Coming of Age
The Member of the Wedding is first and foremost a coming-of-age story. Twelve-year-old Frankie is caught between her childhood and womanhood, and during the three days in which the novel takes place, she makes great strides toward womanhood.
Before her brother Jarvis and his fiancé appear at her house, Frankie was beginning to feel a change coming. Since the spring, she had felt moody, restless, and discontent, and these feelings made her afraid. Suddenly, the pastimes that had always enthralled her—operating a drink stand, playing dress up, writing plays, hanging with the neighborhood children—have lost their appeal, but she is not quite sure why. She does not seem to fit anywhere. She has grown very tall and leggy, yet she is not considered big enough to join the teenage girls in their private club. Her father has distanced himself from her and told her she is too big to sleep in the same bed with him, as she has always done. Her mother is dead, so she has no woman other than the cook, Berenice, to whom she can express her worries. And Berenice, who clearly loves Frankie, provides no solutions, at least not in Frankie’s eyes. McCullers reinforces Frankie’s sense of being “stuck” by using imagery that suggests that time is suspended. Much of the action in parts one and two takes place in one room, the old, familiar kitchen, where the dingy walls, the cooking smells, the same routines all press down on Frankie. The heat outside presses in on her, too. Sounds from the outside sift through the open windows and mingle with sounds from the radio, but these act like a web, “crossed and twisted with each other.”
When Jarvis and Janice appear, however, they are a breath of fresh air. Suddenly, Frankie finds words to describe the feelings she has been having: she wants change, and she wants to belong somewhere. Janice inspires her to dress like a lady; Jarvis’s worldliness inspires her to want to travel, especially to a cold place, far from the hot south. Suddenly, their wedding gives her purpose, a means of belonging. In proclaiming her new membership to the soldier in the Blue Moon, however, Frankie comes to realize that however much she wants to be grown up, she does not know how to navigate in the grown-up world. Only after the wedding does she realize that he was making sexual advances to her. This realization, along with her disappointment in not really being a member of the wedding, make Frankie realize that she is no longer a child who can simply put on a costume and play grown up, but she is a girl growing into a woman, with much still to learn.
Another theme is the connectedness among people. Before the wedding came up, Frankie felt disconnected and alone in the world, in her town, even in her family. She had been keeping up with the war in Europe, peering at the globe and imagining all the places where the fighting was taking place, wanting to see and participate in the war. The town seemed full of the same old people, the same old places, the same old events—yet she felt separate from them, as if she had no weight among them. Her playmate, John Henry, does not seem to amuse her anymore. Berenice seems obtuse when it comes to understanding her. Her own father seems distant. She is no one and has no one, or so she thinks. But as her fantasy over the wedding develops, she finds a place in the world, in the town, and in the family: she is the member of the wedding. And as such, she belongs in the world of strangers now; she has something to say, something to do, she is somebody.
Her childish belief that being a member of the wedding makes her a member of human society soon hits some realities. McCullers deftly presents the reactions of the townspeople who hear Frankie’s story in such a way that readers understand that they are simply tolerating a prattling child. The soldier, of course, sees the woman behind the child, but his intentions to have sex with Frankie shake her sense of being connected to him as a world traveler. Berenice shows Frankie a side of humanity that she has never thought much about: the plight of black people in the 1940s. And the death of John Henry does what Uncle Charles’s death did not; it shows Frankie that the real world, the grown-up world is a place where people are often connected by loss and sadness.
The novel ends with Frankie happily connecting with a new friend, Mary Littlejohn, whose love of poetry and art connect Frankie to the world in a much different, more age-appropriate way. All she really needed was a friend to make her feel like she belonged to something. The bigger world can wait for her to grow up a bit more.