Strange Bodies: Gender and Identity in the Novels of Carson McCullers

By Sarah Gleeson-White | Go to book overview

1
Freakish Adolescents
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.

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