Summary of The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers [2004 edition by Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin]
Part One, pages 3-46
In 1944, twelve-year-old Frankie Addams is on the cusp of something, but what that something is, she is not quite sure. She has grown tall over the long, hot southern summer, and all the old games she used to play do not interest her anymore. She cannot fit into the scuppernong arbor, where other kids play, but must “hang around and pick from the edges like grown people.” Her six-year-old cousin, John Henry West, still fits there and still wants to play as they always have, but she finds him alternately irritating and pitiful. She invites him to spend the night, like he has done so many times before, but when he arrives she refuses his request to go out and play with the neighborhood kids. She calls them “‘just a lot of ugly silly children.’” In her room, Frankie sits before an old typewriter to write letters, but she has no one to write to. John Henry suggests that maybe she would rather he go home, but she says that he should stay. They look out the window at a clique of slightly older girls heading to their neighborhood clubhouse, and John Henry tries to comfort Frankie because the girls would not let her be a member. She wipes her tears and the two of them try to think of something to do. They end up observing moths on the window screen trying to get inside the house. Frankie remarks that it is ironic that the moths could go anywhere, yet they come to her dull old house. Finally, the two go to bed. Frankie feels less afraid with John Henry’s warm, sleeping body beside her.
The next morning, the last Friday of August, Frankie cannot get John Henry to go home because he sees that special company is expected. Frankie’s brother, Jarvis, is coming to visit with his fiancée, Janice Evans. The two are visiting before their wedding in Winter Hill on Sunday, to which Frankie and her father are going. Before their arrival, “Frankie was a person who had never thought about a wedding,” but after the couple leaves she is changed. “There was something about this wedding that gave Frankie a feeling she could not name.” As she plays the usual card game with John Henry and the family cook, Berenice, that evening, she feels like the old, familiar kitchen is strange to her, claustrophobic and dingy. The cards, she thinks, have been played with so much that they “would taste like a combination of all the dinners of that August, together with a sweaty-handed taste.” She grows irritated with John Henry’s card playing and calls him “a child.” Everything around her seems worn out and ugly, compared to the wedding, which she imagines as “bright and beautiful as snow.”
Berenice accuses her of just being jealous of her brother. But for Frankie it is something more than jealousy that bothers her. She remarks that Jarvis and Janice both start with the letter J. Then she announces that she wishes her own name started with a J, perhaps Jane or Jasmine. She plays with the sound of “Jarvis and Janice and Jasmine.” She says she will change her name to F. Jasmine Addams.
Frankie looks at herself in the mirror in the kitchen and remarks that she should not have cut her hair short, like a boy’s. “For the wedding, I ought to have long bright yellow hair. Don’t you think so?” she asks Berenice and John Henry. She thinks of the Freaks at the circus she saw last October, and she wonders if she is destined to be a freak, too. She has grown four inches over the last year and towers over other children her age. Berenice remarks that those freaks give her the “creeps,” and Frankie asks if she, too, gives Berenice the creeps. “‘Do you think I will grow into a Freak?’” she asks. Berenice says she will be decent enough once she fills out and “if you behave.” Frankie declares that she would like to “‘do something to improve myself before the wedding.’”
She needs to do something with herself, she realizes. “This was the summer when Frankie was sick and tired of being Frankie. She hated herself, and had become a loafer and a big no-good who hung around the summer kitchen: dirty and greedy and mean and sad.” She thinks about the war in Europe [World War II] and wishes she were a boy so she could travel as a soldier. She cries easily. That spring, her father had declared that she was too big to be sharing a bed with him anymore. The town itself looks somehow “unfinished” to her. “She was afraid of these things that made her suddenly wonder who she was, and what she was going to be in the world, and why she was standing at that minute, seeing a light, or listening, or staring up into the sky: alone. She was afraid, and there was a queer tightness in her chest.” She does irrational, silly things, she shoplifts, and she does something “sinful” with Barry MacKean in his garage. She just wishes she could leave town all together.
She thinks about the wedding couple, how happy and bright they seemed. Berenice, she knows, married when she was only thirteen. She questions Berenice about her four marriages. Frankie grabs a knife from a kitchen drawer and insists that Berenice recount Jarvis and Janice’s visit. As Berenice describes the visit, Frankie is overwhelmed with the thought that this couple is separate from her, that “they were them, and leaving her, and she was her, and sitting left all by herself there at the kitchen table.” She remembers that her own cat has left her—just disappeared.
Berenice scolds Frankie for her tendency to take an offhand remark that someone makes and turn it into something else entirely. “‘You keep building on to any little compliment you hear about yourself. Or if it is a bad thing, you do the same,’” Berenice tells her. When Frankie asks if she made a good impression on the engaged couple, Berenice teases her for having a “crush” on them. Frankie threatens to throw the knife at her, then throws it into the stairway door. Berenice scolds her, and Frankie defiantly claims that she is “‘going to Winter Hill. I’m going to the wedding. And I swear to Jesus by my two eyes I’m never coming back here anymore.’”
Berenice tries to comfort Frankie, but she has to leave off when her beau, T.T. Williams, and her foster brother, Honey Brown, come to escort her home. She offers them a little drink before they go, and Frankie sees that she is not wanted. She goes out of the room, but she eavesdrops as Berenice describes Frankie’s “foolishness” to her companions. Frankie wanders around the darkening house. She remembers the couple that her father once rented a room to and how she caught them having sex, although she did not understand that at the time. She feels that there is much she does not understand, but she does not know the right questions to ask. And when she does ask questions, Berenice just jokes with her.
She goes outside and looks at the sky. Her father is not home from work yet, and she does not want to go back into the dark house alone. She goes to John Henry’s house, where he is on the front porch “with a lighted window behind him, so that he looked like a little black paper doll on a piece of yellow paper.” Since John Henry does not want to talk, she thinks instead about her brother and the bride, and she has a sudden epiphany: she does not have to be Frankie by herself anymore. She is a member of their group. She is a member of the wedding. “‘They are the we of me,’” she thinks.
She and John Henry hear someone playing a single horn, first slow and sad, then jazzy, then slow again, then—nothing. “The tune was left broken, unfinished,” and Frankie is upset by that. She talks wildly for a minute, then has another epiphany: she will go to the wedding, and after the wedding she will leave with the bride and groom and not return home. Frankie reasons that “she loved her brother and the bride and she was a member of the wedding. The three of them would go into the world and they would always be together. And finally, after the scared spring and the crazy summer, she was no more afraid.”
The novel is divided into three distinct sections, and this first section clearly presents Frankie as a girl on the cusp of adolescence. Up to this point, she has been a tomboy, a carefree and headstrong child. She has also been without a mother, and when her body begins to change and she feels inexplicably out of sorts, even “afraid,” she has no one to explain the natural changes that are occurring to her. She has only Berenice, who cares for her but is not her mother.
Most of all, she feels that she does not belong anywhere. John Henry and the other children seem too young to her, but she does not fit in with the older girls, either. Their exclusion of her from their clique hurts Frankie very much. Her own body seems to fit nowhere: “This summer she was grown so tall that she was almost a big freak, and her shoulders were narrow, her legs too long.”
She also feels that she is going nowhere, that she is somehow trapped. The old patterns of childhood are there: playing in the neighborhood, eating and playing cards in the kitchen with Berenice and John Henry, having John Henry spend the night—yet these pastimes and places feel claustrophobic. McCullers uses imagery that suggests a thick, syrupy, heavy atmosphere surrounding Frankie. The summer sun beats down, the trees are heavy with leaves, the kitchen walls are covered in childish art, the sounds of neighborhood kids slur through the evenings, the radio is constantly babbling in the background. The conversations among Frankie, Berenice, and John Henry are desultory; they play cards slowly, familiarly, in the same place at the same time each day. Even the war seems heavy. Frankie is baffled by how it seems so far away and the world seems so big, while she is confined to her own company in a small town. She feels that “the world seemed somehow separate from herself.” When she does imagine herself somewhere else, it is in a cold, fresh, snowy climate, one far different from a southern town.
When Jarvis and Janice appear in her living room, they represent the world to her. Jarvis has been in Alaska, and Janice hails from a place called “Winter Hill,” a place that surely must have snow, a place as different as possible from the South. And Frankie, being a headstrong and rather imaginative child, takes the idea of them and runs with it. They will take her into the world, they will be her “club.” She will belong somewhere and to something with them.