Along with her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers’s third novel, The Member of the Wedding, and the play adapted from it remain her most enduring literary achievements. Born in 1917 in Columbus, Carson McCullers revealed at a young age the creative genius that would distinguish her as one of the South’s most talented writers. After publishing The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in 1940 at age twenty-three, McCullers began writing The Member of the Wedding.
Characters and Plot
Like her first novel, The Member of the Wedding (1946) evokes the solitude and uncertainty of a young outcast in the Deep South. Its central focus falls on the shifting emotions of twelve-year-old Frankie Addams, a precocious, sensitive, gangly girl in the midst of a summer of boredom and loneliness in a small Georgia mill town. Frankie feels desperately left out of everything—the social life of her peers, the goings-on of the town, the faraway war raging in other parts of the world, and especially her brother’s wedding. Ostracized by her peers yet too old for child’s play, Frankie spends most of her time with the family’s Black housekeeper, Berenice, and her six-year-old cousin, John Henry. In their many evenings spent together in the sweltering Addams kitchen, Berenice and John Henry act as sensible foils to Frankie’s restless histrionics.
Frankie feels haunted by the news that her brother, who is in the military and has been stationed in Alaska, is returning home to marry. The upcoming wedding deeply affects her as yet one more glamorous and exciting event in a world full of glamour and excitement that does not include her. She longs for the wedding to happen and imagines that afterward she will go away with the wedding couple, never to return to her hometown. Frankie builds all her fantasies around the event, imagining that she can begin a new and exciting life with the couple and erase the disappointment of her life thus far. This thought becomes her solace throughout the summer as she repeats over and over to herself that her brother and his bride “are the we of me”—the we of companionship and belonging that Frankie feels unable to find. Anticipating her new life of belonging and worldliness, she assumes the sophisticated persona of “F. Jasmine.” Walking around town as “F. Jasmine,” she finds the attention and inclusion she desires but with tragicomic results.
Frankie Addams remains one of McCullers’s most memorable protagonists. Her frustration, loneliness, and restlessness resonate with anyone who has ever felt unknown and misunderstood. McCullers’s triumph is her ability to portray the awkwardness of the misfit Frankie, whose alternating sullenness and mania frustrate both herself and those around her. Using the semi-autobiographical character of Frankie as a vehicle, McCullers masterfully explores the grotesqueries, poignancy, pathos, and banality of life, especially through Frankie’s marginalization by her own sense of difference and alienation in her town.
McCullers adapted her novel for the stage, and it opened to critical acclaim as a play on Broadway in 1950, starring Ethel Waters as Berenice, Julie Harris as Frankie, and Brandon de Wilde as John Henry. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the best play of the season. All three actors re-created their roles for a film version produced in 1952. The Member of the Wedding continues to be a popular play for regional and college theater productions and has been filmed twice more, both times for television, the latest version appearing in 1997 with Alfre Woodard and Anna Paquin in the lead roles.