The Member of the Wedding

by Carson McCullers

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 716

McCullers is ranked among the most respected writers in the southern tradition. She is often compared with William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams. Today, critics continue to revisit her few novels as important writings. Critics consistently praise The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, and The Member of the Wedding as her best works. While most critics praise The Member of the Wedding, others claim that McCullers ends the story with plot developments that are too convenient. Louis D. Rubin Jr. of the Virginia Quarterly Review finds Frankie’s sudden acceptance of womanhood unrealistic and John Henry’s death gratuitous and contrived. Edmund Wilson of the New Yorker writes in 1946 that the book was “utterly pointless” and lacked a sense of drama. It was this review that so incensed McCullers that she was inclined to take Tennessee Williams’s advice and adapt the novel as a play.

Lawrence Graver, in American Writers, explores the structure of The Member of the Wedding. He observes that the novel is divided into three parts, a structure that calls attention to the rhythm of the novel. He explains,

In Mrs. McCullers’ book, the rhythm. . . follows the familiar journey of adolescent initiation: the stirrings of dissatisfaction, jubilant hope founded on misplaced idealism, and disillusionment accompanied by a new wisdom about the limits of human life.

Other critics have likened this three-part structure to that of a sonata, a type of musical piece that often has three parts. Based on biographical information about McCullers, these commentators believe that in The Member of the Wedding the author bridges her passion for music with her passion for writing.

The character of Frankie continues to be scrutinized as a portrayal of adolescent angst in the South. Judith Everson, in Dictionary of Literary Biography Volume 173: American Novelists Since World War II, observes that Frankie is “an adolescent ‘everyman’ in her awkward, agonized movement toward maturation. Yet at the same time, as feminist critics remind readers, she bears the special burden of girlhood, which complicates her transition to adult status.” In this respect especially, the book is often compared to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, a book that features another adolescent tomboy, Mick Kelly. According to Louise Westling of Southern Humanities Review, both characters dramatize “the crisis of identity which faces ambitious girls as they leave childhood and stumble into an understanding of what the world expects them to become.”

Rubin writes that he finds the character of Frankie the more realistic of the two. He explains, “Frankie Addams is the most appealing of Mrs. McCullers’ people; I like her better than Mick Kelly because she is less strident—less written, I think, to a thesis.” He adds that “her struggles with pre-adolescence are entirely convincing and wondrously done—up to a point.” Rubin believes that when Frankie and Berenice have their “surrealistic, mystic visions of pain and misery” after the piano tuner begins working, Frankie’s character loses her realism. He maintains that, at this point, the novel “drops off the deep end into distortion for the sake of distortion.”

Most critics point to The Member of the Wedding as McCullers’s most realistic and most accessible novel. The book is praised for its writing style, depth, tone, and insight. Graver declares, “The novel is one of the few sentimental comedies to escape the charge of being maudlin; stylistically, it is the freshest and most inventive of her novels and stories.” A contributor to Feminist Writers explains the importance of the novel by praising Mc- Cullers for her “analysis of maturation, race, and gender in The Member of the Wedding, perhaps her most perfect novel. . . In The Member of the Wedding, McCullers brings to the forefront a world too often seen as unimportant—a black woman, a clumsy, masculine girl, and a young, feminine boy.” In a 1946 article, George Dangerfield of Saturday Review of Literature comments on the book’s “utmost delicacy and balance.” In the New York Times, Isa Kapp expresses her delight in Mc- Cullers’s language, citing its “freshness, quaintness, and gentleness.” Fifteen years after the novel’s publication, Rumer Godden, in New York Herald Tribune Books, calls it a masterpiece, adding that the book has retained its appeal and become “universally popular.”

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