of the mythical strength possessed by each antagonist. Only the intercession of the demonic Lymon, a still more powerfully mythical figure, finally defeats Amelia in the agonizingly protracted wrestling contest. A creature who vaguely possesses the characteristics of a pet, as well as human (or subhuman) attributes, Lymon now, like a hawk propelling himself through the air, leaps on Amelia's back, digs his birdlike claws into her shoulders, and helps to overcome her. Victorious after battle, Macy and Lymon steal Amelia's treasures and pillage her home and her still. Amelia waits three lonely years for Lymon to return at dusk before she boards up forever the windows of her dilapidated building. As at the beginning of the novel, the men of the prison chain gang can be heard singing as they work on the highway—twelve people who have escaped the solitary existence—but who are together only because they are in chains. Spontaneous and lasting fellowship is an impossibility in this novel. The forced and uneasy fellowship in the cafe, like the harmony and solidarity of the chain gang, lacks genuineness.

The novel is remarkable for its sweep over wide reaches of time while it also achieves much compression and concentration. Four years elapse between Part I, when Lymon arrives, and Part II when he and Amelia are seen operating the cafe and talking in the long evenings together. Two years elapse between Part II and Part III, when trouble settles in upon Amelia as Lymon falls in love with her enemy.

II. Gothic, Mythical and Ballad Aspects of the Novel

McCullers claimed that in The Ballad of the Sad Café she tried to illustrate the superiority of Agapé (communal affection) over Eros (passionate love). Actually, the novel demonstrates the destructive nature of Eros in the lives of the three main characters, Miss Amelia Evans, Cousin Lymon, and Marvin Macy. McCullers' suggestion of Agapé is at best minimal, and appears only in the brief and uncertain pleasure the villagers enjoy at the cafe. Even more elusive than the fickle Eros, Agapé provides a joy to be savored in passing, rather than a durable influence through which one might shape a lifetime. The townspeople develop no continuing sense of community but remain easily frightened and suspicious of Amelia and Cousin Lymon. They rise to no significant realization of Agapé, even if the tenuous fellowship they find at the cafe provides a few moments of satisfaction in the meaningless repetition of their days. But perhaps Agapé does win out by implication, for it is surely superior to the destructiveness of Eros as it is dramatized in this book.

In demonstrating the destructive nature of Eros in the lives of Amelia, Macy, and Lymon, McCullers implies that any three-sided love affair, particularly a bisexual one, can be expected to fail, and, beyond this, most love affairs between two people will not endure.

McCullers' theme of the isolated individual seeking escape from loneliness through love, which had inspired The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, became exceedingly complex by the time she wrote this third novel. In her first novel, she had presented loneliness as an affliction of the solitary "hunter," who may possibly be cured by love and certainly can be cured by nothing else. But she indicated even in that novel, through the other characters' attraction to Singer, that love is often mere narcissism and that any individual craves response from an admiring lover primarily to reinforce his or her self-esteem. Such characters want not so much to love as to be loved. Only Antonapoulos eludes Singer's love, and ironically only he is beloved by Singer. In McCullers' second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, lust rather than love dominates the vortex of sadism, masochism, self-pity, and violence so dramatically presented. In The Ballad of the Sad Café she again addressed the dominant theme of her first novel: the ambiguity in love. The beloved resents and fears the lover, though he also needs him and craves his presence. Love, because it reveals one's inmost identity, causes the lover and the beloved to be psychologically vulnerable to each other and even more accessible to betrayal by any third person who may gain access to their private world. In a forthright passage, the narrator acknowledges the inescapable power of such paradoxical attraction and repulsion: "There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. . . . The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved."

Thus love becomes in this novel a force which drives the lover into deeper isolation by driving him in on himself. Love is the dreadful result of an individual's isolation and its intensifier, rather than its cure. Eros, if frustrated, leads to hatred and destruction; Agapé is an ideal, an inspiriting influence seldom to be attained as a pure and lasting force, though it alone can give order and meaning to our chaotic lives.

Because it embodies qualities of the gothic as McCullers defined them in "The Russian Realists and Southern Literature," The Ballad of the Sad Café, like Reflections in a Golden Eye, is interesting to consider as evidence that she herself turned rapidly toward the gothic mode after she wrote this essay. The kind of novel written in this mode, she continued, is antithetical to the meticulous and reportorial depiction of character and milieu which she found, perhaps mistakenly, typical of most contemporary Southern fiction. In her view, it was imprecise and simplistic to apply the term "gothic" to such complex works as William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying largely on the basis of their combination of beauty and the sinister and their juxtaposition of the comic and the tragic, although Faulk-ner's works contain elements of the gothic as she defined them and as she began to use them in her own work.

In her presentation of situation and characters in The Ballad of the Sad Café McCullers herself dramatically blends realistic detail with romantic and supernatural elements. Like gothic novelists, as she defined them, she herself attains striking effects of ambivalence in her work through presenting Amelia's tragic betrayal by Lymon within a comic frame and through the use of everyday phrases, perhaps more typical of the comic mode, to convey the despair reflected in the latter part of the book.

Gothic fiction writers in England at the close of the eighteenth century maintained that fear distorts the perceptions of the psyche and that a phenomenon ordinarily discerned by the rational mind as trivial can become, under stress, momentarily overpowering both for the character and the reader. These early gothic authors often deliberately chose medieval settings, because they could thus embed their credulous characters in an age and milieu wherein unquestioning belief in miracles, visions, necromancy, and dreams was common. Such a world predisposes the characters to be sensitive to extrasensory perceptions and to see the normal as through a distorting lens. Frequently, these individuals confuse the probable with the improbable.

In Reflections in a Golden Eye McCullers localized the action by limiting it to a military base, in order to suggest the presence of a closed society. The characters are further enclosed by their lack of emotional and intellectual development. They are limited by their intense obsessions or "simple-mindedness." Their personal limitations and their narrowed environment predispose them to irrational fear when they are under pressure. Thus, even in writing Reflections in a Golden Eye, McCullers showed her understanding that fundamental to the gothic mode of fiction is the creation of psychic stress in the characters that will distort their perceptions and also will, in turn, communicate intimations of a psychic realm that transcends the ordinary.

By the time she produced The Ballad of the Sad Café, she thoroughly understood the "gothic" principle that irrational impulses of all sorts distort an individual's perception of reality. The result is that in extreme circumstances the character will find a trivial or harmless phenomenon overpowering. In both Reflections in a Golden Eye and The Ballad of the Sad Café, McCullers renders states of inner turmoil in terms of outward stress or in terms of the terrifying, the macabre, or the bizarre. Another aspect of traditional gothic fiction that now appealed to McCullers was the dramatization of forces of evil at large in the universe, beyond the control and understanding of the characters. Evil in both McCullers' second and third books appears as an unmotivated, irrational, or inexplicable phenomenon. She appreciated, furthermore, the power of such forces and probed their psychological effects on the individual more fully than did earlier romantic novelists exploring this mode. Her characters react irrationally in their frustrations or their anxiety and seem as fascinated by evil as repelled by it. She also assumes, as did many early gothic writers, that a close relationship exists between evil and human solitude or loneliness.

Although in McCullers' first novel Singer cannot survive his anguish, she emphasized the optimism of Mick Kelly and Portia Copeland in the face of suffering. In Reflections in a Golden Eye and in The Ballad of the Sad Café she recognized more decisively that irrationality and evil lie as close to the heart of human experience as do the hunger for love and its possible redemptive influence. Whoever acknowledges that the cosmos is malign (or even sees that it is indifferent to the individual human being) may learn to laugh at it, she felt, may also learn to accept the fact that life is strange, uncomfortable, and never fully meaningful in human and rational terms, and may further realize that effort and inertia are equally powerless to change the universe.

In The Ballad of the Sad Café, as in her first novel, the principal character remains a lonely hunter after a brief period of love expended upon an unlovable and unresponsive person. Pity for others and the desire to achieve a meaningful communion with them is absent, moreover, as the isolation in the lives of Amelia, Macy, and Lymon intensifies. In The Ballad of the Sad Café isolation, fear, and guilt also return to the lives of the townspeople after the struggle between Amelia and Macy leaves her defeated.

Even though McCullers in The Ballad of the Sad Café projects her characters more decidedly into a fantastic milieu than she did in Reflections in a Golden Eye, paradoxically the figures in The Ballad of the Sad Café emerge as more individualized figures and as people more often worthy of sympathy than those presented in the earlier book. In addition to being grotesques or eccentrics, Amelia, Lymon, and Macy sometimes reach universal and archetypal dimensions, as they reflect certain complexities in human relationships and the strong individual's insight into his or her own situation.

All the characters illustrate these challenging complexities. The giantlike Amelia, foolishly but lovingly nicknamed "Little" by her father, is, as an adult, afraid to assume her full sexual identity and remains his little child. Lymon, the hunchbacked dwarf, openly weeps for himself, longs for a male lover, and finds pleasure in inciting trouble among other individuals, but he also has a shrewd sense of the realities that encompass him. Of all the characters, Lymon's behavior is the least predictable; his motivation, the most paradoxical and ironic. He is both more and less than a man, neither adult nor child, neither sparrow and hawk nor quite human. Injured irreparably as a small child by poverty and by his parents' mistreatment, Macy, in his turn, regresses to rebellion, self-destruction, and vengefulness when he encounters rejection in his marriage; but he also elicits sympathy as a victim of forces which are too powerful for him to control. His behavior, likewise, is at times far from the ordinary, since he exists with only a stone where his heart had been; he cannot react in the usual human mode when his emotions are involved.

Amelia is also an unusual and complicated individual. In spite of the comic means used by McCullers to characterize her, she becomes a figure capable of deep and poignant suffering. She is the one who symbolizes most forcibly the inevitable isolation experienced by most persons—an isolation which may be the result of their self-centered behavior. She has been set apart at the beginning by the townspeople as a woman with special understandings and powers, and at the end she is isolated as one who, through a series of peculiar incidents and relationships, has been overcome by incomprehensible forces of evil.

Like the anonymous townspeople, the three chief characters, in spite of their legendary powers, are intense, irrational, superstitious, and naive. Amelia hides her uncertainty behind her shrewd business activity and her ability to take risks in her law suits, but even she is fearful of what she perceives as supernatural messages manifested in natural events or objects. The townspeople are childlike, simplistic, easily frightened by events or objects which they do not understand but also easily delighted by small pleasures, like the bright decorations in the cafe. Such lack of sophistication makes McCullers' presentation of them as superstitious and suspicious all the more credible. They are bound by long traditions of folk-knowledge, some of which are terrifying, some of which are amusing, and some of which provide colorful language and imagery for McCullers' tale.

The cafe becomes a joyous place where poor people, trapped in monotonous work in the textile mill, can see themselves as individuals of some worth; but this sense of worth grows in them only through the potency of Miss Amelia's liquor, which provides warmth and which also has the magical power to heal, to kill pain, and even to produce sexual potency. Amelia herself does not seem to know the exact significance of the acorn that she picked up the afternoon her father died when Cousin Lymon questions her about it, but the narrator hints that perhaps it symbolizes masculinity, her father's love, or his death. Likewise, the significance of the kidney stone removed from Amelia's body assumes special awesomeness for her, perhaps because it caused her the greatest pain she experienced before the agony of Lymon's desertion. Throughout the book, the villagers perceive various phenomena as mysterious portents. For example, the snowfall which bewilders Amelia, as well as the townsfolk, freezes her spirit into silence so that her speech sounds muffled—her aborted speech reflects her benumbed inner being. The snowfall is surely an omen, but one she cannot interpret to her satisfaction.

Most dramatic in its resemblance to folk legends which glorify the heroic is the climactic fight between Amelia and Macy, which achieves dimensions far beyond the natural and the ordinary. Bird imagery presages this struggle: "A hawk with a bloody breast flew over the town and circled twice around the property of Miss Amelia." The conquest occurs on Ground Hog Day, a day of portent. Lymon early that morning takes a solitary journey into the swampland to see whether the animal sees his shadow, much as a character in mythology might sojourn into the netherworld to gain knowledge about his own fate and destiny. Because the weather is "neither rainy nor sunny but with a neutral temperature," the groundhog casts an indeterminate image and so foreshadows the long impasse of the wrestling match. The deliberate, ceremonial decorum of the antagonists lends solemnity to the event: "They walked toward each other with no haste, their fists already gripped, and their eyes like the eyes of dreamers." At one point, the narrator turns from the deadlocked belligerents to describe imperturbably the other spectators. When he finally returns to the match, he soberly exaggerates the length of time in which the struggle has hung in balance: "Perhaps it was half an hour before the course of the fight shifted. Hundreds of blows had been exchanged, and there was still a deadlock." Little dramatic action occurs in the book except for this great event of extraordinary violence. Anticipation, memory, and long anxiety are far more important in creating intensity and ominousness than the incidents themselves.

As later in The Member of the Wedding, the frequent, unexplained, and incantatory repetition of the numbers three and seven suggests magical or religious ritual. The numbers appear in many connections. For three days and three nights after Lymon's arrival, the townspeople do not see him. Repeatedly, the narrator claims three good persons live in town, but their identity remains secret, as does that of the three persons who are said to come from Society City to see the fight. After her dramatic fight, Amelia knocks her fist on her desk three times and then begins to sob. Three years she waits for Lymon to return before boarding up her house. Her medicines may be efficacious because the number seven appears in the directions: seven swallows of water for hiccups, seven runs around the millpond for crick in the neck, and seven doses of Amelia's Miracle Mover for curing worms. Macy's cruelty derives from his upbringing as one of seven unwanted children. Seven times Amelia invites Lymon to go with her to Cheehaw, on the fateful day that he stays home alone, meets Macy, and falls in love with him. The townfolk know intuitively that the climactic and brutal struggle which forces Amelia to acknowledge Macy's mastery will take place at 7:00 that evening.

The attribution of magical properties to certain numbers occurs in folklore of many cultures. This ritualistic use of numbers suggests a universal significance to this tale that extends it far beyond the life of one woman in an obscure village. The narrator's archaic formality also hints at a wider significance in the story he tells.

The novel contains relatively little dialogue. Hence, the narrator's voice becomes particularly important in establishing shifts in tone or mood. His acknowledgment of the efficacy of incantatory rhythms in the repetition of certain numbers reflects his willingness to share the superstitions of the naive villagers. He thus gives credence to the villagers' beliefs, and he himself seems to believe in the gossip that they pass about, exaggerated and malicious as it may be. The narrator shifts unpredictably from using the voice of a laborer at the mill, talking after work with an audience of other bored mill hands, to using the voice of a mystical balladeer who speaks in a poetic, archaic, and stylized pattern. The balladeer's omniscience and his primitive sensibility seem inconsistent with the colloquial voice of the millworker, though they both ultimately reveal a folk origin. As poetic singer, he remarks, for instance, that Macy upon his return from prison "caused ruin." But the colloquial idiom, comic in its emphasis, dominates most of the narrative passages. The humor in them gains much of its ludicrous effect from a colorful vocabulary, a curious phrasing, or a use of surprising illustrations. In his simple and direct sentences, the narrator, on the other hand, often eloquently expresses his philosophy as oracular wisdom. He moves in a moment from the comic to the profound.

The contrast between the comic idiom and the poetic expression in the narrative voice may be illustrated in the descriptions of Amelia's wonderful brew. When her liquor is not available, the narrator complains sadly that all other whiskey in the region is of such poor quality that "those who drink it grow warts on their liver the size of goobers." In contrast to such colloquial comic imagery, the narrator elsewhere describes Amelia's liquor in highly poetic context. For instance, it can make the spinner or weaver, whose sensitivity is long dulled by monotonous work, take a marsh lily in the palm of his hand and discover in it a significance that warms his soul. As an invisible message written in lemon juice becomes visible when held under the warmth of a lamp, so the mysteries of the universe, the narrator asserts, can be seen through the magical warmth of Amelia's brew. Her liquor opens astonishing worlds to the townspeople. Beyond "the loom, the dinner pail, the bed and then the loom again," a man can "see for the first time the cold, weird radiance of a midnight January sky, and a deep fright at his own smallness stops his heart."

In addition to the narrator's continual shifting between the colloquial and the formal or poetic, his style is characterized throughout the book by an extensive use of lists, as if his credibility could best be increased by piling up factual details. After the climactic fight, for example, the narrator takes time to itemize the damage done to Amelia's property by Lymon and Macy. Whenever a meal is eaten, the narrator lists the menu, which includes the regional favorites: "fried chicken . . . mashed rootabeggars, collard greens, and hot pale golden sweet potatoes." He lists the names of all the eight men who call on Amelia early in the story to investigate the rumor that she has murdered Lymon, although we hear of none of them elsewhere in the tale. (Some of the details in these lists may be humorously irrelevant to the rest of the items in the series, a comic device used by McCullers in Reflections in a Golden Eye.)

The explicitness by which the narrator establishes Amelia's milieu helps him gain credence for Amelia as an inhabitor of that milieu and as an extraordinary personage. Though the exact sources of her remarkable power remain mysterious, that power is so carefully demonstrated and her fabulous reputation is so convincingly documented that one cannot question the validity of her legendary accomplishments. The narrator always presents her behavior, her feelings, her thoughts, her appearance, and her words concretely rather than in the abstract. For instance, instead of remarking that Amelia was energetic and extremely busy in the autumn before Macy's return, the narrator recites a long series of her activities, comic in its specificity and variety:

She made a new and bigger condenser for her still, and in one week ran off enough liquor to souse the whole country. Her old mule was dizzy from grinding so much sorghum, and she scalded her Mason jars and put away pear preserves. . . . She had traded for three tremendous hogs, and intended to make much barbecue, chitterlins, and sausage. . . . One day she sat down to her typewriter and wrote a story—a story in which there were foreigners, trap doors, and millions of dollars.

Such a passage, with its celebration of a woman possessing remarkable vitality and zest, renders more poignant the effect of both the first and the last pages of this work, wherein the languor of life in the late summer afternoon town dominates. The narrator closes the tale, as he began it, by commenting quietly upon the twelve men on the chain gang, who represent, in part, the dull existence and the tragic boredom that ordinarily prevail in this town. As they sing, they leave behind them, for the moment, their misery. They begin to work in the early dawn. The ordinary daily routine of hard work and a suggestion of the eerie in their music—sounds which seem to emanate from both earth and air—contrast strangely, as do the black sky and the streaks of the golden sunrise and the skin of the black men and white. Disaster in their lives and peacefulness in their monotonous activity find expression in this "music intricately blended, both somber and joyful."

Even more a prisoner now than these men, Amelia exists as an idle and remote presence behind the shutters of the dilapidated house on the now deserted street. At the close, she thus becomes more abstract, a mythic figure representing the deep, chronic isolation which McCullers saw at the center of human life. Her face, dimly peering out from the darkness, is "sexless" because loneliness surrounds men and women alike. Because the most isolated people may become almost invisible, her face is like "the terrible dim faces" one sees only in dreams.

Barbara C. Gannon (essay date 1982)

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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 gang actually recounts, in the manner of an envoy, the whole ballad. The envoy sketches successive concepts of an empty or fallow time, a time of incipience, increase, crest, and a relapse and return to greater emptiness. The overall concept of the ballad and of the envoy is cyclical; the beginning and ending of both are congruent.

The ballad opens in uneventful monotony. There is no way even to guess what effect any change would have. The envoy's counterpoint is morning at the work station, with no oral evidence of the men—only the sound of their tools. In the ballad, the distant appearance one evening of the small figure of the hunchback is echoed by the envoy's solitary, inquiring voice which begins to sing. There are no words in the music of the singer. The melody is an inarticulate sound, a herald rather than a message and as unclear of portent as the arrival of Lymon Willis.

Elements of the plot move along: incipience and increase follow quickly, and the crest is prolonged. Cousin Lymon establishes himself and reigns. Miss Amelia mellows toward her neighbors and caters to her strange kin in every way. The cafe brightens the life of the whole town, strengthening the residents against the drudgery of life and a sense of personal insignificance. In the envoy this aspect is repeated by the high point at which the whole group of prisoners is singing a swelling and intricate blend of music that dilates the heart and mightily affects those who hear it.

The ballad slips abruptly from the point of crest with news of Marvin Macy's release from prison, and then his sudden appearance. With Miss Amelia's disastrous attempt to regain what is slipping away from her, all traces of the good times are destroyed. She is decisively and foully beaten, and sprawls on the floor of the cafe. She drags herself to her office and sobs with grating, winded breath. Her numbness turns to pain and all the rest is anticlimactic. The envoy notes that "the music will sink down . . . at last there remains one lonely voice, then a great hoarse breath, . . . silence." The very means that Miss Amelia thinks will solve her problems brings about her desolation. She and the whole town are worse off than before the arrival of Lymon.

The envoy encapsulates the Ballad of the Sad Café. At the outset of the former, there is the "sound of the picks striking into the clay earth." The singers then sing, reach a climax, and relapse into silence. Their brief song is an expressed communing and an aspiring and temporarily successful effort. But when it ends, the void and the sense of loss are a keener pain. The presence of the singers is known again only by the "sound of the picks in the silence." Earlier they had nothing to miss, but now a greater misery settles upon them than was theirs prior to the song. This is the compounded situation of Miss Amelia as her loneliness of loss is underlined by the images of the "hand [that] will slowly open the shutter," and the "face [that] will look down on the town."

Louise Westling (essay date 1982)

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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 (1943). Despite a good bit of critical attention to the novella and recent feminist interest in androgynous characters in literature, Miss Amelia's freakishness has not been seriously examined. It is crucial to the meaning of this grotesque fable, relating it closely to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding. McCullers [in The Mortgaged Heart] said that "Love, and especially love of a person who is incapable of returning or receiving it, is at the heart of my selection of grotesque figures to write about—people whose physical incapacity is a symbol of their spiritual incapacity to love or receive lov—their spiritual isolation." But Miss Amelia's peculiarities are more specific than mere "spiritual incapacity"; they reflect McCullers' ambivalence about female identity. Miss Amelia is a grown-up tomboy whose physical proportions symbolize her exaggerated masculine self-image.

Louis Rubin is perceptive in suggesting that McCullers destroys Mick Kelley and Frankie Addams as characters when she tries to force them beyond the pain of adolescent sexual awakening into an acceptance of womanhood [see Rubin, "Carson McCullers: The Aesthetic of Pain," Virginia Quarterly Review, 53 (1977)]. She cannot really imagine such acceptance because she never found it herself. Friends often commented on her childlike manner, and her adult photos present images of the same kind of fierce boyishness she described in both Mick and Frankie. Virginia Spencer Carr's biography amply documents the sexual ambivalence revealed most explicitly in McCullers' declaration to Nelson Algren, "I was born a man" [Carr, The Lonely Hunter, 1976]. It is this identification with the masculine that stimulates her imagination to explore the dangerous psychological territory of The Ballad of the Sad Café.

One critic calls McCullers' flat, childlike narrative tone "a kind of buffer to fend off what would otherwise be unbearable" [Robert Rechnitz, "The Failure of Love: The Grotesque in Two Novels by Carson McCullers," Georgia Review, 22 (1968)], but I would instead describe it as a strategy for placing the action at a safe enough remove from ordinary life to allow forbidden impulses free scope—at least for awhile. The form of The Ballad of the Sad Café allows McCullers to indulge the impulse to appropriate male power and thus escape the culturally inferior role of woman. There can be no other explanation for Miss Amelia's strapping physique, her skill at masculine trades, or her rejection of everything female, most apparent in her indignant refusal to play the physical part of a woman in her ten-day marriage to Marvin Macy. Her later relationship with Cousin Lymon is never threatening because he is not a real man who sees her as female. Behind the dream of independence represented by Miss Amelia's "masculinity," however, lies the fear of male vengeance which triumphs in the story's conclusion, as Marvin Macy and Cousin Lymon join forces to destroy the usurper. The formerly invincible Amazon is left shrunken and imprisoned in the slowly collapsing shell of her once prosperous cafe.

The folk tale atmosphere of The Ballad of the Sad Café may owe something to Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales (1934), whose strange ambience Carson McCullers never ceased to praise after a first reading in 1938. Dinesen's work remained very close to her, and it is quite understandable that three years later, while she struggled to resolve Frankie Addams' anxiety about growing too tall, she might have remembered Dinesen's portrait of six-foot Athena Hopballehus in "The Monkey." Probably this process was not conscious; her imagination simply revived the motif of the Amazon in order to explore for herself some of the problems of sexual identity and female independence which Dinesen treats in her exotic fable. Robert S. Phillips [in "Dinesen's 'Monkey' and McCullers's 'Ballad,'" Studies in Short Fiction 1 (1963-1964)] was the first to comment on the similarities between The Ballad of the Sad Café and "The Monkey," but I think he overstates their extent. The only clear parallels are the motifs of the Amazon and her bitter hand-to-hand combat with a hated male suitor. These motifs are developed in very different ways by the two writers, and the stories move through entirely different atmospheres to almost opposite conclusions about the sources of female autonomy. Because McCullers' novella is a kind of challenge to the arguments implied by Dinesen's story, it is useful to remind ourselves of the significance of the Amazon maiden in "The Monkey."

The fairy tale world of "The Monkey" is centered in the female dominion of Cloister Seven, a wealthy retreat for unmarried ladies and widows of noble birth. It is ruled by a virgin Prioress with mysterious powers who resembles a sybil, the Chinese goddess Kuan-Yin, and the Wendish goddess of love. To all of the Cloister's inhabitants it is "a fundamental article of faith that woman's loveliness and charm, which they themselves represented in their own sphere and according to their gifts, must constitute the highest inspiration and prize of life."

Athena Hopballehus embodies this ideal femininity in heroic form. She is a motherless only child who has been raised by her father in a nearby castle, surrounded by "an atmosphere of incense burnt to woman's loveliness." The father admits, however, that "she has been to me both son and daughter, and I have in my mind seen her wearing the old coats of armor of Hopballehus" (my italics). The problem implied in this reference to androgynous childhood training is never explored in the story, but perhaps it is meant to suggest an excess of independence. At eighteen, Athena is six feet tall, powerful and broad-shouldered, with flaming red hair and the eyes of a young lioness or eagle. Athena is what her name suggests, a human type of the warrior goddess, whom Dinesen also associates with the virgin huntress Diana and "a giant's daughter who unwittingly breaks men when she plays with them." When a proposal of marriage is made by a handsome young cavalry officer named Boris, the Prioress' nephew and Athena's childhood playmate, Athena's fierce autonomy sparks an indignant refusal.

Although forceful womanhood dominates the world of "The Monkey," the story's central problem is not Athena's fate but rather the decadent weakness of the Prioress' nephew Boris. This overcultivated young man is the central consciousness of the narrative, and the plot follows his reluctant entrance into normal manhood through the manipulations of his aunt. The old ladies of Cloister Seven, having heard rumors of Boris' implication in a homosexual scandal, give him an ambiguous welcome when he arrives from the capital city. They think of him as "a young priest of black magic, still within hope of conversion." A sort of conversion is indeed accomplished by the end of the story, but only because the Prioress uses deception and magic to force the resisting bride and groom together. Threatening Boris by revealing her knowledge of the scandal, she induces him to drink a love potion and to force himself upon Athena. The maiden responds with her fist and knocks out two of his teeth. Dinesen tells us that all the young women Boris had previously rejected "would have felt the pride of their sex satisfied in the contemplation of his mortal pursuit of this maiden who now strove less to escape than to kill him." A fierce battle ensues, and she is about to dispatch him with a death grip on his throat when he transforms the nature of the conflict by forcing his mouth against hers. Instantly her whole body registers the terrible effect of his kiss. "As if he had run a rapier straight through her, the blood sank from her face, her body stiffened in his arms," her strength dissolved away, and she collapsed. Both Boris' and Athena's faces express "a deadly disgust" with the kiss.

In her ability to overcome even this revulsion, the Prioress emerges as the very incarnation of the Wendish goddess of love, half-monkey and half-human. Because Boris and Athena witness the Prioress' grotesque exchange of shapes with her monkey on the morning after the seduction attempt, they are united as initiates to the mystery of her power. They submit to her insistence that the sexes cannot remain separate; Boris must pay homage to female power, and the proud young Athena must renounce her heroic virginity in an alliance with him.

No union of male and female, however reluctant, occurs in The Ballad of the Sad Café. In contrast to Athena's essentially female power, Miss Amelia's remarkable strength depends on her masculinity in a world devoid of feminine qualities. All the characters who have speaking parts are males, except for Miss Amelia, who never betrays even a hint of conventionally feminine behavior.

Like Dinesen's Athena, Miss Amelia is a motherless only child raised by an adoring father, but McCullers gives her Amazon a more exaggerated physique and a mysterious authority. At the height of her adult pride, Miss Amelia is the central personality of her town. An imposing figure, she is "a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles like a man," hairy thighs, and short-cropped hair brushed back from her forehead like Mick Kelley's and Frankie Addams'. In the building she inherited from her father, she operates a profitable general store which gradually becomes the town's only cafe. She produces the best liquor in the county from her secret still in a nearby swamp; sells chitterlins, sausage, and golden sorghum molasses; owns farms in the vicinity; and is adept at all manual skills, such as carpentry, masonry, and butchery. The most impressive of all her powers, however, and the one that with the magical properties of her whiskey best reveals her nearly supernatural dimensions, is her ability to heal the sick. Like a sorceress or witch, she brews her own secret remedies from roots and herbs. "In the face of the most dangerous and extraordinary treatment she did not hesitate, and no disease was so terrible but what she would undertake to cure it."

There is one notable exception to Miss Amelia's healing powers:

If a patient came with a female complaint she could do nothing. Indeed at the mere mention of the words her face would slowly darken with shame, and she would stand there craning her neck against the collar of her shirt, or rubbing her swamp boots together, for all the world like a great, shamed, dumb-tongued child.

Her embarrassed confusion is a natural consequence of her total identification with masculinity and her childlike sexual innocence. Even in adulthood, Miss Amelia preserves the tomboy attitudes we encounter in Mick Kelley and Frankie Addams. For all of these characters, the first physical encounters with men are unpleasant surprises. We remember Mick's distaste for her one experience of lovemaking with Harry Minowitz and Frankie's terrified escape from the soldier who tried to seduce her. For both Mick and Frankie, sexual experience brought the necessary renunciation of childhood boyish freedom and a reluctant accept-ance of adult femininity. But Miss Amelia refuses to accept the diminished status of woman. When she rather absentmindedly marries Marvin Macy, the whole town is relieved, expecting marriage to soften her character and physique "and to change her at last into a calculable woman." Instead, after the bridegroom follows her upstairs to bed on their wedding night, Miss Amelia stamps downstairs in a rage, wearing breeches and a khaki jacket. Until dawn she reads the Farmer's Almanac, smokes her father's pipe, and practices on her new typewriter. During the ensuing ten days of the abortive marriage, she sleeps downstairs and continues to ignore her husband unless he comes within striking range, when she socks him with her fist. Macy disappears from town in disgrace, leaving Amelia victorious in her Amazon virginity.

For ten uneventful years Miss Amelia goes about her solitary life, aloof, stingy, maintaining her strange control of the town. Then one night the little hunchbacked Cousin Lymon mysteriously appears on her doorstep, wins her heart, and causes momentous changes both in her life and in the life of the town for six years before the sinister return of Marvin Macy. The question is why Miss Amelia should have rejected a vigorous normal man, only to fall in love with a twisted midget. Joseph Millichap sees traditional folk tale elements in the characters of Marvin Macy and Cousin Lymon: Macy is a sort of demon lover, and Cousin Lymon is reminiscent of the figures of mysterious stranger and elf. But Millichap comes closer to answering our question when he says that Cousin Lymon "is a man loved without sex, a child acquired without pain, and a companion which her [Amelia's] limited personality finds more acceptable than a husband or a child" ["Carson McCullers's Literary Ballad," Georgia Review, 27 (1973)]. Marvin Macy had been sufficiently ennobled by his love for Miss Amelia so that he might have been a tolerable mate for her, but, by accepting her feminine part in the marriage, Amelia would have had to renounce the masculine sources of her strength. Such a capitulation to the female mysteries that she has avoided all her life would be unthinkable. Her enraged reaction to Macy's forlorn attempts at lovemaking clearly expresses the insult they represent to her pride. Cousin Lymon, on the other hand, represents no threat to her power. He is a sickly, deformed mannikin whom she could crush with one blow of her first, and, from all we can see, he makes no sexual demands. His warped, childlike form clearly indicates his masculine impotence, just as Amelia's grotesquely masculine appearance expresses her inability to function as a woman. With Lymon she feels safe in revealing affection, for she can baby and pet him without any threat of sexuality.

At the heart of Miss Amelia's relationship with Cousin Lymon, there is actually an inversion of traditional roles of male and female. Miss Amelia is physically dominant and provides a living for the household as a husband would. Cousin Lymon is the pampered mate who struts about in finery, is finicky about food and accommodations, and gads about town socializing and gossiping. He functions as a hostess would in the cafe, while Miss Amelia stands aloof and silent in the background. In their intimate conversations before the parlor fire, Miss Amelia sits with her "long legs stretched out before the hearth" contemplating philosophical problems and reminiscing about her father, while Cousin Lymon sits wrapped in a blanket or green shawl on a low chair and chatters endlessly about petty details.

Despite his physical weakness and his vanity, Cousin Lymon seems to embody the spirit of spring and renewal. He has drifted mysteriously into town in April, in a year when the crops promise well and conditions at the local mill are relatively prosperous. Once accepted as Miss Amelia's intimate, he becomes a catalyst for the release of her genial impulses. Her devotion to him brightens her face and gradually engenders a hospitality she had never expressed before. Before the hunchback's arrival, she sold her moonshine by the bottle, handing it out through her back door in the dark. Never was anyone allowed to open or to drink this liquor inside the building. But once Cousin Lymon is installed in her house, she begins selling it inside, providing glasses and plates of crackers for consumption on the premises. Gradually the store is transformed into a cafe with tables where Miss Amelia sells liquor by the drink and serves fried catfish suppers for fifteen cents a plate. Miss Amelia grows more sociable and less inclined to cheat her business associates. Even her special powers for healing and for brewing her marvelous liquor are enhanced. All these positive developments of her character expand themselves in the communal warmth which her cafe comes to provide for the town.

Though Cousin Lymon brings fruitful changes in the lives of Miss Amelia and her town, his own physical state suggests a fatal limitation to prosperity. He remains "weakly and deformed" despite Amelia's pampering and the exercise of her fullest healing abilities. He is also personally malicious, even though he has generally served as an agent for gaiety and warmth. Thus he is naturally drawn to the cruel strength of Marvin Macy, a force which complements his own unpleasant traits. When Macy suddenly returns to town from years in the state penitentiary, Cousin Lymon is immediately infatuated.

Macy embodies all the qualities of "normal" masculinity, but McCullers has cast them in an evil, destructive light throughout the story. Macy may be tall, brawny, and goodlooking, but he is also violent and viciously lustful. He is the devil male who mutilates animals for fun and has ruined the tenderest young girls in the region. Amelia refers to Macy's cloven hoof, and the Satanic is also suggested by his red shirt and the fact that he never sweats. Throughout the story he is allied with winter. Even though he had been temporarily reformed by his love for Miss Amelia, their wedding took place on a winter day rather than in the traditionally propitious season of spring or of summer. His revengeful return to town sixteen years later comes in autumn and brings sinister portents of unseasonable weather, ruining the normally festive ritual of hogbutchering: "there was everywhere the smell of slowly spoiling meat, and an atmosphere of dreary waste." Macy lays claim to the unprecedented snowfall in January that gives the town "a drawn, bleak look." The climactic battle between Miss Amelia and Marvin Macy occurs exactly one month later, on ground-hog day. Its issue is foreordained by Cousin Lymon's report that the groundhog has seen its shadow and, therefore, that more winter lies ahead.

Understanding at once that Macy's return to town is a challenge, Miss Amelia begins preparations for a fight, taunting Macy by wearing her red dress as a flagrant reminder of his failure to make her act the part of a woman during their marriage. While she wears the dress, she pokes her biceps constantly, practices lifting heavy objects, and works out with a punching bag in her yard. In the climactic battle between the two antagonists, the question to be decided is not, as in Dinesen, whether a powerful young woman can be subdued so that a union of the sexes can occur. For McCullers, the contest will decide whether a woman can deny her sex and dominate men with a strength analogous to their own.

Now the test had come, and in these moments of terrible effort, it was Miss Amelia who was the stronger. Marvin Macy was greased and slippery, tricky to grasp, but she was stronger. Gradually she bent him over backward, and inch by inch she forced him to the floor. . . . At last she had him down, and straddled; her strong big hands were on his throat.

Suddenly, at this moment of Miss Amelia's triumph, Cousin Lymon leaps across the room from his perch on the bar to aid his adored male friend. He lands on Amelia's back and changes the balance of force to Macy's advantage. Miss Amelia is destroyed.

The sexual dynamics of The Ballad of the Sad Café are an inversion of traditional heterosexual patterns. Contrasts with Dinesen's "The Monkey" help reveal the masculine sources of Miss Amelia's autonomous strength and point up McCullers' complete rejection of heterosexual union. Rather than accepting her femininity by consummating her marriage to the aggressively masculine Marvin Macy, Miss Amelia focuses her affections on the little hunchback who seems to function simultaneously as child, pet, and rather feminine companion. But Cousin Lymon is much less devoted to Miss Amelia than she is to him, and this gives him an emotional advantage over her which proves ultimately disastrous. It seems inevitable that the foppish dwarf should fall helplessly in love with Marvin Macy, thus completing the destructive triangular relationship which McCullers used to develop her theory that "almost everyone wants to be the lover" and that "in a deep secret way, the state of being loved is intolerable to many." But this theory and McCullers' statement that Ballad was intended to show the inferiority of passionate individual love to Agapé [see The Mortgaged Heart] fail to account for the individual peculiarities of her characters and for the sexual dimensions of their problems in love. The real force of The Ballad of the Sad Café lies in its depiction of a masculine Amazon whose transgression of conventional sexual boundaries brings catastrophic male retribution. Unlike Dinesen, who portrayed an uneasy compromise between proud female autonomy and reluctant masculine homage, McCullers sought to deny the feminine entirely and to allow a woman to function successfully as a man. She could not sustain her vision because she knew it was impossible. I believe that the consequences of her experiment in this novella play a part in determining the final form of The Member of the Wedding, which, as I have argued elsewhere ["Carson McCullers's Tomboys," Southern Humanities Review 14 (1980)], inexorably moves Frankie toward an acceptance of conventional femininity. After writing The Ballad of the Sad Café in only a few months, when McCullers returned to her six-year struggle with the materials of The Member of the Wedding, she knew that Frankie would have to submit as Miss Amelia had not.

Mary Ann Dazey (essay date 1985)

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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 is ranked along with The Member of the Wedding as her most successful work. McCullers' choosing to call the sad, romantic tale a ballad has caused many to discuss her ballad style in some fashion. In his work Carson McCullers, Lawrence Graver, for example, concludes that The Ballad of the Sad Café is one of her most "rewarding works" in part because she employed "a relaxed colloquial style, punctuating the narrative with phrases like 'time must pass' and 'so do not forget.'" Ironically, Dayton Kohler, eighteen years earlier [in "Carson McCullers: Variations on a Theme," College English, 13 (1951)], had selected these identical lines as evidence of McCullers' "stylistic coyness," which he called "poetically false and out of the context with the objective drama." He further determined that the passages where the narrator stops the flow of the story to make "wise observations" indicate McCullers' own feelings that her story was "too weak to carry unsupported its burden of theme and sensibility." Both critics are reacting to what Dawson F. Gaillard determines is the changing voice of the narrator. Gaillard points out that in the first paragraph of the story, for example, the narrator's voice is "flat" and "inflectionless" and is "adjusted" to the "dreariness" of the town; then it changes and loses the flatness to become the ballad teller ["The Presence of the Narrator in Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Café, " Mississippi Quarterly 25 (1972)]. This ballad maker, Joseph R. Millichap concludes, "fixes the style of the novel." His voice permits McCullers to weave her literary ballad into a perfect blend of the "literate and colloquial" ["Carson McCullers' Literary Ballad," Georgia Review, 27 (1973)].

A stylistic analysis of The Ballad of the Sad Café reveals that McCullers has created a single narrator with two distinctly different voices. In the first voice the narrator places the characters and their actions in the mainstream of human existence. This voice begins, "The town itself is dreary" and ends, "Yes, the town is dreary." This voice concludes the introduction, "You might as well walk down to the Forks Falls Road and listen to the chain gang" and ends the story, "You might as well go down to the Forks Falls highway and listen to the chain gang." Not only does this voice provide the frame for the drama, but it also flows throughout the story as a second voice of the single narrator. In this voice the reader is sometimes addressed directly and even commanded to respond to the narration.

For the voice of the ballad maker, who actually tells the tale of Miss Amelia, her ten-day bridegroom, and her cousin Lymon, McCullers chooses past tense verb forms. When the first voice, the voice of the lamenter, encountered at the beginning of the novel, speaks, McCullers chooses present tense verb forms. The first shift occurs after Cousin Lymon has appeared and has been offered a drink of Miss Amelia's whiskey. The narrator explains:

The whiskey they drank that evening (two big bottles of it) is important. Otherwise, it would be hard to account for what followed. Perhaps without it there would never have been a café. For the liquor of Miss Amelia has a special quality of its own. It is clean and sharp on the tongue, but once down a man it glows inside him for a long time afterward. And that is not all. It is known that if a message is written with lemon juice on a clean sheet of paper there will be no sign of it. But if the paper is held for a moment to the fire then the letters turn brown and the meaning becomes clear.

Next this voice draws the reader into the experience, and McCullers employs the first of eight imperatives that run throughout the first half of the novel (italics in quotations mine):

Imagine that the whiskey is the fire and that the message is that which is known only in the soul of a man—then the worth of Miss Amelia's liquor can be understood. Things that have gone unnoticed, thoughts that have been harbored far back in the dark mind are suddenly recognized and comprehended.

The second of the eight imperatives occurs after the regular group of townsmen has been named and described. The ballad maker says, "Each of them worked in the mill, and lived with others in a two- or three-room house for which the rent was ten dollars or twelve dollars a month. All had been paid that afternoon, for it was Saturday." And the lamenting voice adds, "So, for the present, think of them as a whole."

In the third imperative, the narrator becomes a camera which provides a long shot of Miss Amelia and Cousin Lymon as the two establish a pattern of behavior over the years:

So for the moment regard these years from random and disjointed views. See the hunchback marching in Miss Amelia's footsteps when on a red winter morning they set out for the pinewoods to hunt. See them working on her properties—with Cousin Lymon standing by and doing absolutely nothing, but quick to point out any laziness among the hands. On autumn afternoons they sat on the back steps chopping sugar cane. The glaring summer days they spent back in the swamp where the water cypress is a deep black green, where beneath the tangled swamp trees there is a drowsy gloom. When the path leads through a bog or a stretch of blackened water see Miss Amelia bend down to let Cousin Lymon scramble on her back—and see her wading forward with the hunchback settled on her shoulders, clinging to her ears or to her broad forehead.


For the hunchback was sickly at night and dreaded to lie looking into the dark. He had a deep fear of death. And Miss Amelia would not leave him by himself to suffer with this fright. It may even be reasoned that the growth of the café came about mainly on this account; it was a thing that brought him through the night. So compose from such flashes an image of these years as a whole. And for a moment let it rest.

The next imperative instructs the reader in his understanding of Miss Amelia's peculiar behavior and prepares him for the story of Marvin Macy and Miss Amelia's ten-day marriage: "Remember that it all happened long ago, and that it was Miss Amelia's only personal contact, before the hunchback came to her, with this phenomenon—love." And at the end of the recital of events concerning the brief marriage and Marvin Macy's departure from town, this voice again addresses the reader, "So do not forget this Marvin Macy, as he is to act a terrible part in the story which is yet to come." The final instructions to the reader are delivered when Marvin Macy is about to return to town and change the lives of Miss Amelia and Cousin Lymon forever: "So let the slow years pass and come to a Saturday evening six years after the time when Cousin Lymon came first to the town."

Constantly flowing alongside these imperatives and the lively voice of the ballad maker are the generalizations made by the lamenting voice about the specific actions of the characters. The specific action of a character is told in past tense, but the interpretation is always in the present tense. Of Cousin Lymon, the subjective narrator explains, "There is a type of person who has a quality about him that sets him apart from other and more ordinary human beings. Such a person has an instinct to establish immediate and vital contact between himself and all things in the world." And the ballad maker observes, "Certainly the hunchback was of this type." And after the ballad maker tells the story of the miserable lives of the Macy children, the lamenting voice explains what this background does to Henry Macy:

But the hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes. The heart of a hurt child can shrink so that forever afterward it is hard and pitted as the seed of a peach. Or again, the heart of such a child may fester and swell until it is a misery to carry within the body, easily chafed and hurt by the most ordinary things. This last is what happened to Henry Macy, who is so opposite to his brother, is the kindest and gentlest man in town.

Of the two voices of the narrator, the one which tells the love story, the actual narrative, is the dominant one. This voice is the objective voice of the literary ballad maker. On this level, McCullers chooses past tense verb forms, simple diction, a large percentage of simple sentences, often as short as three or four words, compound sentences with short members, and realistic dialog. The dialog is in rural Georgia dialect and comprises a very small percentage of the total narrative, actually less than one hundred and fifty lines. Like Eudora Welty, McCullers relies entirely on syntax and local idiom to convey the speech patterns of these rural milltown people. She does not employ distortion of spelling to convey variances in pronunciation. Although the narrator implies that long hours of the long, hot summers and dreary winters were spent in telling tall tales, little actual evidence of any prolonged conversation exists in the novel. Only once is there a sustained conversation between Miss Amelia and Cousin Lymon:

"Amelia, what does it signify?" Cousin Lymon asked her. "Why, it's just an acorn," she answered. "Just an acorn I picked up on the afternoon Big Papa died."

"How do you mean?" Cousin Lymon insisted.

"I mean it's just an acorn I spied on the ground that day. I picked it up and put it in my pocket. But I don't know why."

"What a peculiar reason to keep it," Cousin Lymon said.

In an apparent imitation of the poetic ballad, McCullers constructs paragraphs which are rather uniform in length, about one hundred and fifty words each. Many of these paragraphs begin with very short simple sentences in subject-verb order:

The place was not always a cage.

Dark came on.

And Miss Amelia married him.

They were wrong.

The hunchback chattered on.

Henry Macy was still silent.

The hunchback was impatient.

The autumn was a happy time.

No one answered.

Miss Amelia made no protest.

The snow did not last.

So things went on like this.

The rest is confusion.

Additionally in the literary ballad form McCullers employs alliteration, repetition, and poetic imagery. Running throughout the narrative are repeated references to Miss Amelia's "ten-day marriage," "the loom-fixer," "the August white heat," "the peach trees," "the golden dust." She paints her background canvas with color imagery:

The red winter sun was setting, and to the west the sky was deep gold and crimson.

The next morning was serene, with a sunrise of warm purple mixed with rose. In the fields around the town the furrows were newly plowed, and very early the tenants were at work setting out the young, deep green tobacco plants. The wild crows flew down close to the fields, making swift blue shadows on the earth. In the town the people set out early with their dinner pails, and the windows of the mill were blinding gold in the sun.

McCullers most frequently employs alliteration and sensory images, often combining the two:

The moon made dim, twisted shadows of the blossoming peach trees along the side of the road. In the air the odor of blossoms and sweet spring grass mingled with the warm, sour smell of the near-by lagoon.

The night was silent and the moon still shone with a soft, clear light—it was getting colder.

The lamp on the table was well-trimmed, burning blue at the edges of the wick and casting a cheerful light in the kitchen.

The two voices of the single narrator alternate and together weave the tale of the lover, the beloved and of love betrayed. The ballad voice tells the story, and the second voice provides the sad background music. The styles of the two voices are distinctly different in syntax also. In the ballad teller's voice, McCullers rarely employs complex sentences. When they are used, they are almost always in normal order with single right-branching clauses. The most common of these structures is the noun modifier rather than an adverbial modifier. Unlike the simple sentences which often have tricolon verb structures with the last member expanded, the complex sentences usually employ either a single verb or a compound verb. On the other hand, the lamenting voice is related in complex sentences in periodic order with multiple clauses that are both adverbial and adjectival. These structures often employ self-embeddings along with multiple nominals and verbals.

This analysis would seem to imply that one voice is entirely separate from the other; that, however, is not the case. The transitions from one voice to the other are smooth, almost unnoticeable. One of the transitional devices that McCullers employs to move from one to the other is the question and answer. The ballad teller asks a question, and the lamenting voice answers it:

What sort of thing, then was this love?

First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons—but the fact that it is a joint experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the storedup love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. 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 lover within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world—a world intense and strange, complete in himself.

The most frequently used device is the shift from the particular action of the mill-town group to the lamenting voice's generalization about that pattern of behavior among all people, as when McCullers moves from a description of Henry Macy as a child to her generalization about all such miserable children, or from Miss Amelia's liquor to the effects of liquor in general. This particular technique also permits transition again to the narrative in the reverse pattern of general to particular. For example, after the ballad teller has described the birth of the café, the lamenting voice comments on the general behavior of people in cafés, and the ballad teller follows this philosophical comment with the behavior of Miss Amelia's customers:

But the spirit of a café is altogether different. Even the richest, greediest old rascal will behave himself, insulting no one in a proper café. And poor people look about them gratefully and pinch up the salt in a dainty and modest manner. For the atmosphere of a proper café implies these qualities: fellowship, the satisfactions of the belly, and a certain gaiety and grace of behavior.

This had never been told to the gathering in Miss Amelia's store that night. But they knew it of themselves, although never, of course, until that time had there been a café in the town.

The third method of transition from one voice to the other employed by McCullers is the time shift from the past of the story to the present. Of course the novel begins and ends in the present in the "dreary" mill town, but constantly within the frame of this time, the reader is swept back from the lively past into the present. The reader is carefully reminded that "it all happened long ago."

After the narrator's two voices are silent, after the sad story has been told, McCullers attaches the epilogue "Twelve Mortal Men." Barbara Nauer Folk believes that this epilogue serves to remind the reader that the story is both a "literary ballad and a folk dirge ["The Sad Sweet Music of Carson McCullers," Georgia Review 16 (1962)]. What Folk is isolating in form as "dual-level usage of the ballad form" is stylistically the dual voices of the single narrator. The harmony of the voices of the "twelve mortal men, seven of them black and five of them white boys from this county" is precisely the kind of harmony McCullers achieves in the blending of the two voices of her single narrator. For the objective voice that relates the sequence of events of the narrative, McCullers chooses short, almost choppy sentences in normal order and casts the verbs in the past tense. For the subjective, lamenting voice, she employs long sentences with multiple embeddings, present tense verb forms, and frequent imperatives that order the reader to interpret the bare details given by the other voice. These two voices serve McCullers in the same way that various instruments within an orchestra serve the conductor. The harmony is not achieved because the various musicians are reacting to the same notes; it relies upon the instructions of that conductor. That the two distinctly different narrative voices in The Ballad of the Sad Café are not in discord is a tribute to the author's ability to convey these voices in two recognizably different yet compatible rhetorical styles.

Todd Stabbins (essay date 1988)

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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 cafe with its upper rooms, the ventures away from the cafe—further the theme of isolation and this quest for love. Everything in The Ballad, save the key final scene in which McCullers offers a note of hope, centers around the cafe. As the protagonist, Miss Amelia, is finally left alone inside her inner rooms, so the cafe is left alone, slowly deteriorating. The relationships initiated by Cousin Lymon cannot last. As the love passage explains, the lover who must escape to the outer world through love does so by attempting to absorb and enclose the beloved, as Miss Amelia attempts to enclose Cousin Lymon in her inner world. This in itself is a paradox. These relationships, essentially social, are doomed. Individual relationships die, the social cafe dies, and the town pride dies. McCullers does, however, show us in the final scene that the attempt is not a futile one. She uses the unlikely setting of the Fork Falls highway, away from the cafe, to show that escape from the solitary loneliness is possible, albeit temporary.

In this final scene, it is important to notice that while the twelve mortal men are working outside, they are nonetheless trapped in an inner world. The fact that they are chained together shows that they, too, are confined. In spite of the absence of any rooms, a cafe, or other enclosures, these men are, through no choice of their own, linked to one another. It is this social confinement that allows them to achieve some harmony in their music. Their situation reflects the life of Miss Amelia because their harmony is also temporary. The music begins with one voice, alone, as Miss Amelia was alone. That solitary voice reaches out and is joined by others, as Cousin Lymon touches Miss Amelia's life. But finally, only one voice remains, isolated before fading into silence.

And every day there is music. One dark voice will start a phrase, half-sung, and like a question. And after a moment another voice will join in, soon the whole gang will be singing. The voices are dark in the golden glare, the music intricately blended, both somber and joyful. The music will swell until at last it seems that the sound does not come from the twelve men on the gang, but from the earth itself, or the wide sky. . . . Then slowly the music will sink down until at last there remains one lonely voice, then a great hoarse breath, the sun, the sound of the picks in the silence.

As these twelve mortal men are together, so have Miss Amelia and Cousin Lymon been together. The gang's music is temporary, as was the "music" of Miss Amelia and Cousin Lymon. The emotional description of the music points to a parallel with love. "It is music that causes the heart to broaden and the listener to grow cold with ecstasy and fright." That we are talking about love as well as music is clear. This understood, we are asked: "And what kind of gang is this that can make such music?" and the answer comes: "Just twelve mortal men who are together." But they are only together temporarily. The music sinks down to one lonely voice. As their unified music is tempor-ary this day, so the gang's days together are also short-lived. These men will serve their time and move on.

McCullers shows us that, whether we see two people like Miss Amelia and Cousin Lymon in a room trying to communicate, or we see townspeople in a cafe feeling a social sense of pride, or we see twelve mortal men chained together in the countryside, all rely on contact with another a social setting to expand outside the lonely self. At the same time, it is the nature of these social relationships that they disintegrate. Private rooms deteriorate, cafes are boarded up, friendships fade, and men move on. McCullers' careful use of setting indicates the fragility of these relationships and portends their destruction; yet, there is a real sense of hope in The Ballad. McCullers' message seems pessimistic because relationships die and Miss Amelia is completely isolated, but the story does not end there. The optimism, as shown clearly in the final scene, is that relationships do occur, harmony can be reached. McCullers is using the twelve mortal men to illustrate the fact that any two people, or a group of people, can make music, no matter how unlikely the match, as long as they are together: together in a private room, in a town cafe, roaming the country, or even together on the Fork Falls highway under the wide sky.

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

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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 Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers seems to stand outside the constructs of gender in order to demonstrate, as Williams did in Streetcar, the pain of what Adrienne Rich has called "compulsory heterosexuality" ["Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," Signs (1980)]. But even more than Williams does in Streetcar, McCullers focuses in "Ballad" on the terrifying revenge that the law of the phallus inflicts on those (women) who defy its imperatives. Specifically, she dramatizes the punishment meted out to a woman who has arrogantly supposed that she could live in a no man's land—first without a real man, and then with a dwarfish no-man.

At the beginning of Ballad, Miss Amelia Evans has the kind of physical power, intellectual authority, and personal autonomy that characterize Rebecca West's Evadne Silverton, but, unlike Evadne, she does not need men at all, even as instruments of her own pleasure. Six feet two inches tall, frequently "dressed in overalls and gumboots," the thirty-year-old Amelia Evans is "a woman with bones and muscles like a man," who has parlayed an inheritance from her father into a fortune that makes her "the richest woman for miles around," for she is the proprietor of a store and a still (where she makes "the best liquor in the county") and the possessor of "mortgages on crops and property, a sawmill [and] money in the bank." In addition, she is an extraordinarily skillful healer, a kind of self-taught general practitioner about whom McCullers observes that "no disease was so terrible but what she would undertake to cure it."

That Miss Amelia's success is associated with a culturally problematic eccentricity is shown not only by her masculine and peculiar physical appearance (besides being unusually tall and strong for a woman, she is cross-eyed, "dark and somewhat queer of face") but also by her antisocial nature (it is "only with people that Miss Amelia [is] not at ease"), by her litigiousness (only her proclivity for lawsuits keeps her from being "as rich as a congressman"), and, most important, by her one failing as a "doctor":

If a patient came with a female complaint she could do nothing. Indeed, at the mere mention of the words her face would slowly darken with shame, and she would stand there craning her neck against the collar of her shirt, or rubbing her swamp boots together, for all the world like a great, shamed, dumb-tongued child.

Taken together, all these traits illustrate this woman's rebellious desire to rule rather than to be ruled. Alienated from the community which she in some sense governs, the indomitable Miss Amelia manipulates social law in order to transcend it, and she refuses to acknowledge the biological law that governs her own body.

Inevitably, then, when Miss Amelia marries one Marvin Macy—for reasons that remain mysterious to the townsfolk as well as to the reader but which seem to have the inexplicable force that motivates actions in fairy tales—the wedding leads to immediate disaster. During the ceremony itself, Miss Amelia rubs "the palm of her right hand down the side of her satin wedding gown" as if "reaching for the pocket of her overalls," and afterwards she hurries out of the church, "walking at least two paces ahead" of her bridegroom. But the couple's wedding night is even more catastrophic. Though the townsfolk had "counted on the marriage to tone down Miss Amelia's temper, to put a bit of bride-fat on her, and to change her at last into a calculable woman," this incalculable bride refuses to sleep with her husband, instead "stomp[ing] down the stairs in breeches and a khaki jacket" and spending the night, "feet up on the kitchen stove," smoking her father's pipe. Worse still, when the humiliated Marvin Macy—who has for love of her transformed himself from the handsome town ne'er-do-well to an exemplary suitor—seeks to placate his resistant wife with presents from "Society City," she offers them for sale in her store; when he signs "over to her the whole of his worldly goods .. . ten acres of timberland," she studies the paper "sternly" and files it away "soberly"; and when, driven to drunkenness by her recalcitrance, he approaches her humbly, she swings "once with her fist and hit[s] his face so hard that he [is] thrown back against the wall and one of his front teeth [is] broken." After ten days of marriage, she turns him off her property and, following much public suffering, he leaves town, writing her a "wild love letter" in which "were also included threats" and vows of revenge.

At this point, Miss Amelia seems invincible, not only in her battle with her groom but also in her social and sexual eccentricity. Yet, oddly enough, she can only speak of Marvin Macy "with a terrible and spiteful bitterness" that would not appear to be the natural response of the victor to the vanquished. Given Miss Amelia's fierce independence, along with her excessive hostility to Marvin Macy, it is almost predictable that, having rejected a he-man, she now embraces a no-man like Lymon Willis, the mysterious hunchbacked dwarf who claims to be her cousin. Coming out of nowhere from no one but asserting common ancestry with hers, this physically deformed and spiritually dissolute but emotionally compelling creature is destined, in his consumptive way, to consume most of Miss Amelia's worldly goods, and, significantly, he resembles not only the dwarfish "sewer rat" Loerke in Lawrence's Women in Love but also the spiteful cripple Doyle in Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, both paradigmatic no-men who represent for their authors all that is socially bankrupt in contemporary culture.

But while Lawrence and West characterize the dwarf as from first to last a decadent whose perversity signals the end of the species of man, McCullers implies that, at least in the beginning of their relationship, Miss Amelia's Cousin Lymon is an empowering figure for her. Knitting her into the community, he facilitates her creation of the cafe in which her rare liquor can teach its drinkers how to read the truths of their own souls. Offering her (or, more accurately, allowing her to offer) love and friendship, he functions as the family, and hence the identity, she lost when her "Big Papa" died; and that she gives him not only her father's snuff box but her father's (master) bedroom suggests again the dwarf's connection with her patrilineage. Tiny as a child yet charismatic as any gigolo, he seems to be her son and her lover, a link to the ancestral past who might provide her with the future she repudiated when she rejected Marvin Macy. Yet, as McCullers's text gradually and grimly reveals, Miss Amelia's Cousin Lymon is, in the deepest sense, a lie-man, a no-man whose manhood is really a lie. In fact, nebulously related to her mother (ostensibly the son of her mother's half-sister), he is not in any way associated with her patrilineage. Rather, pale and vampiric, he is in Freudian terms the (false) baby as false phallus, whose deformity and fake masculinity represent the deform-ity and fakery that (as Miss Amelia must learn) are associated with her own self-deluding male impersonation. If she wants a member instead of a wedding, she has to discover that this treacherous imposter is what she will get.

That Lymon as phallus is a lie becomes clear with the liberation of Marvin Macy from the penitentiary where, after Miss Amelia's rejection, he had been incarcerated for a number of years. Unlike George Silverton in Rebecca West's "Indissoluble Matrimony," who had been pruriently obsessed with his wife's supposed adultery and whose no-manhood had led him to the edge of madness, Lymon becomes instantly enthralled to his patroness's unknown husband, with whom he exchanges a look "like the look of two criminals who recognize each other." But once the no-man Lymon, who as the fake thing recognizes the real thing, weds himself to the he-man Marvin, Miss Amelia begins to go into a bizarre decline, a decline that presages a defeat even more radical than Evadne's victory. Relin-quishing her overalls for the red dress that she had previously reserved only for Sundays, Miss Amelia has lost her falsely instrumental Lymon Willis and is now, therefore, will-less. Moreover, caught between two phallic beings the one exploitative, the other vengeful—she tries to please one and poison the other, but in both cases she fails: mendacious cousin Lymon becomes a mad man who is increasingly flirtatious toward Marvin Macy, while Marvin Macy becomes a bad man whose gradual usurpation of the very house and grounds she had granted to the dwarf signifies that, even if the rebellious woman desires the false phallus that she can control, the true phallus will eventually repossess her and all her worldly goods in an ultimate act of masculinist retribution. Indeed, as McCullers shows, though Miss Amelia tries to resist her "mortal enemy," "everything she trie[s] to do against Marvin Macy rebound[s] on herself."

Since the terms of the psychodrama unfolding in McCullers's sad cafe are so inexorable, Miss Amelia is doomed from the start to lose the physical battle with Macy which constitutes the novella's climax. Because she has given up her bed to Lymon (who has given up his to Marvin Macy), her only bed has been an uncomfortable sofa, and perhaps, we are told, "lack of sleep . . . clouded her wits." But in itself, as McCullers makes clear, neither sleeplessness nor the stress of having her house invaded would necessarily have been enough to guarantee Miss Amelia's defeat. "A fine fighter," this powerful woman "know[s] all manner of mean holds and squeezes," so that "the town [is] betting on" her victory, remembering "the great fight between Miss Amelia and a Forks Falls lawyer who had tried to cheat her .. . a huge strapping fellow [who] was left three quarters dead when she had finished with him. And it was not only her talent as a boxer that had impressed everyone—she could demoralize her enemy by making terrifying faces and fierce noises." In spite of Miss Amelia's unnatural strength, though, the sexual subtext represented by the grotesque triangle in which she is involved dooms her to defeat.

For, as McCullers describes it, the spectacular fight in which Marvin Macy and Miss Amelia engage before a mass of spectators in the cleared cafe at seven P.M. on Ground Hog Day is not just a jealous struggle for power over Lymon, it is the primal scene of sexual consummation which did not take place on their wedding night. Stripped for action—Miss Amelia barefoot in overalls rolled up to the knees, Marvin Macy "naked to the waist and heavily greased"—the combatants present themselves as the central figures in a bizarre but ancient ritual, "walk[ing] toward each other with no haste, their fists already gripped, and their eyes like the eyes of dreamers." But as they come together in the match, the specifically sexual nature of this ritual becomes clear, for McCullers's language, whether intentionally or not, is heavy with double entendres. At the beginning of the fight, when the strange and estranged husband and wife are said to produce "the sound of knocks, panting, and thumpings on the floor" as they are "experimenting with various positions," McCullers evokes the idiom of foreplay. Then, when Miss Amelia gets "a grasp around [Marvin Macy's] waist" and "the real fight" begins, the wrestling couple's thrashings not only recall the wrestling match between the unnaturally virile Bertha Mason Rochester and her captor husband but also plainly suggest that, besides being sexual, the battle is sex: "For a while the fighters grappled muscle to muscle, their hipbones braced against each other. Backward and forward, from side to side, they swayed in this way."

Unlike Rochester, however, who is so confident in his mastery that he will not "strike," he will "only wrestle," Marvin Macy appears to be on the verge of losing the fight and his manhood, for though he is "tricky to grasp," Miss Amelia is "stronger." In fact, as their bout reaches its climax, she bends "him over backward, and inch by inch she force[s] him to the floor" until she has "him down, and straddled; her strong big hands . . . on his throat." At just this moment of imminent female victory, however, the phallic retribution that must punish Miss Amelia's transgressive behavior is exacted. The hunchback, who has been watching the fight from an elevated position on the counter of the cafe, suddenly utters "a cry . . . that caused a shrill bright shiver to run down the spine" and sails "through the air as though he had grown hawk wings" to land like an incubus on Miss Amelia's back and to allow Marvin Macy to leave her "sprawled on the floor, her arms flung outward and motionless."

Why is the hunchback the agent of Miss Amelia's symbolic defloration as well as her literal defeat and thus the instrument of Marvin Macy's sexual triumph? And why is his leap into the fray accompanied by a mysterious cry? McCullers's text is so complex that we have to read it as overdetermined. From one perspective, if we take the hunchback to represent the false phallus associated with Miss Amelia's presumptuous usurpation of masculine privilege—with, that is, what Freud would call her "penis envy" and her "masculinity complex"—then his intervention in the fight signals the moment when she must be forced to confront the delusional quality of her pseudo-virility. Deformed himself, Lymon lands on her back to dramatize the way in which his physical deformity echoes her sexual deformity. In this reading, then, as Miss Amelia is made to surrender her pretensions to power, true masculinity reasserts itself with a victorious war whoop that sends a shiver down the spines of the onlookers, who realize that they are present at a solemn cultural event.

From another perspective, if we see the hunchback as representing the "little man" that is the female clitoris or, in a more generalized sense, the authentic if truncated female libido that Miss Amelia has refused to acknowledge, then the intervention of the hunchback in the fight signals the moment when she has been forced to confront her desire for Marvin Macy. Certainly from the day Macy returned to town, her behavior has notably changed: abandoning overalls for a dress, feeding Macy at her table, and finally bedding him down in her private quarters, she might almost "[seem] to have lost her will" because she is in a kind of erotic trance, and the hunchback's open flirtation with Marvin Macy might well express her own secret enthrallment. In this reading, therefore, the mysterious cry is a cry of female orgasmic surrender which sends a shiver down the spine of onlookers because they realize that they are voyeurs witnessing a ceremonial sexual event.

Finally, from yet a third perspective, if we define the hunchback not simply as an anatomical or allegorical aspect of Miss Amelia but rather as an autonomous male character, then his intervention in the fight signals the moment when, by eliminating Amelia as a rival, he achieves a homosexual union with the man whom he has been trying to seduce since the moment when they exchanged their first gaze of secret complicity. In this reading, then—a reading that supposes McCullers's text to be haunted by female anxiety about male social and sexual bonding—Miss Amelia is simply the medium whose house and flesh provide the opportunity for Lymon and Marvin Macy to come together, and the mysterious cry at the end of the fight expresses their homoerotic orgasm while sending a shiver down the spines of onlookers because they realize they are witnessing a perverse and subversive event. Moreover, that the two men leave town together after destroying most of Miss Amelia's property reiterates the point that she not only is no longer necessary to them but that their union requires her obliteration.

Whether one subscribes to all or none of these readings, it is clear that at the conclusion of Ballad Miss Amelia has been metamorphosed from a woman warrior to a helpless madwoman. Her very body has shriveled, for she is "thin as old maids are thin when they go crazy"; her eyes emphasize her isolation because they are "more crossed . . . as though they sought each other out to exchange a little glance of grief and lonely recognition"; and her voice is "broken, soft, and sad." Bereft of her once legendary physical strength, she has also lost her social, intellectual, and economic authority; her cafe is closed; her house is boarded up; and all her "wise doctoring" is over, for she tells "one-half of her patients that they [are] going to die outright, and to the remaining half she recommend[s] cures so far-fetched and agonizing that no one in his right mind would consider them for a moment." Incarcerated in a wasteland of a town where "the soul rots with boredom," she resembles not only such paradigmatic mad spinsters as Miss Havisham in Dickens's Great Expectations and Miss Emily in Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" but also a female version of T. S. Eliot's wounded Fisher King.

Even the male prisoners in the novella's mysterious epilogue—a brief coda entitled "THE TWELVE MORTAL MEN"—are happier on their chain gang than is this prisoner of sex in her sad cafe, for as she sits in silence beside the one window of her house "which is not boarded" and turns toward the empty street "a face like the terrible dim faces known in dreams," their voices swell together "until at last it seems that the sound does not come from the twelve men on the gang, but from the earth itself, or the wide sky." Even in the penitentiary, McCullers implies, men are sustained by their own community while a woman like Miss Amelia—who, even at her most powerful, never had a community of women—has been inexorably condemned to the solitary confinement such a singular anomaly deserves.

Virginia Spencer Carr (essay date 1990)

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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 Café, published for the first time in 1943 in a single issue of Harper's Bazaar. More important to the story line of the tale than McCullers's southern discomfort, however, was her predicament in New York in 1940 and 1941. She had hoped for a committed relationship with her new friend Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, having fallen deeply in love with her, but it became apparent to McCullers soon after their involvement that nothing further would develop.

To suffer in despair was her destiny as a mortal, she reasoned, turning once more to fiction to express what she saw as her truths. Although McCullers had been working for many months on a manuscript that she referred to as "The Bride and Her Brother," its design and technique had not yet revealed themselves to her (a metaphysical experience McCullers described later as "the grace of labor") ["The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing," in The Mortgaged Heart (1971)]. She realized while in the nurturing environment of her native Columbus that she could put off no longer the strange tale of thwarted love that had grown out of her tangled relationships with her husband and her Swiss friend. That winter she wrote her editor (Robert Linscott) that passion and tension in her life were necessary if she were to write at all, but that she needed it in smaller doses. With her husband, there had been too much tension, and passion had been replaced by disillusionment, ennui, and disgust. But now, removed physically from the two people with whom she had been most deeply involved, she found herself writing well once more. Her new tale was better than anything else she had done, she reported.

McCullers told a number of friends while she was at work on her "folk tale" during the summer of 1941 at Yaddo Artists Colony that she had written the "music" for it years earlier as a result of her experiences with people she loved. Her lyrics, however, were more recently inspired. In the first week of her stay at Yaddo, she became enamored of Katherine Anne Porter, a fellow guest and the reputed grande dame of the colony, a crush that added still another dimension to her tale. According to Porter, McCullers lost no time in making her infatuation known and followed her about the colony in the very manner in which the characters she was creating moon over one another in The Ballad of the Sad Café.

Although the pivotal character in the tale that McCullers was writing bears a resemblance to any number of individuals in her life (and even, to some extent, to the author herself), Cousin Lymon owes his creation, in part, to an actual hunchback whom McCullers saw in a Sand Street bar that she frequented in Brooklyn Heights when she lived at 7 Middagh Street, near the old Brooklyn Naval Yard. In her essay "Brooklyn Is My Neighborhood," McCullers described him as "a little hunchback who struts in proudly every evening, and is petted by everyone, given free drinks, and treated as a sort of mascot by the proprietor" [Vogue (March 1, 1941)]. But even more relevant to his development as a character was McCullers's wry humor and sheer delight in reading and hearing recounted tales of folk epic and classical mythology, as well as of bizarre situations found within her contemporary world. Mary A. Gervin has written convincingly of certain "frames of reference" and mythic parallels between Amelia/Macy and Artemis/Orion ["McCullers' Frames of Reference in The Ballad of the Sad Café," Pembroke Magazine 20 (1988)].

Still another situation in McCullers's life found its way into her tale that summer, too: her abandonment by Reeves and his love affair with their best friend, David Diamond. McCullers wrote Diamond from Yaddo when she finished her "strange fairy tale," as she repeatedly described it, that it was for him. (Diamond, in turn, dedicated his ballet The Dream of Audubon to both McCullers and Reeves and set to music her recently published poem, "The Twisted Trinity," yet another handling of her troubled life.) In the fictional tale, Amelia is abandoned by Cousin Lymon—whom she loves inordinately—in favor of Marvin Macy. The two men team up against her, steal her treasures, wreck her café and distillery, and leave town together.

Critic Margaret Walsh has argued cogently that The Ballad of the Sad Café is not a "fairy tale" but an "anti-fairy tale," for "unlike the redeeming love of fairy tales, love in McCullers's tale is the spell that weakens the will, the enchantment that can dwarf giants"; thus to "lay oneself bare to love is to be open to disloyalty, to be meek, powerless, and defenseless, to be at the mercy of love's unpredictability" ["Carson McCullers' Anti-Fairy Tale: The Ballad of the Sad Café" Pembroke Magazine 20 (1988)].

The twisted, ill-fated triangles that haunt the lives of McCullers's fictional characters repeatedly haunted the author in reality as well. The theme of abandonment (that had prevailed in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter) is important not only to The Ballad of the Sad Café, but even more so to the longer work in progress that summer, the novel that eventually became The Member of the Wedding. McCullers finished her novella at Yaddo during the summer of 1941, then put it away for two years, intending to write two more tales of about the same length and to publish them as a trilogy in one volume. Caught up in the writing of The Member of the Wedding, however, she never worked on the other tales she envisioned, and The Ballad of the Sad Café was published in 1943 in a single issue of Harper's Bazaar. Eight years later, it became the title story in her omnibus collection, "The Ballad of the Sad Café" and Other Works, which included all of the long fiction published to date and six of her short stories.

The narrator of McCullers's novella maintains a relatively objective distance from the scene and situation that he (or she) describes in much the same manner as the narrator does in Reflections in a Golden Eye. He is not a specific character within any scene, but his commentary and subtle forewarnings function like a Greek chorus. He sees the dangers inherent in the triangle of Amelia, Lymon, and Macy, but is powerless to act. He does not pretend to know everything, but his omniscient voice sets the mood and pace of the action to follow, shifting from formal, stylized, poetic, and at times archaic, to the colorful and colloquial folk patterns of the simple mill people who frequent Miss Amelia's café.

Over the years McCullers's narrator has evoked more critical discussion than has any other aspect of the tale. Robert Rechnitz argued cogently in 1968 that the author's "childlike style" served her especially well in The Ballad of the Sad Café, for it enabled the narrator to hide behind a facade of childlike innocence that became a "kind of buffer to fend off what would otherwise be unbearable" ["The Failure of Love: The Grotesque in Two Novels by Carson McCullers," Georgia Review 22 (Winter 1968)]. A later essay, Dawson F. Gaillard's "The Presence of the Narrator in McCullers' Ballad of the Sad Café," posits that the empathetic presence of the narrator makes it impossible for the reader "to distance himself from the emotional impact of the act," and that it is the oral quality of the tale and the personal balladeer's response to the café that lifts the café to mythic proportions. ["The Presence of the Narrator in Carson McCullers' Ballad of the Sad Café" Mississippi Quarterly (Fall, 1972)]. Critics have generally agreed that the narrator's most striking characteristic is his (or her) compassion for the three principal characters, whose traits are employed by McCullers as symbols of the moral isolation and pain to which one inevitably falls heir in the absence of any kind of meaningful communication with another human being.

Told as one long flashback, the story actually begins at the end. Unlike her first two books with their three- and four-part divisions, The Ballad of the Sad Café is tightly compressed into one continuous narrative that relies upon narration alone and an occasional space break to emphasize passage of time or an extraordinary turn of events.

When the reader first encounters Amelia Evans, by far the most pitiful and tragic figure in the tale, she is living alone behind boarded-up windows in a large, sagging house on the main street of a small town in what appears to be the hills of North Georgia. It is August, and "sometimes in the late afternoon when the heat is at its worst a hand will slowly open the shutter and a face will look down on the town. It is a face like the terrible dim faces known in dreams—sexless and white." The solitary Miss Amelia is a freakishly tall, pale woman whose "two gray crossed eyes" are turned so sharply inward that they seem to be exchanging with each other "one long and secret gaze of grief." Amelia is six feet two inches tall and has bones and muscles like a man's. She cares "nothing for the love of men," although she identifies with them in her labors of sausage making, bricklaying, and carpentry. The town's only general practitioner, she doles out her homemade medicines, but is uncomfortable with women and refuses to treat any "female complaint." Like Private Williams in Reflections in a Golden Eye, Amelia was reared in a motherless home. She had no idea what might be expected of her in a romantic relationship and had no basis for remorse over her violent expulsion of Marvin Macy from the bridal bed-chamber or of her abuse of him later. When Amelia, in turn, is abandoned by Lymon, she evokes the townspeople's pity.

The town itself is dreary and undistinguished, for "not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where the workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street only a hundred yards long. On Saturdays the tenants from the nearby farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world." Nature imposes itself upon the hapless people with short, raw winters and summers that are "white with glare and fiery hot." In such a godforsaken place, the "soul rots with boredom," and one's only relief, suggests the balladeer, is "to walk down the Forks Falls Road and listen to the chain gang."

In the process of telling his tale, the narrator overcomes his boredom and, as critic John McNally has carefully demonstrated, adds a meaningful dimension to his own banal existence ["The Introspective Narrator in The Ballad of the Sad Café," South Atlantic Bulletin 28 (November 1973)]. But the town was once quite different, and so was Amelia, insists the narrator. In addition to having been the richest woman in town, she also ran the only local general store and made the best liquor in the county from an illegal still deep in the nearby swamp. Obviously displeased over the state of affairs in the community, she was ill at ease with the rest of the townspeople because they could not "be taken into the hands and changed overnight to something more worthwhile and profitable." Amelia's indifference to others was seen most clearly in her strange, ten-day unconsummated marriage to Macy, whom she drove out of her house—and out of town—after getting him to turn over all of his worldly possessions to her. Macy's humiliation by Amelia caused him to revert fiercely to his old, cruel habits that had shocked the town and gained him notoriety throughout the state. Captured, finally, he was charged for murder and any number of shotgun robberies and sent off to the penitentiary outside of Atlanta.

The narrator explains that some eleven years have passed since that event, however, and that Miss Amelia's independence and meanspiritedness are legendary. Thus the townspeople are amazed beyond belief when a tubercular and repulsive-looking hunchback struts into town one day and claims distant kinship with her. She calls him Cousin Lymon, and overnight he becomes the focus of her world. Lymon looks like a sick pelican with his thin crooked legs, oversized head, and great warped chest, and he is described repeatedly through distasteful bird imagery. For the first time in Amelia's life she feels pity, moved first by his tears, then by a love—a love that she offers freely, having intuited that the little hunchback is no threat to her sexuality. Critic Joseph R. Millichap has aptly described Lymon as "a man loved without sex, a child acquired without pain, and a companion" whom Amelia found "more acceptable than a husband or a child." ["Carson McCullers' Literary Ballad," Georgia Review 27 (Fall 1973)].

In one of the most frequently quoted passages from McCullers's entire canon, the narrator addresses mankind (and womankind) in general regarding the nature of the lover and the beloved:

First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons—but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. 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. And somehow every lover knows this. 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.

McCullers's balladeer makes it clear that the lover can be "any human creature on this earth," and that "the most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love":

A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp. A good man may be the stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a tender and simple idyll. Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself. It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.

When The Ballad of the Sad Café first appeared in Harper's Bazaar, McCullers sent a copy of the magazine to a young army private she had recently met, Robert Waiden, and in the margin beside her treatise on the failure of eros, she scribbled in pencil: "This is true, Bob, only when you are not in love." Later, McCullers insisted in her essay "The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing" that the "passionate, individual love the old Tristan-Isolde love—the Eros love—is inferior to the love of God, to fellowship, to the love of Agapé—the Greek god of the feast, the God of brotherly love—and of man. This is what I tried to show in The Ballad of the Sad Café in the strange love of Miss Amelia for the little hunchback, Cousin Lymon." Whereas McCullers does reveal the eventual failure of eros and its destructive powers upon the trio in her tale, the characters achieve no redemption through Agapé (in the sense of communal affection), except for the temporal relief afforded by the café.

One could argue that McCullers's claim regarding her intentions in a work written fifteen years earlier when her emotions were deeply involved in the fiction is not wholly true. Louise Westling has pointed out that McCullers's statement that The Ballad of the Sad Café "was intended to show the inferiority of passionate individual love to Agapé" by no means accounted "for the individual peculiarities of her characters and the sexual dimensions of their problems in love" [Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor (1985)]. Just as McCullers herself had experienced abject grief upon her painful discovery of the transitory nature of love and the impossibility of a lasting relationship with her Swiss friend, so, too, does Amelia suffer profoundly through her extraordinary love for Lymon, and for the café itself.

Six years after Lymon became ensconced in the café, Marvin Macy returns to town bent on revenge. The two men stare at one another with "the look of two criminals who recognize each other," and Lymon becomes instantly transformed into a spirited lover. He performs every trick he knows to get Macy's attention, while Macy, in turn, alternately ignores and insults his suitor. The strange triangle takes its final turn when Amelia is reduced to accepting the role of the frustrated lover, and this time it is Lymon who cruelly spurns her, choosing instead the swaggering, revengeful husband who puts up with the hunchback merely to gain an ally against his wife. Lymon flirts shamelessly with Macy, apes and insults the grieving Amelia to her face, and invites her husband to move in with them. Amelia does not rebel, knowing that if she drives her rival away, Lymon will follow. The thought of being alone again, having abandoned the last vestige of her strident independence to the dwarf, is intolerable. The narrator intercedes at this point to declare that "it is better to take in your mortal enemy than face the terror of living alone." Amelia's futile efforts to regain Lymon's favor parallel Macy's former attempts to woo her. Until he courted Amelia and was mysteriously transfigured by love, Macy's meanness was legendary throughout the region.

A bitter confrontation between Amelia and Macy is inevit-able, an event that McCullers describes in mock-heroic fashion. The couple square off one evening in the center of the café before all the townspeople, who have watched the trio fearfully since the day Macy arrived. It is the dead of winter after an extraordinary snow, and there have been countless strange interruptions to nature's rhythms that the townspeople attribute to Macy. Along with other ominous signs a few hours before the fight begins, "a hawk with a bloody breast" flies over the town and circles "twice around the property of Miss Amelia." Thirty minutes after the fight commences, Amelia's advantage is unmistakable. She pins Macy to the floor and straddles him, her strong, big hands at his throat, but the hunchback intervenes. From the counter twelve feet away where he has perched to watch the fight, Lymon sails through the air "as though he had grown hawk wings," lands upon Amelia's back, and claws furiously at her neck. When the townsfolk come to their senses, Amelia lies motionless on the floor. The narrator explains that "this was not a fight to hash over and talk about afterward; people went home and pulled the covers up over their heads."

Amelia's pathetic defeat echoes the scene at the close of Reflections in a Golden Eye, but Amelia is not afforded the release of death. Trapped in the abyss of loneliness and isolation, she sobs fitfully "with the last of her grating, winded breath," her head in the crook of her arm. The destruction of her café and still, the theft of her worldly possessions, the sausage and grits laced with poison left behind—all mean nothing compared to the physical and spiritual decay that sets in irrevocably with the hunchback's sweeping leap. A victim of complete abandonment, the pathetic woman sits every night for three years on the front steps of her sagging house and gazes forlornly down the road upon which Lymon had first appeared. At last, in an admission of defeat, Amelia lets her hair grow ragged, and day by day her gray eyes become more crossed, "as though they sought each other out to exchange a little glance of grief and lonely recognition." Finally, she hires a carpenter to board up the premises of the café, and there is, as a result, no good liquor to be had anywhere. It is rumored that those who drink from the still eight miles away will "grow warts on their livers the size of goobers" and "dream themselves into a dangerous inward world." The rest of the townsfolk, in their boredom, have little to do except "walk around the millpond, stand kicking at a rotten stump, figure out what [one] can do with the old wagon wheel by the side of the road near the church," and as a last resort, "go down to the Forks Falls highway and listen to the chain gang." But Amelia allows herself no such relief. She does not go to the highway like the others to seek solace in the voices of the chain gang. Yet McCullers's coda, "The Twelve Mortal Men," stands as a paean to survival and a moving illustration of the power of brotherhood, even when the union is brought on by chains of bondage.

For a recording made in 1958—seventeen years after writing The Ballad of the Sad Café—McCullers read the final passage of the novel, the coda of the chain gang. Although her spirits were low and her health wretched, McCullers's voice was steady and strong until she reached the final line. "Just twelve mortal men who are together," wept McCullers, her breaking voice a vital part of the recording. In her canon, the word just had a special connotation that heightened its irony. "Just is too small a word for pity," explained Mollie Lovejoy, a character she had created some fifteen years after The Ballad of the Sad Café. "It's like saying just food, just God. [See McCullers's The Square Root of Wonderful, 1958.]

The Ballad of the Sad Café provoked no serious attention from reviewers until its appearance in the 1951 omnibus edition. In a front-page review in the Sunday New York Herald Tribune [June 10, 1951], Coleman Rosenberger declared the title story "condensed and brilliant writing, which carries the reader along so easily on the waves of the story that he may not at first be aware how completely he has been saturated with symbolism." William P. Clan-cey, reviewing for Commonweal [June 15, 1951], called McCullers's work "metaphysical fusion of horror and compassion" by the author whose "young American talent" was of the "very first order." Robert Kee informed readers of the British Spectator [September 12, 1952] that McCullers's style had an "Olympian dispassionateness which is designed to strengthen the violence of the human emotions with which she is often concerned. It is the same sort of effect which Hardy achieved for his characters in far more clumsily contrived sentences." V. S. Pritchett insisted that McCullers was the "most remarkable novelist to come out of America for a generation" and declared that her compassion gives her characters "a Homeric moment in a universal tragedy." ["Books in General," The New Statesman and Nation (August 2, 1952)].

In his notable argument, "The Myth of the Sad Café," Albert J. Griffith contrasted McCullers's impressive mythic imagination with that of such moderns as James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and John Updike, stressing that her fellow writers had created contemporary parallels to various well-known myths, whereas McCullers shaped "her own new myth out of primitive elements." [Georgia Review 21 (Spring 1967)].

A strong body of feminist criticism of The Ballad of the Sad Café, as well as of McCullers's other works, emerged in the mid-1970s. Panthea Reid Broughton provided the first significant feminist reading, which viewed the tale as a fable that "shows us that rejecting those characters labeled as exclusively feminine bounces back on the rejecter and renders men and women alike incapable of love," ["Rejection of The Feminine in Carson McCullers' The Ballad of The Sad Café," Twentieth Century Literature 20 (January 1994)]. Charlene Clark's study of "male-female pairs" in both The Ballad of the Sad Café and The Member of the Wedding demonstrates effectively how McCullers's aggressive females dominate the passive males with whom they are paired and that these women vent their aggression through violence as a means of dominating the men ["Male-Female Pairs in Carson McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Café and The Member of the Wedding" Notes on Contemporary Literature 11 (September 1979)]. Another notable feminist reading is Claire Kahane's "Gothic Mirrors and Feminine Identity," which treats The Ballad of the Sad Café as a "redefined modern Gothic fiction" and places McCullers closer to Flannery O'Connor than to any of her other contemporaries [Centennial Review 24 (1980)]. Both Robert S. Phillips and Louise Westling have addressed Isak Dinesen's considerable influence through her tale "The Monkey" upon The Ballad of the Sad Café [Phillips, "Dinesen's 'Monkey' and McCullers' 'Ballad': A Study in Literary Affinity," Studies in Short Fiction 1 (Spring 1964); Westling, "Carson McCullers' Amazon Nightmare," Modern Fiction Studies 28 (Autumn 1982)]. Westling perceives a significant difference between the work of the two writers, noting McCullers's attempt to deny the feminine entirely and to allow a woman to function successfully as a man.

The Ballad of the Sad Café has continued to stand up well under the scrutiny of critics. Many contend that, all things considered, it is still her best work.




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