Impressions before Reading
I’ve read this particular novel before, so technically not a ‘fess up. But that’s the thing–I remember liking it, but not for any memorable reason. The same goes for McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which I adored on a recent reread. And I read that because I didn’t remember a bit of it except for the two mutes and Baby’s accident in the middle of the book, a hinge that changes much of the novel’s action and tone. By the way, that is a spectacular 20 page episode that solidified my opinion of McCullers. That is part of why I was shocked to read some snobby lit crit’s judgment that McCullers was “a minor American author.” The nerve. At a certain point, good writing is all on a plateau, all authors equal and interesting for different reasons. But I can see why that critic said what he did. McCullers tends to fixate on a few select topics, whereas the “truly great” members of the canon tend to write a broad canvas of personalities and themes. McCullers stays true to those topics that fascinate her: loneliness, adolescence, race in the South, and yearning individuals. The Member of the Wedding features a frustrated tomboy (or hobbledehoy if you want to use the more hilarious term) who wants desperately to be seen as the member.
Twelve-year-old Frankie isn’t properly a member of any group anymore, at least not one she aspires to be a part of; she has ” become an unjoined person” who “[hangs] around in doorways,” and this realization frightens her until news comes of her older brother’s upcoming marriage. This is Frankie’s chance to escape, from summer routine and childhood, into a land where it snows and she can “belong to a We.”
Frankie–or, as she calls herself, F. Jasmine Addams–is imaginative and easily swayed by the alchemy of words. She’s fascinated by subtle distinctions and, I sense, part of the reason she wants to go uninvited on her brother’s honeymoon is that they’re going to a place called Winter Hill. It’s a simple enough name, but for a child of the South who collects stories from Berenice, the family’s cook and childcare provider, about Northern winters and snow globes, that place name is mystical.
“Gray eyes is glass”–F. Jasmine’s eyes certainly want to reflect what she sees. She wants to be older, prettier, more sophisticated. In the way of people entering puberty, she can already sense these things occurring. These words, added to her sense of self, have alienated her from the friends she used to have and made her bored of her family. At just 12 she is already “five feet five and three-quarter inches tall,” a distinction that makes her calculate how unnaturally tall she will be adulthood. A soldier on leave notices her about the town and, presuming that she is much older, invites her to his hotel room. Frankie almost accepts this state of affairs out of desperation, considering it a chance to escape old ways. After all, this man would have to accept her as F. Jasmine Addams. It’s a name pretty enough to be on glossy adult letterhead.
But instead she is her father’s Picklepriss or the Fankie misprint in the newspapers from years before. Names matter to her, and the chance to invent her own name–and therefore her own identity–is overpowering, despite the fact that Berenice assures her that changing her name is illegal.
Above all, Frankie’s need for acceptance and love is possessive. She is desperate enough for understanding that she seeks it in strangers, roaming the streets and telling anyone who will stop about her brother’s wedding, seeking a look of recognition and interest. She stores these assurances up in her mind, possessive as a magpie. The thought process isn’t exactly healthy, and one of the novel’s quiet moments of catharsis comes when Frankie, her young cousin John Henry, and Berenice start to cry softly together, “and though their reasons were three different reasons, yet they started at the same instant as though they had agreed together.” This is a communion that started as a slow three-part song and ended as a gentle, necessary sobbing.
“The afternoon was like the center of the cake that Berenice had baked last Monday, a cake which failed. The old Frankie had been glad the cake had failed, not out of spite, but because she loved those fallen cakes the best. She enjoyed the damp, gummy richness near the center, and did not understand why grown people thought such cakes a failure.”
“Never had she been in a hotel, although she had often thought about them and written about them in her shows. Her father had stayed in hotels several times, and once, from Montgomery, he had brought her two little tiny cakes of hotel soap which she had saved.”
“It was the hour when the shapes in the kitchen darkened and voices bloomed. They spoke softly and their voices bloomed like flowers–if sounds can be like flowers and voices bloom.”