Seventy-five years ago, Carson McCullers published her most recognizable novel, The Member of the Wedding. I was dismayed to realize recently that I’d never read it. The Member of the Wedding feels like something I should have read in high school English class – junior year, when we read Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson and The Scarlet Letter. It’s one of those novellas that burns bright in the pantheon of American literature, McCullers being up there with O’Connor and Harper Lee in the eyes of critics and readers alike.
Overall, it reminded me a lot of To Kill a Mockingbird — I think because Frankie, the narrator, is reminiscent of Scout, a thoughtful and intense young girl who observes the world around her and reflects on its contours. The southern setting and all the conversations that happen around the dinner table in a family kitchen had a similar feel. Lee published her novel in 1964, almost twenty years after McCullers, and it is said that McCullers remarked to a cousin about Lee: “Well, honey, one thing we know is that she’s been poaching on my literary preserves.”
Certainly McCullers and Lee lived in a similar time, when both chose to go by their middle names, which were decidedly more masculine (Nell Harper Lee and Lula Carson Smith).
Recent criticism of Member of the Wedding focuses primarily on race, gender, sexuality and the outsider status of its protagonist, Frances Addams. Frankie is twelve, growing up in a small town in the South, with a mostly absent father after her mother has passed away in childbirth. She idolizes her older brother, Jarvis, who is getting married and Frankie imagines herself going away with him and his wife on their honeymoon. As a young person on the cusp of adulthood, Frankie struggles with her self-image and her place in the world; McCullers describes her as an “unjoined person.”
Frankie goes by three different names over the course of the book: Frankie, F. Jasmine, and Frances, suggesting the split nature of her identity and her possibly queer identifications. McCullers was apparently bisexual herself and also had some physical disabilities (the result of a stroke). Critics have observed that Frankie is a stand-in for McCullers, highlighting the protagonist’s androgynous physical appearance and lack of interest in heteronormative relationships. Moreover, a persistent theme running through the narrative is the idea of being an outcast, or a “freak.” Frankie remembers seeing the House of Freaks at a carnival and is afraid of becoming like them. Characters on the fringes of society walk in and out of Frankie’s life; her only constant companions are Berenice, the housekeeper and John-Henry, her cousin.
What struck me most about the novel is its brilliant narrative scheme: McCullers adopts a third-person omniscient point-of-view that sounds like it is coming from Frankie herself. This slippery conflation of first-person and third-person reflects Frankie’s own alienation from herself and the world around her. It is as if she is the third-person narrator, watching her life happen to someone else. The childish word choice and syntax, full of repetition, odd juxtapositions and possibly made-up words give us the sense that we are inside Frankie’s head. Yet, we are not in the clear realm of first-person. This fuzzy liminality also echoes Frankie’s in-between state on the threshold of becoming a woman – at 12, she is what we now call a ‘tween.
The novel’s evocation of Frankie’s small town, her vexed relationship with her two closest friends, Berenice and John-Henry, and her own self-loathing are powerful and moving. The vivid descriptions of their interactions and Frankie’s existential crises create an unsettling, but slightly silly mood. Frankie’s intensity and dramatic turns of phrase lend her a creative, somewhat wacky demeanor. It’s those abrupt Southern Gothic tone shifts all over again.
McCullers is a sneaky writer – not only with her agile narration strategy, but also her tendency to flip the focus of the novel from what we think are important events, to those that seem meaningless but take up a lot of space. Frankie is obsessed with her brother’s coming nuptials (Berenice says she is “in love with the wedding”) and she plans to run away with the couple after the wedding (they are the “we of me,” she says). These clever and humorous turns of phrase, along with the novel’s timeline build suspense around the event, but when it happens, McCullers reduces it to eight lines in the final section. The bus ride home, in contrast, takes up four and a half pages. Frankie was not, after all, a significant member of the wedding.
Or when John-Henry dies of meningitis: McCullers casually drops this event into the last two pages of the book. Fall has come, Frances is 13 and everything has changed. The family is moving, Berenice is leaving them and her cousin is dead. In this rushed denouement, McCullers implies that perhaps the summer of Frankie’s 12th year was a kind of fog or fugue state that she had to slog through and emerge on the other side of, perhaps no worse for the wear. Oddly, in the final four pages of the novel, I felt more distanced from Frankie: now that she is going by Frances, she feels like a different character. We seem to be less in her head (perhaps she is too) and more of a casual observer.
The unflinching focus on Frankie’s interior life throughout the majority of the novel is mostly painful: she is a young girl on the cusp of womanhood who does not like her appearance, her family, her town, or her youth. She feels alone and isolated, more than a typical ‘tween, since her only adult support system is Berenice; her father is largely absent and uninterested, one assumes, because Frankie reminds him too much of his dead wife. One might be tempted to diagnose her as clinically depressed. It is a near-rape that seems to snap her out of her darkness: or maybe the simple fact that her Dad came to get her after she ran away. The police pick her up in a bar and call her father, who shows up to claim her.
Having made a new friend of her own age, Mary Littlejohn, and cast off the remnants of Frankie (including John-Henry and Berenice?), Frances is now free to become a woman and an adult. Is this how McCullers felt in her own life? That she had to divest herself of the things she loved as a child to become a woman?
McCullers adapted the novel for the stage and it premiered in New York on January 5, 1950. It had 501 performances, starring Ethel Waters and Julie Harris, who was 26. The play helped to revive Waters’s career and launched Harris’s.
In 1952 a Hollywood film adaptation debuted, directed by Fred Zinneman, whose meditation on the McCarthy era/modern Western, High Noon, came out the same year. Independent producer Stanley Kramer made the film at Columbia Pictures, where he had control of his own unit. Kramer is known for making films with serious social messages, like High Noon (1952), Inherit the Wind (1958), On the Beach (1959), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Edna and Edward Anhalt wrote the screenplay from the stage play (not the novel, an important distinction). The writing couple had won an Oscar for Panic in the Streets in 1950.
The black and white film feels more like a stage play than a movie, with its limited sets and predominantly interior shots. The three stars from the play reprised their roles for the film: Ethel Waters as Berenice, Julie Harris as Frankie and Brandon De Wilde as John-Henry. Waters and De Wilde are excellent in their roles, but Julie Harris does not fit. My opinion may be in the minority, however, as she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress (she lost to Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba). She feels too old (she was 26 at the time) and her voice/diction/accent are oddly affected. She plays Frankie as even more out of touch with reality than the novel suggests.
I like Frankie in the book – I empathized with her, rooted for her, and was invested in her emotional struggle. But, in the film, I found myself becoming annoyed with Frankie and her flighty, dismissive arrogance and mean spitefulness. She treats both Berenice and John-Henry terribly, and yet they are her only friends. In general, Frankie comes off in the film as a loopy drama queen rather than a ‘tween dealing with a serious existential crisis.
Several changes were made from the book, due to the constraints of the stage play, I assume. Most of these weaken the novel’s message.
The majority of the film – except for two scenes – is shot in the house, and mostly in the kitchen. Jarvis and Janice get married in the house, so the film includes no extended bus trip to Winter Hill. I thought this section (near the end of the book) was one of the most powerful, as we are inside F. Jasmine’s head as she comes to terms with the fact that she was not allowed to go away with her “we.” But all of this intense inner dialogue would have been nearly impossible to film, except maybe with an extended voiceover. The wedding in the house has the effect of further centering the action, diminishing Frankie’s world to an even smaller radius than it is in the book. In one scene, she walks outside with her suitcase and sits in the newlyweds’ car to await their departure. Her father has to physically drag her out of the vehicle, while she is kicking and screaming “take me!” I found this scene in particular to be quite moving and evidence of Frankie’s severely fragile emotional state: she lies in the street in a fetal position as the couple depart.
Because the film came out in 1952, it typifies Hollywood’s ambivalence toward the representation of race and racial tensions in America. Berenice’s foster brother, Honey Brown, plays a small part in the novel, appearing once at the Addams house and then once in his own house, where Frankie visits him. He is a bit of a ne’er-do-well and in the book he ends up in prison due to a robbery when he was under the influence of “something called smoke or snow.” This tragic fate McCullers characteristically sums up in two throw-away sentences.
In the film, Honey shows up at the Addams’s house with a welt on his head, having been beaten by a police officer. He was standing on the street playing his trumpet and a white man approached him. As he tells it, he defended himself and then the lawman attacked him. At the end of the play he gets involved in a hit and run, and is caught trying to leave town. Later Berenice laments that Honey committed suicide in his jail cell. Although this plotline suggests that McCullers may have been ahead of her time in addressing the issue of police brutality toward African Americans, other changes minimize her critique.
In one of the numerous scenes where Frankie, Berenice and John-Henry are sitting around the kitchen table on the day before the wedding, F. Jasmine is raving about wanting to get out of the small town. She paces around the kitchen, sweating and having what seems like a panic attack, when Berenice tells her to sit on her lap to help calm her down. They have a conversation about being “caught” and in the book, Berenice says that she is caught worse than Frankie because she is black. She goes on to describe the bounds placed on her people and how this affects Honey. In the film, Berenice does not make this speech about racism.
At the end of this scene, in the book, Frankie, Berenice, and John-Henry all melt into tears at the same time: they just simultaneously start to cry. As McCullers describes it in the book, often they would break out into song at the same time, but this time, they cried. In the movie, they sing. Ethel Waters (a professional singer) offers up a beautiful, haunting rendition of the spiritual “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” The scene is played with intense seriousness and extended extreme close-ups on Waters’s face. The song is lovely, but replacing the crying seems to negate her story and its pointed social criticism. Perhaps Columbia thought it would be too depressing for audiences to see all three main characters crying. Also, it would have been hard to explain except through an obvious plot point, the racism, which seemed to be largely denied.
The end of the film also presents a more upbeat resolution to the plot: although both John-Henry and Honey are dead (mentioned only in passing), Frances is wearing a dress and a beret; she is moving gracefully around the kitchen and she is talking easily to a boy her own age. Leave it to Hollywood to come up with a heteronormative solution to the protagonist’s identity crisis.
In addition, the film version presents a rather sanitized version of the attempted rape that takes place in the hotel when F. Jasmine runs away from home. Instead of a violent sexual assault attempt in a bedroom, the film stages it as a scuffle in the back room of a bar. Yes, the soldier grabs Frankie and tries to kiss her against her will, but the curtain into the main barroom is open and overall, it feels much less menacing than McCullers describes in the book. Also, during the interaction, Frankie drinks a Coke instead of a beer, which she forces down in the novel.
After this incident, in the film, Frankie returns home. In the book, she goes to the train station, where a policeman sees her and calls her father. Having Frankie return home willingly marks another attempt to minimize her emotional state – she may not like the town or her situation, but she returns to the nurturing bosom of her family. Also in the film, her father seems a lot nicer to her after the wedding debacle. The sanctity of family was a main tenet of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code, still in effect in the 1950s. But this change too, weakens the intensity of Frankie’s crisis.
Other Hollywood films released around the same time as the original Member of the Wedding feature female-bodied characters who struggle with intersecting mental health and sexuality issues. In particular, two Elia Kazan films come to mind, Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Splendor in the Grass (1961). These films sensationalize the identity crises of their characters, demonizing them for their non-normative desires and behavior.
In contrast, female authors such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin. Lorraine Hansberry, Angelina Weld Grimke and Sylvia Plath (to name but a few) have highlighted the challenges women face when they openly chafe against restrictive gender roles. McCullers is in good company here. Sylvia Plath actually borrowed a line from The Member of the Wedding for her poem “Mirror.” It begins, “I am silver and exact.” She wrote this poem two years before she died by suicide in 1963.
McCullers herself battled demons and often returned to themes of alienation and isolation in her work.
Reading about McCullers’s life conjures up one of those doomed Southern woman writer scenarios, complete with an unhappy marriage, alcohol, and suicide attempts but also celebrity friendships and wild parties. The fascination with McCullers has not abated in the seventy-five years since she published The Member of the Wedding. Another film adaptation came out in 1996, a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie, with Anna Paquin and Alfre Woodard.
A New Yorker piece by Hilton Als came out in 2001 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/12/03/unhappy-endings
and The Paris Review published an excerpt from Jenn Shapland’s 2020 book My Autobiography of Carson McCullers (Tin House Books). Shapland recently won the Publishing Triangle’s Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction, and her book was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Lambda Literary Awards.
Fascination with McCullers extends beyond the literary sphere as well. In 2011 singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega explored many of the author’s themes in a play about McCullers, “Carson McCullers Talks about Love,” which premiered in New York.
Five years later, she released the songs from the play as an album, “Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers.”
McCullers’s impact on society persists, particularly through the character of Frankie Addams, a person who challenges binaries and outdated expectations that people fit neatly into boxes. McCullers was ahead of her time in embracing the messiness of identity in work and in life.
JENNIFER L. GAUTHIER is a professor of media and culture at Randolph College in Southwestern Virginia. Her media commentary can be found on Pop Matters.com and The Critical Flame: A Journal of Literature and Culture. She has poems published or forthcoming in Tiny Seed Literary Journal, South 85, Gyroscope Review, Nightingale & Swallow, River River, The Bookends Review, little somethings press, and HerWords Magazine. Her poetry collection, naked: a chapbook of poetry inspired by remarkable women, was recently chosen as third runner-up in the New Women’s Voices poetry competition sponsored by Finishing Line Press.