Carson McCullers and Genre: Female Gothic, American Gothic and the Southern Gothic’s Grotesquerie

Posted by Rachel Carden on May 05, 2017 in Blog, Rachel Carden tagged with , , , , , ,

Poster for Simon Callow’s film adaptation of McCullers’ text.

Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951) portrays the destructive power of the patriarchal regime.[1] McCullers’ use of grotesquerie brings the marginalised, the androgynous, the deformed and the weird to the forefront of her novella. In doing so, she makes the abnormal normal and the importance of binary distinctions, such as masculine and feminine, gay and straight, breakdown, at least temporarily. We feel compassion for those traditionally omitted from society and power – particularly, the distinctly masculine Miss Amelia – and we mourn the loss of a fleetingly enjoyed inclusive and cohesive society. In these feelings of compassion and loss, we turn our attention to the cause of disharmony, the real grotesque that is patriarchy and its practitioners. We witness its arbitrary destruction of positive collectives that in The Ballad of the Sad Café benefitted not only the transgendered and homosexual, but the wider community also, the latter because of the text’s co-operative economy values. By evoking the freak-show, McCullers reveals that freak identity, like gender, is not an essence, but rather a performance. One that ‘restores agency to the actors in the sideshow, who participate […] in a dynamic fantasy that the division between freak and normal is obvious, visible, and quantifiable’.[2] McCuller’s construction of a small-town café as a place of carnival, as we shall see, endows the marginalised with power and worth, benefitting a deprived town.

The novella takes place in a forgotten American town. There is little to do there except work, go to church and drink outside Miss Amelia’s farm shop. Community is lacking until the effeminate hunchback Lymon Willis arrives and claims to be a relation of the formidable and manly Miss Amelia, who the townspeople dislike. Cousin Lymon spurs change in the town, when Miss Amelia takes him in to mother and possibly love romantically. The hunchback’s fondness for company transforms Amelia’s farm-store into a café. Goodwill and inclusiveness ensue in spite of the characters’ deformities and transgressions of gender and sexuality. However, the return of Miss Amelia’s hyper-masculine and criminal ex-husband Marvin Macy signals the end of the café and community. Macy enchants Cousin Lymon, who doggedly seeks his company and ultimately betrays Miss Amelia to assist him during their physical fight. Macy and Lymon destroy Miss Amelia’s property and skip town, leaving her alone and the town’s people unable to help.

To appreciate McCullers’ text, it is necessary to acknowledge the genres and tropes most pertinent to the novella, namely the Female Gothic, American Gothic and the Southern Gothic’s use of the Grotesque.

The Female Gothic

Ellen Moers first coined the term ‘Female Gothic’ in her book Literary Women (1976).[3] Moers’ definition was simple: ‘the work women writers have done in the literary mode that, since the eighteenth century, we have called “the Gothic”’ (Moers, p.90). Moers work, as noted by Andrew Smith and Diana Wallace, highlighted the Female Gothic as an avenue for expressing ‘women’s fears of entrapment within the domestic sphere and within the female body, most terrifyingly experienced in childbirth’.[4] However, Smith and Wallace rightly contest Moers’ definition based on, among other reasons, ‘poststructuralism’s destabilising of the categories of gender’ (Smith and Wallace, p.1).[5] McCullers’ text however, fits with both perspectives. Written by a female, the novella contains protagonists whose physical sex does not correspond to their gender identity and portrays the central character Miss Amelia’s entrapment in a domestic space at the end of the text. The issue, however, is a question of its Gothic credentials: is it Gothic?

American Gothic and Southern Gothic

Eric Savoy comments on the rise of American Gothic fiction, warning us against simplification.[6] He argues that American Gothic is not just the transposing of European Gothic tropes to the New World, a swapping of the castle for the farmhouse. Nor should it be viewed as simply voicing the ‘underside of “the American Dream,” a transgression of the ‘Enlightenment and principles of liberty and “the pursuit of happiness”’ (Savoy, p.167). Rather, Savoy asserts, that we must appreciate the American Gothic for its innovation, its creation of ‘strange tropes, figures, and rhetorical techniques […] that express a profound anxiety about historical crimes and perverse human desires […]’ (Savoy in Hogle, p.168). The American Gothic genre thrived. The genres numerous output and the new tropes and techniques meant that sub-categorisation became possible. Use of the Grotesque emerged as a common theme amongst Southern writers like Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor.

The Grotesque

The critic Fred Botting writes that, ‘Southern [G]othic is barely gothic in any European sense’.[7] Certainly, The Ballad of the Sad Café does not feature any ghosts or ghouls like those present in Horace Walpole’s original Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764).[8] Nor does it contain any spectres with accompanying rational and earthly explanations, like the texts of Ann Radcliffe. Instead, characters feature physical deformities that reflect and combine with their “transgressions” of heteronormative gender and sexuality. Deformities and transgressions, which determine their fate as social outcasts. As Edwards and Graulund point out, in their book Grotesque (2013), ‘McCullers’ text […] participates in a Southern grotesque aesthetics associated with aberrance, abnormality and deviance’.[9] This is clear when we consider Miss Amelia’s crossed-eyes, hairy legs and manly strength through well-developed muscles and Cousin Lymon’s dwarfism, hunched-back and strange wiggling ears. A key factor to note about the Grotesque, whether in art or literature, is its ability to, as John Ruskin’s study Modern Painters (1856) highlights, ‘reveal that which is concealed’ through the artists or authors’ creativity (Edwards and Graulund, p.17).[10] Ultimately, the use of grotesque tropes serve to engender McCullers’ cultural critique of patriarchy, by ‘distort[ing] proportion and problemati[sing] vision, making objects idiosyncratic and liberating the field of vision through the freedom of the imagination’ (Edwards and Graulund, p.17).

Part two of this three-part blog series utilises the Bakhtinian theory of carnival to situate Miss Amelia’s café as a place of both community and freak show, a theatrical space of gender performance and bodily oddities, which, for a time at least, succeed in breaking free from isolation and thus challenge patriarchal conventions.



[1] McCullers, Carson, The Ballad of the Sad Café, (London: Penguin Group, 2001)

[2] Adams, Rachel, Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001) p.6

[3] Moers, Ellen, Literary Women. (London: Women’s Press, 1980) p.90

[4] Smith, Andrew, and Wallace, Diana, ‘The Female Gothic: Then and Now’, Gothic Studies, 6(1) (2004) pp. 1-7. (p.1)

[5] For critical work that interrogates and critiques fixed notions of gender see Michael Foucault, Simone De Beauvoir and Judith Butler, among others.

[6] Savoy, Eric, ‘The Rise of American Gothic’, in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, eds. Jerrold E. Hogle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) pp.167-188

[7] Botting, Fred, Gothic, 2nd edn., (Oxon: Routledge, 2014) p.157

[8] Horace, Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, ed. E. J Clergy (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998)

[9] Edwards, Justin D. and Graulund, Rune, Grotesque, (London: Routledge, 2013) p. 113

[10] Ruskin, John, Modern Painters. (Boston: Dana Estes and Company, 1955)


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