McCullers on Love and Isolation
… every lover knows this.
He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing.
The Ballad of the Sad Café
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter became a best seller and allowed McCullers (and her husband) to live in New York City permanently. She was quickly introduced to and became friends with some of the most eminent literary and artistic figures in New York. Her lifestyle almost immediately became immensely more complex as her relations with her husband cooled and her unconventional attachments to others became the norm. (The first such relationship was with Swiss writer and photographer Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, a gay woman estranged from her gay husband and given to suicide attempts.) She would divorce and remarry her husband and then reluctantly divorce him again when he forged her name on checks. (In this her emotions seem remarkably like Lucile Wilson in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.) Throughout the rest of her life she would be subject to serious physical ailments, including a stroke that took place before her second novel was published in 1941 and temporarily blinded her. Depression plagued her incessantly until she began psychotherapy with Dr. Mary Mercer in 1958. She died in New York in 1967. During the 27 years from the publication of her first novel, she wrote four long-form fiction pieces, none of them, however, nearly as long as the first one. And while her life since her first major publication would never again resemble the world of Columbus, Georgia, where she was raised, she continued to write exclusively about people with confined lives, living in the Deep South. Within eight months of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter her second novel was published, and on first impression, was considerably different from her first. But we will see that that novel and the one that followed really were part of her continual pursuit of that One Big Thing she knew. These two novels were an inquiry into one aspect of that thing: Whether love is the means to break out of the aloneness in which we are trapped.
[The first part of this piece is found here.]
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941)
McCullers’s novel Reflections in a Golden Eye had a smaller scope than her first one. Its subject was the domestic intrigues of two married couples, officers on an army base in the South and their wives. One officer, Capt. Weldon Penderton, a repressed homosexual, is locked in a toxic marriage to a wife, Leonora, who is having an affair with her husband’s superior and their next door neighbor, Major Morris Langdon. Langdon’s own wife, Allison, is psychically crushed by the death of her small child three years before. The pain of that loss and the humiliation from the recent discovery of her husband’s affair caused her, in a moment of extreme crisis, to commit a particularly brutal act of self-mutilation four months ago. While the couples frequently dine together at the Penderton’s, Allison, has no affection for the other three and spends her days indoors listening to classical music tended to by her flamboyant Filipino houseboy. One additional character adds the sinister aspect to this conventionally dysfunctional set of relations: Private L.G. Williams, one of the post’s stableboys—a quiet, backward, brooding loner who becomes a voyeur of Leonora and a strange object of Penderton’s desires. In all these loveless relationships communications have ceased altogether by circumstances that have stunted each person. Only the two most superficial characters, Langdon and Leonora, maintain a semblance of love, purely erotic, only because they have no essence to share with anyone.
In many striking respects this novel is quite unlike The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The action, location and characters are circumscribed to the point of claustrophobia. The setting of the story is largely responsible. The (male) characters are not only military men, they all live on an army base. The military prizes above all else conformity and mindless obedience: “once a man enters the army he is expected only to follow the heels ahead of him.” Regularity induces boredom: “Things happen, but then they happen over and over again.” The physical plant reinforces the tedium: “the huge concrete barracks, the neat rows of officers’ homes built one precisely like the other, the gym, the chapel, the golf course and the swimming pool—all designed according to a rigid pattern.” In short, the characters are cut off from the world, and their lives are distinguished by enforced meaninglessness.1
The second difference is that there are so few characters (Weldon Penderton and Alison Langdon are really the only characters given any depth) and their attitudes toward each other are vivid and without nuance. The major’s wife, Alison Langdon, the least self-delusional of the lot, sums up the other three characters: “Morris Landon in his blunt way was as stupid and heartless as a man could be. Leonora [Penderton] was nothing but an animal. And thieving Weldon Penderton was at bottom hopelessly corrupt.” And given how the narrator describes the characters, this, if anything, is charitable. And it does not even include Private “Ellgee” Williams, who the narrator tells us “had neither an enemy nor a friend … In his eyes, which were of a curious blend of amber and brown, there was a mute expression that is found usually in the eyes of animals.”2 There is none of the empathy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
The combination of the first two differences also produces a third; namely, that not much happens in the lives of these characters outside their interactions with each other. In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter each character was motivated by the search for his own “meaning” or the pursuit of his “real true cause.” Here the Army is the overriding purpose and therefore none of them has any individual life. This means that the narrative is much tauter and the scope appears much narrower.
Finally, let me suggest that the fundamental difference is in approach. While The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is deadly earnest in its approach to the characters, their losses and the universal application of the lessons, Reflections in a Golden Eye is in its construction, approach to the characters, plot turns and tone a very black comedy. This does not mean that there is anything particularly funny that occurs. Nor does it mean that there is a happy ending. The happy ending was a contrivance of Renaissance comedies, and we are definitely deeply within a post-Renaissance period. Chekhov after all had suicides, bankruptcies and failed murder attempts end his comedies. But if you take a far enough view, all human endeavors are part of a grand comedy (which was recognized even at the beginning of the Renaissance by Dante, who produced the most famous unfunny and divine comedy). The modernist tragico-comedy depends on finding that the unexpected dread derives from the fabric of the banal. While in this novel all the characters are trapped in a banal existence, the emergent dread comes from the two principal characters.
The two figures around whom the novel revolves are fundamentally defective, but in nearly opposite ways. Penderton “was something of a savant.” He stuffed his heads with facts and statistics of all variety and could write three languages. But it was empty of ideas, because that required fusing two or more facts and “this the Captain had not the courage to do.” By contrast Williams, for all the narrator tells us, seems to have nothing in his head but ideas, or if not ideas, then at least ill-formed concepts devoid of facts or even contours, for at the important events of his life he was able to prepare the way and bring them about without having any conscious intention to do so. This is how he became a voyeur and how he could get into the Penderton house (and Leonora’s bedroom) every night. “The mind of Private Williams was imbued with various colors of strange tones but it was without delineation, void of form.”
When it comes to psychological adjustment (in one respect), Penderton “on the whole had lived a most rigid and unemotional life,” while Williams would daily ride a horse to an abandoned field where he sunned himself naked. As for social conformity, Penderton (though impotent) married the attractive and appealing (though dim-witted) daughter of a General, while Williams is terrified of women, having been drilled by his Bible-thumping father that women carry in their bodies loathsome diseases (a belief reinforced by the Army’s monthly check-ups testing for venereal diseases). Penderton grows to long for the communal life and imagined camaraderie of the privates. Williams has no friends at all. He seems to have no need of them. Although he lives surrounded by enlisted men, he remains on the periphery, and they are happy to ignore him as well. This is what allowed him to slip out of the barracks at night to stare at Leonora.
In one respect, however, both have what might have been called at the time “deviant” sexual orientations. (It is here that Bloom’s reference to Freud might be useful, although he was not applying it to this novel.) Williams may seem to represent pure id, but until he saw Leonora naked (she had flung her clothes off in the living room with the windows open in front of her husband to outrage him), his superego thoroughly repressed it. The vision, however, awakened his id. He would become obsessed with her and eventually become trapped in his voyeuristic compulsion. Penderton also became obsessed, but with Williams. Penderton’s feelings are a form of love, translated through the mind of a person so psychologically malformed that it is expressed as one of its variants, hate. “There are times when a man’s greatest need is to have someone to love, some focal point for his diffused emotions. Also there are times when the irritations, disappointments, and fears of life, restless as spermatozoids, must be released in hate. The unhappy Captain had no one to hate and for the past months he had been miserable.” He despised Allison and her Filipino houseboy Anacleto but he did not hate them in this sense. He had several unpleasant encounters with Williams to that point but nothing to rise to the degree of white-hot intensity. That would change over an encounter with his wife’s horse.
Firebird was a spirited horse, once thought unridable especially by a woman. Leonora was a good equestrian and determined to ride this beautiful animal, which she eventually mastered, although they would have daily ritualized struggles before he yielded to her leadership. Penderton was a timid man, not a good rider, certainly inferior to his wife and Major Langdon, who usually rode together. (This was where their attraction began and was first consummated—in a berry patch a couple of hours after they first met.) The enlisted stableboys admired Leonora for her beauty, friendliness and horsemanship. They called her “The Lady.” Williams took care of Firebird. He was especially good with animals, something akin, I suppose, to a “horse whisperer” and he therefore greatly prized Firebird. One day, as the frustration and self-loathing reached a peak, Penderton decided to mount Firebird alone. He came to the stable, ordered Williams to prepare the horse and mounted him. Williams let the animal go, on Penderton’s command, and watched as he warily went forward with this awkward rider. As they proceeded further, Penderton yanked the reins up short; the horse nearly lost his balance and had to rear but he suppressed his anger. The captain repeated his maliciousness twice more. The third time the horse stopped short, turned his head back to look at the captain and then flattened his ears and lowered his head as though to throw Penderton. The gesture terrified the captain, but the horse did not throw him, so they galloped on again. When they reached the top of the ridge, however, the horse plunged down the other side at breakneck speed. The horse took the helpless rider into the woods with the same perilous momentum. Penderton held the horse’s neck for dear life. The ride became hallucinogenic as the scattered images reached the petrified mind of the captain in a blur, and he was unable to comprehend what was going on around him. He even once thought he saw a naked man lying on a rock in the woods. At the point the captain concluded that he was about to die the ride became exhilarating: “A great mad joy surged through him.” He did not know how long the ride lasted but eventually the horse emerged from the woods and slowed down to a trot and then, exhausted, stopped. Penderton warily dismounted, tied the horse to a tree, then viciously beat the horse over and over with his whip until the horse gave a cry and hung his head down. Exhausted, bloodied from thorns and branches and a rash from the horse hair his face and neck clung to, the captain collapsed on the ground, began sobbing and passed out. When he awoke he saw Williams walking naked from the woods towards him. “He looked at the Captain with vague, impersonal eyes as thought looking at some insect he had never seen before.” He stepped over the prostrate captain, and took the horse’s reins and led him back to the stables.
And this was the beginning of Penderton’s obsessive hate towards the private. The passion became all consuming. Penderton would contrive ways to see Williams, to pass by him during the latter’s routine or to watch him from his car. Penderton was stalking the private during the day, as Williams was entering Penderton’s house at night to watch Leonora sleep. Penderton’s emotion as he passed Williams was charged with sexual excitement. Soon he was pitying himself for not being young like Williams and sharing in the enlisted men’s routines.
As this dynamic moves towards its inevitable climax, the major’s life is upended by what happens to his wife Allison, which everyone believes is a nervous breakdown. This would soon enough separate her from him, and the loss profoundly affects Langdon. Even though he had neglected her (and worse betrayed her) and considered her strange and weak, he could think of nothing else when the break came. It affected the lives of Penderton and Leonora as well, although the captain soon tired of pitying the major. At one point the major even shows regret at losing the Filipino (who he felt was effete, ridiculous and frivolous). He tells Penderton that his barbs that Anacleto should join the army to be made into a man were simply jokes, but he really did believe that he would have been better off, even if more miserable. Penderton asks the major if he meant that “it is better, because it is more honorable, for the square peg to keep scraping about the round hole rather than to discover and use the unorthodox square that would fit it?” Langdon affirms that is what he meant and asked whether Penderton agreed.
“‘No,’ said the Captain, after a short pause. With gruesome vividness the Captain suddenly looked into his soul and saw himself. For once he did not see himself as others saw him; there came to him a distorted doll-like image, mean of countenance and grotesque in form. The Captain dwelt on this vision without compassion. He accepted it with neither alteration nor excuse. ‘I don’t agree,’ he repeated softly.”
After this the actual climax seems something of a plot device to end the story, excused only by its near inevitability. No neat resolution of the psychological or moral contortions that the characters are put through is attempted. So how does this show McCullers’s One Big Idea? The novel is her first try at an answer to this question: This isolation we we find ourselves trapped in, can it be broken through by means of love? The answer seems to be no, because love of any sort makes demands on the other which cannot be reciprocated. Of course in Reflection in a Golden Eye the “love” expressed by each of the characters is stunted, self-interested, not tender and not “normal.” But even the conventional “love” expressed between the major and Leonora does not seem to have any merit in this regard; it is their own banality, their inability to see beyond their basic desires, and not an achievement of meaning or purpose, that allows the two to avoid existential doubts and their “love” to be frustrated by lack of reciprocity. Major Langdon believed that only two things mattered: “to be a good animal and to serve my country. A healthy body and patriotism.” Leonora didn’t even think on this level of abstraction.
That this view of the uselessness of love to resolve the existential dilemma or our absurd predicament is universal, and not limited ot the stunted characters in Reflections in a Golden Eye, can be more easily seen in the next long fiction work of McCuller’s, The Ballad of the Sad Café, a novel that was published in the August issue of Harper’s Bazaar. It did not receive much critical attention, however, until it was published (unrevised) in a collection of her short stories (together with her first four novels) by Houghton, Mifflin in May 1951.
The Ballad of the Sad Café (1943 / 1951)
As she did after finishing her first novel, McCullers plunged right into completing another long fiction work after completing Reflections in a Golden Eye. Much of the work on The Ballad of the Sad Café was done at the Yaddo arts colony in Saratoga Springs, New York in June–August 1941. She was also working on another work that year and the next that would become her fourth novel. She finally completed The Ballad of the Sad Café in November 1942.
As with her second novel this one also adopted a new narrative format. The story is called a “ballad” not because it follows any of the literary rules of the romantic ballad, but rather, I think, because the folk ballad was not only the most prominent form of folk poetry/song in the American South, it was also the form of folk art that collectors (and eventually students) of Southern folk traditions most carefully curated and catalogued.3 A study of the folk ballad of the first decades of the twentieth century summarized its two features as: (1) its “dramatic presentation of action is the ordinary narrative method”; and (2) “impersonality of approach of the theme is the ordinary narrative attitude.”4 McCullers makes both of these choices in The Ballad of the Sad Café, but enhances the folkloric ambiance of the story by setting the action in an utterly isolated Southern town, by employing almost fairytale-like features and by stripping down the plot to its essential simpleness.
The setting is not just remote, it is cut off from normal human commerce. It is visited only by the likes of the tax man or an agent of a store who comes to see if a resident is creditworthy enough to buy some small appliance on installments (he never is) or travelers who became lost and are seeking the way to their true destination. The train is so far away that a faint whistle is only occasionally heard on very still winter nights. The Greyhound bus station is three miles away. McCullers makes this unnamed town something like Macondo at the beginning of the story:
The town itself is dreary, not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where the workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street, only a hundred yards long. On Saturday the tenants from the near by farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world.
The three main characters are taken right out of a fairy tale and dropped into this Southern equivalent of the Black Forest. Miss Amelia Evans is first introduced, and we get a full picture of her in two paragraphs. But given the deliberate pace of McCuller’s prose, we see her character revealed slowly, the way we would see a corpse whose body is exposed when the morgue’s winding sheet is pulled back. At first she is quite unremarkable. The building that once housed the café of the title, was before that a store which sold mainly farm supplies and staples (like feed, guano, meal and the like). She became the proprietor at 19 when her father (her only parent) died. She also sold the best liquor in the county which she made herself from a still located in the swamp. We then learn of her appearance. “She was a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles of a man.” But she still might have been attractive if she were not cross-eyed. But it did not matter, because she cared nothing for love. And yet at one time she had “a strange and dangerous marriage, lasting only for ten days, that left the whole town wondering and shocked.” She had an unusual ability to make things with her hands. But with people she had no talent and ultimately only one use: “to make money out of them.” She also had a strange intolerance for perceived injustice and indeed slights of any kind for she was constantly involved in litigation. Not just to recover money owed her but also over anything that annoyed her. “It was said that if Miss Amelia so much as stumbled over a rock in the road she would glance around instinctively as though looking for something to sue about it.” She was 30 years old at the beginning of the ballad and with the combination of physical and personality characteristics, she was a force to be reckoned with. The picture we see is of a woman not given to talk but who was propelled by principles that were stored deep in a well inside her that was almost never explored. She is as inert as one of Chekhov’s peasants.
She would have gone this way indefinitely except that the second character mysteriously enters the town: Cousin Lyman. He is the one “freak” in all of McCullers’s long-form fiction. One evening in April close to midnight, Miss Amelia was standing on the porch of the store while three men and two boys sat on the steps in front of her. (Although she was reclusive, she allowed her customers to drink the liquor she sold them on the porch if their wives objected to having it at home; it was only good business.) A stranger came down the street. From the distance one of the boys first thought a calf had gotten loose. The other corrected him when it got close, saying it was someone’s youngun. When the strange figure arrived, he was seen to be a dwarf with a hump on his shoulders. His head was large and his chest was “warped,” but he had thin legs, barely able, it seemed, to carry his disproportionate body. He was dressed in dirty clothes and carried an old suitcase. While his physical appearance was odd, it was the personality that he would reveal as he wormed his way into the center of the town that marked his strangeness. As he became secure in his position, he became an unctuous meddlers in others’ business. He has some of the attributes of Rumpelstiltskin or Norse trolls.
The third major character does not enter the story until late, but we know of him even before his entrance, for he is Marvin Macy, Miss Amelia’s husband. He is a fairy tale villain. His backstory is laid out much as Miss Amelia’s was. We learn that he was one of seven children abused and neglected by the “wild younguns” who sired and bore them. “T]he first thing they learned in this world was to seek the darkest corner of the room and try to hide themselves as best they could.” One winter when the mill closed for three months, the parents left town abandoning their children. Marvin Macy was luckier than most of his siblings for he was taken in by a kind and loving widow, Mrs. Mary Hale. The rescue was not enough. As the narrator notes: “the hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes.” And Macy grew up self-centered, lazy and extremely cruel. But then he saw the 19 year old Miss Amelia and fell in love with that “solitary, gangling, queer-eyed girl.” This love changed him. Too shy to make his love known, he nevertheless reformed over the course of two years, became polite, saved his wages and even became religious. When he finally declared himself (“carrying a bunch of swamp flowers, a sack of chitterlins, and a silver ring”), she accepted. She proved a strange bride at the church and afterwards, walking home two paces before her husband. And over the next 10 day she proved a strange wife and eventually threw him out. The experience reverted Macy to his previous character with a vengeance. “For the true character of Marvin Macy finally revealed itself, once he had freed himself of his love.” He left town, robbed gas stations and a grocery store with a sawed-off shotgun and was rumored to have killed a man. His name was in all the newspapers until he was eventually arrested, tried and committed to the state penitentiary in Atlanta. “Miss Amelia was deeply gratified.”
This decade-old story was never forgotten by the town folk, who were at first amused by the humiliation and squalid nature of the affair. But they never spoke of it to Miss Amelia. Yet the narrator warns us (like a balladeer): “do not forget this Marvin Macy, as he is to act a terrible part of the story which is yet to come.”
Perhaps a fourth character should be described as well—the town’s men folk. I say men folk, rather than “community,” because, aside from Miss Amelia (and Mrs. Hale in Marvin Macy’s back story) there are no women actors in this tale. And apart from Miss Amelia there is only one woman’s voice in the story. It was a voice heard by Cousin Lymon one moonlit summer night when he was bored and lonely: “Somewhere in the darkness a woman sang in a high wild voice and the tune had no start and no finish and was made up of only three notes which went on and on and on.” Unlike these three women, the men folk never acted alone. They came to conclusions as a group; they acted collectively. They are not seen as coming to anyone’s aid, but they are always ready to ridicule, they delight in other’s misery, and they always seem to be on the verge of violence. Like the time that the rumor spread that Miss Amelia had murdered Cousin Lymon. A group of eight men got themselves up and went to Miss Amelia’s store. They did this unconsciously, as though guided by a power outside them:
“Some eight or ten men had convened on the porch of Miss Amelia’s store. They were silent and were indeed just waiting about. They themselves did not know what they were waiting for, but it was this: in times of tension, when some great action is impending, men gather and wait in this way. And after a time there will come a moment when all together they will act in unison, not from thought or from the will of any one man, but as though their instincts had merged together so that the decision belongs to no single one of them, but to the group as a whole. At such a time, no individual hesitates. And whether the matter will be settled peaceably, or whether the joint action will result in ransacking, violence, and crime, depends on destiny. So the men waited soberly on the porch of Miss Amelia’s store, not one of them realizing what they would do, but knowing inwardly that they must wait, and that the time had almost come.”
They stood on the porch watching Miss Amelia working on her books in her office. When she shut the door they were looking through, it triggered their action:
“Now to the group on the porch this gesture acted as a signal. The time had come. They had stood for a long while with the night raw and gloomy in the street behind them. They had waited long and just at that moment the instinct to act came on them. All at once, as though moved by one will, they walked into the store. At that moment the eight men looked very much alike — all wearing blue overalls, most of them with whitish hair, all pale of face, and all with a set, dreaming look in the eye. What they would have done next no one knows.”
But then they see Cousin Lymon unharmed and their collective resolve evaporates. This “collective” is alway in the background, always provides the ominous undercurrent. For the men folk, as a group, enforce the conservative, misogynist, racist, embittered ethos of this place. There are some men, however, who are not part of this collective, for example, Henry Macy, Marvin’s brother. In every respect he was unlike his brother. Not only kindly and honest, but also “a shy and timid person with gentle manners and nervous ways” There are others like him, but they don’t take action or effect change. They are feckless. They withdraw at the sign of trouble. They become emotional and frightened. Just as Miss Amelia is the Man-Woman, they are Women-Men.
Cousin Lymon was one such a Woman-Man. When he slinked into town to throw himself on the charity of Miss Amelia, his supposed cousin, the three men and two boys watched him cry when he thought he would be turned out. The five on the porch assumed that Miss Amelia would physically throw him out of town on his ear. For Miss Amelia was more of a man than they were, and that is what the men folk would do. But she surprises them all. She first gives him a bottle—for free!—of her prized liquor. Then she takes him in and feeds him. The rest was not seen by those five.
After many days it became clear to the town that what Miss Amelia had done was even stranger than murder, and to many even more grotesque. Miss Amelia had taken Cousin Lymon in permanently. It was an odd development. What was even odder was that Miss Amelia had fallen in love with this little hunchback. She cleaned him up. Made sure he was fed and comfortable. She attended his little wants. This great change in Miss Amelia was the source of much rumor in the town. This six foot woman with bulging biceps and the manners of a farmer, who wore overalls and physically abused and ejected her husband, was now in love. But what kind of love? The majority believed they were living in sin. Some minority of “good people” excused this: “if those two had found some satisfaction of the flesh between themselves, then it was a matter concerning them and God alone.” But the opinion of “all sensible people” was “a plain, flat no.”
But if not physical, it was certainly transformative, this love. For Miss Amelia gave him the run of the place, and he responded by becoming puffed up, soon comfortable in the notion that he could have what he wanted and take without even asking. Those who saw this change were astounded. But the most astonishing product of this love was the café. The beginning was that night when the eight men saw Cousin Lymon, who came down and spoke with them sociably. And soon there would be drinking in the store, and one thing led to another and the store was turned into a full bore café. The town had never seen anything like this before. The concept was strange: a place to go to have polite social intercourse while dining. But it soon proved salubrious to the town’s psychic and social well-being. It was a civilizing force:
“For people in this town were then unused to gathering together for the sake of pleasure. They met to work in the mill. Or on Sunday there would be an all-day camp meeting—and though that is a pleasure, the intention of the whole affair is to sharpen your view of Hell and put into you a keen fear of the Lord Almighty. But the spirit of a café is altogether different. Even the richest, greediest old rascal will behave himself, insulting no one in a proper café. And poor people look about them gratefully and pinch up the salt in a dainty and modest manner. For the atmosphere of a proper café implies these qualities: fellowship, the satisfactions of the belly, and a certain gaiety and grace of behavior. This had never been told to the gathering in Miss Amelia’s store that night. But they knew it of themselves, although never, of course, until that time had there been a café in the town.”
Is this the effect of love? To improve the conditions of those about the lovers and add one small drop to the well of general happiness of the world (usually at drought level)? Well, that is not born out by the story. As with all love, evidently, the object is never satisfied. Cousin Lymon, who was exalted by the grace of Miss Amelia, and truly without any desert on his part, soon grew restless with his situation. He began instigating trouble with the customers and soon began to worry Miss Amelia. And then the crisis came. Marvin Macy was released from the penitentiary and was returning to town. He brought with him an ill wind, but no tornado at first. Yet Miss Amelia watched warily because Cousin Lymon was the kind of weak, defenseless, guileless sort that Macy would squash for sheer pleasure. As the inevitable builds, it is Lymon who betrays Miss Amelia, but even that does not defeat her. She goes on to stage a monumental battle with Macy, which excited the town’s bloodlust but left her beaten in every respect. The café, of course, is boarded up, and only occasionally does anyone get a glimpse of her peering from an upstairs window. What they see is “a face like the terrible dim faces known in dreams—sexless and white, with two gray crossed eyes which are turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief.” She has replicated the pattern that undid Marvin Macy himself, love. What the narrator said about his desire, now applies equally to her: “though the outward facts of this love are indeed sad and ridiculous, it must be remembered that the real story was that which took place in the soul of the lover himself. So who but God can be the final judge of this or any other love?”
The story ends with an epilogue entitled “Twelve Mortal Men.” In two paragraphs it tells of the chain gang where every day they are set to work digging at the hard clay and rocks to widen the road out of town. And every day there is the music of their work song, their ballad:
“One dark voice will start a phrase, half-sung, and like a question. And after a moment another voice will join in, soon the whole gang will be singing. The voices are dark in the golden glare, the music intricately blended, both somber and joyful. The music will swell until at last it seems that the sound does not come from the twelve men on the gang, but from the earth itself, or the wide sky. It is music that causes the heart to broaden and the listener to grow cold with ecstasy and fright. Then slowly the music will sink down until at last there remains one lonely voice, then a great hoarse breath, the sun, the sound of the picks in the silence.”
What type of gang is this? asks the narrator. The same kind of gang that watched ominously as evil undid love and destroyed what was civilized among them. The kind of gang that Miss Amelia was capable of facing down, until she let her guard down, until she became a lover. “Just twelve mortal men who are together,” the narrator concludes.
Before returning to McCullers’s One Big Idea, I should say something about the writing here. In my view this is the most tightly written and graceful of McCullers’s five novels. It is deliberately paced and probes the corners of the story with an attention to what envelops the plot that some might take for languor. In fact, V.S. Pritchett criticized the writing because McCullers “winds her way backwards and forwards into her people in a way that is sometimes too dilatory.”5 But he is quite wrong. The narrator turns his (for, though the narrator is not one of the men folk, he does not challenge the prevailing sexual, moral or social realities, all of which are the province of the men folk) attention to those persons, actions and objects that justify comment, and those comments are patiently amassed into the argument that the story ultimately delivers. And that point is that Love is not the answer to humanity’s prison of solitariness. And this is why it fails: it requires an impossible congruence between the Lover and the Beloved:
“First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons—but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world—a world intense and strange, complete in himself. Let it be added here that this lover about whom we speak need not necessarily be a young man saving for a wedding ring—this lover can be man, woman, child, or indeed any human creature on this earth.”
The object of love is arbitrary (there is no predetermination of it, there is no explanation for it), a “preacher may love a fallen woman,” and there is the perfidy:
“The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits. Yes, and the lover may see this as clearly as anyone else—but that does not affect the evolution of his love one whit. A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp. A good man may be the stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a tender and simple idyll. Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself.”
And this is where the Beloved has his say, for it is better in this case to be the lover than the beloved: “the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being be loved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.”
Love is a state of disequilibrium; it cannot last. From the beloved’s part, it is intolerable to be loved. From the lover’s it is a state that creates more rather than less isolation. It is thus not the solution to the existential question that McCullers first posed in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
These two novels are McCullers’s only treatment of sexual, erotic, romantic (however you will) love. It is perhaps here that Bloom’s recourse to Freud’s theories (quoted in the first part of this series) might be appropriate. But Freud is looking at a different phenomenon, and he goes about his investigation by a method distinct in two ways: He treats only one person (the lover), and he sees it in a developmental context. McCullers rejects the supposition that there is a normal or even ideal (as in “ego ideal”) form of love to be aimed for or diagnosed. There is nothing “abnormal” in Captain Penderton’s, or Private Williams’s, or Marvin Macy’s or Miss Amelia’s desires. Only the town’s gossipers enforced by the men folk judge love in that manner. And McCullers, unlike Freud, is looking for a metaphysical solution to the dilemma of human solitude. In these two novels, she strikes off love as the answer. She will look at mechanisms for avoiding the problem rather than ameliorating it in her final two novels, which we will look at in the next post.
1Some time during the cold war and certainly after the Vietnam misadventure had produced its impression on public opinion and the popular media the idea of the military as an organization filled with soulless automatons who cannot think for themselves became commonplace (perhaps best summarized by George Carlin’s quip illustrating the word “oxymoron” with the phrase “military intelligence”) But at the time McCullers wrote the work (1940) and when it was published (1941), the United States was facing a very perilous world and while most hoped the United States would stay out of the global conflagration, it was a not popular conception that the U.S. military was anything other than heroic. They after all “won” the Great War. It is therefore no wonder that McCuller received such push back, especially from Fort Benning in Georgia, which was assumed to be the model for the novel. [Return to text.]
2McCullers is fond of this construction, where the eyes or expression betrays something found elsewhere. It occurs twice in this novel. You may recall she also uses a similar construction (more memorably) at the end of the first chapter of her first book to describe John Singer, also without friends or enemies: “In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise.” The same vacant expression is described differently depending on how the narrator wants us to feel about the character. [Return to text.]
3For an early example of how studiously collectors tried to catalog Southern ballads, see Reed Smith, “The Traditional Ballad in the South during 1914,” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 28, No. 108 (April–June 1915), pp. 199-203, which can be seen on JSTOR (open access). [Return to text.]
4Gordon Hall Gerould, The Ballad of Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957), pp. 10–11. [Return to text.]
5V.S. Pritchett, “Books in General,” The New Stateman and Nation (August 2, 1952), pp. 137–38 reprinted in Beverly Lyon Clark & Melvin J. Friedman (eds.), Critical Essays on Carson McCullers (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996), at 41. [Return to text.]