Spiritual Isolation in "The Ballad of the Sad Café"

A sad Parable on the American South by Carson McCullers

Term Paper, 2006

26 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The South
2.1. The Dichotomy of Myth and Reality
2.2. Carson McCullers and the Southern Myth
2.3. Carson McCullers and William Faulkner

3. The Spiritual Isolation of Carson McCullers

4. The Spiritual Isolation in The Ballad of the Sad Café
4.1. Brief Summary of the Plot
4.2. The Spiritual Isolation of the Lover and the Beloved
4.3. Miss Amelia’s Suspension of Spiritual Isolation
4.4. The Spiritual Isolation of “The Twelve Mortal Men”

5. Spiritual Isolation as Social Criticism
5.1. The Rise and Fall of the Café
5.2. Gender Transgression as Social Criticism

6. Conclusion

7. Works Cited

Picture on the cover page: www.virginiamusicflash.com

1. Introduction

This paper is going to examine how the southern-born writer Carson McCullers creates the lonely picture of an individual living in hopeless spiritual isolation in a southern town. The South used to be a rural area with its own distinctive culture and a “strong folk tradition, preserved mainly through music and language” (Forkner 91). It will be discussed how this image had to give way to the new reality of the South by the time of the 1940s. It had turned into an interchangeable urbanized society which excluded the individual which did not correspond to southern norms. Furthermore, by analyzing the main characters of The Ballad of the Sad Café, the paper points out the unique dreariness of McCullers’ visions, looking for reasons in her childhood as well as in her adult life. Focusing on her work The Ballad of the Sad Café, the paper underlines that McCullers was always questioning the national identity of 20th century America in general, and the transforming southern society in particular. Further on, it discusses the crucial difference between Carson McCullers’ and William Faulkner, who is known as the most recognized writer of her time. By interpreting the novelette The Ballad of the Sad Café, the paper is going to highlight the topic McCullers was most concerned about: The spiritual isolation of the individual. An isolation which is deeply rooted within a person who does not fit into the narrow-minded and prefabricated picture of the stereotypical southern society. Finally, my paper emphasizes Carson McCullers’ concern with gender and behavioral concepts in the early 20th century, which she turned upside down in order to uncover the artificiality of the southern myth and its rigid moral conceptions.

2. The South

2.1. The Dichotomy of Myth and Reality

During the 1940s, the picture of the South was loaded with traditional concepts and stereotypical images of the typical ‘southerner’, which had no equivalent in modern society. Thus, the established picture denoted a clash between ideal and reality; a belief in certain values that could neither be found in the present nor in the past. They rather functioned as a symbol for an old-fashioned, no longer existing domestic paradise in an increasingly progressive America. According to Cecelia Tichi, the southern myth refers to natural beauty, the virtue of the Southern Belle and to a warm-hearted family circle (Tichi 21), which has not only vanished in the rush of urbanization but might never had existed at all. Additionally, constantly occurring debates on the background of slavery and the difficult relations between certain cultures affected the social consciousness of the southerners as well as non-southern people. Gretlund noticed the predominance of certain topics when historians tried to define a southern identity and that “the biracial relations dwarf every other subject in the contemporary South” (Gretlund viii) In fact, the characteristics and values of the region have dramatically changed over the decades. During the 1940s, the “New South of commerce, speculation, and industrial growth has become a permanent reality.” (Forkner 90) Nevertheless, it was always the features of the “old South” that nourished the myth, which demonstrated a kind of corporate ignorance to the cultural changes. The post-World War II South completely differed from those mystic ideals. Forkner described that the South was not unique anymore with its replaceable shopping centers, parking lots and high-rise apartments. “It has changed towards the rest of the United States, towards a uniform existence of the same desires and the same tastes.” (Forkner 91). In the book The Southern State of Mind Jan Gretlund raises the question whether “the inherit values survived the modernization of recent decades” or whether “they have been bulldozed away now that the South is also a victim of interstate highways, chain stores suburban life, and mass media advertising” (Gretlund viii). The inexorably development into a commercial urban area on the one hand, and the adherence to rather antiquated southern values of the frontier times on the other, indicate a disability to deal with the actual situation of the South.

2.2. Carson McCullers and the Southern Myth

Writing in the New South meant to deal with the dichotomy of myth and reality. Carson McCullers published the book The Ballad of the Sad Café in 1943. She was born in Columbus, Georgia, a small and rural city in the American South. Her ancestry has determined her work, which is very emotional and brimming with the inner conflicts of the sensitive writer. Due to the specific southern conditions – the typical language and customs - it is impossible to look at a piece of literature regardless of its author’s origin and contemporaries. The work of southern writers such as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams or Flannery O’Connor were believed to have influenced Carson McCullers writing style. All of them were deeply concerned with traditional southern values in an increasingly degenerated and immoral environment, which renders the deviant individual outsider to society. Carson McCullers noticed that authors of her time “used the setting of the pre-war [Civil War] South as a subject of literary imagination, but many of them glorified the ante-bellum South, trying to recreate the past rather than comment critically on the present” (BSC 4). By saying this, McCullers criticizes the concept of modern society, in which all individuals – the writer as much as the reader – are trapped in isolation. Unable to free themselves to strive for happiness and fulfillment, their spiritual imprisonment prevents them from escaping the myth of the past. In most of her stories, Carson McCullers rejects every stereotypical characterization of gender or behavior in order to ridicule the artificiality of old southern values.

2.3. McCullers and William Faulkner

Carson McCullers’ distinctive understanding of spiritual loneliness as inescapable human fate distinguished her from most of her contemporaries. William Faulkner, who is considered the most recognized southern writer of that time, had a different approach to his work. The fiction of Faulkner, despite all failure and immorality going on in Yoknapatapha Country, clung to a traditional pattern of family life and Christian values. Carson McCullers denies such conventional restrictions and implicitly “elucidated how a suspension of boundaries threatens and exposes rigid patriarchal society” (Matlok 148), which she despised and ridiculed with her atypical protagonists and their blurred gender conceptions. Furthermore, Faulkner believed in the human ability to adapt to changing situations. Situations such as the successive transformation of southern traditions. “Yet within this same process of fate operates a regenerative capacity for individuals, if not for society, which Faulkner offers as an alternative to modern alienation” (Folks 14). Unlike Faulkner, who attached a message of hope to an apparently hopeless situation, McCullers created an “art form that is cut off from life. It is a form cut off from society, from morality, from religion, from ideas, from concern with man’s burden or with man’s hope” (Chester 258), which becomes most apparent in her work The Ballad of the Sad Café. The authentic, but rather depressing style of Carson McCullers works on a highly symbolic level to emphasize the “worthlessness of the material realm” (Baldanza 2384). Bloom called her work not only “Gothic”, for its prevailing mood is quite morbid, but “metaphysical” (q.v. Bloom 2376).

Behind the strange and horrible in her world there are played out the most somber tragedies of the human spirit; her mutes (Singer in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), her hunchbacks, speak of complexities and frustrations which are so native in man that they can only be recognized, perhaps, in the shock which comes from seeing them dressed in the robes of the grotesque (Bloom 2376)

By placing grotesque characters into a dreary environment, such as the typical southern town in The Ballad of the Sad Café, the author succeeded in creating a highly authentic mood of despair. Just like Faulkner, McCullers used the image of the South to provoke a certain image in the reader. However, the sleepy town merely served as background; “the actual setting was the world; and the main character was everybody – everybody with a hump on his or her back” (Evans 183). This quote indicates that Carson McCullers assumed a general validity of her thesis of spiritual isolation. Everybody who was deformed, either visible or hidden inside, was exposed to this kind of loneliness. While McCullers stressed a very emotional bond to the South, or rather to her memory of the South when she was a child, Faulkner argued in a quite uncommitted way about his origin. He stated that “my material, the South, is not very important to me. I just happen to know it, and don’t have time in one life to learn another one and write at the same time“ (Simpson 233). The indifference in which Faulkner treated his home country might be a reason why critics sometimes attributed a higher credibility to the southern-based work of McCullers than to his Yoknapatapha Country. Carson McCullers was recognized as “the most desolate that has so far come from the South. Her quality of despair is unique and individual; and it seems to me more natural and authentic than that of Faulkner (Wright).

3. The Spiritual Isolation of Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers, who was described as the “sad girl from the South” (Lattmann 99), focused on the loneliness of the individual within society. It is an isolation which is not so much a physical but a spiritual loneliness which “stems from a void within ourselves, a sense of feeling incomplete and unfulfilled even when we have many loving people in our lives” (Cosentino). The philosopher James Park argued that the reason for loneliness lies in the very human experience.

Is there a person who has never known the eerie distance of isolation and separation, who has never suffered the pain of rejection or the loss of love? Loneliness is an aching void in the center of our being, a deep longing to love and to be loved, to be fully known and accepted by at least one other person (Cosentino).

Whereas Park stated that true love of one person can cure the spiritual isolation of another, Carson McCullers assumed that the individual’s isolation cannot be overcome because it is not able to experience a true and mutual love. This attitude is clearly demonstrated in the “one-way circle of love” (Bloom 2386) in The Ballad of the Sad Café (see chapter 4.2.). Spiritual loneliness is found in all of McCuller’s work. Beginning with her first narrative called Sucker, she exposes her protagonists to love which is not requited. Therefore, it is doomed to fail and leaves the hero in a tragic loneliness. Some critics believe that the deep concern with this topic rooted in her isolated childhood in a small and dreary southern city with less than 30,000 inhabitants (q.v. Evans 7). Allen stated that “her [McCullers’] work is marked with the feeling of loneliness coming from her lonely childhood (spiritual isolation is the basis of most of her themes) and the music she always wanted to study (Allen 208). Her literary as well as her musical commitment were often held responsible for Carson McCullers’ “strong feeling of humanity in all its fears and its loneliness. She had a great understanding of people” (Bloom 2373). McCullers herself described her childhood as rather untroubled. Her parents, Lamar and Marguerite Waters Smith, both spoiled and raised her to be a genius – she was expected to be a successful concert pianist one day (q.v. Evans 11). However, the young Carson McCullers soon realized that she was different from most of her fellow men. She was constantly ill; she had a severe cardiac defect due to a false diagnosis in early childhood (Evans 12). McCullers never fully accepted her womanhood and the rigid southern gender norms involved (Matlok 11). She was taller than other children at her age and very interested in reading, which brought her unwanted attention as well as rejection of the boys in town (Evans 13). In her autobiography Illumination and Night Glare McCullers admitted that she was a loner. Her parents did not allow her to play with most of the neighbor’s children. Therefore, she spent most of her free time either hiding in a tree house in her grandmother’s backyard or playing the piano. Even if she might have missed a lot of advantages by behaving in such an unsocial way, she never regretted anything (Dews 46-49). However, the premature consciousness of her physical and intellectual abnormality had doubtlessly influenced her future work as a writer. She developed her sensitive manner which she later used to underline the spiritual deficiency to love or receive love – the spiritual isolation - by providing her main characters with an additional physical deformity, which becomes most obvious in the grotesque characters of The Ballad of the Sad Café.

Not only did Carson McCullers’ childhood experience nurture her concept of spiritual isolation, but she found also proof in history and described the issue about loneliness as a deeply rooted national trait.

All men are lonely. But sometimes it seems to me that we Americans are the loneliest of all. Our hunger for foreign places and new ways has been with us almost like a national disease. Our literature is stamped with a quality of longing and unrest, and our writers have been great wanderers […] The emotion is Janus-faced: we are torn between a nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known (McCullers 1940).

According to this statement, it was the lacking social affiliation of human beings in general, and the restlessness of the Americans in particular which lead to their isolation. A constant desire to be neither here nor there was (and still is) supposed be a stereotypical feature of American society. It is known as the ’always on the move’ attitude which becomes most obvious in the frontier history of the United States. One innate feature of the American way of life is to believe in the ‘nostalgia for the familiar’. Another is the insatiable longing for the unknown. This homesickness for places no man has ever seen before is quite revealing. Ascribing a metaphoric sense to it, this national antagonism very much resembles the antagonism of the South: The myth of the old rural South in contrast to the modern urban society the South had developed into. According to this understanding of loneliness on both individual and societal level, the fiction of Carson McCullers’ could be interpreted as a logical consequence, or as a literary expression of the image she must have had from the world.


Excerpt out of 26 pages


Spiritual Isolation in "The Ballad of the Sad Café"
A sad Parable on the American South by Carson McCullers
Dresden Technical University  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Images of the American South
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
637 KB
Spiritual, Isolation, Ballad, Café, Images, American, South
Quote paper
Juliane Hanka (Author), 2006, Spiritual Isolation in "The Ballad of the Sad Café", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/62395


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