The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers, 1951

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by Carson McCullers, 1951

The Ballad of the Sad Café is Carson McCullers's most nearly perfect treatment of her most common theme—the mystery of the love relationship. It is also a classic example of what has come to be known as southern Gothic or southern grotesque. Forsaking any attempt at realism, the story is a lyrical parable or fairy tale that takes place in a world less physical than poetic, involving characters less real than mythical. As critics have pointed out the genius of the work depends on the voice of the narrator who transforms what otherwise might be either foolish or repellent into the stuff of legend and dream.

The plot has the simplicity of myth, and the triangular set of characters that constitute it have the mythic aura of the transcendent—from the giant man/woman Miss Amelia, to her equally giant adversary Marvin Macy, to the trickster figure of the dwarfish little hunchback Cousin Lymon. The story is so filled with narcissistic mirror reflections that it turns inward on itself like the crossed eyes of Miss Amelia, which are "turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief." It is as though the story springs from a single projective consciousness for whom all the characters are poetic embodiments of desire.

As the central expository passage of this long story or novella suggests, the basic theme is the relationship between the lover and the beloved. The narrator argues that although love is a joint experience between two people, the lover and the beloved come from "different countries." The beloved is merely a stimulus for the stored-up love within the lover, and the lover suffers because he or she knows that love is a solitary thing. The beloved can be of any description, says the narrator, for the quality of any love is determined by the lover. Thus everyone wants to be the lover, for the state of being beloved is intolerable to most. "The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved."

McCullers's story is a grotesque working out of these philosophic truths. Although the central part of the plot revolves around the mysterious arrival of the hunchback and the equally mysterious transformation of the formerly forbidding Miss Amelia into the doting lover of the indifferent and exploitative Cousin Lymon, the background for the story focuses on Miss Amelia's marriage many years before to Marvin Macy, for whom she was the beloved. But Miss Amelia rejects this role and sends her despondent lover Macy away. When Macy, now a famed criminal who has served time in prison, returns and becomes the beloved to Cousin Lymon, the story moves inevitably toward a classic battle between the two giants for the little man. The story reaches its climax when just as Miss Amelia is about to triumph Cousin Lymon leaps on her back like a small animal and helps turn the tide in Macy's favor. The hunchback's departure with his beloved leaves Miss Amelia cracked and broken.

Serving as the backdrop for this triangular relationship is the town itself, a classical chorus for whom the central godlike figures serve as a necessary unifying force. When Miss Amelia becomes the lover of the hunchback, the community becomes unified around the café, "the warm center of the town," in communal gatherings inspired by the magic liquor distilled by Miss Amelia. Cousin Lymon is a magical creature who has an "instinct to establish immediate and vital contact between himself and all things in the world." He is the archetypal mysterious stranger; no one knows who he is, how old he is, or where he came from.

When Cousin Lymon runs off with Marvin Macy, the town becomes lonesome and sad, "like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world." Instead of joining them in a communal oneness, the only liquor available makes the people dream themselves into a dangerous inward world. The story, however, ends with a coda that suggests that in spite of the breakup of the communal order established by the lover between Miss Amelia and the little hunchback, there still remains a metaphor of unity, albeit a unity in despair, in the description of "The Twelve Moral Men." The narrator describes a chain gang of seven black men and five white men who sing a song both somber and joyful that seems to come not from the men but from the earth itself.

The Ballad of the Sad Café is one of the best known modern examples of what might be called short fiction's tendency toward the principle of incarnation. Even as the world of the story is that of hard physical reality, the poetic power of the storyteller transforms profane reality into the realm of the sacred, projecting human desire in its most elemental forms.

—Charles E. May