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The Member of the Wedding (1946) is a coming-of-age novel by American author Carson McCullers (1917-1967). Frankie Addams is an awkward adolescent, reluctant to grow up and let go of her childhood. When her brother announces he is getting married, Frankie believes this is her opportunity to start a new life and travel the world with the newlyweds. In The Member of the Wedding, McCullers analyzes themes of gender and identity.
The main characters of The Member of the Wedding are Frankie, her cousin John Henry and the family's cook, Berenice Brown.
|Frankie Addams||The novel's protagonist is an awkward and detached 12-year-old girl struggling to find her sense of identity and place in the world. Frankie yearns for a better life far from her small town but is highly naive and unprepared for adulthood. With the upcoming wedding of her older brother, Frankie believes that she will join the newlyweds and embark on a new life.|
|Berenice Brown||Berenice is the Addam household's cook and acts as Frankie's mother figure. Despite having married four times, Berenice still believes in love and shares her wisdom and life experience with Frankie and John Henry as they watch her work in the kitchen. Berenice's perspective as a Black woman represents the world's harsh reality and contrasts with Frankie's simplistic child-like views.|
|John Henry||While Frankie seems immature for her age, the six-year-old John Henry is wise beyond his years. As Frankie's younger cousin, John Henry spends a great deal of time in the Addams household and often stays at night, sleeping in bed with Frankie. While Frankie is stuck between childhood and adulthood, John Henry is firmly in childhood.|
Some scholars speculate that John Henry's character is based on McCullers close friend, Truman Capote (1924-1984).
The summary of the essential plot points and the novel The Member of the Wedding take place over three days leading up to the wedding of Frankie's brother, Jarvis.
Frankie Addams is a tall 12-year-old tomboy in the American South, struggling to find her identity. She doesn't fit in with any group in her hometown and frequently daydreams about joining the army to fit in WWII. Frankie's mother died in childbirth, and her father is distant, but she does have a close relationship with Berenice, the family's Black housekeeper. Profoundly naive and unaware of the world, Frankie spends most of her time in the kitchen with Berenice and her six-year-old cousin, John Henry.
When Frankie's brother, Jarvis, returns home to tell his family he is getting married to his girlfriend Janice Evans in two days. Frankie becomes obsessed with the idea that she will start a new life with Janice and Jarvis after their honeymoon. Finally feeling like she has found her place in the world, Frankie anxiously awaits the wedding. That night, she asks Berenice about marriage and admits she is frightened at the prospect of one day getting married. Having been frightened by the conversation, Frankie convinces Berenice to let John Henry sleep in her bed that night.
Does Frankie have a healthy relationship with John Henry? Why or why not?
Convinced that she is on the cusp of starting a new life, Frankie decides to visit the town for one last time. She decides that it is time to grow up and become more mature. On the afternoon before the wedding, she dresses up, puts on make-up and perfume, and starts referring to herself as "F. Jasmine." She loudly announces that she is leaving town and attracts the attention of a soldier who does not realize Frankie's age. The soldier invites her to a local bar, buys her a beer, and arranges a date for later that night.
McCullers completed the novel living off money from a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Over dinner, Frankie, John Henry, and Berenice talk about the reality of marriage. Berenice warns Frankie not to get carried away with her fantastic idea of joining Jarvis and Janice after the wedding. They discuss gender and the complex nature of adult relationships as Frankie struggles to understand Berenice's opinions.
On the way to her date with the soldier, Frankie visits Berenice's mother, Big Mama, a fortune-teller. Big Mama listens to Frankie's story and warns her that she must let go of her childish notions of starting a new life with Jarvis and Janice. She also predicts that Frankie will go on a journey after the wedding that will end with her returning home. Frankie meets the soldier and reluctantly agrees to go to his hotel room. Unaware of the soldier's real intentions, Frankie is shocked when he makes an advance. In a panic, she smashes a glass pitcher over his head and flees the room.
Why are Frankie's early attempts to appear mature so unsuccessful?
The family rises early on the morning of the wedding to catch a bus. Frankie, still in shock from the night before, cannot focus on the day's events. She bristles when the adults refer to her formally as "Frances" and yearns to start her new life. After the reception, she climbs into the honeymoon car but is discovered by her father. An argument ensues, and Frances attempts to run away from home. She wanders through the night, hoping Jarvis and Janice will be back to rescue her, but finally gives up hope and returns to the hotel to see if the soldier survived. The police find Frankie at the hotel and bring her home. She realizes she has fulfilled Big Mama's prophecy about the journey and the return home.
Over the next three months, Frankie's life undergoes a series of changes. After turning thirteen, she dresses in more feminine clothes and starts referring to herself as "Frances." After making friends with a neighborhood girl, Frances feels more confident and secure in herself. Meanwhile, her father announces that the family is moving to a new house, but Berenice says she has agreed to marry her boyfriend and will not be moving with them. John Henry tragically contracts meningitis and dies. When the family receives a letter from Jarvis, now stationed in Luxembourg, Frances does not yearn to join him. Instead, she reasons that she will visit him when she travels the world.
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was a huge fan of Carson McCullers. Her poem "Mirror" (1963) borrows the phrase "silver and exact" from The Member of the Wedding.
In The Member of the Wedding, McCullers uses Frankie's story to explore themes of identity and belonging.
Frankie struggles with many aspects of her identity throughout the novel. She feels uncomfortable in her body and embarrassed by her appearance. Since she is tall, awkward, and tomboyish, she finds herself ostracized by the other girls in the neighborhood and struggles to fit in her place in the world. This isolation leads to bouts of fantasy and escapism. Yet this childhood activity is shown to be increasingly dangerous as she grows and enters adulthood.
Escapism: the habit of avoiding unpleasant realities or responsibilities through imagination or entertainment.
She believes that creating a new identity in the form of F. Jasmine will be the start of a new life. This attempt to form an adult personality is inherently childish. Frankie willfully remains naive about the world's ways and is unprepared for adulthood. However, through her journey, Frankie learns that it can be dangerous to hold onto childish ways: this danger becomes clear when Frankie innocently agrees to come to the soldier's room, not understanding his true intentions. However, as Frankie accepts her maturity into adulthood, she becomes more empowered and starts to feel like she is a part of things.
When The Member of the Wedding was first published in 1946, many critics and scholars ignored the novel's underlying ideas about gender and sexuality.
Frankie is depicted as a tomboy; her clothes, hairstyle, and hobbies are typically masculine. She is set apart from the other girls in the neighborhood who ostracize Frankie because of her appearance and behavior. As news of WWII pours in, Frankie desperately wishes she was a male so she could enlist and fight. This desire to be a soldier is not motivated by patriotism or violent urges; Frankie sees a soldier's life as more liberated than a woman's. She dreams of traveling the world and living an extraordinary life, believing she can only achieve this as a man.
However, Frankie also displays traditionally feminine traits and desires. She often worries about being considered ugly, and although she fears marriage, she also fears remaining unmarried. In the essay "Loss of Self in The Member of the Wedding" (2014), Barbara A. White argues that Frankie is "a girl who does not want to relinquish the privileges of boys." According to White, Frankie knows that by giving up her tomboy traits, she is giving up her childhood and will be forced to become an adult.
Frankie wants to be treated as an adult but also resents having to grow up. McCullers uses Frankie and her story to highlight the social limitations of gender and the challenges women and young girls faced in American society of the 20th century.
A detailed analysis of the genre, style, and symbolism of Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding follows Frankie's struggle to transition from childhood to adult life. It is an example of the coming-of-age genre in the Southern Gothic Tradition.
Coming-of-age novel: also known as Bildungsroman, covers a character's emotional or spiritual during a formative period. Coming-of-age stories often focus on the difficult transition from childhood to adult life. Famous examples include To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee and Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street (1983).
In the novel, Frankie is on the cusp of adolescence, which is considered the entrance to adulthood. Although she fears maturing, Frankie makes furtive efforts to be viewed as an adult. She uses adult phrases and creates the F. Jasmine persona to appear mature, yet she remains unwilling to learn about sex. Frankie must go through a painful journey to shed her childhood and become an adult.
After her dreams of joining the newlyweds are crushed, Frankie runs away. Having gained independence, she realizes that she does not know where to go; worse still, she is stranded in the middle of the night and scared. Frankie learns that she must give up her childish fantasies of running away and begin to grow up. At the novel's end, she adopted her formal name, Frances, as a sign of maturity.
The Member of the Wedding is also an example of the Southern Gothic tradition. It takes place in a small Southern town with a main character who is a bit of an outcast. The lonely Frankie is a typical example of an isolated outsider character found in the Southern Gothic novel.
Southern Gothic tradition: a literary style originating from the American South. Southern Gothic works deal with themes of loneliness, isolation, violence, and poverty. Famous examples of the Southern Gothic tradition include As I Lay Dying (1930) by William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood (1952).
McCuller uses several symbols throughout the novel to represent Frankie's inner turmoil and journey into adulthood. At the beginning of the book, Frankie obsessively follows the daily news of the war. The conflict represents Frankie's struggle to find her identity. She spends hours visualizing battles and bloodshed as a manifestation of her inner struggles. Frankie is hesitant to leave childhood behind and scared to embrace the uncertainty of adulthood; this pain is embodied through her visualization of the conflict.
As a tall and awkward adolescent, Frankie's fears about her body make her think about the freak show she saw at the fair. Constantly worried that her height and appearance will draw unwanted attention and destroy her chances of getting married, Frankie feels isolated and gawked at by "normal" people. When the circus visits town at the novel's end, Frankie decides to forego a visit to the freak show, symbolizing she has grown out of her fears.
Here are a few meaningful quotes from The Member of the Wedding about Frankie's arduous journey from child to adult.
...she had known insider of her: They are the we of me."
(Part 1, Ch. 2)
Upon hearing that her brother Jarvis is set to marry, Frankie concludes that the newlywed couple will take her out of her frustrating life and bring her with them on a new life of adventure and travel. This fantasy fulfills Frankie's need to be a part of something and be accepted into a group.
It was better to be in a jail where you could bang the walls than in a jail you could not see."
(Part 3, Ch. 2)
When Frankie runs away from home after the wedding, she walks past the town jail and is envious of the prisoners. For most of the novel, Frankie daydreams about escaping her life and herself to become someone else. Although she tries to describe this feeling to others, no one seems to understand.
The Member of the Wedding is about a young girl's struggle to let go of her childhood and find a new sense of identity.
The Member of the Wedding follows Frankie, an awkward girl struggling to find her place in the world. When Frankie's brother announces his upcoming marriage, Frankie clings to a childish dream that she will join the newlywed couple on a new life of adventure and travel.
In The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers explores themes of identity and belonging, race, and gender.
At the novel's end, Frankie gives up her childish dreams of leaving town with the newlyweds. Months later, she has matured, adopting the formal version of his name, Frances, and has made a new friend.
The Member of the Wedding is set in a small, unnamed in the American South during WWII.
Who is Frankie's brother?
In an attempt to appear more mature, Frankie adopts which persona?
Which character acts as a maternal figure for Frankie?
Frankie fantasizes about a solider's life because it represents _________.
Frankie welcomes her oncoming adolescence.
The Member of the Wedding is an example of the ________________ genre.
Why does Frankie visit Big Mama?
To have her fortune told
At the end of the novel, where is Jarvis stationed?
The Member of the Wedding is an example of the _____________ tradition.
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