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The Member of the Wedding – Andy most respectfully points out that the word “queer” appears on the first page

April 19, 2013

Everybody’s read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, right? Who hasn’t? I’ve read it two, three times.It’s an wonderful book. And The Member of the Wedding has been sitting on my bookshelf for years. And somehow or other I never got around to reading it. Until last weekend.

Sorry, Carson.

memberofweddingIt’s been a few years since I last read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, so I can’t really compare the two books. But with Member fresh in my mind, I have to wonder if Heart makes muster. I’m sure it does. It’s probably better. But The Member of the Wedding is so, so good, it’s hard to imagine that a writer could produce two works of such genius in five or six years. In between Carson McCullers wrote Reflections in A Golden Eye. I guess I’m going to have to get around to finding out how good that is pretty soon. And The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.

For my own nefarious reasons I’m going to focus on a particular interpretation of this novel. Very obviously, and very beautifully, and also very humorously, it’s a coming of age novel, a rites of passage yarn. Frankie, twelve years old, a tomboy, friendless, motherless, her father kind of detached, tries to come to terms with her older brother’s impending marriage. And decides, in the way of children who do not quite grasp how the world of adults works, that she will become the third partner in her brother’s union, and in so doing escape the town she has come to despise. And she discusses this, and much else, with her family’s black housekeeper Berenice and her six-year-old cousin John Henry. Over the three phases of the novel Frankie goes from being referred to by the narrative voice – and herself – as Frankie, to  F. Jasmine, to Frances.

Yes, it can certainly be regarded as a rites of passage novel. But it can be regarded as something else, too.

There’s a lot going on in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but at its heart (boom boom) it can, arguably, be regarded as a gay love story. If anything. The Member of the Wedding might just be queerer. And not just because its main character is a tomboy (a tomboy, Mick Kelly, is a major character in Heart as well). The most obvious signpost to this is young John Henry, who has a rather astonishing penchant for lady’s clothing and high heels. But Berenice, the black maid, has a thing or two to contribute as well. “I have heard of many a queer thing,” Berenice says, and then tells F. Jasmine and John Henry that she “knew boys to take it into their heads to fall in love with other boys”. She tells them about Lily Mae Jenkins – whose male name we are not given, curiously enough – a man who “fell in love with a man name Juney Jones. A man, mind you.” Yes, thanks Berenice. I think we got that. “And Lily Mae turned into a girl. He changed his nature and his sex and turned into a girl.” John Henry seems beguiled by this; F. Jasmine is disbelieving. The language McCullers uses, and its suggestion that identity is plastic, is fascinating.

MCCullers arguably pushes some envelopes in her exploration of Frankie’s sexuality. The 12-year-old (“precocious” is a cliche, but it’s the sort of cliche that might just about apply to this character) has some sexual experience – a gross, guilt-ridden grope with a male neighbour; seeing a male tenant having a “fit”. These are events that occurred before the novel’s action; during the novel she encounters a drunken young soldier, who mistakes the lanky tween for a much older girl and thinks she’s fair game. Frankie’s reaction to this situation is exactly what you’d expect from a 12-year-old girl, but it also adds another layer to the novel’s exploration of identity, sexual and otherwise.

McCullers – who apparently was bisexual, along with her husband = is not exclusively concerned with sexual identity. Berenice dreams of a day when the re will be no difference between black and white; Frankie – like so many girls of her age – obsesses about the cliques that she may once have been a part of, or could be a part of now if she so chose. But as the novel closes Frankie – or Frances, as she is now identified – is awaiting the arrival of a new female friend, a relationship Berenice seems to find worthy of suspicion. The Memberr of the Wedding is certainly a coming of age novel. But scratch a little deeper and it’s quite a bit more than that.

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