A Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers, was written in 1946 and set in a small Southern town. The protagonist of the novella is a motherless, friendless twelve year old girl who is desperately searching for, as she says, “the we of me.” How about that phrase, right? Incredible.
The “we” she lands on is not her distant father, nor her loving African-American maid, Berenice, nor her sweet six year old cousin John Henry, but her much-older brother and his bride. Although it is clearly a far-fetched plan, sure to fail from the start, she becomes convinced that she is somehow a part of their marriage and that, after the wedding, they will take her with them to the Alaskan wilderness. She works herself into a hysterical state and tears through the town, telling anyone who will listen about her plan. The day takes several turns, both expected and not, after the little girl, who is very tall for her age, but also very innocent, meets a drunken soldier. The next day, the wedding goes as the reader, though not the poor girl, knows it will. In the last section of the novella, the story turns both tragic and optimistic as some characters grow into their future selves and others are revealed, sadly, to not have a future at all.
I haven’t said what the little girl’s name is yet because that’s one of the coolest tricks in the novella. I say trick because it does read like a bit of a gimmick, but I liked it. In the first section of the novella, as an over-excited seventh grader, she is Frankie. In the second section, as she tries to reinvent herself as “a member of the wedding,” Frankie decides to go by the much more glamorous F. Jasmine, so the narrative refers to her as such. In the final third of the novella, F. Jasmine really has grown up and grown into her real name, Frances.
Another trick Ms. McCullers employs is the use of cryptic references to events that either haven’t yet happened or haven’t yet been revealed. She consistently refers to the day before the wedding as “that last day” which, in a moment of danger, could be read in many ways–the last day before the wedding, yes, but also perhaps Frankie’s last day? or the soldier’s? It lends a very ominous, suspenseful air to the middle of the novella. She also refers to a certain character as a ghost pages before she tells the reader that that character has died. This technique both keeps the reader guessing and engrossed.
Despite all of the thrilling narrative trickiness of this novella, the real surprises for me came in the form of the kitchen table conversation between Frankie, Berenice and John Henry. This is the South during WWII, in a town rife with racial tension, yet when Frankie, Berenice and John Henry take on their Creator to imagine their perfect world, they come up with somewhere “round and just and reasonable…there would be no separate colored people…but all human beings would be light brown color with blue eyes and black hair. There would be no colored people and no white people to make the colored people feel cheap and sorry all through their lives…No war…No killed Jews and no hurt colored people,” (337-338). These are Berenice’s words, to which the children add their whimsical suggestions for raining lemonade and a motorcycle for each person on earth, but the sentiment seems to be shared by all three characters, black and white. It’s poignant and beautiful. But–this isn’t really the surprising part. The characters’ musings on gender and homosexuality are the ones that really got me. On page 324, Berenice says, “I have knew boys to take it into their heads to fall in love with other boys. You know Lily Mae Jenkins?…He prisses around with a pink satin blouse and one arm akimbo. Now this Lily Mae fell in love with a man name Juney Jones. A man, mind you. And Lily Me turned into a girl. He changed his nature and his sex and turned into a girl.” The kids are a bit incredulous but don’t have a problem with this information–in fact, John Henry wishes that they could all be half boy and half girl, even heading out into town with Frankie in a dress and heels.
Whether the characters of A Member of the Wedding are trying to redefine themselves, reimagine the world or understand those around them, issues of identity seem to be at the root of the novella. I’m sure it was a daring work of fiction back in 1946 and remains one today.
McCullers, Carson. The Collected Stories of Carson McCullers. New York: First Mariner Books, 1998.