A Strong Man, a Hermaphrodite and a Hunchbacked Dwarf Walk into a Café: Carnival and Community in McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951)

Posted by Rachel Carden on May 12, 2017 in Blog, Rachel Carden tagged with , , , ,

In my previous blog, I summarised the plot of McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café and aligned it with key genres and tropes to highlight its Gothicism and cultural critique of patriarchy through grotesque tropes. This post uses Bakhtinian theory to situate Miss Amelia’s café as a place of community, a theatrical space of gender performance and bodily oddities, which temporarily succeeds in challenging patriarchy.


The Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey’s Circus “Congress of Freaks”, 1924.

The philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His world (1965) analyses the work of the Renaissance writer François Rabelais to refocus critical attention on ‘folk humour’.[1] Bakhtin uncovers Medieval and Renaissance culture’s division, its ‘two-world condition’, consisting of: selective ‘officialdom’, which utilised seriousness for ecclesiastical and feudal matters, and the ‘boundless world of humorous forms and manifestations’ and ‘folk consciousness’ present in carnivals (Bakhtin, pp.4-6). Separated from religious and political matters, medieval carnivals ‘do not command, do not ask for anything’ (Bakhtin, p.7). What emerges is a notion of joviality and inclusive community:

Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because the very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside of it. During carnival time, life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of freedom. (Bakhtin, p.7)

Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s ‘The Fight Between Carnival and Lent’, (1559).
The Painting depicts the contrasts between two sides of contemporary life. On the left, appears an Inn and social enjoyment. On the right, a church and religious observance.

The twentieth-century American Gothic carnivalesque texts likewise demonstrate a tendency for joviality and inclusivity. Timothy Jones, for example, argues for recognition of a reading practice that prizes immersion in carnivalesque texts because of their ‘a gleeful indulgence’.[2] Acknowledging such a reading practice in McCuller’s narrative suggests a political point to the feelings invoked by the narrative. Indeed, Justin Edwards and Rune Graulund highlight that Bakhtinian carnival ‘provides a space wherein conventions are overturned or eradicated’ (Edwards and Graulund, p.25). Carnivals’ incorporation of various corporeal forms, which include ‘clowns and fools, giants, dwarfs and jugglers’, reflects this notion (Bakhtin, p.3). Robert Bogdan’s (1988) traces the origins of the sideshow back to Renaissance English fairs, where ‘almost all forms of human variation that would later adorn our sideshow platforms could be seen for free’.[3]

The concept of the carnival/sideshow is important for an understanding of Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951). The novella opens in an ‘estranged’ and impoverished South American town. Yet there was ‘once a café [… that] was unlike any other place for many miles around’ (Ballad, p.8). Our interest is picked. Much like the transitory nature of carnivals and sideshows, which spring-up, pack away and move on, the café is no more yet we sense its uniqueness. The premises belong to the wealthy and androgynous Miss Amelia, consisting of a farm-store and upstairs home, before the downstairs becomes a café. The transformation begins when the chatty, dwarfed and destitute hunchback Lymon Willis arrives, alleging to be Amelia’s cousin. Much to the townspeople’s confusion, she welcomes, mothers and loves Lymon.

Now this was the beginning of the café. It was as simple as that. […] The hunchback was still a novelty and his presence amused everyone. […] [T]he company was polite [… f]or the atmosphere of a proper café implies these qualities: fellowship, the satisfaction of the belly, a certain gaiety and grace of behaviour. (Ballad, pp. 28-29)

The extract demonstrates the café’s links to carnival and sideshow. On one hand, the space gains a sense of community, becoming a place of good-feeling and fun. On the other, it contains bodily oddities that provide spectacles for the town’s entertainment: the hunchback Lymon, the ‘cross-eyed’ Miss Amelia ‘with bones […] muscles [and mannerisms] like a man’ and, later, the strong-man figure, Marvin Macy (Ballad, p. 8).

The community engendered by the café is significant because of the transformations it spurs in the townspeople’s response to Miss Amelia, before it is evident that the town is wary of the protagonist. This is clear when, after having invited Lymon into her home, a rumour grips the town that she has ‘murdered that man for something in his suitcase’ (Ballad, p. 19). Some celebrate what they consider her downfall, her impending incarceration, while a potential lynching mob readies for an attack on the ‘amazon’.[4]

At such a time[,] no individual hesitates. And whether the joint action will result in ransacking, violence, and crime, depends on destiny. […] The time had come. […] All at once, as though moved by one will, they walked into the store. (Ballad, pp.21-23)

Only when the effeminately dressed Lymon emerges from the upstairs apartment are the men quelled and the café is born.

The farm-shop’s transformation is noteworthy for the critic Francis Piper, who views it as a ‘performative’ and ‘parodic’ ‘public version of the heart of the home – the kitchen/parlour’.[5] Piper conceptualises the café as a place of theatre. I agree, although it is more specifically a place of sideshow and carnival that subverts conventional gender performance for the protagonists Cousin Lymon and Miss Amelia. Feminised from the instant of his arrival because of a sudden tearful outburst, the hunchback also wears feminine clothing consisting of ‘tight-fitting breeches’, ‘black stockings’ and a ‘shawl of lime-green wool’ (McCullers, p.24). Lymon ought to be read in the vein literature’s conceited and fallen females, such as Hetty Sorrel in George Elliot’s Adam Bede (1859) (indeed, McCuller’s and Elliot’s use of interjecting narrators is another similarity between the two texts).[6] Like Hetty, Lymon is spoiled, ‘for when he was cross Miss Amelia would prowl about and find him some present’ (McCullers, p. 46). He is seemingly also aware of his (feminine charms) after being taken in by his protector Miss Amelia, ‘[t]he hunchback came down slowly with the proudness of one who owns every plank of the floor beneath his feet’ (McCullers, p. 24). Certainly, he uses he feminised, although grotesque enticements to attempt to charm the devilish Marvin Macy, fluttering his ears rather than his eyelashes.

During the Café’s existence, Miss Amelia also engages in a performance of gender by attempting to feminise herself: swapping overalls and swamp boots for a red dress. However, her hairy thigh signals her failure to embody perfect femininity. Significantly, her entrepreneurial spirit also slackens. Before Lymon’s arrival and the café, we learn that ‘the only use that Miss Amelia had for other people was to make money out of them’ (Ballad, p.9). However, as the café expands and Miss Amelia attempts feminisation, she becomes distanced, if not, ‘excluded (like other women) from any direct relation with capital’.[7] Miss Amelia, because of her love for Cousin Lymon, shares her property with him, thus demonstrating a feminine removal from capital gain/profit.

He alone had access to her bankbook and the key to the cabinet of curios. He took money from the cash register, while handfuls of it, and appreciated the loud jingle of it in his pockets. He owned almost everything on the premises, for when he was cross Miss Amelia would prowl about and find him some present – so that now there was hardly anything close at hand to give him. (Ballad, p. 46)

Amelia’s withdrawal from capitalist profit extends to the café itself, enhancing the sense of community as, we are told, that ‘to come to the café you did not have to buy the dinner, or a portion of liquor’ (Ballad, p.66). Indeed, the prices are extremely low, suggesting a co-operative like endeavour, where drinks cost as little as ‘a penny a glass’ (Ballad, p.66). By the end of the novella, the townspeople are willing to help Miss Amelia after the destruction of the café.

The people would have helped her if they had known how, as people in this town will as often as not be kindly if they have the chance. Several housewives nosed around with brooms and offered to clean up the wreck. (Ballad, p.82)

The rub is that while the café establishes an accepting community, one where strict gender conventions are disregarded; a community that is no longer suspicious of Miss Amelia’s androgyny, her hairy legs in a red dress, the betrayal of Cousin Lymon forcefully ends the café/carnival: prices rise to ‘one dollar. What sort of café is that?’ (Ballad, p.82).

The following blog post explores instances of gender flux in more detail, specifically in relation to the hyper-masculinity and criminality of Marvin Macy, the novella’s patriarchal and internal grotesque. The final post in this series will be available next Friday (19th May, 2017) from 12:00.


[1] Bakhtin, Mikhail M. Rabelais and His World, trans. by Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984) p.2-4

[2] Jones, Timothy, The Gothic and Carnivalesque in American Culture (Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 2015) p.32

[3] Bogdan, Robert, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988) p.25

[4] Graver, Lawrence, Pamphlets on American Writers: Carson McCullers, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1970) p.26

[5] Piper, Francis, ‘Spatial Parody, Theatricalization and Constructions of ‘Self’ in Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt and Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Café’ in Women in Transit Through Literary Liminal Spaces, eds. Teresa Gómez and Terry Gifford (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) p.153

[6] George Elliot, Adam Bede, (London, Penguin Group, 2008)

[7] Fortunati, Leopoldina, The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital, (London: Autonomedia, 1995) p.28





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