Monday, May 26, 2008

Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding

This is Ann's and my book club book for May: The Member of the Wedding by southern (sort of) author Carson McCullers. A couple of thoughts on the subject . . .

The Member of the Wedding was originally a play, and it takes place mostly in the hot August kitchen of twelve-year-old Frankie Addams. Because it began as a play, the stream-of-consciousness style is verbalized in lackadaisical conversations between Frankie, her nerdy/angelic younger cousin, John Henry, and her black cook/housekeeper Berenice. It is first and foremost a coming-of-age tale, set in a very quiet southern town amid surrounding chaos - the upheavals of the Second World War and, more immediately, the marriage of Frankie's older brother, a soldier who has been away from home for some time.

Frankie's thoughts and ideas epitomize adolescent angst. She feels trapped inside her house, her town, her identity as a twelve-year-old named Frankie Addams, yet escaping this narrow existence is terrifying. Also, her best friend has moved away, and the older girls at school exclude her from their club. She no longer wants to enjoy John Henry's childish games, yet she is too young to partake in the adult rituals of marriage, and the wonderful and exotic grown-up life she imagines her brother and his fiancee will have. Most readers can remember these thoughts and feelings, and the more creative set probably wrote them down in long journal entries (is this what the kids are blogging about now?). [A topic for another post; read the first comment to this piece, it encapsulates my view.]

As I read, I thought about coming-of-age novels, and how most of these stories narrated by children are written for adults. Children are outsiders who are inside, social critics who are forgiven for their antagonistic attitudes, liminal figures in their social worlds and liminal in the sense that they approach the threshold of adulthood. The rites of passage associated with coming of age are archetypal, of course; but I also think angsty teenagers are also permitted to express existential thoughts that would be irritating in the mouths of adult characters whom we expect to have "moved on" from such egoism. So, for writers who want to explore questions of conscience and consciousness, who want to interrogate the set of beliefs and acceptable practices of our rational world, the adolescent is the perfect narrator. We have Frankie Addams in this story, we have Holden Caulfield, Scout Finch, Kipling's Kim, Dickens's Pip, and many more - who am I missing? Are Victorians using children differently than modernists or contemporary authors (who use children to capture a certain preciousness, I think)? What is your favorite coming-of-age story?

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