Sunday, November 8, 2009
Ballad of the Sad Cafe
by Carson McCullers
The setting of “The Ballad of the Sad Café” is as much canvas as it is character, providing a fitting milieu of mud and mosquitoes for its dismal dissections of ruptured love and obsession. Carson McCullers, who burst onto the literary scene at twenty-three as something of a prodigy with her first novel “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” is a gifted stylist wonderfully suited to establishing mood. She tells us that “the town itself is dreary; not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where he workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street only a hundred yards long… the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world.” Retrospectively, there is quaintness to McCuller’s Southern Gothic flair – in late 2009 it is easier for us to envision such impoverished isolationism in the muddy Eastern Europe of Bela Tarr’s films than in our own backyards.
This isolationism manages to heighten the drama in “The Ballad of the Sad Café” as the narrative progresses to its dreary endpoint. McCullers fares less well in the more metropolitan short stories also included in this collection– “Wunderkind” or “A Domestic Dilemma,” with all their mannered pathos and hollow etiquette come across as little more than filler for the New Yorker. What these lesser stories share with the far-more successful “Ballad of the Sad Café” is a tortured repression. In the bottled high society of these short stories, another bottle offers a muddled reprieve. The jockey in the story of the same name, Emily in “A Domestic Dilemma,” and perhaps even Ferris in “the Sojourner” find a, a socially acceptable, or socially ignored, respite in alcoholism.
Alcohol also provides one of the few social outlets for the townspeople in McCuller’s “Ballad of the Sad Café.” Alcohol creates a community space, in the story it’s literally a physical space as the town has no other places set aside for social gatherings. When Miss Amelia first meets Cousin Lymon, the hunchback, she offers him and the nearby townsmen a drink. The novella, as much as it is an investigation of gender roles and the bond between the lover and the beloved, is lubricated by liquor. Miss Amelia distilled her own liquor, and “the whisky they drank that evening (two big bottles of it) is important. Otherwise, it would be hard to account for what followed. Perhaps without it there would never have been a café. For the liquor of Miss Amelia has a special quality of its own. It is clean and sharp on the tongue, but once down a man it glows inside him for a long time afterward.” At Cousin Lymon’s insistence, Miss Amelia transforms the modest country store she had up to that point managed into a café, complete with a gaudy mechanical piano. This was an anomaly for a town so emotionally taciturn and repressed, and “the café itself proved profitable and was the only place of pleasure for many miles around.”
For four years Miss Amelia’s bar prospered, selling liquor, warm dinners and homespun medical attention. Despite, or perhaps aided by, Cousin Lymon’s grotesque eccentricities, the café offers the townspeople a public space in which to interact beyond the ken of everyday business transactions. In a story haunted by repression, both sexual and emotional, it is important that the narrative hinges upon alcohol, a substance that removes inhibitions and provides a temporary reprieve from repression of all sorts. But this sanctuary is inevitably demolished. Remember, the bleak townscape of the novella’s opening occurs after the events of the narrative have passed. It is in this barrenness that we catch our first glimpse of Miss Amelia, confined to her home, which “…looks completely deserted. Nevertheless, on the second floor there is one window that is not boarded; sometimes in the late afternoon when the heat is at its worst a hand will slowly open the shutter and a face will look down on the town. It 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.” Miss Amelia is the center of the love triangle consuming the novella, and it is worth noting that she is here described as sexless.
This post-narrative Miss Amelia as we see in the story's introduction appears to have been neutered - rendered a sexless being. But at the beginning of the story proper, we are introduced an imposing, masculine figure. We learn that “Miss Amelia inherited the building from her father…” She has assumed the traditional role of the male son – the heir apparent. McCullers is not particularly subtle in her blurring of gender roles throughout, Miss Amelia “…was a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles like a man… [she] cared nothing for the love of men and was a solitary person.” On top of her outwardly masculine appearance, she assumes a very masculine control over her affairs, while her beloved, Cousin Lymon, preens and dallies.
Cousin Lymon is the second of the three main characters. If Lymon is not outwardly feminine, he is at least emasculated, in both his deformity and his buffoonery. He also assumes the traditionally feminine role of the beloved, as Miss Amelia adores him and he exploits this affection both extravagantly and with cruelty. And it is the exploitation attendant to love that McCullers is concerned with. She explains that “…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 that has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this.” In this particular instance, Cousin Lymon is the beloved and Miss Amelia is the lover - the relationship is an exploitive one, but it is a self contained one; it involves two people.
The final element, that is, the disruptive element, is the return to town of Miss Amelia’s ex-husband, Marvin Macy. The hermetic relationship of lover to beloved is destroyed with the arrival of a third person. Marvin Macy is described as a despicable individual, “…when he was a boy, he had carried about with him the dried and salted ear of a man he had killed in a razor fight. He had chopped off the tails of squirrels in the pinewoods just to please his fancy, and in his left hip pocket he carried forbidden marijuana weed to tempt those who were discouraged and drawn toward death.” But Macy isn’t the ruin of Miss Amelia and the café of the title because he smokes grass or kills woodland creatures, but because he reorients the power structure of the lover and beloved.
Marvin is a menace because of his role as the lover and how he thwarts the concept of the beloved. While Marvin loved to the unresponsive and increasingly spiteful Miss Amelia, he himself is the beloved of Cousin Lymon. Pay attention to this description of Marvin prior to his short, violent marriage to Miss Amelia: Even though Marvin is described as “…the beloved of many females in the region – and there were at the time several young girls who were clean-haired and soft-eyed, with tender sweet little buttocks and charming ways. These gentle young girls he degraded and shamed. Then finally, at the age of twenty-two, this Marvin Macy chose Miss Amelia. That solitary, gangling, queer-eyed girl was the one he longed for. Nor did he want her because of her money, but solely out of love. and love changed Marvin Macy.” Which is the key to McCuller’s desperate novella.
Love proceeds to change Miss Amelia, Cousin Lymon and Marvin Macy each in turn, but this change is not necessarily a positive one. While his love for Miss Amelia may have softened the young Macy, one thwarted, it warped him into a revenge-sodden killer. Love ultimately siphons all of Miss Amelia’s strength from her constitution, even going so far as leaving her a sexless husk by the end of the story. And if one could argue that Miss Amelia and Marvin Macy became malformed owing to the ruination of their affection, what is to be said of Cousin Lymon? While it is true that Macy subverts the hunchback’s love in order to destroy Miss Amelia, one could argue that even prior to the ex-convict’s arrival, Lymon was exploiting Miss Amelia out of opportunism and sadism. Exploitation and contempt become not just the results of shattered love, but also characteristics of love itself.