The Member of the Wedding

by Carson McCullers

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Critical Evaluation

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All of Carson McCullers’s fiction turns on the theme of loneliness and longing as the inescapable condition of humanity. In The Member of the Wedding, the issues of the larger world are reflected in the experiences of the twelve-year-old girl trapped in the confusion of her own adolescence. The novel tells the story of several decisive days in the life of Frankie Addams, and much of the meaning of her plight is made clear in her random talk with Berenice Sadie Brown and John Henry West as the three sit around the table in the kitchen of the Addams house. Frankie seizes upon her soldier brother’s approaching wedding to will herself into the social community, only to discover that the bride and groom must by necessity reject her and that she must learn to fend for herself.

In the story of Frankie, the writer has reduced the total idea of moral isolation to a fable of simple outlines and a few eloquently dramatic scenes, set against a background of adolescent mood and discovery familiar to everyone. It is easy enough to understand why this novel has also been a success in dramatic form. The play of the same name, written by McCullers, is a sympathetic study of inward conflicts. It received two Donaldson Awards and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1950.

Throughout her career as a novelist, short-story writer, and playwright, McCullers explored the human condition from several perspectives, but all with the common focus of loneliness and dissatisfaction. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940) reveals the isolation of a “deaf-mute” in a southern town, and it draws parallels to the phenomenon of fascism. Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) also takes place in the South, but The Member of the Wedding explores anxieties in finer detail. The Ballad of the Sad Café, and Collected Short Stories (1952) includes the famous novella of the title, which was dramatized by Edward Albee in 1963, twenty years after it was first published. McCullers’s last two works were The Square Root of Wonderful (1957), a play, and Clock Without Hands (1961), a novel. McCullers’s unpublished works, including some early poetry, appeared posthumously in 1971 under the title The Mortgaged Heart.

Although The Member of the Wedding certainly deals with themes of loneliness and dissatisfaction, the story is quite interesting as a discussion of the means through which a particular individual attempts to escape these isolating emotions. This psychological novel is enhanced by McCullers’s masterful handling of language and point of view. Although the narrative is not in the first person, the language makes it clear that Frankie’s viewpoint is of primary concern. The result is that one is able both to observe Frankie objectively and at the same time to appreciate her emotions immediately. Frankie’s feelings are, in addition, juxtaposed with the intrusion of adult observation (most often from Berenice and Mr. Addams) so that the reader has a realistic synthesis of information. The structural result is triangular. The adult view cannot comprehend the adolescent because it has grown beyond that stage. The adolescent view, in turn, cannot yet encompass the adult. The reader completes the triangle, gaining the adolescent view through Frankie, and adding the adult view through appreciating the irony of Frankie’s observations of adults.

Frankie, Berenice, and John Henry, despite apparent enmities, form a tribunal, sharing experiences and opinions and evaluating them both literally and symbolically, and each is essential in his or her role in the tribunal. Frankie, literally, is the causing factor of the group’s existence: Berenice is hired to care for...

(This entire section contains 1230 words.)

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her, and John Henry is present because Frankie wants juvenile companionship to counter that of Berenice. Although she realizes that she is not yet capable of understanding the activities of the adult world, however, Frankie, aided by John Henry, symbolizes the almost divine nature often assigned to the child. Frankie knows certain truths, as Berenice occasionally confirms in bewilderment, because the girl’s mind has not yet been spoiled by the mundane concerns that obscure those truths. Her almost innate, although selective, knowledge is part of a literary and philosophical ideology most clearly typified by the Wordsworthian view of children. Yet Frankie’s strongest understanding is also the most ironic: She realizes that she is incomplete and is terrified by reminders of that fact. In her earnest efforts to belong, to be completed, she is driving herself toward adulthood, in which one loses the innate knowledge she possesses.

Berenice, one of McCullers’s most interesting characters, serves multiple functions. Just as she is employed to care for Frankie in many ways, she is also the pivotal character upon whom the novel depends on several levels of development. In simple terms, she is a counterexample of Frankie’s search to belong and to love. Although McCullers’s familiar theme of such unending search persists in Berenice, she illustrates that love, even when directed toward a vague objective, has the eventual effect of grace. In addition, she is a surrogate mother upon whom Frankie depends, made more credible by being representative of the black parent figure of many southern novels. Frankie is locked into dependence upon Berenice, but it is dependence from a distance; although she longs to be independent of Berenice and all other authority figures, Frankie knows intuitively that she is not old enough to ignore Berenice. She knows the woman has a function in her life, has necessary information to which she has not yet been exposed. She does not want to block Berenice out entirely (while the servant speaks to her, Frankie puts her fingers in her ears, but not enough to prevent Berenice’s voice from reaching her) since if Frankie did so she would have to confront life later as an adult without sufficient data.

Frankie knows instinctively that ignoring Berenice is only self-defeating. Berenice is, therefore, like an oracle; and she comes from the ancient literary tradition of the blind or one-eyed person who speaks the truth clearly because of missing vision. Berenice has a glass eye (“glass” and “truth” are related etymologically in Latin); so Berenice sees truth through her glass eye, not through her physically functioning one. McCullers is thus able to elevate the group in the kitchen to mythic dimensions: Berenice is the oracle, John Henry is her acolyte, and Frankie is the pilgrim-initiate.

By emphasizing Frankie’s progressive learning and by concentrating primarily on the emotions and experiences of only three days in Frankie’s life, McCullers achieves the effect of gradually increasing the reader’s expectations. By the end of The Member of the Wedding, the reader has been led to believe that the day before the wedding is Frankie’s “last afternoon” in town—if not literally, then at least figuratively. This increasing momentum, however, is not followed by a fulfillment of expectation; Frankie is essentially unchanged by the trauma of disappointment. It is suddenly apparent that the initiation of youth into adulthood through artificial, specific rites is a myth. The search for belonging is an unending one; it is simply one’s orientation toward that search that can change by the natural process of maturing. In fact, as Berenice’s life illustrates, the childlike element of selectively believing in salvation can be concomitantly protective, making both life and the search for social identity not only possible but also bearable.


The Member of the Wedding


Critical Overview