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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1122

The “she” to whom the reader is introduced in the first paragraph, as she enters the living room of Mr. Bilderbach’s house, in no way seems to be the Wunderkind of this story. Indeed, as she enters the room her music satchel is described as “plopping against her winter-stockinged legs,” her attention is “scattered” by “restlessness,” she fumbles with her books, her fingers quiver, and her “sight [is] sharpened [by] fear that had begun to torment her for the past few months.” Perhaps, then, this is the story of the young girl as she becomes a Wunderkind. However, she is described as mumbling “phrases of encouragement” to herself, telling herself over and over: “A good lesson—a good lesson—like it used to be.” Her name is Frances, the reader learns, and she is fifteen, having arrived for her Tuesday afternoon piano lesson; she is early and must wait until Mr. Bilderbach and Mr. Lafkowitz finish playing a recently acquired sonatina.

Carson McCullers thus sets the stage and situates her characters—with Frances sitting in Mr. Bilderbach’s living room—so that, through a series of flashbacks (told from Frances’s point of view through a third-person, limited omniscient narrative voice), which extend back to the time when Frances was twelve and began her lessons with Mr. Bilderbach, the author can nudge the reader toward understanding the cause of her protagonist’s apparent angst and fear over having lost what “used to be.”

This particular Tuesday had begun badly for Frances when, after she had practiced at her piano for two hours, her father made her eat breakfast with the rest of her family: He “had put a fried egg on her plate and she had known that if it burst—so that the slimy yellow oozed over the white—she would cry.” This, in fact, had happened, and “the same feeling was upon her now,” as she sits in her teacher’s living room and looks at a magazine wherein a photograph of her friend, Heime, appears. He had studied the violin with Mr. Lafkowitz, and he had played in a concert with Frances (the critics had praised his performance but criticized hers). He, like Frances, had been called a Wunderkind for his early apparent and great talent. Heime had gone to Pennsylvania (where he is during the time of this story) to study with another, presumably more advanced teacher than Mr. Lafkowitz. Now he has had his photograph and a brief biography published in a magazine devoted to music and outstanding musicians. Indeed, Heime’s obvious and praised success intensifies Frances’s growing doubts about her own ability to realize her early promise as a Wunderkind at the piano and to become a professional instead of merely a talented student.

Her dreadful self-doubts began four months before this particular Tuesday afternoon, when the notes she played on the piano began to spring out with a “glib, dead intonation.” Initially, she had attributed this, as well as her displeasure over it, to adolescence: “Some kids played with promise—and worked and worked until, like her, the least little thing would start them crying, and worn out with trying to get the thing across—the longing thing they felt—something queer began to happen—But not she! She was like Heime. She had to be.”

Unfortunately, it has become increasingly apparent to Frances, as it becomes apparent to the reader of this story, that she is not like Heime. Her technique at the piano is—and was when, three years earlier, she began to study with Mr. Bilderbach—excellent, but he had told her then that technique was not enough: “It—playing music—is more than cleverness. If a twelve-year-old girl’s fingers cover so many keys to a second—that means nothing.” Naturally, Frances wants to please Mr. Bilderbach, especially since he and his wife, with no children of their own, have treated her like their own daughter over the past three years. For her graduation from junior high school, for example, he had insisted on buying her a pair of new shoes and having Mrs. Bilderbach make her a new dress from fabric he had chosen. She frequently eats dinner with them on Saturdays after her piano lessons, often sleeping at their house and then returning to her home on Sunday mornings, after eating breakfast with them. In some unexpressed way, that “longing thing” in her and the music she plays—that emotion she has been unable to communicate through her piano—is complicated by Mr. Bilderbach’s own “longing” for a child.

On Mr. Lafkowitz’s departure, Frances goes to the piano for her lesson. “Well, Bienchen,” Mr. Bilderbach says to her, “this afternoon we are going to begin all over. Start from scratch. Forget the last few months.” She will make a fresh start, then, a renewal. (However, the reader is reminded here of what Mr. Bilderbach had said to Frances during her first lesson with him three years earlier: “Now we begin all over.”) He next considers having her play a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach, but then he says, “No, not yet,” and instead decides to have her play Ludwig van Beethoven’s Variation Sonata, opus 26. The “stiff and dead-seeming” piano keys make Frances feel “hemmed . . . in” and it bothers her that Mr. Bilderbach frequently interrupts her playing with corrections. She asks him to let her play the piece through, without stopping, for then, she says, “Maybe . . . I could do better.” He consents, but he is not pleased when she has finished, nor is she pleased: “There were no flaws . . . but the phrases shaped from her fingers before she had put into them the meaning that she felt.” She had played this sonata for years; she had also played the Harmonious Blacksmith for years, a composition he wants her to play next, “like a real blacksmith’s daughter.” In other words, he wants her to play what she knows too well, what she plays automatically, and not what would challenge her and force her to grow—as a pianist and an emotional being. His demands on her, seemingly designed to force her into regression or, worse, artistic and emotional paralysis, are too much for her suddenly: “Her heart that had been springing against her chest all afternoon felt suddenly dead. She saw it gray and limp and shriveled at the edges like an oyster.” She feels caged, confused. “I can’t . . . can’t anymore,” she whispers to him, leaving the piano to rush past him, grab her books, and hurry out of his house. Once outside, she hurries down the street “that had become confused with noise and bicycles and the games of other children.”

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