In The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and in her short stories Carson McCullers seeks again and again after the same goal: to discover why love is so difficult to find and even more difficult to keep….
Carson McCullers’ literary reputation has always been rather fragile as her work has an amorphous quality that makes her difficult to classify as a Southern writer even though her work has deep Southern roots. A true Southern eccentric, her work bears the earmarks both of Southern Gothic and of what would later come to be called dirty realism. At the same time her work carries forward the autobiographical strain of Thomas Wolfe, though McCullers’ particular focus is that most powerful and enigmatic of emotions, love. In one way or another, every work by Carson McCullers is a love story. Sadly but not surprisingly these stories are in one way or another stories of love lost. That is partly because McCullers seems to be trying, as autobiographical writers do, to work out the questions in the lost loves of her own life. Still, it would be unfair to say that her fiction is only a sort of self-administered therapy; the best of her works show us love as the rightful goal of human endeavor.
The title work in this collection, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, veers furthest into Southern Gothic territory. A novella, it tells the story of Miss Amelia, a tall, athletic, hard bitten woman who has inherited her father’s general store and bootleg whiskey business in a small Georgia mill town and who runs that business with brutal efficiency. Into her life comes a grotesque, a hunchback named Lymon who turns up on her doorstep late one evening claiming to be her cousin. To the surprise of the village (and perhaps herself), Miss Amelia takes Lymon in. His mercurial personality infects Miss Amelia and eventually she converts the general store into a cafe so as to allow Cousin Lymon, as he becomes known, to have all the society he craves. Into this slightly askew idyll comes Miss Amelia’s estranged husband, the paroled convict Marvin Macy. Once driven from town by Miss Amelia’s cruel indifference, he exacts a revenge on Miss Amelia that is both just and cruel at once. In this he is abetted by Cousin Lymon who switches his affections from Miss Amelia to Macy. Macy and Cousin Lymon leave, never to return. The cafe, once a place of light and pleasure is closed and takes on the “sad cafe” moniker. Miss Amelia, once a leading light of the town, becomes a hermit. At the end of the novella the constructs of love – the cafe, Miss Amelia’s life with Cousin Lymon, the joy they brought to the bleak lives of the mill town’s residents – are decayed wrecks of blighted love:
…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 persons 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….
Other stories in this collection explore variations on this theme. “Wunderkind” tells the story of a once promising pianist who loses her artistic gift- and her love of music – in conflicted feelings for her music teacher. “The Jockey” explores the anger and loneliness of one who loses not only his dearest friend but his love for his vocation. “A Domestic Dilemma” examines the difficult life of the husband of a woman descending into alcoholism who finds himself torn between his love for her and his disgust at her decline and his role in causing it. “Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland” raises questions about the limits of love of one’s profession and how transgressing those limits can do more harm than one intends.
Two stories mirror the themes of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. In “The Sojourner” McCullers describes the bittersweet reunion of a journalist with his ex-wife – and her new husband and children. The journalist, one Ferris, has become a successful foreign correspondent, but at the cost of having estranged himself from all his close relationships:
Ferris had loved his father and the bond between them had once been extraordinarily close – but the years had somehow unraveled this filial devotion; [his father’s] death, expected for some time, had left him with an unforeseen dismay.
Having been home to Georgia for the funeral of his father, a chance glimpse of his ex-wife walking down a New York street prompts him to call her. In a moment of effusion, she invites him to dinner. The dinner is, for Ferris, an unpleasant revelation:
Was it indeed true that at one time he had called this stranger, Elizabeth, Little Butterduck during nights of love….
On his flight home the next day his thoughts turn to his ex-wife and how, in choosing his career over love and happiness he has set a course for his life that he must follow:
He thought of Elizabeth among her family with longing, gentle envy, and inexplicable regret…. Suspended above the ocean the anxieties of transience and solitude no longer troubled him and he thought of his father’s death with equanimity.
“A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud” is probably the most anthologized of McCullers’ stories. It concerns an old man who has loved and lost some 20 years before and who, in search of the woman who left him for another, believes he has found the truth of life. He explains it to a paperboy in a diner thus:
‘Do you know how men should love…?’
The boy sat small and listening and still…
”A tree. A rock. A cloud.’
The old man goes on to explain that he has worked at learning love as if it were a science and that he can love anything – a bird in the sky, a street full of people, a stranger met on the road. The lesson is not lost on the paperboy, though he is overwhelmed with questions for which he realizes he cannot get answers from those around him:
…he made the only comment that seemed safe to him, the only remark that could not be laughed down and despised: ‘He sure has done a lot of traveling.’
McCullers’ lesson, then, in this story, as in all her work, is simple – if we can learn to love, truly love, we may be happy. But we probably won’t be understood.