The Member of the Wedding: Essay Q&A
1. How does McCullers use atmosphere to convey that Frankie is struggling to leave childhood behind and embrace adolescence?
Frankie Addams is twelve years old, on the cusp of adolescence, but not quite divorced from childhood yet. McCullers captures her state of “in-between-ness” by creating a suspenseful atmosphere and by painting a setting that is both familiar, yet cloying to Frankie.
The atmosphere of waiting, of being about to change, is accomplished mainly by language and dialogue in The Member of the Wedding. Frankie cannot articulate the strange feeling she has; she feels unaccountably restless and annoyed with the familiar, yet she has no words to describe what she really wants. Many of her conversations with Berenice and John Henry trail off because she does not know how to express what she thinks. Much of her language sounds like a child when she speaks to Berenice—cross or fanciful—yet when she speaks to others about the wedding, she deliberately attempts to speak like an adult. When she confronts the owner of the Blue Moon, for example, she searches for an opening remark that is “grown and off-hand.” She changes her name from the childish “Frankie” to “F. Jasmine” and “Frances” to convey her changing self-image. At the end of the story, Frankie is more mature, but she is not grown yet. When the doorbell rings, we see her going to answer the door and carrying on the process of growing up.
Setting also contributes to the atmosphere of time being arrested for Frankie. The narrator consistently describes the summer as sticky and hot, the days as long and interminable, the routines Frankie and the others undertake as old and boring. Sounds waft into the kitchen or into Frankie’s consciousness from other places, lending a vagueness to the setting. The town, to Frankie, seems boring and dingy—until she becomes a member of the wedding.
Once Frankie becomes a member of the wedding, she sees things in a new light and she feels like she is coming unstuck at last. The irony of the novel is that Frankie is breaking away in her mind, imagining her self as a grown-up, when to others she is still clearly a child, still stuck in that time between childhood and adolescence.
2. What is John Henry’s role in The Member of the Wedding?
John Henry is Frankie’s six-year-old cousin and constant companion. As such, he serves as a foil to Frankie’s character as she struggles to find out who she is. He enhances our understanding of Frankie’s struggle.
John Henry is childish, quixotic, even strange, and his kidlike ideas and gestures often annoy Frankie because she used to like them, but now they seem too young for her. At the same time, her imagination is just as fertile as John Henry’s but by contrast it is more sophisticated. John Henry still pulls on ridiculous costumes and wants to run around with other children. Frankie no longer invests in costumes; she now invests in real clothing to put herself into her new character as a member of the wedding. For Frankie, John Henry represents the childish things she wishes to leave behind.
On the other hand, John Henry also enhances Frankie’s awareness of the adult world. When he contracts meningitis, Frankie does not comprehend that her little friend might die. To Frankie, his illness is just another stint of playacting—until he actually dies and she sees him in his coffin. Suddenly, death—that very adult thing—is real to Frankie. “‘I don’t see why he has to suffer so,’ Berenice would say: and the word suffer was one she could not associate with John Henry, a word she shrank from as before an unknown hollow darkness of the heart.” Frankie recovers from John Henry’s death, but she is touched forever by it. The chattering Frankie has become Frances, the girl who listens for “the special hush” in the room that signifies her memory of John Henry.
It is this new “hush” to Frankie’s character that shows she has matured since her disappointment with the wedding and since John Henry’s death. As the “geranium glow” fades from the November afternoon, Frankie’s head still spins fantasies worthy of John Henry’s imagination, but the difference is that Frankie is well aware that she is “unfinished,” that she lucky to be alive to finish her growing up.
3. When Frankie goes to town to tell people about the wedding, she feels “connected” to people. What does she mean by “connected” and how did she become connected?
Before she learned of the wedding, Frankie was feeling alone, awkward, and useless, but after she becomes the self-designated “member of the wedding,” she feels differently about herself, as if suddenly she has a place in the world.
As a child, Frankie’s imagination took her to places, but now that she is on the brink of adolescence, imagined places do not seem enough for her. She hears about the war on the radio, and she sees the soldiers in town, and she knows that there is more to life than the small town in which she lives. She longs to do something, to be something, to belong to something important. Thus, when she hears about the wedding, her active imagination sees that event as her ticket to the world. She takes on a role—the member of the wedding—and as such she plans to travel with the couple, to be part of a threesome, to even make a difference in the world. When she goes to town to buy her dress for the wedding, she goes as someone with a purpose. She no longer feels like a child adrift and looked down upon; she is now an active member of society—she is visible.
She tries to explain “connection” to Berenice: “‘You are walking down a street and you meet somebody. Anybody. And you look at each other. And you are you. And he is him. Yet when you look at each other, the eyes make a connection.’” What she means is recognition from one human to another, an acknowledgement that each person is a member of the human race. When Frankie became a member of the wedding, she somehow felt she had become a member of that larger group at last. She had, she thought, passed from membership among children to membership among adults.
She is set back temporarily when the wedding couple rejects her as a member of the wedding, but Frankie is resilient, and at the end of the novel she is scheming to see the world—a be a member of the world.
4. Both Frankie and Honey Camden Brown are “unfinished” youths. How is Honey’s state of being “unfinished” different than Frankie’s?
One of the issues at the heart of The Member of the Wedding is race in the 1940s. Frankie and Honey are both youths with great potential, yet each has a destiny shaped by more than their personalities. How each “finishes” growing up is influenced by their race.
Honey is a black boy, a bit older than Frankie. He is very bright and obviously musically talented, but he has no outlet in life for his talents. Big Mama calls him “unfinished,” a boy “left eternally unsatisfied.” He is lighter skinned than most black persons, yet he does not fit in the white world, either. He is suspended between the two, and he has become strange, even wild. Frankie tries to encourage him to go to Cuba, where he might be somebody and being black will not matter so much. Honey, however, regards her idea as impossible. He seems to feel that his fate, however unfair it might be, rests in their small town.
Unlike Frankie, he has no scope for his dreams. Frankie is bright and imaginative and talented as a play writer and storyteller. She is a white child in the 1940s, with a father who is a jeweler. She can dream of leaving the small town for bigger things because they are possible for her. Big Mama predicts she will follow the usual course of a southern woman and “‘marry a light-haired boy with blue eyes.’” Berenice suggests that she will meet a young man at the wedding. Frankie herself imagines world adventures, especially when she becomes a member of the wedding. When she runs away from home, there are people looking out for her, to make sure she stays safe.
Honey has no such safety nets. At the end of the novel, he has veered into drugs and burglary, for which he is sentenced to eight years in jail. Frankie, having once stolen a knife from a store, remains free to grow up, marry, or travel the world.
5. The Member of the Wedding is an example of Southern Gothic fiction. Southern Gothic is characterized by flawed characters, settings that feature decay, and/or sinister happenings. How does McCullers incorporate Southern Gothic elements in the novel?
While McCullers uses many elements to create the Southern Gothic feel of The Member of the Wedding, three elements in particular stand out: setting, dialogue, and characterization.
Much description is given to the claustrophobic small town setting of the novel. The town is not named, which makes it seem like any other southern town in the 1940s: dusty, slow-paced, sheltered from the outside. It has a black part of town, Sugarville, and a raucous part of town, Front Street. Frankie is fascinated with the jail; indeed, the town seems like a jail to her. Her own home is a bit run down, with a kitchen that is covered in a child’s fanciful drawings “that gave the kitchen a crazy look, like that of a room in the crazy-house.” Frankie grows impatient with the routine of each day: “And so each gloomy afternoon their voices sawed against each other, saying the same words, which finally reminded Frankie of a raggedy rhyme said by two crazies.” So much of the action takes place in that small, crowded kitchen, reinforcing the narrowness of Frankie’s life. And when she encounters the soldier in his hotel room, that small room takes on a silence that she immediately recognizes as bad. When Frankie at last understands his intentions, she understands, too, that the adult world has dangerous aspects.
Dialogue, too, creates a Southern Gothic feel to the novel. Characters speak with unique, often abnormal speech, and many of them are flawed. Frankie often repeats phrases, yet she cannot quite say what she wants to. And when her words will not come out right, she lapses into high strung wildness, throwing knives at Berenice and talking nonsense in a “high fast voice” until Berenice, who calls Frankie “‘raving mad,’” forces her to sit in her lap and rest. Honey Brown, for all his intelligence, sometimes speaks with “a collared [sic] jumble that even his own family could not follow.” Berenice, one of the most normal characters, mesmerizes Frankie and John Henry with her stories of bad marriages, showing that she, too, possesses less than stellar judgment at times.
Quirky characters, such as John Henry, Big Mama, and the Monkey Man lend a gothic feel to the novel as well. John Henry has a fey aspect to his personality, often chattering nonsensically. Frankie thinks he resembles “a little black paper doll on a piece of yellow paper” or a “little blackbird against the yellow window light” on his front porch. He seems slight and ethereal, aspects that foreshadow his short life. Big Mama, as a bed-ridden fortune teller with a skin disease, seems at once both a fake and a seer. She does predict Frankie’s disappointment, but she does so in general terms that could apply to any time in Frankie’s life. The Monkey Man’s haunting music, which Frankie can never quite catch up to, teases her. He is a magical figure that pulls her back to her childhood, yet when she finds him in an argument with the soldier, he is just an upset adult. Not magical at all.
The novel captures the essence of a girl caught between childhood and adolescence, a time that makes her afraid and unsure of herself. Setting, dialogue, and characterization all contribute to take Frankie’s feelings from ordinary to suspenseful—to gothic.