The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers is a story of
love illustrated through the romantic longings and attractions of
the three eccentric characters; Miss Amelia, Cousin Lymon, and
Marvin Macy. McCullers depicts love as a force, often strong
enough to change people's attitudes and behaviors. Yet, the author
seems to say, if the love is unrequited, individuals, having lost
their motivation to change, will revert back to their true selves.
The allure of the different characters, which is never revealed by
the author, seems to indicate that feelings of love and attraction
are not necessarily reasonable or understandable to others.
Miss Amelia is self-reliant, outspoken and very much a loner.
She stands six foot one inch tall and has a strong, masculine
build. Her grey eyes are crossed, and the rest of her features are
equally unattractive. Yet, the people of the small, southern town
of Cheehaw accept her quirkiness because of the equisite wine that
she sells in her store and for her free doctoring and homemade
remedies. Still, everyone is shocked when the handsome outlaw,
Marvin Macy, falls in love with her.
Marvin is a "bold, fearless, and cruel" man who changes his
unlawful ways to win Miss Amelia's love. Rather than robbing
houses he begins attending church services on Sunday mornings. In
an effort to court Miss Amelia, he learns proper etiquette, such as
"rising and giving his chair to a lady, and abstaining from
swearing and fighting". Two years after Marvin's reformation, he
asks Miss Amelia to marry him. Miss Amelia does not love him but
agrees to the marriage in order to satisfy her great-aunt. Once
married, Miss Amelia is very aloof towards her husband and refuses
to engage in marital relations with him. After ten days, Miss
Amelia ends the marriage because she finds that she is unable to
generate any positive feelings for Marvin. Several months after
the divorce, Marvin reverts back to his initial corrupt ways and is
"sent to a state penitentiary for robbing filling stations and
holding up A & P stores".
Just as love had changed Marvin, so too did it change Miss
Amelia. In the mid 1930's, several years after Miss Amelia's
divorce, Lymon, a hunchback, comes to Miss Amelia claiming to be a
distant cousin. She readily provides Cousin Lymon with food and
board, and eventually any material object that he desires. The
people of the town grow very curious of her new guest and of Miss
Amelia's hospitality towards Lymon which is contrary to her
characteristic untrusting and remote ways. The townspeople gather
in her store one evening to meet Cousin Lymon. Unlike Miss Amelia,
Cousin Lymon is very sociable and enjoys entertaining the townsfolk
with his patently tall tales. In a short period of time, Miss
Amelia's store is converted into a cafe where people gather for
food, drink, and gossip. They would discuss Miss Amelia's love for
Cousin Lymon, indicating that they thought love between cousins is
forbidden and incestuous.
Her changed behavior, in Lymon's presence, preoccupied and
baffled them. Ever since Cousin Lymon's appearance, Miss Amelia
would regularly wear a red dress that had been worn exclusively on
Sundays. They also noted that, before he arrived, she would only
leave her house to go to church or to pick up supplies for her
store. While, when Cousin Lymon moves in, realizing that he loves
to travel, she would often drive with him into the city and go to
see "movie-flicks" with him.
Before the story ends, Marvin Macy is released from prison and
returns to Cheehaw. Cousin Lymon, unaware of Miss Amelia's short-
lived marriage to the criminal is fascinated by Marvin's
adventurous life. He leaves Miss Amelia, never having returned her
love, to travel with Marvin. Broken-hearted, Miss Amelia returns
to her original reclusive style of living.
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe enjoyably and precisely portrays
the irrational nature of love in the ill-fated love triangle of
Miss Amelia, Cousin Lymon, and Marvin Macy. None of the three
characters are portrayed as particularly appealing people, yet they
were loved. People love for very different reasons, " A most
mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild,
extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lillies of the swamp."
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
Story by: Carson McCullers
Copyright date: 1951
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