“The Member of the Wedding” by Carson McCullers

*** SPOILER ALERT***

It might seem a trifle absurd, perverse even, to preface a brief discussion of a novel as plotless as this with a spoiler alert, but, given the few disgruntled e-mails I’ve received when I have previously failed to provide such an alert, it’s best to stray on the safe side in these matters.

For plot appears to be the least of Carson McCullers’ concerns. Which raises questions about what her concerns actually are, and I wish I knew how to answer that. I deliberately delayed writing anything about this novel till a few weeks after I had finished reading it, hoping that its various powerful resonances would settle in my mind somewhat, and allow some sort of coherent picture to emerge; but, so far, that has not happened. It continues, however, to resonate, and if, as T. S. Eliot famously said, a poem may be appreciated even before it is understood, it may, I thought, be worthwhile articulating some of my uncomprehending appreciation. It may even be worthwhile merely to register my bemusement.

Part of the reason why themes and concerns of this novel are so difficult to articulate is that Carson McCullers herself leaves them unarticulated. Much of the novel is filtered through the consciousness of its principal character, the twelve-year-old girl Frankie, or F. Jasmine as she likes sometimes to style herself, or the conventional Frances as she becomes at the end; quite frequently, she does not have the ability to articulate what she thinks, or feels. Throughout the novel, we are told that she feels things that she does not know how to name, and Carson McCullers is happy to leave these feelings unnamed. And there is much unfinished also: the only plotline of sorts that develops concerns a soldier who, mistaking Frankie for a girl somewhat older, tries to have his way with her in a hotel room, whereupon she strikes him on the head with a glass pitcher, and runs off. She does not know how badly hurt the soldier is, nor, indeed, whether she has killed him. And we, the reader, never get to know either. It is left as unfinished and as unresolved for us as it is for Frankie. To introduce a narrative line and then refuse to resolve it may seem a cardinal crime in the art of storytelling, but here, it is quite deliberate: the narrative strands, such as they are, remain unresolved, because they are, by their very nature, incapable of resolution.

And yet, the novel is certainly about something. Edmund Wilson, presumably frustrated and bemused by it all, declared the entire work to be “pointless”, but it seems highly unlikely that so fine an intelligence and so subtle an artistry as Carson McCullers’ would labour so many years over a narrative that is ultimately “pointless”. Leaving that aside – for, of course, biographical details of the author should play no part in literary criticism – the novel, whatever may lie at its centre, resonates far too powerfully for “pointlessness” to be a valid option. If the novel refuses to articulate its themes clearly (under the cover that Frankie herself cannot articulate them), we must conclude that they cannot be articulated – that they are, essentially, as incapable of being articulated as the narrative strands are of being resolved.

What we can say with some confidence, I think, is what this novel is not. This is not a coming-of-age novel. Neither is this a novel about teenage angst (or, more accurately, pre-teenage angst): Frankie Addams is not a female equivalent of Holden Caulfield. We may say this with confidence because neither of these pat explanations can account for the effect the novel makes upon the reader. (Well, this reader, at least.) The appreciation that Eliot spoke about that precedes understanding is, in this instance, an appreciation of certain vague, mysterious regions that are well outside the scope of novels of adolescent angst.

We are taken at some length into Frankie’s thoughts, and, at the centre of her thoughts, it seems to me, is a vaguely glimpsed concern for the nature of her individual identity. Here, I think, we need to be careful, because there is so much guff currently spoken and written on the question of “identity”, that it might be easy to see this novel as a comment on what is currently termed “identity politics”; but such a view of the novel would be even more facile and reductive than to see it as a coming-of-age novel, or as a novel about adolescent angst. What concerns Frankie, though expressed with a childlike naivety, is that age-old philosophical issue of our consciousness of our own individual identity, as distinct from the individual identities of others:

“Doesn’t it strike you as strange that I am I and you are you? … And we can look at each other, and touch each other, and stay together year in and year out in the same room. Yet always I am I and you are you. And I can’t be anything else but I, and you can’t be anything else but you.”

What is it that fixes us in our own, personal identity? Is there some sort of essence of self, of “I”, that is independent of this person whose body I happen to inhabit, and whose name I happen to bear? If not, why not? And if so, why am I stuck, constrained, to be this person?

Frankie wonders also about our perceptions. Are they consistent from person to person, from “I” to “you”, from “I” to, perhaps, another “I”?

“I see a green tree. And to me it is green. And you call this tree green also. And we would agree on this. But is this colour you see as green the same colour I see as green? Or say we both call a colour black. But how do we know that what you see as black is the same colour I see as black?”

If we are indeed, each one of us, an “I” and nothing but “I”, how can we be confident of a commonality of perception? And if we cannot be confident of this, how can we even communicate with each other?

Frankie is isolated from others. Her father works in a store, and barely appears in the novel. She is what is known is a “tomboy”, and appears, for reasons not entirely made clear, to have no friends of her own age. She spends most of her time hanging out in the kitchen with Berenice, a black cook, and John Henry, her six-year-old cousin, and much of the novel is taken up with scenes set in the kitchen with the three of them – a child, an adult, and Frankie, on the borderline between these two states – talking to each other, seemingly inconsequentially. But their conversations, while believable as conversations between a small child, an adolescent, and an uneducated adult, always seem to be pointing towards something else – towards something none of them can articulate, and which Carson McCullers refuses to articulate on their behalf.

Frankie longs to inhabit identities other than her own. John Henry would like everyone to be half-boy, half-girl. Berenice, a black woman with a blue glass eye, wants a world where people are all the same colour – a light brown, “with blue eyes and black hair”. These characters may not be able to articulate or even perhaps recognise it as such, but all three of them, in their own ways, feel constrained by the fixed nature of the world, that allocates them but one identity that they must regard as uniquely their own.

For Berenice, a black woman living in the Deep South in the 1940s, her identity – however fluid she may like it to be – is certainly fixed: she is “black”. This one simple fact of her identity condemns her. And yet, she had been happy once. Her first husband, Ludie Freeman – whom, we learn with a shock, she had married when she was only thirteen, just a year older than Frankie – she had loved, and had been happy with. And the memory of that happiness remains for her something precious, something she did not at first wish to share with Frankie. But then he died, and she married again, three more times, with each marriage more disastrous than the previous. She had chosen her later husbands with no better criteria than that they had shared certain superficial resemblances with her beloved first, but these resemblances did not define them: identity, despite its fixed quality, remains an elusive and unnameable matter. Her fourth and last husband had been the worst: he was violent, abusive, possibly mentally unstable, and had gouged out one of her eyes. This horrible detail is imparted to us in an almost casual manner. Although Bernice still dreams of a world in which all racial identities are merged into one, her first husband, whom she continues to love even beyond his death, had an individual identity that cannot be replicated: “he” was “he”, and no-one else.

Frankie, however, longs for a fluidity within which individual identities may merge. Her older brother, a soldier (this novel is set during the final stages of WW2), is to marry his girl-friend, and Frankie dreams of, and, eventually, becomes obsessed with, leaving behind her home town, which restricts her in ways she cannot articulate, and go off with her brother and his newly-married wife. Frankie is not satisfied being a “member of the wedding” only in the sense of being the groom’s sister: she longs for nothing less than to be one of the wedded parties herself, to merge her own personal identity with those of the married couple. This obsession she develops of merging her personal identity with those of others soon takes centre-stage in this novel. Thoughts of the wedding begin to obsess to such a degree that even the sudden death of an uncle barely makes an impact on her, because, after all, it’s nothing to do with the wedding, is it?

Typically, the wedding itself is not narrated directly: resolving narrative strands in terms of “what happened next” is not what this novel is about. We are given to understand, however, that Frankie had had to be physically restrained and pulled back when she had tried to leave with the newlyweds. She is utterly disgraced, humiliated. The world of fixity may be questioned when one is a child, but as an adult, it has to be accepted. But with this acceptance comes a loss:

She was sitting next to Berenice, back with the coloured people, and when she thought of it she used the mean word she had never used before, nigger – for now she hated everyone and wanted only to spite and shame.

Everybody is caught, one way or another, as Berenice says at one point.

Frankie makes one final attempt to escape this world of tyrannical fixity: she tries to run away, she knows not where. But the police are alerted, and she is soon found, and taken back home. In a novel such as this, where everything seems charged with meaning, it is no accident that the police are referred to as “the Law”, with a capital “L”. She has tried to escape, but the Law returns her to where she had been.

All through this, the war, now in its final stages, is raging in faraway Europe, and forms a sort of discordant background music. News from the distant war comes through – the horrors of the fields of combat, the slaughter of civilians, the unimaginable and unnameable abominations of the newly liberated death camps. Berenice muses on a perfect world that – who knows? – may be possible still, if only the Law would allow for it:

“No killed Jews and no hurt coloured people. No war and no hunger in the world. And, finally, Ludie Freeman would be alive.”

The very ending of the novel is as enigmatic as the rest of it. John Henry has died suddenly and horribly, from an attack of meningitis: this is related so directly, and so casually, that it is brutal. Frankie is now Frances, older and more mature, no longer yearning for a fluidity that the Law will not allow. The final paragraph seems charged with meaning:

Frances turned back to the window. It was almost five o’clock and the geranium glow had faded from the sky. The last pale colours were crushed and cold on the horizon. Dark, when it came, would come on quickly, as it does in wintertime. “I am simply mad about – “ But the sentence was left unfinished for the hush was shattered when, with an instant shock of happiness, she heard the ringing of the bell.

The sentence, like so much else in the novel, is left unfinished, and we don’t know what it is she is “mad” about – or, indeed, whether her “being mad” refers to her loving something, or being angry with something. Neither is it explained what the bell signifies at the end. It’s possibly just someone at the door. For, after all, what else can it be?

This is a novel I shall be returning to.

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13 responses to this post.

  1. Frankie Addams does sound like the female equivalent of Mick Kelly. I haven’t read Wedding, but the resemblances to Lonely Hunter seem substantial – less plot and a heroine who has grown up some.

    Reply

    • Isn’t Mick Kelly a bit older than Frankie? Frankie is only 12 in this novel.
      I found it very difficult to write about this novel, because it seemed to be pointing towards something I couldn’t quite grasp. (The shortcoming is mine, not the novel’s.) it is all too easy to see this as essentially about the aches of adolescence, but I think it’s more than that – though what more, I can’t really say after just a single reading. The only real thread I could pick up was the yearning to transcend individual identity, and the loss incurred when such fluidity of identity proves impossible. But, in case you haven’t guessed, I’m floundering.

      Reply

    • “mistaking Frankie for a girl somewhat older” – right there in your review! Maybe what I am picking up is that the author has grown up some.

      Reply

      • Are we at cross-purposes here?

        “… a soldier who, mistaking Frankie for a girl somewhat older, tries to have his way with her … ”

        The soldier mistakes her for being older than she is. Frankie is 12, and, I think, that makes her a few years younger than Mick in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

        Other than having masculine names, I can’t honestly say I see too much similarity between the two. Mick is certainly more mature, both in years and mentally, and her fantasies aren’t, as I remember, as unrealistic as Frankie’s. However, since, by my own admission, I don’t think I took this novel in very well, I don’t know that I want to be too assertive on these matters.

      • I mistook the character for older based on how you wrote about her. She seems more sophisticated than the earlier character. And then, right in your review, you mention a character mistaking her for older! So clearly it is pretty common to mistake her for older. I feel no guilt for my error.

        Mick Kelly is also a tomboy with no friends her own age. She pursues the “other identities” theme, too, through the adults she does become friends with. But in the earlier novel, the questions of identity are less abstract – deaf, alcoholic, big stark signifiers.

  2. Posted by Chris Lyon on May 1, 2017 at 3:38 pm

    This is the only novel by Carson McCullers that I have ever read, and that was many years ago. My only recollection is of a rather lonely and confused girl trying to make sense of a world which she was attempting to navigate, without any clear idea of how to behave or in which direction to move. It certainly seemed to fit in with what I recall of being a 12 year old. I really must read it again, and perhaps explore McCullers more extensively.

    Reply

    • I’ve certainly been very impressed by The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Ballad of Sad Cafe. And also this one, although I found it very elusive. There’s more to it than just an account of teenage angst, but what more I can’t quite make out.

      Reply

  3. It’s been a long time since I’ve read this but it left a very lasting impression. You’ve captured it very well here.

    Reply

  4. I’m another: it’s decades since I read this. (I read everything I could find by McCullers once I’d discovered The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Alas, I did not keep a reading journal then).
    What I remember of it is just as Chris Lyons said: a confused child on the border of things, trying to make sense of them. Back then, it seemed a familiar feeling to me because my own tweens were not so far away *wry smile*.

    Reply

    • Interesting that you and Chris should both say this. The sort of thing Frankie thinks about, I don’t think I thought about at all: whether this is due to difference in gender, or simply individual temperament, I really don’t know, but while I was reading this book, I felt I was very much in an unfamiliar territory. Fascinating, yes, but unfamiliar all the same. Perhaps this is why I found the book so elusive: I’m not sure. But I did keep feeling that there was much happening under the surface that I couldn’t quite grasp.

      Reply

      • In my case, being on the edge of things was exacerbated by having not long migrated to Australia. And my parents spoke French at the dinner table so that we wouldn’t understand what they were talking about… when we learned French at school, they switched to German.,,so that exacerbated the sense of the adult world as mystery!

  5. Posted by alan on May 3, 2017 at 9:14 pm

    Pedantry corner:
    “She does not know how badly hurt the soldier is, nor, indeed, whether she has killed him. And we, the reader, never get to know either.”
    p69: “There in the Blue Moon was the red-headed soldier”.
    p182: “A soldier banged the screen door and walked through the cafe, and only the distant stranger in her recognized him; she only thought slowly and with no feeling that a curly red head such as that one was like cement”.
    Isn’t that enough ?

    Back to important matters: perhaps inevitably I think the novel is about death, death in person and in life, but more about death in life. Innocence dies when John Henry dies a horrible death. Frankie dies a death when she gets what she wants and becomes a member of a group, or at least a couple. Berenice dies a death when she settles for a man who doesn’t make her “shiver”. Honey, an intelligent young man, dies a death by going to jail.

    Reply

    • Not pedantry at all: you’re quite right, and I was wrong – we are certainly told bear the end that the soldier is still alive. (We could probably have guessed that anyway.) But the narrative momentum built up by the episode with the soldier is allowed to dissipate by this stage.

      I don’t know that Frankie does eventually become member of a group – unless you mean the group of grown-ups. Her longing for a fluidity of individual identity does vanish. And yes, that is a sort of death.

      Reply

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