Carson McCullers McCullers, Carson (Vol. 100) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Carson McCullers 1917–1967

American novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of McCullers's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 4, 10, 12, and 48.

Carson McCullers is considered one of the most prominent American writers of the 1940s and 1950s and was a major contributor to the Southern literary renaissance. Often compared to Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O'Connor, McCullers wrote tales about misfits, outcasts, and grotesque figures searching for love and acceptance in a complex and violent world. Robert S. Phillips asserted that McCullers's works "are perhaps the most typical and most rewarding exemplars of Southern Gothicism in this century." Beset by debilitating illness and personal tragedy in her own life, McCullers's greatest literary accomplishments include The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), The Ballad of the Sad Café (1943), and The Member of the Wedding (1946), all completed in her twenties. Widely acclaimed for unusual sensitivity and dynamic characterizations, McCullers's compositions offer rare insight into the awkwardness and frustration associated with adolescence, unrealized love, and the failure of interpersonal communication. Her best fiction transcends the idiosyncracies and paradoxes of the provincial American South to address the complex metaphysical dilemma of the human condition.

Biographical Information

Born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, McCullers showed an early aptitude for music and literature and was encouraged by her parents to study the piano. In 1935 she traveled to New York City to study at the Juilliard School of Music, but she never enrolled due to ill health and waning interest. In 1937 she married Reeves McCullers, an aspiring novelist, and moved to North Carolina. There she began work on her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, which was published to wide critical acclaim. A celebrated literary success, McCullers divorced Reeves after a series of complicated romantic interludes and immersed herself in the New York artistic community. Reflections in a Golden Eye, her second novel, was published in 1941. McCullers returned to Columbus where she suffered her first stroke at the age of twenty-four. With the support of a Guggenheim fiction fellowship in 1942 and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1943, McCullers produced her novella The Ballad of the Sad Café, published in Harper's Bazaar, and a third novel, The Member of the Wedding. She remarried Reeves in 1945 and accompanied him to Europe where in 1947 she suffered a series of strokes that permanently impaired her vision and paralyzed her left side. In 1953 she left Reeves again after their relationship became increasingly hostile. Shortly thereafter, he committed suicide. The death of her mother two years later devastated McCullers, but she used both Reeves and her mother as the basis for characters in her play The Square Root of Wonderful (1958). McCullers produced her last novel, Clock Without Hands, in 1961, and a book of children's verse, Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig, in 1964. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1967 at the age of fifty. A posthumous publication of McCullers's uncollected writings, edited by her sister, Margarita Smith, appeared under the title The Mortgaged Heart: The Previously Uncollected Writings of Carson McCullers (1971).

Major Works

McCullers's highly acclaimed first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), focuses on deaf-mute John Singer, who befriends four alienated characters who believe that only he can understand their plight. The novel also centers on the experiences of the adolescent Mick Kelly, an androgynous thirteen-year old girl who sacrifices her dream of becoming a concert pianist to take a job at Woolworth's department store. The distinct Gothic qualities, bizarre characters and violent episodes of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter are employed again in McCullers's second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, which was criticized for its unorthodox subject matter and unsympathetic portrayal of characters. The depiction of Captain Penderton, a sadomasochistic, latent homosexual who commits a murder at the end of the novel, typifies the characterizations running throughout much of McCullers's work. Unfulfilled spiritual and physical needs are a central part of The Ballad of the Sad Café, in which McCullers portrays a relationship between the tall, Amazon-like Amelia Evans, her vengeful husband Marvin Macy, and her hunchback cousin Lymon. The strange fairy-tale elements of the story lend the work an epic quality. As Mary A. Gervin noted, McCullers admitted that the story was written to "work out the conflicting emotions she underwent in 'the twisted trinity' between her German friend Annemarie, her husband Reeves, and herself." Through the perverse triangle relationship that evolves in the novel, McCullers illustrates how archetypal love tends toward evil and the negation of communal love. The bond that is developed between the dwarf Lymon and the giantess Amelia is shattered when Lymon's affections are transferred to Macy. The two men destroy Amelia's coffee house and abandon her, leaving her physically and spiritually broken. In The Member of the Wedding, McCullers returned to a coming-of-age story in which the protagonist, Frankie Addams, struggles with problems of awakening sexuality, racial prejudice, and death. Frankie desperately wishes to accompany her brother and his fiancée on their honeymoon, believing that such an act will alleviate her loneliness and enable her to discover what she terms "the we of me." The Square Root of Wonderful was considered one of McCullers's least successful works, but provides insight into her life and techniques. Many critics viewed the play as McCullers's attempt to reconcile feelings of loss, guilt, and hostility resulting from the death of her husband and mother.

Critical Reception

Critical assessment of McCullers's relatively small literary canon remains uneven and somewhat inconsistent. Among her four novels, one novella, several plays, and more numerous short stories, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Ballad of the Sad Café, and The Member of the Wedding stand as the high spots of her oeuvre. In these works protagonists struggle with challenges such as loneliness, adolescence, sexual discrimination, and failure to meet societal expectations. McCullers also incorporated themes of racial injustice, spiritual deprivation, and emotional exile into her stories. Because of these realistic themes critics have been divided in classifying McCullers as a realistic or romantic writer. Oliver Evans stated: "It is ironical that her gift for realism, especially in dialogue and characterization, has operated in her case less as a blessing than as a curse." Critical debate over McCullers's classification as a realist or allegorical writer continues to be a central issue for many reviewers. Many critics also feel that later works such as Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Square Root of Wonderful, and Clock Without Hands do not reach the standard of excellence established early in her career; the last was completed while she was gravely ill. Though her strongest works have received comparison with Flaubert and Faulkner, McCullers's preoccupation with the aberrant and sensational has prompted critics to speculate on the limitations of her ability and intellectual depth. Oliver Evans wrote: "I do not think I overstate the case when I say that Carson McCullers is probably the best allegorical writer on this side of the Atlantic since Hawthorne and Melville." In the hierarchy of great American writers, McCullers shares enduring distinction among the preeminent figures of the Southern literary tradition, including her contemporaries Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, and Katherine Anne Porter.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (novel) 1940
Reflections in a Golden Eye (novel) 1941
The Ballad of the Sad Café (novel) 1943
The Member of the Wedding (novel) 1946
The Ballad of the Sad Café: The Novels and Stories of Carson McCullers (novels and short stories) 1951
The Square Root of Wonderful (drama) 1958
Clock Without Hands (novel) 1961
Sweet as a Pickle, Clean as a Pig (children's poetry) 1964
The Mortgaged Heart: The Previously Uncollected Writings of Carson McCullers (short stories, poems, sketches, essays) 1971

Rose Feld (review date 16 June 1940)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Remarkable First Novel of Lonely Lives," in The New York Times Book Review, June 16, 1940, p. 6.

[In the following review, Feld provides brief character descriptions and a plot synopsis of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.]

No matter what the age of its author, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter would be a remarkable book. When one reads that Carson McCullers is a girl of 22 it becomes more than that. Maturity does not cover the quality of her work. It is something beyond that, something more akin to the vocation of pain to which a great poet is born. Reading her, one feels this girl is wrapped in knowledge which has roots beyond the span of her life and her...

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Joseph Frank (review date July-September 1946)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fiction Chronicle," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LIV, No. 3, July-September, 1946, pp. 534-39.

[In the following brief review, Frank discusses the plot and characters of The Member of the Wedding, noting McCullers' potential as an important developing writer.]

Politics is left completely behind when we enter the enchanted—or shall we say, rather, topsy-turvy world of F. Jasmine Addams, the twelve-year-old adolescent of Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding. Nominally, the book centers around the emotional turmoil and confusion of an adolescent girl in the twilight period when the anarchy of tom-boy childhood has ceased, but the somewhat...

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Wolcott Gibbs (review date 14 January 1950)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Member of the Wedding, in The New Yorker, Vol. XXV, No. 47, January 14, 1950, pp. 44, 46, 49.

[In the following review Gibbs praises the theatrical production of The Member of the Wedding, but faults the attempt to condense the entire novel into a three-act play.]

The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers' dramatization of her novel, is unquestionably the first serious new play of any consequence to reach Broadway this season. It has a good many touching and rather difficult things to say; it often has a queer, fantastic wit, not unlike Saroyan's; occasionally it reaches something very close to poetry; and it is...

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John Mason Brown (review date 28 January 1950)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Plot Me No Plots," in Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, January 28, 1950, pp. 27-9.

[In the following review of the theatrical version of The Member of the Wedding, Brown discusses the differences between the play and the novel.]

On the fifth day of each November bonfires are lighted in London in honor of the discovery of a plot. And Beefeaters, with their lanterns raised, search the basement of the Houses of Parliament as if they still expected to find Guy Fawkes hiding there, with a slow burning match in his hand, ready to set off the powder kegs which would elevate King James I even higher above his subjects.


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Hubert Creekmore (review date 8 July 1951)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Lonely Search for Love," in The New York Times Book Review, July 8, 1951, p. 5.

[In the following review, Creekmore faults McCullers' later works for not measuring up to the standards of her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.]

The appearance of an "omnibus" of Carson McCullers' work should be a signal for an estimate, much fuller than can be attempted here, of her achievement in fiction. The three novels of this highly praised young author were reviewed on publication; the novella of the title [The Ballad of the Sad Café] and the six short stories appear in book form for the first time. Together, they indicate a specialized talent for a...

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Frank Durham (essay date Autumn 1957)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "God and No God in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. LVI, No. 4, Autumn, 1957, pp. 494-99.

[In the following essay, Durham discusses the plot of The Heart of a Lonely Hunter, praising the allegorical aspects of the novel and its rebellion against religion and tradition.]

That The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is to be interpreted on more than one level of meaning is undeniable. Carson McCullers herself has called her first novel a "parable in modern form"; and, while reviewers do not take very seriously her statement as to the meaning of this parable, practically every one realizes the importance of symbolism in...

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Robert S. Phillips (essay date Winter 1964)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Gothic Architecture of The Member of the Wedding," in Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Winter, 1964, pp. 59-72.

[In the following essay, Phillips discusses how McCullers' works fit into the genre of the modern Gothic novel.]

The Modern Gothic in American literature, the genre of the grotesque, is currently the subject of much discussion by Leslie Fielder, William Van O'Connor, Irving Malin and other critics. The novels of the South written in this century—works by William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers—are in particular classified as Gothic. A plethora of Faulkner studies have already...

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Joseph R. Millichap (essay date January 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Realistic Structure of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1, January, 1971, pp. 11-17.

[In the following essay, Millichap discusses the structure and genre of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.]

Carson McCullers produced before her death in 1967 a small but impressive body of fiction: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1940; Reflections in a Golden Eye, 1941; The Member of the Wedding, 1946; The Ballad of the Sad Café, 1951; Clock Without Hands, 1961; and twelve short stories published between 1936 and 1967. Her career was marked by successes, both popular and critical, and by...

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Virginia Spencer Carr (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Ballad of the Sad Café," in Understanding Carson McCullers, University of South Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 53-69.

[In the following essay, Carr discusses events in McCullers' personal life that were incorporated into The Ballad of the Sad Café. The love-triangle between the characters of Amelia Evans, the hunchback Lymon, and Macy grew out of relationships in McCullers's life, according to Carr.]

The monotony and boredom that permeated the author'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...

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Emily Miller Budick (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Mother Tongue," in Engendering Romance: Women Writers and the Hawthorne Tradition, 1850–1990. Yale University Press, 1994, pp. 143-61.

[In the following essay Budick discusses how different characters in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter strive to develop both verbal and sexual intercourse with others.]

Like her predecessors in the romance tradition, Carson McCullers, in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, renders a portrait of reality more suggestive than mimetic. As with The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables (and the tradition of sentimental fiction to which these texts are related), its subject is the truth of the human...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Carr, Virginia Spencer, and Millichap, Joseph R. "Carson McCullers." American Women Writers. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1983, 297-319.

Bibliographic essay identifying primary editions and manuscript sources, as well as secondary works including bibliography, biography, and criticism.


Dusenbury, Winifred L. The Theme of Loneliness in Modern American Drama. Gainesville, Florida: University of Florida Press, 1960, 57-85.

Examines family relations and corresponding themes of loneliness and alienation in the stage...

(The entire section is 604 words.)