A Potpourri of Age and Race. "The Member of the Wedding" by Carson McCullers

Essay, 2017

8 Pages, Grade: 14


The Member of the Wedding: A “Potpourri” of Age and Race

Carson McCullers, originally Lula Carson Smith, is a Southern American writer who was born in Georgia, a space which would recurrently figure in her major novels, to middle class parents. This talented writer displayed a strong artistic genius, primarily ignited by her mother, in both music and writing. Yet, Carson firmly opted for the second which would mark her career as a renowned and proficient author. Accordingly, McCullers flourished in the world of literature and would probably have gone with her career to its peak were it not for the predicaments and traumas she experienced with regard to her health conditions and her entangled marital life. Indeed, McCullers has expertly contributed to the literary scope by dint of her critically acclaimed masterpieces The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding. It is the latter work which constitutes the focal concern of this paper given its scrupulously woven structure, for Carson herself discloses: “It’s one of those works that the least slip can ruin... It must be beautifully done. For like a poem there is not much excuse for it otherwise” (Bloom 15). In fact, this novel subtly aggregates elements emanating from both reality and fiction into a unified Bildungsroman and literary composition of the Southern Renaissance. In other words, McCullers endows her The Member of the Wedding with some of her own childhood features but directs her attention more importantly towards a meaningful choice of the narrative elements, namely the characters, the setting, and the themes so as to inscribe the novel within the Bildungsroman and the Southern Renaissance frameworks. Probably, the essence of this novel is latent in its dichotomic yet unified nature. That is to say, it is a literary work in which the emotional and the rational, the individual and the social, and the white and the black all exist side by side without disrupting its unity, and this may be the uniqueness which Dangerfield ascribes to Carson McCullers (Dangerfield 63).

In point of fact, it is inevitable to have a general overview of what occurs in the novel as a necessary step towards the delineation of the contextualizing and thematic elements of the novel. Indeed, McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding relates the story of Frankie, the twelve-year-old daughter of the Addams, who unusually in this particular August starts feeling alienated, hollow and abstracted from the world. She finds her only solace in eagerly waiting for her brother’s wedding, convinced that she would join him and his bride to live with them wherever they go. Meanwhile, she struggles to shed her childhood personality and get out of her limbo state through her attempt to behave like a mature girl, engaging in long conversations about adult issues with Berenice and wandering in the town to tell everyone she meets of her future plans and her awaited journey. Yet, all the colorful dreams she has been living collapse all of a sudden after the ephemeral passing of the wedding and the departure of the couple, leaving her behind. As a result, she plans for running away to the larger world but finds herself caught by the police who were called by her father. Eventually, the novel seals with Frankie’s change, at last, into a more mature girl who has finally settled herself psychically and terminated her loneliness by finding a new friend.

With regard to the novel’s characters, the protagonist, Frankie Addams, is to a great extent an autobiographical figure of McCullers and the nucleus of the whole novel. This persona is solidly reinforced by two other primary characters, Berenice Sadie Brown and John Henry West. It is worth mentioning that the author brings to the surface a variety of secondary characters, but suffice it to emphasize those who contribute to the psychic and psychological development of Frankie. Indeed, Frankie is an intelligent and naïve twelve-year-old girl whose mother has died at childbirth and whose father is more or less distant. At this delicate age, an in-between state between childhood and adolescence, Frankie finds herself in a vortex of unfamiliar and intricate feelings which insinuates her acute crisis of identity. From the very outset, she describes her psychic drama as “so very queer” (McCullers 7) and wonders puzzledly “who she was, and what she was going to be in the world” (32). Besides, though accompanied most of the time by the Addams’ cook and housekeeper, Berenice, and her six-year-old cousin, John Henry, Frankie remains so lonely, alienated and deracinated from the whole world through her feeling that “she was a member of nothing in the world” (7). This very emotion is notably initiated by her utter ostracization by the “older” girls in her neighborhood. In this feature, Frankie resembles McCullers who was herself dismissed by her peers in her childhood as Virginia Spence Carr elucidates:

When Carson was younger, some of the girls gathered [...] and threw rocks at her when she walked nearby, snickering loud asides and tossing within hearing distance such descriptive labels as ‘weird,’ ‘freakish-looking,’ and ‘queer’. (qtd in McKinnie and Dews 93)

As a result, Frankie embarks on a journey of search for selfhood by striving to anchor her identity and belonging in her brother Jarvis’s wedding – which functions as the narrative catalyst of the whole novel– longing to become “the member of the wedding”. In this psychic voyage, she assumes three different identities throughout the three parts of the novel by changing her name from “Frankie” to “F. Jasmine” and finally to “Frances” and longs to flee to the North far from her colorless Southern life. Again, Frankie’s latter yearning echoes McCullers analogous “desire to leave the South” (93). Another primary character of McCullers is the “mammy” stereotype epitomized in the Addams’ African American cook and housekeeper, Berenice, who enacts the role of a surrogate mother and a wise advisor to Frankie. Physically, she is a woman nearing her forties and, unusually, possesses one dark eye and another blue one. What is momentous about Berenice is her symbolism of the feminine adulthood, which Frankie strives to attain by gradually shedding her childhood personality, and her perspicacious and rational guidance which serves as an antidote to Frankie’s rampantly melodramatic fantasies. As a matter of fact, what grants Berenice this status is her hard-bitten character achieved through her four marriages and her traumatic racial experience. Finally, John Henry West is the last concocted primary character of the novelist. He is six years old and incarnates Frankie’s childhood. Yet, he is much smarter and more insightful than his age would suggest and demonstrates a conspicuous calm and rationality in situations in which Frankie displays a great fury. His death at the end of the novel is consistent with his symbolic role; in other words, his death synchronizes with the end of Frances’s childhood.

Plausibly, it is more accurate to highlight the following three secondary characters in terms of their relevance to Frankie’s experience given the fact that each of them corresponds to a particular stage of her psychic crisis. First, Royal Quincy Addams, Frankie’s father, is a widower who, like McCullers’s father Lamar, is a jeweler that spends most of his time in his store. He remains mostly absent, uncommunicative with and apathetic vis-à-vis his daughter throughout the novel. However, his role is undeniable in the development of her personality: Through his claim that Frankie has become “too big to sleep with her father anymore” (McCullers 32), he generates an unintelligible identity crisis in her tough journey from childhood to adolescence. Further, Frankie’s brother, Jarvis, is as distant from Frankie as her father; that is to say, his mission in the army has always kept him in remote areas of the world, which has invariably fantasized him in Frankie’s childish imagination. Thus, now that he is about to marry, a ceremony which is comprehended only in the realistic world of adults, Frankie’s crisis culminates. The novel’s last secondary persona is Marry Littlejohn who is two years older than Frankie. She is her closest friend and seems to have a positive influence on her especially with regard to her artistic predisposition. Indeed, Mary symbolizes the resolution of Frankie’s inward conflict as she finally becomes a member of a particular community.

Moreover, the narrating time (what Genette calls “le temps de récit”) and the narrated time (what he calls “le temps de l’histoire”) are closely intertwined, for McCullers’s narrative (récit) and story (histoire) occur during the Second World War. On the one hand, McCullers began writing her novel in 1941, that is, during WWII, but did not publish it until 1946. On the other hand, it can be demonstrated through various textual clues that the narrated time takes place in 1944, a year before the end of the War. As a matter of fact, Frankie was born in 1931– the same year in which Berenice’s first husband died– and by the end of the story Frances is thirteen (184), which signifies that the events occur in 1944. Besides, Berenice’s utterance that “the French people are chasing the Germans out of Paris” (24) and the narrator’s claim that the American general Patton “was chasing the Germans across France” (30) corroborate the temporal context of the Second World War. The choice of this time by McCullers is not haphazard; rather, it mirrors the vehement identity conflict welling in Frankie’s psyche.

Additionally, the narrated time of The Member of the Wedding spans the period of four months– from August to November– which is not chronologically linearly expounded. Rather, this period is chronologically disrupted by prevalent analepses and a salient case of ellipsis. Indeed, the rhythm of the story is decelerated by recurrent analepses which can be exemplified in Frankie’s remembrance of Jarvis’s travels and the House of the Freaks in the first part of the novel, her reminiscence of her visit with the Wests to Uncle Charles in the second part, and her memories of John Henry’s death in the last part. At the other end, the rhythm of the story is lucidly accelerated in the third part of the novel in which the narrator moves from August to November, leaving out all the events between.

It is inevitably crucial to delve into the symbolic significance of McCullers’s choice of August, the culmination of summer, to be the time devoted to the greatest part of her The Member of the Wedding. In fact, in his Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye associates summer with romance as an archetypal narrative in which the hero embarks on a quest predicated on a “crucial struggle”. Frye goes further to assert that “agon or conflict is the basis or archetypal theme of romance” (Frye 192), hence, associating summer with agon or conflict. It is this theory which McCullers materializes in her novel through her choice of summer as the time of events. In other words, summer equates Frankie’s story to a romance given that Frankie herself is engaged in a quest of identity. Identically, summer connotes Frankie’s agon which is the crisis of identity which she experiences in this liminal age.

Beside the time of narrated events, the setting of The Member of the Wedding involves the space where events occur. When considering the general spatial context of the story, events take place in a Southern town of Georgia – the same area in which Carson McCullers spent her childhood. Yet, it is inevitable to examine more meticulously the spaces relevant to Frankie’s development. The most predominant space in the novel is the Addams’ kitchen where Frankie spends most of her time conversing with Berenice and John Henry. In point of fact, it can be hypothesized that this space is subjected to the same centripetal metamorphosis as Frankie and, correspondingly, incarnates the materialization of the latter’s psyche or personality. Put differently, at the very beginning, the kitchen is covered by childish drawings of John Henry and is characterized by the latter’s prevalent presence, which goes hand in hand with Frankie’s confinement to the realm of childhood at this early stage of the novel. Nonetheless, at the end, “the kitchen, done over and almost modern, had nothing that would bring to mind John Henry West” (McCullers185), that is, the kitchen now has become more sophisticated and devoid of any childish attribute just like Frankie who turns into the more reasonable, mature adolescent “Frances”. Accordingly, the kitchen is a significant space in the novel given that it reproduces the personal, psychic coming of age of Frankie Addams.

If the kitchen is a simulacrum of Frankie’s evolution, the Blue Moon Café is a spatial catalyst of this evolution. This space is, indeed, a microcosmic place of the adult world; thus, it gradually initiates Frankie to this intricately advanced phase of age. At her first visit, Frankie does not encounter but indifference and apathy by the Portuguese owner in response to her infantile talk about the wedding. More importantly, her experience with the soldier in this café strikingly adverts the reasonable yet naïve F. Jasmine to the intricacies and cruelties of the adult world. The implication of this space on Frances is ultimately seen in her careful avoidance of any childish answer and her choice of plausible and rational responses with regard to the police officer’s questions in the café, which evidences her growth. All these things considered, it can be inferred that this social space significantly participates in the psychic growth of Frankie, which is consistent with Joseph Millichap’s claim that “in McCullers’s fiction ‘the search for personal realization must necessarily be social.’” (qtd in Chamlee 85).

Finally, along with the formerly elucidated narrative elements, the themes embedded in the novel permit to engraft it, on the one hand, within the Bildungsroman framework and, on the other hand, within the scope of the Southern Renaissance, one of the foremost preoccupations of which is the question of “race” and the condition of “blackness” in the South. Probably, it goes without saying that the most pervasive theme in the novel is the coming of age. That is to say, the novel explores how the twelve-year-old Frankie undergoes for the first time a series of physical and psychic changes, to wit, the swift growth in her size and the unfamiliar feelings of alienation, disconnectedness and confusion, and acquires new meaningful experiences, notably her psychic survival with respect to the failure of her dreams concerning the wedding, her escape from the indecent soldier as well as her success to establish a new friendship. These various experiences are, in fact, “rites of passage” to the age of thirteen; that is to say, they propel Frankie’s smooth movement from childhood to adolescence. Another concomitant theme to this coming of age is the quest for identity. As a matter of fact, at this sensitive age, Frankie finds herself trapped in puzzlement and deprivation as far as her identity is concerned. She does no longer know who she is or to which group she pertains, having, thence, neither an individual identity nor a collective identity. That’s why, in a vain attempt to reinvigorate her sense of selfhood, she strives to “belong” to Jarvis and Janice’s wedding and to acquire, correspondingly, “the member of the wedding” identity – what she refers to as “the we of me” (McCullers 53). Ultimately, Frankie succeeds to erect an accurate identity by anchoring her existence in her new friendship with Mary Littlejohn and in her new artistic trends. Overall, these two themes quintessentially confer on The Member of the Wedding the literary nature of a Bildungsroman which typically intends to demystify the greater personal enrichment of the protagonist through the latter’s journey from precocious youth to psychological or emotional maturity.

Aside from these blatant themes, there is another substantive yet latent theme which Carson McCullers embeds in her work: It is the question of race, especially when referring to African Americans. It is worth mentioning that it is by dint of this theme that The Member of the Wedding transcends this individual dimension of its characters to a social issue – a humanitarian as well as ethnic issue. Actually, this theme is dramatized through Berenice who imparts to F. Jasmine: “‘We all of us somehow caught [...]. And maybe we wants to widen and bust free. But no matter what we do we still caught [...]. I’m caught worse than you is.’ [...] ‘Because I’m black,’ said Berenice. ‘Because I am colored.’” (141). What Berenice strives to convey, here, is that, naturally, all humans suffer in a way or another, but this ordeal is more profoundly exacerbated in the case of black people. In other words, because of their color, they live in an excruciating trauma because of the social and psychological oppression and dehumanization they encounter from their white counterparts. In a similar fashion, McCullers implements a passage to unveil the dreadfully reified image the white people have of black people through the illustration of the Wild Nigger in the House of the Freaks. This freakish figure is portrayed as follows: “The Wild Nigger came from a savage island. He squatted in his booth among the dusty bones and palm leaves and he ate raw living rats” (26). In this respect, Jenkins clarifies McCullers’s attitude towards blacks through his assertion: “McCullers typically explored race from inside the white mind, hut she did so in such a way as to break down any sense of "race" as a rigid category” (Jenkins 149). Thereupon, the presence of such a theme in the novel attests McCullers’s sympathy with black people and, subsequently, inserts The Member of the Wedding within the literary corpus of the Southern Renaissance.

In a nutshell, through the detailed examination of the narrative elements of Carson McCullers’s third book, The Member of the Wedding, more principally of its characters, its time and space, and its themes, this paper demonstrated that the novel is at once a Bildungsroman and a novel of the Southern Renaissance. On the one hand, it is a Bildungsroman in the sense that it follows the emotional and psychic development of the protagonist from the innocent and naïve child, Frankie, to the more sophisticated and insightful adolescent, Frances, and her success to erect an accurate identity pattern after the failure of “the member of the wedding” identity. On the other hand, this novel is a seminal fictional work which pertains to the Southern Renaissance given the fact that it purveys a critical account of the psychically and socially deplorable conditions to which African Americans find themselves unwillingly confined. Indubitably, it can be claimed that the narrative elements of The Member of the Wedding are so beautifully woven that they make of the novel a multi-facetted and a multi-dimensional literary masterpiece.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. “The Story Behind the Story.” Bloom’s Guides: The Member of the Wedding. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 2005. 15-16.

Chamlee, Kenneth D. “The Function of the Café Setting in the Development of Character.” Bloom’s Guides: The Member of the Wedding. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 2005. 85-88.

Dangerfield, George. “Thematic Structure and the Problem of Loneliness.” Bloom’s Guides: The Member of the Wedding. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 2005. 63-66.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. United States: Princeton University Press, 1957. 71-128.

Jenkins, McKay. The South in Black and White. Race, Sex, and Literature in the 1940s. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

McCullers, Carson. The Member of the Wedding. Great Britain: Penguin Modern Classics, 1962.

McKinnie, Betty E., and Carlos L. Dews. “The Delayed Entrance of Lily Mae Jenkins: Queer Identity, Gender Ambiguity, and Southern Ambivalence in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding.” Carson McCullers. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2009. 87-98.

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A Potpourri of Age and Race. "The Member of the Wedding" by Carson McCullers
Sultan Moulay Sliman University  (Faculty of Arts and Humanities)
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potpourri, race, member, wedding, carson, mccullers
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Khaoula Chakour (Author), 2017, A Potpourri of Age and Race. "The Member of the Wedding" by Carson McCullers, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/379066


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