Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3215
McCullers, Carson 1917–1967
Southern American novelist, short story writer, and playwright, Mrs. McCullers is the author of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Reflections in a Golden Eye, and The Member of the Wedding. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
Since the publication of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in 1940, when its author was only twenty-three years old, Carson McCullers has been recognized as one of the most likely talents in the South, one who brought strange and artful gifts of sensibility to the contemporary novel. The strangeness, however, reminded some readers of Poe's artifices, and it persuaded them to discredit her fiction as simply gothic. The judgment is aberrant and at best specious. It is true that Mrs. McCullers lacks the scope, strength, and fury of Faulkner, lacks his dark apprehension of the Southern past and his profound insight into the American wilderness, symbols both of our guilt and innocence. And it is also true that Mrs. McCullers, hypnotized as she seems to be by the burning point where love and pain secretly meet, foregoes a certain richness of surface which, let us say, Eudora Welty seldom foregoes. Still, the gothic element, the personal principle in Mrs. McCullers' work, excludes none of the larger aspects of the Southern tradition to which it belongs….
To say that Mrs. McCullers has a gothic penchant is but to note, and note superficially, her interest in the grotesque, the freakish, and the incongruous…. The gothic insists on spiritualization, the spiritualization of matter itself, and it insists on subjectivism…. The gothic impulse is also transcendental: it reaches out in a piercing line to the sky….
[The] integrity of her vision depends on her guiding insight into the tensions of our situation, caught as we are between immersion of the self in a mass society and dissipation of the world leading to madness, crime, or hermeticism. The challenge of form is the measure of insight; the formal tension between the self and the world in the novel corresponds to the thematic juxtaposition of the power of love and the presence of pain in the vision of Carson McCullers. It is in The Ballad of the Sad Café that the doctrine of love, implicit in all her fiction, is most clearly enunciated…. [To] love is to suffer, to intensify one's loneliness. Love needs no reciprocation; its quality is determined solely by the lover; and its object can be as "outlandish" as the world may offer. Hence the grotesque nature of the objects of love in Carson McCullers' fiction: hunchbacks, deaf mutes, weddings, clouds. Hence also the desexualization of love since the love relation, often incongruous, does not admit of sexual communion…. Love, to be sure, redeems, but only provisionally. The critical limit imposed on the privacy of love—death, sacrifice, withdrawal—is exceeded again in the greater privacy of pain. The failure of communion ends in individual immolation, but the presence of pain makes of all men martyrs. Pain, we see, binds men in a universal brotherhood—like a chain gang—even more than love can…. Thus the single affirmative note in Mrs. McCullers' work, sounded almost accidentally, is sounded by those who simply suffer and endure….
We are quick to sense that the subjective bias of Mrs. McCullers' imagination is but an artful response to the forces that have driven the self into recoil, and that the scope of her novelettes, unlike that of the novel, permits her characters to elude the repeated assaults of reality, permits them, that is, to leave their wishes unconverted into dramatic...
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It is upon the unconverted, and even inconvertible, wish as it seeks embodiment in love and suffering that the art of Carson McCullers has fastened. In so doing, her fiction, in good Southern style, declares, itself opposed to the general aspects of our culture. The quality of that resistance, however, is passive, and it suggests a limit this side of quietism which the literary imagination may not safely transgress. For though love is the great opposing principle which Mrs. McCullers embraces in her fictional critique of our civilization, the failure of love—and love seems always to fail—leaves man encapsulated in a state not very distinguishable from anguished solipsism…. The fate of her lowly heroes, however—always chosen among the innocent, the grotesque, and the sacrificial—shows that her work falls somewhere between the realm of tragic experience, where defeat acquires a meaning that transcends the fact of defeat, and the province of irony, where absurdity qualifies the intelligibility of all human suffering.
Ihab Hassan, in his Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (© 1961 by Princeton University Press; Princeton Paperback, 1971; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1961, pp. 205-28.
[Carson McCullers'] conception of grotesques seeking to transcend their spiritual isolation in love—witness her best work, The Ballad of the Sad Café—is one of the central facts of our time. With her, the Southern tradition of the Gothic novel is refined into a poetic sensibility which has not escaped either imitation or misuse.
Ihab Hassan, "The Character of PostWar Fiction in America," in English Journal, January, 1962, pp. 1-8.
The central emphasis in Mrs. McCullers' stories and novels is upon loneliness, particularly the loneliness of love and its consequent pain and suffering….
In [The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter] Mrs. McCullers demonstrated two of her characteristic preoccupations: her fondness for grotesque characters and the necessity for violence. Her ability to write convincingly about such conditions makes The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Reflections in a Golden Eye … interesting and readable on a realistic level where we see the accurate portrayal of eccentrics, but it is not sufficient to make them distinguished as works of art….
In working out her plots (themes) Mrs. McCullers utilizes typical poetic symbols. Her two chief images are music and time…. In fact the characteristic impression created in and by all of Mrs. McCullers' works is that somewhere there is music, a kind of tuneful accompaniment which somehow makes the suffering a bit more bearable. This notion, again, is based upon a lyrical principle; also, these sad songs of mankind relate both to folk ballads and to the blues. In all respects the mood is nostalgic and lyric.
Marvin Felheim, "Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers" (© 1964 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in Contemporary American Novelists, edited by Harry T. Moore, Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 41-53.
Faulkner apart, the most remarkable novelist the South has produced seems to me Carson McCullers…. Carson McCullers's genius is at least as strange as Faulkner's, but expressed with lucidity and precision, a classical simplicity. However tortured her vision may seem, there is nothing tortured or odd in the texture of her prose; and the raw material of her art is the world as commonly observed….
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a parable of the human condition, of human isolation, of the craving to communicate and of the impossibility of communication; and also, perhaps, of the inescapable delusions attendant upon the inescapable human need to love…. [The] impression made by The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is … that of a grave, sad beauty, a diffused poetic pity. For two reasons. The first is the nature of Carson McCullers's prose, which is not in any obvious sense poetic or heightened and which looks plainer than in fact it is. It is actually a very cunning style, ever so slightly removed from the contemporary. Then, the town and its life are rendered in concrete detail. The town is not, we feel, conceived in any arbitrary manner in order to point a moral or impose a reading of life. And though the characters may be freaks they are not merely dotty, like the characters of T. F. Powys. If they differ from other human beings they do so only in degree; the laws that govern their being are universal laws. And all the time, almost as the soil from which they spring, the common business of human existence is going on, the common joys, anxieties and endurances.
In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers creates a fictitious world that can stand for the real world in its depth and variety. In Reflections in a Golden Eye …, her second novel, she does nothing like this, and because of it it is much the lesser book. A ground-bass of common humanity is lacking in Reflections in a Golden Eye; we are in a world inhabited entirely by freaks, freaks different, certainly, from those of the earlier novel, but all the same freaks. The novel is of a grotesque violence. We see the characters act, but why they act as they do we must deduce from the actions themselves, which are reflections…. It is as though Carson McCullers has surrendered in despair to a conviction of the utter meaninglessness of life.
The Member of the Wedding, published five years later, is much warmer and more human. It is a novel of growing up and initiation, initiation, perhaps, into the acceptance of human limits….
The Ballad of the Sad Café is the strangest, the most haunting of Carson McCullers's work. It has the timelessness and remoteness of a ballad….
Mrs. McCullers's most recent novel, Clock without Hands (1961), comes much more close to the novel as we ordinarily know it than anything she has written before. By the same token, it is her most obviously 'Southern' novel, since it deals with the threat of desegregation in a small town in Georgia in 1953. Owing to the greater degree of surface realism, the characters can scarcely be regarded as freaks in the old sense; they are more broadly humorous.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 132-36.
Carson McCullers' "The Ballad of the Sad Café" is as grotesque in characterization and incident as anything in American literature…. 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 fails to mar the poetic serenity of the tale for most readers…. 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 perverse 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 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.
Albert J. Griffith, "Carson McCullers' Myth of the Sad Café," in Georgia Review, Spring, 1967, pp. 46-56.
[Although Carson McCullers' fictional] worlds are grotesque …, one discovers upon examining these fictional worlds in detail that their grotesque nature does not have a cosmic provenance. Nowhere in her fiction does a productive, mature individual look at the world and find it frightful to contemplate. On the contrary, the grotesque aspects of the world have a moral cause. Men make the world grotesque. Fearful of confronting themselves, her characters refuse on the one hand to love or on the other to be beloved, for love is the great unmasker. Unwilling to confront life in its complexity, seeking to shut out the "Dreadful," they construct a limited world which they deem to be safe, but which to their confusion and despair becomes a prison, a prison the furnishings of which are grotesquely twisted and constricting. And, unlike the chain gang, who are together, McCullers' dramatic family, each in his separate cell, wait for a release that never comes; and as they wait, their souls rot with boredom.
Robert M. Rechnitz, "The Failure of Love: The Grotesque in Two Novels by Carson McCullers," in Georgia Review, Winter, 1968, pp. 454-63.
From the opening pages of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter one is aware that this strange and absorbing story is designed to be read both as a realistic tale of a half-dozen displaced southerners and as a generalized parable on the nature of human illusion and love…. For the first one hundred pages of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Mrs. McCullers is able to persuade us that contemporary reality and legendary story are one; but soon afterwards her technique falters and the novel becomes increasingly unsatisfactory both as document and as myth. On the literal level the difficulties center on implausible psychology and faulty observation of character…. Throughout the early pages, Biff is described as thoughtful, inquisitive, and alert; whenever something happens, he is often the first, perhaps the only, person to notice. As the pattern of the action evolves, however, Biff is of little use beyond his ability to tell us things we have already established on our own…. It is … "how it came about" and "why" that Biff is never able to tell us, and—on many of the more important matters—neither can Mrs. McCullers. In this respect, the fundamental weakness of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is that past midpoint, the central theme (men make strange gods in their own image) is not so much developed as embroidered by still another fancy but no more enlightening illustration. Related to this inadequacy is Mrs. McCullers' failure to establish a satisfactory relationship between the various idealizations of Singer and what actually happens to each dreamer in the novel. (pp. 12-14)
But the failures on the level of fable are more trouble-some because they point to an ambivalence that was a permanent feature of Mrs. McCullers' sensibility. There existed in her nature a continuing conflict between her nearer and her further vision, between her desire to document the world and a desire to give it evocative poetic significance…. Obviously, Mrs. McCullers wants us to see Singer as an ironic God figure, a product of mass wish-fulfillment; but even an ironic symbol runs the danger of becoming too indiscriminately resonant. Part of the problem stems from Mrs. McCullers' flawed control over the implications of the symbol itself…. What we have here, I think, is early evidence of Mrs. McCullers' susceptibility to portent, her tendency to glide irresistibly toward any beckoning abstraction so long as it is somber, suggestive, and poetic. She never wrote a book that was not to some degree weakened by this inclination, and only once (in "The Ballad of the Sad Café") was she able to put dark fancy to the service of a compelling and powerful literal truth. In The Member of the Wedding, her finest achievement, there is less aberrant symbolizing than in any of her other works. (pp. 15-18)
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. (p. 25)
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…. 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. (pp. 29-30)
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 mars 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. (p. 33)
Clock without Hands tries to link the existential crisis of a man doomed by cancer to the sociological crisis of the South poisoned by racial strife. But because Mrs. McCullers was ill and working against her natural grain, the novel is deficient both in psychological intuition and cultural analysis…. In none of her earlier books is the plot so clumsily managed, the pacing so tedious, the people so vacant, the symbolism so ineffectively contrived. (pp. 42-4)
Lawrence Graver, in his Carson McCullers ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 84), University of Minnesota Press, © 1969 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).
It's sad to find that none of [the diverse writings in The Mortgaged Heart] shows Carson McCullers at anything like her best. The book is a memento for collectors….
Though—as it turned out—Carson McCullers was never again to achieve the objective power of her account of the two mutes, their separation and Singer's subsequent trips to the asylum, there was every reason to think that there was a great novelist in the girl who could write the chapter in which Singer arrives to find that his friend has died since his last visit.
What happened to her?… Her work had disastrously declined from its beginnings, and this is very hard to talk about when she was so cruelly afflicted physically. Would her fiction have developed differently if she hadn't been stricken?
With the utmost hesitancy, I would suggest not. I think her move away from the South may have been just as crippling to a writer whose sense of place, her feeling for the look and weather of that dusty Georgia town she was born in, is one of the qualities of her first work that make it her strongest.
Walter Clemons, in New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 7, 1971, pp. 7, 12.