Gender and Identity in the Novels of Carson McCullers
By Sarah Gleeson-White
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2003 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding
Most readers of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding describe McCullers's adolescent girls — Mick Kelly and Frankie Addams, respectively — as either freaks or grotesques, arising from the girls' apparent boyishness. However, although there are elements in common, the categories of freak and grotesque are quite distinct. The clarification of these terms radically alters how we read McCullers's narratives of adolescence.
Up until the 1970s, commentaries on McCullers's "sensitive youths" were sexually indifferent, that is, they made no distinction between the varying experiences of male and female adolescents; the young boys and girls were conflated to underpin the universal experience of initiation into adulthood. Later feminist commentaries contested these readings, focusing on sexual difference in order to highlight the specific constraints of entering womanhood in southern society. However, notwithstanding the insistent social demand for conformity that the novels register, McCullers's adolescent portraits embody a dynamics of possibility and thus challenge any notion of female limits. That is to say, the promise of youth does not die out with the adolescents' entry into adulthood. So, although freakishness well conjures up Mick's and Frankie's feeling of oddness in the face of a changing body and an emerging sexuality, and in the face of the demands of the ideal of the southern belle, it in no way accounts for the moments of promise and potential found in McCullers's representations of possible identities. It is the grotesque, rather, which can illuminate these moments.
The female adolescent is particularly amenable to an exploration of the categories of freak and grotesque since, historically, women have been perceived as freakish, a perception stemming from a biblical tradition that considers women "lesser men." Different cultural practices have tended to represent women's "malformed" bodies as fluid and amorphous. For example, "that the female body can change shape so drastically [for example, in pregnancy] is troublesome in the eyes of the logocentric economy within which to see is the primary act of knowledge and the gaze the basis of epistemic awareness" (Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects 80). It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that Bakhtin bases the grotesque body on the Kerch terra-cotta figurines of laughing pregnant hags. The very word "grotesque" itself, derived from "grotto," evokes images of the "cavernous" female body (Russo 1).
The female adolescent is even more "grotesque" than her adult counterpart: not only is she female, but she is in that liminal state between childhood and adulthood and, in the case of Mick and Frankie, between femininity and masculinity. To exist on the threshold obtains within it grotesque possibilities of becoming. In this way, McCullers's young girls are revolutionary; they figure as sites of resistance since it is the adolescent, representing the new generation, the future as hope and possibility, in which society so greatly invests. The female adolescent body, as a grotesque site of becoming, challenges the very notion of discrete (feminine) identity. It is vital, then, to establish the category of the grotesque as an extension of the freak.
Mick Kelly's and Frankie Addams's socially perceived freakishness arises from their boyishness, at a moment in their lives when they should ideally be entering into womanhood. However, the young girls are freakish not only because of their tomboyishness but also, paradoxically, because of their emerging femininity and sexuality. As a result, the girls identify and are identified with sideshow freaks. What might be the implications of this association of adolescence with freakdom?
In the dynamics of freakishness, the category of "normal" is contingent on the category of the "abnormal." In other words, normality and freakdom, or abnormality, are interdependent. In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding, it is the tension between Mick's and Frankie's tomboyishness and the ideal of the southern belle or lady that most obviously makes manifest this interconnected dichotomy.
Ideal femininity is a particularly powerful image in McCullers's novels since the image of the lady was all-pervasive in the South. Even in the New South, the time in which McCullers was writing and her novels are set, the ideal of the worshipful lady prevailed, although such an ideal became more and more transparent with the changing status of women in the 1940s and 1950s. However, as Westling notes, although the mask of the belle and the lady began to peel away, there was no alternative model of female identity (37).
The southern lady, the imminent destiny of both Mick and Frankie, is well captured in The Member of the Wedding in the description of "the club members," whom Frankie watches from the kitchen window, "passing slowly before the arbour. The long gold sun slanted down on them and made their skin look golden also, and they were dressed in clean, fresh dresses" (113–14). It is this image of femininity, a type of arrested subjectivity, to which Frankie must aspire. But because she is a tomboy and so resists conforming to the vision, Frankie is unable to join the neighborhood girls' club (17–18).
It seems that both Mick and Frankie fail to fulfill the requirements of womanhood "membership" due to their male identification, clearly at odds with images of proper femininity. Both girls have boys' nicknames. Ideally, naming should establish "appropriate" gender; to assume a male name confounds and plays with such dynamics of identification. Furthermore, both girls look and behave like males: they have short-cropped hair, dress in shorts and sneakers, and yearn to join the armed forces (H 215; M 175). The stature of the two tomboys further underscores their defiance of the ideal image of the "good little woman."
In the South, while tomboyishness may have been acceptable in the young girl, at puberty she was expected to begin the metamorphosis into southern womanhood. But, since Frankie and Mick persevere with masculine appearance and behavior, society brands them freaks. This idea of freakdom is reflected in Mick's older and "feminine" sister Etta Kelly's criticism of Mick's persistent masculinity: "'It makes me sick to see you in those silly boy's clothes. Somebody ought to ... make you behave'" (H 41), that is, somebody ought to make Mick become a true woman. In The Member of the Wedding, it is Berenice who advises the freakish Frankie to "'change from being so rough and greedy and big. ... You ought to fix yourself up nice in your dresses'" (98).
There are in fact several moments in both The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding when Mick and Frankie do attempt to conform to the cultural ideal of womanhood as articulated by Etta and Berenice and as portrayed in the image of the club members. To do so, the young girls must first "cleanse" themselves of freakishness by rejecting their boyishness. So Berenice counsels Frankie to "'[g]et clean for a change. Scrub your elbows and fix yourself nice. You will do very well'" (M 28). Heeding Berenice in her preparations for her date with the soldier, Frankie plans "'to take two baths tonight. One long soaking bath and a scrub with a brush. I'm going to try to scrape this brown crust off my elbows. Then let out the dirty water and take a second bath'" (M 133). Similarly, before her prom party guests arrive, Mick "went into the bathroom and shucked off her old shorts and shirt and turned on the water. She scrubbed the rough parts of her heels and her knees and especially her elbows. She made the bath take a long time" (H 97).
Ironically, when Frankie and Mick do attempt to conform to societal demands, they unwittingly undermine the notion of ideal womanhood. For example, Frankie chooses to wear to her brother's wedding an orange satin evening dress with a silver hair ribbon and silver shoes, prompting Berenice to describe her as a "human Christmas tree in August" (M 107). Consequently, Berenice advises her to swap the gaudy orange satin evening dress for "that fresh pink dress," which will increase her chances of meeting "the cutest little white boy in Winter Hill you ever seen" (M 32). In other words, Frankie must not make a spectacle of herself; that is what "bad" women do.
Mick Kelly also dons femininity. While Frankie risks caricaturing femininity, Mick reveals its impracticability as she dresses for her prom party in "Etta's long blue crêpe de chine evening dress and some white pumps and a rhinestone tiara" (H 97). Once the neighborhood children begin to destroy the grownup party atmosphere, Mick becomes aware of the constraints of feminine attire. Wanting to jump into a roadside ditch, she realizes that with "her tennis shoes she would have landed like a cat — but the high pumps made her slip" and so she winds herself. Having torn the hem of the evening dress and lost her tiara, she puts her old shorts and shirt back on, although "she was too big to wear shorts anymore after this" (H 105). It becomes painfully clear that womanhood, here signaled by dress, is a hindrance to the hopes and plans of the young tomboys.
For the young girls, then, femininity emerges as a stranger mode of being than tomboyhood. While femininity makes Mick feel different from herself (H 97), Frankie is unable to perform it properly and, even if unwittingly, she makes a mockery of ideal womanhood. In this way, both texts construct the southern ideal of femininity as, ironically, freakish. The young girl's developing body and emerging sexuality herald the onset of a freakish womanliness, and her unease in the face of such developments comes to the fore as sexual differences become more marked in the eroticization of the body's surfaces: the boy's flaccid and erect penis, and the girl's budding breasts. So, in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter Mick picks "at the front of her blouse to keep the cloth from rubbing the new, tender nipples beginning to come out on her breast" (29).
Mick Kelly's graffiti on the walls of a deserted house captures in essence the emerging eroticization of the youthful female body. In bold red and green chalk letters, she writes "a very bad word — PUSSY" (H 36–37). This graffiti reveals that Mick is alert to social constructions and perceptions of women as sex objects, whose sole function is a sexual one. It is no wonder the young girls fearfully consider their changing bodies as freakish, for femaleness frequently loses any capacity for alternative conceptualization beyond (male) obscenity.
The adolescents' fear wrought by the visibly changing pubertal body surfaces in McCullers's texts in those moments where the visceral manifests itself externally for all the world to see. In the short story "Like That" (Mortgaged Heart), for example, when eighteen-year-old Sis starts to menstruate, the narrator, Sis's nameless younger sister, exclaims: "'It shows. ... It does too!' [Sis] had on a sweater and a blue pleated skirt and she was so skinny all over that it did show a little. 'Anybody can tell. Right off the bat. Just to look at you anybody can tell. ... It looks terrible. I wouldn't ever be like that. It shows and everything'" (83). This passage clearly presents menstruation as freakish in both its visibility and unsightliness. It is not difficult to see the onset of menstruation as a terrifying event that signals to the world, and to the young woman, the arrival of a freakish womanhood.
For Mick Kelly, it is the loss of her virginity, again conjuring up the image of indelibly staining blood, which she understands as a visible marker of her entry to womanhood. Wondering if anyone can tell that she is no longer a virgin after her first sexual encounter with Harry Minowitz, she asks him: "'Tell me. Can you look at me and see the difference?' Harry watched her face for a long time and nodded that he could" (H 242). Subsequently, when Mick goes home to her family, "she had expected them to move back when they saw her and stand around in a circle and look. But they just glanced at her. She sat down at the table and waited. ... Nobody noticed her." Eventually Mick asks Portia if she is able to "notice anything different": "'Sure I notice, Hon. ... Just take a little grease and rub it on your face. ... They say grease is the best thing for bad sunburn.' She [Mick] stood by herself in the back yard. ... It was almost worse this way. Maybe she would feel better if they could look at her and tell. If they knew" (H 244–45).
These examples suggest that the young women's pubertal bodies are burdensome because of their visibility, and are seemingly inscribed with inner secrets signaling the onset of what must seem like the "sentence" of womanhood. As a result, the young girls are clearly marked as different — different from what they once were, and different from the models of ideal womanhood displayed before them, as epitomized by the demure clubhouse members in The Member of the Wedding.
Mick's dis-ease after the loss of her virginity is apparent in the following traumatic image: "It was like her head was broke off from her body and thrown away" (H 241). This description anticipates Hélène Cixous's claim that decapitation is the female equivalent of male castration: "[I]f masculinity is culturally ordered by the castration complex, ... the backlash ... on women of this castration anxiety is its displacement as decapitation, execution, of woman, as loss of head" (43). Mick's loss of virginity, and thus of girlhood, signals the loss of power that is inherent in southern womanhood. A taste of what is in store for her as a woman occurs when, as mother-substitute, she must baby-sit her younger brothers. Biff Brannon, the owner of the New York Café, watches Mick "pulling a couple of snotty babies in a wagon. But if she wasn't nursing or trying to keep up with the bigger ones, she was by herself" (H 20). Loss of virginity, together with the graffiti "PUSSY" and surrogate motherhood, draw attention to women's ideal function as solely reproductive.
The adolescent girls' fear or bewilderment in the face of a mutating body and developing sexuality, along with their concomitant feelings of strangeness, also appears in McCullers's short story "Wunderkind" (Mortgaged Heart, also in M). Alice Hall Petry is right to posit as central to the story the subtle sexual relationship between the young girl, Frances, and her piano teacher, Mr. Bilderbach (31–39). Frances is on the threshold of an awakening and disturbing sexuality. Accordingly, the language in the story resonates with an aggressive sexual energy: the music is "urging violently" (90), Bilderbach's veins throb, "the muscles of his strong thighs [strain] under the cloth of his trousers" (101), and Frances feels "that if he looked at her much longer her hands might tremble" (87). Overwhelmed, she rejects adulthood as defined in terms of sexual activity and response and, bursting from Bilderbach's music studio, she attempts a return to childhood: she "turned in the wrong direction, and hurried down the street that had become confused with noise and bicycles and the games of other children" (99).
Frankie, like Frances, also fails to understand adult sexuality. The only sex education she receives is when she witnesses the household boarders' "common fit" (M 50) and "the unknown sin that [Barney MacKean] had shown her" in the MacKeans' garage (M 91). These encounters with sexuality culminate in Frankie's "date" with the soldier, which goes disastrously wrong when he attempts to rape her upstairs in the Blue Moon Café. For Frankie, his unwelcome advance is "like a minute in the fair Crazy-House, or the real Milledgeville" (M 161), which leaves "disgust in her mouth" (M 164). Frankie's allusion to the Crazy-House neatly captures the sexual distress also experienced by Mick and Frances. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Strange Bodies by Sarah Gleeson-White. Copyright © 2003 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.