Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Somatic Syntax: Replotting the Developmental Narrative in Carson McCullers's the Member of the Wedding

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Somatic Syntax: Replotting the Developmental Narrative in Carson McCullers's the Member of the Wedding

Article excerpt

"I wish tomorrow was Sunday instead of Friday ..." "Sunday will come," said Berenice. "I doubt it," said Frankie.

--Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding

"What defines a nonnarratable element is its incapacity to generate a story. Properly or intrinsically, it has no narrative future." (1)

--D. A. Miller, "Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel"

The first sentence of Carson McCullers's 1946 novel reads, "It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old" (3). While seemingly transparent, the terms "summer" and "twelve years old" encode particular cultural assumptions. "Summer" is a distinct period preceded by spring and succeeded by fall; "twelve" has, since the turn of the twentieth century, been known as an adolescent age. (2) Adolescence, in turn, is understood as a distinct psychological, somatic, and social period preceded by childhood and succeeded by adulthood. The omniscient narrator's statement that Frankie "was twelve," then, immediately positions her in the reader's mind as a liminal figure, inevitably facing a battery of changes.

None of these understandings appear to be problematic at first glance. Indeed, "summer follows spring," "adolescence leads to adulthood," and "adolescence is a time of change" seem to be unimpeachable facts. But we might actually take the novel's opening as an occasion to recognize the codified character of normative temporality, and to scrutinize normativity itself. For one thing, in juxtaposing a season with a developmental stage, this first sentence reminds us of the highly metaphoric, and not purely scientific, character of developmentalism. It illustrates both developmentalism's constructedness, and our poverty of terms unique to the actual processes of bodily change. Indeed, the broad, imprecise metaphors of seasonality have long been used to articulate adolescence. (3) In 1959, for example, psychologist Norman Kiell declared this stage an "awful springtime of beauty" and a "season of shames" (13).

I claim that Member's thematic and formal engagements with temporality open the notion of "human development" up for critical examination. The novel shows human development to be, first and foremost, a classical narrative paradigm--a forward-looking schema with strict criteria for progress and closure, and one that is exceedingly difficult to interrogate, precisely because of its natural appearance. (4) More specifically, McCullers's novel indicates that adolescence is a reified moment in a story constructed to serve such ideals as whiteness, heterosexuality, reproductivity, and progress. Adolescence is a conceptual pivot that allows human development to function as a classical narrative. In this essay, I will focus on the ways in which the text both cites that state of affairs, and treats adolescence in radically different, non-narrative terms. These methods include the depiction of personal difficulties with narrativity, the refusal of dynamism, and the use of the literary devices of repetition and analepsis. The result, as I will show, is that the novel allows us to imagine an adolescent body in synchronic rather than diachronic terms--thereby challenging the ideals of sexuality, gender, and race that normally accrue to such bodies.

This argument is affined with recent feminist-theoretical and queertheoretical work on Member. Sarah Gleeson-White, for example, argues that Carson McCullers's fiction is "particularly fertile" for an investigation into new understandings of gender and sexuality, "written as it was in the 1940s and 1950s, a time of tension between the changing status of women and the southern ideal of womanhood; between a growing liberalism on the one hand and segregation and repressive sexual mores on the other" (2). More specifically, this "time of tension" included questions about women's role in war, and about the new cultural status of the bride--a figure that was becoming a consumer icon in this period (see Freeman 49). …

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