Monday, December 16, 2013

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

And as she sickened with this feeling a thought and explanation suddenly came to her, so that she knew and almost said aloud: They are the we of me.  Yesterday, and all the twelve years of her life, she had been only Frankie.  She was an I person who had to walk around and do things by herself.  All other people had a we to claim, all other except her.  When Berenice said we, she meant Honey and Big Mama, her lodge, her church.  The we of her father was the store.  All members of clubs have a we to belong to and talk about.  The soldiers in the army can say we, and even the criminals on chain-gangs.  But the old Frankie had no we to claim, unless it would be the terrible summer we of her and John Henry and Berenice--and that was the last we in the world she wanted.  Now all this was suddenly over and changed.  There was her brother and the bride, and it was though when first she saw them something she had known inside of her: They are the we of me.

Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding opens by saying, "It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old.  This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member.  She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world."  Mick Kelly, one of the protagonists of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, claims that "[s]he wasn't a member of any bunch."  Both Frankie and Mick spend their summers wandering around, isolated from other teenagers, hanging out with those much younger than them if they hang out with anyone at all.  They share the same anxieties about maturing, especially the fact that they have endured sudden growth spurts and are now taller than their peers.  Both seem to have a closer relationship with their family's black servants than with their parents.

If I thought about it, there would probably be dozens of other similarities--so many that you might uncharitably say that The Member of the Wedding is a rehash by an author who only has one idea.  But I prefer to think of this short novel as a variation on a theme, a single riff plucked out of the fugue that is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and sent off on a jazz solo.  (In fact, at one point McCullers writes that in Frankie "a jazz sadness quivered her nerves.")

Frankie responds to her isolation and anxiety by developing an obsession with her older brother and his upcoming wedding.  As her caretaker Berenice says, she is "in love with" their wedding, and she makes plans to escape the boredom of her life by running away with the newlyweds after the wedding:

Frankie stood looking into the sky.  For when the old question came to her--the who she was and what she would be in the world, and why she was standing there that minute--when the old question came to her, she did not feel hurt and unanswered.  At last she knew just who she was and understood where she was going.  She loved her brother and the bride and she was a member of the wedding.  The three of them would go into the world and they would always be together.

Just as in Lonely Hunter, McCullers' ability to write from a child's perspective is really uncanny.  Frankie and Mick can be precocious at times, but they never seem like adults disguised in children's clothes.  In Member, McCullers gives Frankie a companion in six-year old John Henry, and their conversations are perfectly attuned, I think, to the way kids talk.  The triangular relationship between Frankie, John Henry, and their caretaker Berenice--one which Frankie is constantly trying to extricate herself from, and then returning to--is the heart of the novel.  I was really struck by these comments by Berenice on her ex-husbands, which serve as a warning to Frankie:

"Why, don't you see what I was doing?" asked Berenice.  "I loved Ludie and he was the first man I ever loved.  Therefore, I had to go and copy myself forever afterward.  What I did was to marry off little pieces of Ludie whenever I come across them.  It was just my misfortune they all turned out to be the wrong pieces... You and that wedding at Winter Hill," Berenice said finally.  "That is what I am warning about.  I can see right through them two gray eyes of yours like they was glass.  And what I see is the saddest piece of foolishness I ever knew."
Later on there's a really fantastic scene where Frankie, yearning to be older, hangs around a taproom until a drunken soldier asks her on a date.  She, however, does not know what drunkenness looks like, and interprets it as eccentricity.  This all leads to a very frightening scene in his hotel room which very nearly becomes a sexual assault; again, perhaps like the scene between Mick Kelly and Harry Minowitz at the lake in Lonely Hunter.  But here the danger and the fear are amplified, and make a stark contrast to the adult world of intimacy and companionship that Frankie thinks she will be able to enter at the wedding.

We know, of course, that Berenice is right; Frankie will never be part of her brother's marriage in the way that she wants to be.  Yet when the moment comes, when we think we are prepared for the final sadness, McCullers finds a way to make the ending even more heartbreaking.  Despite being a third as long, The Member of the Wedding is nearly as moving and sad as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and seems to me like an author honing her most deeply held ideas, rather than an uninspired retread.

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