Carson McCullers’s (February 19, 1917 – September 29, 1967) short stories (ruling out for the moment the novella The Ballad of the Sad Café, 1943, serial; 1951, book) often explore the intense emotional content of seemingly undramatic situations. Plot is minimal, although there is often at least one unusual or grotesque element. “Wunderkind,” for example, deals with the confused feelings of a gifted fifteen-year-old girl at a piano lesson. Her social development has been sacrificed to her musical talent; now her mastery of the keyboard is faltering, and she is profoundly humiliated. The reader realizes that part of her difficulty is the awakening of sexual feelings for her teacher, Mister Bilderbach. Neither the teacher, who thinks of her as a child prodigy, nor the young girl herself understands her tension and clumsiness.
“The Jockey” describes an even more ordinary situation—a brief encounter in a restaurant between a jockey and three other men identified as a trainer, a bookie, and a rich man whose horse the jockey has ridden. The dwarflike jockey, called Bitsy Barlow, is one of those grotesque figures who seem an embarrassing mistake in nature. The point of the story is the ironic contrast between the three “normal” men’s callous pretense of sympathy for a rider’s crippling accident on the track and the jockey’s bitter grief for that rider, who is his closest friend. Although the jockey, because of his physical deformity, seems a caricature of humanity, the intensity of his sorrow makes the other men’s callousness seem the more monstrous.
Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland
“Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland” is, on the most obvious level, at least, a revelation of the emotional price of artistic excellence. Like “Wunderkind” and “The Jockey,” the story concerns the subjective significance of seemingly minor events. Mr. Brook, head of a college music department, hires Madame Zilensky, a famous composer and teacher, for his faculty. He is tolerant of her several eccentricities, her tales of adventures in exotic places, and even her somewhat shocking assertion that her three sons are the offspring of three different lovers. When she claims to have seen the King of Finland, however, Mr. Brook realizes that she is a pathological liar, since Finland has no king. Mr. Brook is sensitive enough to intuit the motive for her prevarications: the terrible constriction of her actual experience. “Through her lies, she lived vicariously. The lies doubled the little of her existence that was left over from work and augmented the little rag end of her personal life.”
Point of view is vital in this story. The pathetic emotional dependence of Madame Zilensky on fantasy is the explicit and obvious content, but the story’s real focus is on the growing perception of Mr. Brook, who has himself led a somewhat dull, repetitive life in academia. It is his character which receives the more subtle delineation. He represents those countless ordinary people whose individuality has been subdued, but not utterly extinguished, by professional duties. When Mr. Brook, in his official capacity, feels he must reprimand Madame Zilensky for propagating lies about herself, he comes face to face with stark tragedy. The terrible emotional deprivation he is about to expose echoes in his own solitary soul. Compassion for her loneliness and his own makes him realize that truth is not the highest virtue.
This terrified retreat from reality into the most banal of polite conversation ironically combines tragedy and sardonic humor. To use the name of love in this context is surprising, at once accurate and absurd. A final symbolic image captures the grotesque irrationality embedded in the most familiar landscape. As Mr. Brook looks out of his office window later, he sees, perhaps for the hundredth time, a faculty member’s old Airedale terrier waddling down the street. This time, however, something is strange: The dog is walking backward. He watches “with a kind of cold surprise” until the dog is out of sight, then returns to the pile of student papers on his desk.
This story is thematically typical of McCullers’s fiction. Love, which has little or nothing to do with sexuality, is the only way to bridge the terrible isolation which separates individuals. Too many other factors in the situation, however—habit, social custom, human perversity, the demands of artistic creativity, or simply devotion to duty—conspire against the goal of giving love and comfort to one another. All persons are trapped, incommunicado, in the little cages they have chosen.
A Domestic Dilemma
The irrational persistence of love and its inadequacy to solve the everyday problems of existence are also apparent in “A Domestic Dilemma.” Here, too, the story is told from the point of view of a patient, kindly man whose attitude toward his alcoholic wife is a curious blend of compassion, love, and angry exasperation. He fears for the welfare of his two children. He comes home to the suburbs from his New York office to find his children unattended, playing with Christmas tree lights, a supper of cinnamon toast on the kitchen table, untouched except for one bite. The little boy complains, “It hurt. The toast was hot.” His wife, Emily, had mistaken cayenne pepper for cinnamon.
The bewildered children do not understand the painful scene between mother and father, in which Emily vacillates drunkenly between belligerent defense of her behavior and tearful shame. Martin finally persuades her to go to bed and let him feed the children, bathe them, and put them to bed. He successfully reestablishes an atmosphere of tender solicitude, hoping the children will not remember their mother’s puzzling behavior. How long will it be, he wonders, before they understand and despise her? There are moments when Martin hates his wife, imagining “a future of degradation and slow ruin” for himself and his children. When he finally lies down beside Emily and watches her sleeping, however, his anger gradually dissipates. “His hand sought the adjacent flesh and sorrow paralleled desire in the immense complexity of love.”
One interpretation offered for “A Domestic Dilemma” points to the stresses of an urban lifestyle on a woman reared in an emotionally supportive small southern town. In suburbia, Emily is isolated from everyone she ever knew, while Martin commutes long distances into the inner city. Thus, it is social isolation that is destroying her. This interpretation has considerable validity, although the cause of her alcoholism is not really central to the story; isolation and loneliness occur in all kinds of social situations in McCullers’s fiction, and small southern towns are as deadly as urban suburbs in that regard. Isolation is a metaphysical affliction more than a cultural one. Emily’s social isolation is analogous to Bitsy Barlow’s physical deformity or even Madame Zilensky’s enslaving musical genius—one of the many accidents of nature or situation over which people have little control. As Mr. Brook’s empathy for Madame Zilensky cannot alleviate her isolation, Martin’s love for his wife will not necessarily save her from her unhappiness. In McCullers’s fiction it is usually the act of love, not the comfort of being loved, that has power to transform the lover.
A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud
One of the most anthologized of McCullers’s stories is “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud,” which was chosen for the 1942 Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, even though it may be inferior, in some ways, to “A Domestic Dilemma,” “Wunderkind,” and “Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland.” It deals more philosophically and perhaps more ironically with the art of loving. The lover, in this case, is an old, boozy wanderer who waylays a newspaper delivery boy in a café. He is compulsively dedicated to explaining how he learned to love “all things both great and small.” The quotation comes not from the story but from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), which is quite possibly its inspiration. The irony of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner waylaying an impatient wedding guest with his story of salvation through love is translated here into a somewhat different context.
Three persons, rather than two, are involved. Although the tale is addressed to the naïve newspaper delivery boy, it is overheard by Leo, the proprietor of the café, who is early characterized as bitter and stingy. When the wanderer accosts the boy and says distinctly, “I love you,” the initial laughter of the men in the café and their immediate return to their own beer or breakfasts suggest both a widespread cynicism and an utter indifference concerning the welfare of the boy. Although Leo is also cynical and often vulgar, he listens to the conversation carefully. When the old man orders a beer for the boy, Leo brings coffee instead, reminding the other man, “He is a minor.”
Although Leo soon understands that the old man’s intention is not to proposition the boy, he continues to interject insulting remarks into the wanderer’s sad tale of love for a wife who deserted him for another man. The old man struggles to explain the unifying effect of love on the fragmented psyche. Before his marriage, he says, “when I had enjoyed anything there was a peculiar sensation as though it was laying around loose in me. Nothing seemed to finish itself up or fit in with other things.” His wife, however, transformed his experience of himself—“this woman was something like an assembly line for my soul. I run these little pieces of myself through her and I come out complete.” Yet, after years of frantic search for the lost wife, the man realizes with horror that he cannot even remember distinctly what she looked like. It was then that he began his “science” of love.
At this point, Leo explodes in exasperation: Leo’s mouth jerked with a pale, quick grin.
“Well none of we boys are getting any younger,” he said. Then with sudden anger he balled up a dishcloth he was holding and threw it down hard on the floor. “You draggle-tailed old Romeo!”
The wanderer solemnly explains that one must practice the art of loving by starting with small or inanimate things—a tree, a rock, a cloud—and graduate from one thing to another. He learned to love a goldfish next. Now he has so perfected the science of loving that he can love anything and everyone. By this time, Leo is screaming at him to shut up.
As an explanation of Platonic love, this, to be sure, may be feeble. The reactions of Leo and the boy do, however, provide depth to the story. The newsboy is puzzled and confused—presumably because he has yet to pass through adolescence, when the importance and complexity of love will become clearer to him. After the old man leaves, the boy appeals to Leo for answers.Was the man drunk?Was he a dope fiend? Was he crazy? To the first two questions Leo says, shortly, “No.” To the last, he is grimly silent. Probably Leo responds so emotionally to the old man’s tale because it makes him too keenly aware of his own barren lovelessness. His role is somewhat analogous to that of Mr. Brook in this respect. He recognizes, perhaps, that the old man, unlike himself, has found a way to transcend his wretchedness. Can it be “crazy” to be at peace with oneself, in spite of outwardly miserable circumstances? If so, it is a craziness a sane man might covet. The boy, thinking of nothing else to say, comments that the man “sure has done a lot of traveling.” As the story ends, McCullers emphasizes therefore that the story is about adolescent versus adult perceptions of love.
McCullers’s short fiction, like her most popular novel, The Member of the Wedding, has many autobiographical elements. Her own absorption in music and early aspirations to be a concert pianist are reflected in “Wunderkind” and “Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland.” The particular mode of Madame Zilensky’s escape from a narrowly focused existence is even more pertinent to McCullers’s short, intense life. She escaped the limitations of her frail body through fantasy, transforming it into fiction and drama.
Even the situation in “A Domestic Dilemma” echoes her own life, curiously altered. She lived both the Emily role, that is, the maimed personality who desperately needs love and companionship, and the Martin role, the hopeless lover of the psychologically disabled person. McCullers’s husband, whom she divorced and later remarried, was an alcoholic whose drinking was aggravated by the fact that, although he fancied himself a writer, she was so much more successful than he. She has disguised the personal element in the situation by changing the presumed cause of the alcoholism (although she, too, knew the effect of migrating from a small southern town to New York) and by projecting her role more on the husband than the wife.
Both Martin and Mr. Brook exhibit qualities ordinarily ascribed to women— intuition, gentleness, patience, and unselfish love. McCullers’s blurring of gender roles (Miss Amelia in “The Ballad of the Sad Café” is strikingly masculine) was probably not motivated by a feminist revolt against stereotyped sex roles; she was not a polemicist but a lyrical writer, projecting her own personality, feelings, dreams, and fears. If her men act like women or vice versa, it is because she was herself decidedly androgynous. She loved both men and women and somehow contained them both. Some of her most ardent attractions were for women who repudiated her attentions (or at least did not remain in her vicinity), which may account for the wistful need for love in some of her fictional characters.
In spite of her personal sorrows and her emotional isolation and loneliness, McCullers was beloved by many friends and generous in her own affections. Even the odd triangular love affairs that appear in The Member of the Wedding and Reflections in a Golden Eye have some autobiographical parallels. Both Carson and her husband, according to McCullers’s biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, were intimately involved with Jack Diamond, a concert musician. It is not an accident that McCullers was one of the first American writers to deal openly (in Reflections in a Golden Eye) with repressed homosexuality. In the case of her husband, at least, his homosexual orientation was not always repressed; whether she was an active bisexual is more ambiguous.
McCullers’s personal life and her fiction both seem marked by a curious combination of sophisticated intuition into human motives and an odd childlike quality that sometimes verges on immaturity. Most writers, for example, would not write of Mr. Brook that he could not speak until “this agitation in his insides quieted down”; nor would many writers try to express the blurred Platonic idealism of “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” Although the situational irony of that story saves it from being naïvely expressed philosophy, one has a lingering impression that the writer is mocking a sentiment that she really wants to advocate.
The Ballad of the Sad Café
“The Ballad of the Sad Café,” sometimes grouped with novellas, sometimes with short stories, is the most successful of McCullers’s ventures into the grotesque. The melancholy mood suggested by the title is appropriate; like many a folk ballad, it tells a mournful tale touched with sardonic humor. The story celebrates the love of a cross-eyed, mannish woman for a conceited, hunchbacked dwarf. It also involves a curious love triangle, for the climax is a grotesque battle between the protagonist, Miss Amelia, and her former husband for the affection of the dwarf.
True love, paradoxically, is both a cruel joke and the means of redemption, not only for the lover, Miss Amelia, but also for the whole ingrown, backwoods community, which otherwise dies of emotional starvation. The inhabitants of this stifling southern village, like a somber chorus in a Greek tragedy, observe and reflect the fortunes of Miss Amelia, their leading citizen. Cousin Lymon, the hunchback, appears out of nowhere at the door of Miss Amelia, who runs the town store and the best distillery for miles around. To everyone’s amazement, instead of throwing him out, as she has done to others who claimed kinship, Miss Amelia takes in the wretched wanderer and even falls in love with him. Cousin Lymon becomes a pompous little king of the castle, although not, apparently, her bed partner. Love transforms the mean, hard, sexless Miss Amelia into a reasonable facsimile of a warmhearted woman. She opens a café in her store because Cousin Lymon likes company, and her place becomes the social center of the community. Miss Amelia blossoms; the community blooms with goodwill, until the arrival of another person who is to destroy this interlude of happiness and peace.
Miss Amelia had once married the town bad boy, who had unaccountably fallen in love with her. Her motivation had apparently been solely commercial, the hope of acquiring a strong helper in her business; when the bridegroom expected sexual favors, Miss Amelia had indignantly refused. After ten stormy days, she threw him out entirely, earning his undying hatred for causing him such frustration and humiliation; he turned to a life of crime and landed in the penitentiary. Now he is out of jail and returns with malevolent thoughts of revenge. Poor Miss Amelia, now vulnerable in a new and surprising way, accepts his unwelcome presence in her café because Cousin Lymon is fascinated with him, and Miss Amelia and her former spouse become rivals for the affection of the dwarf.
This rivalry culminates in a ludicrous variation of the western showdown, solemnly witnessed by the whole community, when Miss Amelia and her former husband have a battle of fisticuffs in the café. Moreover, Miss Amelia, who has been quietly working out with a punching bag in preparation for the event, is winning. At the last moment, however, the traitorous Cousin Lymon leaps onto her back, and the two men together beat her senseless. Afterward, they vandalize her store and her still in the woods and flee. Miss Amelia thereafter closes her business and becomes a permanent recluse in a town now desolate and deserted.
Children’s literature: Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig, 1964. plays: The Member of the Wedding, pr. 1950, pb. 1951 (adaptation of her novel); The Square Root of Wonderful, pr. 1957, pb. 1958.
Novels: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1940; Reflections in a Golden Eye, 1941; The Ballad of the Sad Café, 1943, serial (1951, book); The Member of the Wedding, 1946; Clock Without Hands, 1961.
Miscellaneous: The Mortgaged Heart, 1971 (short fiction, poetry, and essays; Margarita G. Smith, editor).
Nonfiction: Illumination and Night Glare: The Unfinished Autobiography of Carson McCullers, 1999 (Carlos L. Dews, editor).
Bloom, Harold, ed. Carson McCullers. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Carr, Virginia Spencer. Understanding Carson McCullers. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
Clark, Beverly Lyon, and Melvin J. Friedman, eds. Critical Essays on Carson McCullers. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.
James, Judith Giblin. Wunderkind: The Reputation of Carson McCullers, 1940-1990.
Jenkins, McKay. The South in Black and White: Race, Sex, and Literature in the 1940’s.Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
McDowell, Margaret B. Carson McCullers. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Savigneau, Josyane. Carson McCullers: A Life. Translated by Joan E. Howard. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Westling, Louise. Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Whitt, Margaret. “From Eros to Agape: Reconsidering the Chain Gang’s Song in McCullers’s Ballad of the Sad Café.” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (Winter, 1996): 119- 122.