On the surface, the plot of The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers seems fairly simple. It takes place over a period of three days in 1944 Georgia. Frankie, a gangly twelve-year old girl, is excited about her brother’s upcoming wedding and has convinced herself she will join her brother and his new bride on their honeymoon. We follow Frankie’s footsteps before, during, and after the wedding. The beauty of this novel does not lie in its plot. It lies in McCullers considerable skill in capturing the mind of a twelve-year-old suffering from pre-teen anxieties.
Frankie’s mother died giving birth to her. Her lonely, widowed father neglects and marginalizes her. The only adult guidance, comfort, and companionship she receives comes from Berenice, the African American maid. Like many young people teetering on the brink of adulthood, Frankie struggles with her identity and with feelings of alienation; loneliness; self-doubt; low self-esteem and, at times, self-hate. She yearns for acceptance and love. Left to her own devices, she roams the streets of the small southern town, unsupervised. Her occasional companion is her six-year old cousin, John Henry West.
One strength of this novel lies in McCullers skill in slowly and expertly drawing us into the mind of this angst-ridden, confused, sensitive, imaginative, and intelligent young girl as she desperately tries to find her place in the world. We sympathize with her as she struggles to articulate her thoughts and express feelings of being adrift and disconnected from those around her. We want to wrap our arms around her when her pleas for attention are misunderstood or ignored. We are anxious for her safety as she wonders into a bar and agrees to rendezvous with a sailor later that night, oblivious to any potential danger such a “date” might pose.
Another great strength of this novel is McCullers ability to capture the dialog of Frankie, Berenice, and John Henry as they sit around the kitchen table. Much of the novel focuses on their kitchen conversations. The dialog is uniquely suited to each character—Frankie’s unbridled flights of fancy and struggles to make herself understood; John Henry’s childish interruptions; and Berenice’s insights on racism and marriage as she tries to shepherd the young girl into womanhood while humoring her outlandish ideas. The diction, nuances of speech, dialect, and subtleties of expression, as well as what is said and what is left unsaid, powerfully depict each character as a unique and believable individual. Their interaction is realistic, creating a sense of cocoon-like intimacy. And although not articulated by any of the characters, their strong bond based on feelings of mutual love and community is evident.
McCullers has created a gem of a novel with beautiful language and flawless characterization. Her sensitive depiction of the confused emotions of a young girl as she experiences tumultuous transitions in her life is nothing short of impeccable.