Carson McCullers Analysis

Discussion Topics

Does the theme of loneliness in Carson McCullers’s work equate with, or contradict, her social accomplishments?

Are McCullers’s literary themes typical of other twentieth-century southern writers?

What weakness is at the core of the character of Frankie Addams in The Member of the Wedding?

Discuss the imagery of perception in Reflections in a Golden Eye.

The dialogue in McCullers’s novels is not remarkable, their significant conflicts of the inner variety. Given these facts, how does one account for the success of the plays based on them?

Other Literary Forms

ph_0111206377-Mccullers2.jpg Carson McCullers. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Carson McCullers’s remarkable first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), establishes the themes that were to concern her in all her other writing: the spiritual isolation of individuals and their attempt to transcend loneliness through love. Thereafter, she wrote short stories, some poetry (mostly for children), three other novels, and two plays. The most popular of the novels, The Member of the Wedding (1946), she adapted for the stage; the play was a great success on Broadway and was also made into an award-winning film. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and her somber Freudian novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), were also adapted for film. McCullers also wrote a number of significant essays, which are collected in The Mortgaged Heart (1971). The essays that are most important to understanding the method and content of her fiction, especially her use of the grotesque, are “The Russian Realists and Southern Literature” and “The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing.”


Carson McCullers was the winner of a number of literary awards during her lifetime, including membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters, two John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowships, and an Arts and Letters Grant. She also won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, a Gold Medal, and the Donaldson Award (all for the play version of The Member of the Wedding). Her fiction and nonfiction works were published in a number of reputable magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, and Mademoiselle. For her story “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud,” she was nominated for an O. Henry Award.

A praiseworthy writer of short fiction, McCullers succeeds with objective narration, the theme of loneliness, and her lyric compression. While McCullers is perhaps not as great a writer of short stories as her peers Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Katherine Anne Porter, she is nevertheless successful at affecting her readers’ emotions. The brevity and compression of stories such as “The Jockey” and “The Sojourner” are remarkable based on any standards. Although her techniques are not as innovative as those of many other postmodern fiction writers, she influenced, among others, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, and Anne Tyler, particularly with the expert use of the grotesque and the freakish, and the portrayal of human alienation. Her knowledge of human psychology also makes her a great spokesperson for the complexity of human experience.

Other literary forms

Carson McCullers published a number of short stories, some of which are included in the volume containing The Ballad of the Sad Café and some in a collection of short works, The Mortgaged Heart (1971), edited by her sister, Margarita G. Smith. The latter also contains some magazine articles and notes of McCullers’s writing. McCullers adapted The Member of the Wedding for the stage in 1950 (a film version appeared in 1952). She wrote two plays, including The Square Root of Wonderful (pr. 1957). McCullers’s poetry is published in The Mortgaged Heart and in a children’s book, Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig (1964).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Like William Faulkner, McCullers has literary kinship with those older, midnight-haunted writers—Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville among them—who projected in fable and with symbol the story of America’s unquiet mind. Against her southern background, she created a world of symbolic violence and tragic reality, indirectly lighted by the cool Flaubertian purity of her style. Of the writers of her generation, none was more consistent or thorough in achieving a sustained body of work.

Several of McCullers’s works received critical acclaim. “A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud,” a short story sometimes compared in theme to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798), was chosen for the O. Henry Memorial Prize in 1942. The dramatic version of The Member of the Wedding was extremely successful, running on Broadway continuously for nearly fifteen months, and it was named for both the Donaldson Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1950. In addition, McCullers was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1942 and 1946, and she received an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1943.

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Carson McCullers will be remembered primarily as a writer of fiction who experimented, with varying degrees of success, in the genres of drama, poetry, and the essay. She was one of the foremost of the remarkable generation of Southern women writers who, in addition to McCullers, included Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Katherine Anne Porter. With her fellow women writers, and with such Southern male writers as William Faulkner, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams, McCullers shares an uncanny talent for capturing the grotesque. Her fictional world is peopled with the freaks of society: the physically handicapped, the emotionally disturbed, the alienated, the disenfranchised. This preoccupation with the bizarre earned for her a major place in the literary tradition known as the “southern gothic,” a phrase used to describe the writers mentioned above and others who use gothic techniques and sensibilities in describing the South of the twentieth century.

Few have created a fictional South as successfully as has McCullers in her best fiction. Hers is a small-town South of mills and factories, of barren main streets lined with sad little shops and cafés, of intolerable summer heat and oppressive boredom. In her first and perhaps best novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), she portrays a small Southern town from the points of view of five of its residents: Mick Kelly, the confused adolescent heroine; Doctor Copeland, an embittered black...

(The entire section is 603 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Carson McCullers’s reputation as a playwright rests solely on the phenomenal success of one play, The Member of the Wedding, which she based on her novel of the same title. Her only other play, The Square Root of Wonderful, was a critical and popular failure and a professional disappointment from which McCullers never quite recovered. The very critics and theatergoers who hailed McCullers as a brilliant innovator in 1950 turned their backs on her in 1958. Flawed and uneven as her theatrical career was, however, McCullers deserves a special place among modern American playwrights, not only for what she achieved but also for what she attempted. With her friend Tennessee Williams, she was one of the first American...

(The entire section is 693 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Carson McCullers. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Essays on McCullers’s novels and major short stories. Includes introduction, chronology, and bibliography.

Carr, Virginia Spencer. The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers. Garden City, N.J.: Anchor Press, 1975. This definitive biography offers an interesting read and provides significant biographical elements that are related to McCullers’s works. The complexity, pain, and loneliness of McCullers’s characters are matched by their creator’s. Includes an extensive chronology of McCullers’s life, a primary bibliography, and many endnotes....

(The entire section is 807 words.)