Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Two Voices of the Single Narrator in the Ballad of the Sad Cafe

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Two Voices of the Single Narrator in the Ballad of the Sad Cafe

Article excerpt

When The Ballad of the Sad Carl was first published in Harper's Bazaar in 1943, Carson McCullers was twenty-six, and at that time most critics pointed to the work as evidence of the great promise of the young writer. Today, however, it is ranked along with The Member of the Wedding as her most successful work. McCullers' choosing to call the sad, romantic tale a ballad has caused many to discuss her ballad style in some fashion. In his work Carson McCullers, Lawrence Graver, for example, concludes that The Ballad of the Sad Cafe is one of her most "rewarding works" in part because she employed "a relaxed colloquial style, punctuating the narrative with phrases like `time must pass' and `so do not forget.'" (1) Ironically, Dayton Kohler, eighteen years earlier, had selected these identical lines as evidence of McCullers' "stylistic coyness," which he called "poetically false and out of the context with the objective drama." He further determined that the passages where the narrator stops the flow of the story to make "wise observations" indicate McCullers' own feelings that her story was "too weak to carry unsupported its burden of theme and sensibility." (2) Both critics are reacting to what Dawson F. Gaillard determines is the changing voice of the narrator. Gaillard points out that in the first paragraph of the story, for example, the narrator's voice is "flat" and "inflectionless" and is "adjusted" to the "dreariness" of the town; then it changes and loses the flatness to become the ballad teller. (3) This ballad maker, Joseph R. Millichap concludes, "fixes the style of the novel." His voice permits McCullers to weave her literary ballad into a perfect blend of the "literate and colloquial." (4)

A stylistic analysis of The Ballad of the Sad Carl reveals that McCullers has created a single narrator with two distinctly different voices. In the first voice the narrator places the characters and their actions in the mainstream of human existence. This voice begins, "The town itself is dreary" (5) and ends, "Yes, the town is dreary" (p. 70). This voice concludes the introduction, "You might as well walk down to the Forks Falls Road and listen to the chain gang" (p. 4) and ends the story, "You might as well go down to the Forks Falls highway and listen to the chain gang" (p. 71). Not only does this voice provide the frame for the drama, but it also flows throughout the story as a second voice of the single narrator. In this voice the reader is sometimes addressed directly and even commanded to respond to the narration.

For the voice of the ballad maker, who actually tells the tale of Miss Amelia, her ten-day bridegroom, and her cousin Lymon, McCullers chooses past tense verb forms. When the first voice, the voice of the lamenter, encountered at the beginning of the novel, speaks, McCullers chooses present tense verb forms. The first shift occurs after Cousin Lymon has appeared and has been offered a drink of Miss Amelia's whiskey. The narrator explains:

   The whiskey they drank that evening (two big bottles of it) is important.
   Otherwise, it would be hard to account for what followed. Perhaps without
   it there would never have been a cafe For the liquor of Miss Amelia has a
   special quality of its own. It is clean and sharp on the tongue, but once
   down a man it glows inside him for a long time afterward. And that is not
   all. It is known that if a message is written with lemon juice on a clean
   sheet of paper there will be no sign of it. But if the paper is held for a
   moment to the fire then the letters turn brown and the meaning becomes
   clear. (p. 10)

Next this voice draws the reader into the experience, and McCullers employs the first of eight imperatives that run throughout the first half of the novel (italics in quotations mine):

   Imagine that the whiskey is the fire and that the message is that which is
   known only in the soul of a man--then the worth of Miss Amelia's liquor can
   be understood. … 
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