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Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers (1917-1967) was a playwright, novelist, and short story writer from Georgia. Her novels belong to a genre called Southern Gothic and explore themes such as isolation, the necessity of love, and traditional Southern values. She is most famous for her novels The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), and The Member of the Wedding (1946), as well as her play, The Square Root of Wonderful (1958).

A Biography of Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers (born Lula Carson Smith) was born in Columbus, Georgia, on February 19, 1917. She began writing at the age of 15 while attending Columbus High School. In 1934, McCullers moved to New York City. She was planning to attend The Julliard School of Music to study piano but lost her money. Instead, she worked many jobs, such as waitressing. After a return to Columbus, Georgia, to heal from rheumatic fever, McCullers decided to enroll at Columbia University and New York University to study creative writing. She published her short story, an autobiographically inspired piece titled "Wunderkind" (1936), in Story Magazine.

Carson McCullers, Georgia Pecan Trees, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Carson McCullers was born in Columbus, Georgia.

McCullers got married in 1937 and moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. While her husband worked, she focused on her writing. In 1938, Maxim Lieber was signed on as McCullers's literary agent, and by 1940, she published her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. McCullers's next piece, Reflections in a Golden Eye (previously Army Post, 1941), was published in Harper's Bazaar Magazine.

McCullers left her husband and returned to New York in 1940, where McCullers kept writing. She belonged to an art commune called February House, where she wrote alongside Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden. In 1946, she published her famous novel, The Member of the Wedding, which was adapted for Broadway in 1950. By this point, she was living in Paris as World War 2 had ended and had remarried her husband. Her husband died of suicide in 1953, which inspired her to write The Square Root of Wonderful (1957).

McCullers also struggled mentally and nearly committed suicide alongside her husband, after which she sought therapy. McCullers remained in Nyack, New York, for the rest of her life. She died of a brain hemorrhage on September 29, 1967. Throughout her life, McCullers had written four novels, a novella, seven short stories, a play, a poetry collection, and began writing an autobiography called Illumination and Night Glare (1999).

Novels by Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers was primarily known as a novelist and wrote a total of four novels. She is most well known for her novels The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), and The Member of the Wedding (1946). Let's take a closer look at each novel.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is set in a mill town in Georgia. The story focuses on John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulos, who were both deaf. After Antonapoulos is sent to an asylum, Singer moves to a boarding house. There Singer meets Mick Kelly, the daughter of the people who own the boarding house; Biff Brannon, who owns the diner Singer eats at every day; Jake Blount, an alcoholic who visits the diner; and Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, a physician. The novel centers on the narrative point of view of each of Singer's new acquaintances. The novel contains themes of isolation, religion, and the concept of the hero.

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941)

Reflections in a Golden Eye is set on a Georgia army Base and follows the complex relationship between Private Ellgee Williams and Leonora Penderton, the Captain's wife. The Captain and Leonora are in an unhappy marriage as the Captain is secretly gay, and Leonora is having an affair with her neighbor, Morris. One day, Williams accidentally sees Leonora naked and becomes obsessed with her, just as the Captain sees Williams naked by accident and becomes attracted to him. As they each navigate these complex relationships, tragedy strikes them one by one. The novel contains themes such as obsession, the nature of relationships, the perverse, and repression.

The Member of the Wedding (1946)

The Member of the Wedding follows the story of Frankie Addams, a 12-year-old girl described as a tomboy. Addams feels isolated in her small town; her closest friends are her maid, Berenice Sadie Brown, and her young cousin, John Henry West. Frankie's brother has just gotten married and is planning to take his new wife on a honeymoon to Alaska. Frankie frequently obsesses over the wedding and dreams of escaping her town and going with her brother on his honeymoon.

Carson McCullers, Wedding Sunset, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Frankie obsesses over her brother's wedding in The Member of the Wedding.

After being disappointed at the wedding, the story shifts to detailing the next three months for Frankie, now going by the name Frances, as well as the fates of Berenice and John Henry. The novel contains themes such as race, isolation, the loss of innocence, and the passage of time.

Plays by Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers is known for her three-act play, The Square Root of Wonderful (1958). The play is set on a small apple farm in New York and provides a glimpse into the Lovejoy family. Phillip Lovejoy, a writer, has just left a sanatorium after an attempted suicide and comes to find his ex-wife, Mollie, who is in love with John Tucker. Tucker is living in the house as well as the wife and mom of Phillip, who are visiting. Through them, the audience learns about Mollie and Phillip. The play also investigates the relationship between Phillip and his son, Paris. The Square Root of Wonderful contains themes such as life and death, loneliness and isolation, and the nature of familial relationships.

Writing Style of Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers's unique writing style set her apart from the contemporary writers around her. Her writing was greatly influenced by writers such as Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. McCullers belonged to a genre known as Southern Gothic.

Carson McCullers, Barn Georgia, StudySmarterFig. 3 - McCuller's novels are often set in the Deep South.

Southern Gothic is a genre of literature that originated in the late 19th century and became increasingly popular by the mid-20th century. Southern Gothic novels are set in the American South and focus on a fantastical or macabre event that questions Southern values. It usually employs the use of irony, humor, and twisted Realism. Most Southern Gothic novels focus on questioning slavery, racism, violence, and traditional Southern family values. Famous Southern Gothic writers also include William Faulkner, Harper Lee, and Flannery O. Connor.

McCullers's stories focus on individuals who feel isolated in their situation and must find a way to overcome that isolation, typically through love. Frequently, these isolated individuals live outside the traditional norms of the American South and must find their truth. An example can be found in the character of Frankie from A Member of the Wedding.

McCullers's writing style is characteristic for its directness, which at times can come off as childish and lyrical, realistic details, and distorted, exaggerated, or humorous looks into humanity.

Then suddenly he felt a quickening in him. His heart turned and he leaned his back against the counter for support. For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love," (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Part three).

This quote provides a great example of McCullers's writing style. She uses direct, lyrical, and simple language to describe the character's emotional state with phrases such as his heart "quickening" and "he leaned back against the counter." She also uses descriptive words such as "swift radiance of illumination" to lyrically bring the passage to life, evoking a sense of realism. Finally, McCullers explores the one thing necessary for all humans, which is love, in an exaggerated manner.

Quotes by Carson McCullers

Below are a few quotes from some of Carson McCullers's most famous works.

He sees America as a crazy house… He sees a whole damn army of unemployed and billions of dollars and thousands of miles of land wasted… He sees how when people suffer just so much they get mean and ugly and something dies in them. But the main thing he sees is that the whole system of the world is built on a lie," (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Part 2).

In this quote from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, McCullers, through the character of Jake Blount, questions traditional American values and even expands on the unfortunate consequences of Capitalism. Jake believes it is crazy that in the United States, the army is significant, but the soldiers are underpaid. Similarly, the land is valued highly but is wasted. According to Jake, the foundations of the American system don't do anything to support those who live in it, and he believes the answer is to protest. Here, McCullers investigates the accepted truth in America and points out how it is all a lie.

On the ground half-buried in the leaves there was a little flower, dazzling white and beautifully wrought. A thorny pine cone, the flight of a bird in the blue windy sky, a fiery shaft of sunshine in the green gloom - these the Captain saw as though for the first time in his life," (Reflections in a Golden Eye, Chapter 3).

This quote exemplifies McCullers's ability to describe a scene realistically, directly, and lyrically. She uses lyrical descriptions such as "dazzling white" and "fiery shaft of sunshine" to enhance the beauty of the natural scene while also describing in realistic detail the events happening around the captain, such as the flight of birds. It is an ironic moment where despite being in pain, the Captain can notice the beauty of the world around him.

Her father went back behind the gray sour velvet curtain that divided the store into two parts, the larger public part in front and behind a small dusty private part," (The Member of the Wedding, Part two).

In this scene, Frankie visits Mr. Addams in his jewelry store, where she learns about the death of her Uncle Charles. The quote is a metaphor for the boundary people draw between their private and their public lives. It is also symbolic of Frankie's character growth in which she enters the store as a child named Frankie but exits the store as an adult named Frances. The reality of life and death and Frankie's experiences shape her and force her to shed her innocence-- an important theme in the novel.

Carson McCullers - Key takeaways

  • Carson McCullers is a playwright, novelist, and short story writer from Georgia who spent the majority of her life writing in New York.
  • She is known for her novels, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), and The Member of the Wedding (1946), as well as her play, The Square Root of Wonderful (1958).
  • McCullers belongs to a genre of literature known as Southern Gothic.
  • Her writing style is characteristic for its directness, which at times can come off as childish and lyrical, realistic details, and distorted, exaggerated, or humorous looks into humanity.
  • Her novels focus on themes such as isolation, life and death, love, and the questioning of traditional Southern values.

Frequently Asked Questions about Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers is important for her novels which question Southern traditions and explore humanity. 

Carson McCullers was 50 years old when she died. 

Carson McCullers was born in Columbus, Georgia. 

Carson McCullers was a playwright, novelist, and short story writer from Georgia.

Yes, Carson McCullers was married to Reeves McCullers. 

Final Carson McCullers Quiz

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When was Carson McCullers born?

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1917

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Where was Carson McCullers born?

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Columbus, Georgia

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Why did McCullers initially move to New York City?

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to attend Julliard School of Music to study piano

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What is the name of the first literary piece McCullers published?

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"Wunderkind" (1936)

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What is the title of McCuller's first novel?

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940).

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Which of McCullers's novels was adapted into a Broadway play in 1950?

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The Member of the Wedding (1946)

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What inspired McCullers to write her play The Square Root of Wonderful (1957)?

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The Square Root of Wonderful (1957) was inspired by the suicide of McCullers's husband. 

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Where is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter set?

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 a mill town in Georgia

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What themes are present in Reflections in a Golden Eye?

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obsession, the nature of relationships, the perverse, and repression

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What genre did McCullers belong to?

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Southern Gothic

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What is Southern Gothic?

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Southern Gothic (late 19th-Mid 20th century) is a genre of literature that is usually set in the American South and focus on a fantastical or macabre event that questions Southern values. 

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What writers inspired Carson McCullers?

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Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and Fyodor Dostoevsky

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What are key characteristics of McCullers's writing style?

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directness, which at times can come off as childish and lyrical, realistic details, and distorted, exaggerated, or humorous looks into humanity

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What conflict does Frankie find herself obsessing over? 

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WWII

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Who is Frankie's brother? 

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Jarvis 

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In an attempt to appear more mature, Frankie adopts which persona? 

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F. Jasmine 

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Which character acts as a maternal figure for Frankie?

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Berenice 

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Frankie fantasizes about a solider's life because it represents _________. 

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Freedom

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Frankie welcomes her oncoming adolescence. 

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False 

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The Member of the Wedding is an example of the ________________ genre. 

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Coming-of-age 

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Why does Frankie visit Big Mama? 

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To have her fortune told 

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At the end of the novel, where is Jarvis stationed? 

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Luxembourg 

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The Member of the Wedding is an example of the _____________ tradition. 

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Southern Gothic 

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter takes place in __________. 

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Georgia 

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John Singer works as a ___________. 

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Silver engraver 

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Who is the owner of the New York Cafe? 

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Biff Brannon 

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Both Jake Blount and Dr. Copeland are staunch believers of which political philosopher? 

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Karl Marx 

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Mick Kelly dreams of becoming a _______ when she grows up. 

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Concert Pianist 

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Dr. Copeland is diagnosed with which disease? 

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Tuberculosis 

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Which character serves as a welcoming listener to the rest of the outcasts? 

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John Singer 

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Each of the characters suffers from a sense of ________. 

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Loneliness  

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The novel's title is taken from a ________ by William Sharp. 

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Poem 

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Mick finds herself inspired by the work of which composer?

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Beethoven 

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