PATHOS WITH A CHUCKLE: THE TRAGICOMIC VISION
IN THE NOVELS OF CARSON MCCULLERS

Charlene Kerne Clark

The fiction of Carson McCullers has variously been described as gothic, grotesque, and bizarre. Many critics prefer to dwell on her ostensible preoccupation with morbidity and in so doing overlook her immense capacity for humor. But the fact is that humor plays as vital a role in Mrs. McCullers’ work as it does in the fiction of Twain and Faulkner. Moreover, its recognition is essential to a proper understanding and appreciation of her fiction and to the mixed vision of reality that colors it.

Although the gothic elements frequently cited in her fiction are considered vestiges of her Southern literary heritage, it is equally true that the particular type of humor which emerges from a reading of her works similarly evolves from peculiarly Southern conditions. Within her fiction she is able to reconcile successfully horror with humor, so that what is repeatedly asserted is the writer’s tragicomic vision of life. Interestingly enough, Mrs. McCullers was acutely aware that this mixed vision of reality pervades Southern writing. In a discerning essay entitled "The Russian Realists and Southern Literature," she finds affinities between Russian and Southern writing, both of which manifest this tragicomic view, and attempts to account for this outlook as inherent within these two remarkably similar cultures.’

She deplores the labeling of Southern writing of Faulkner’s and later her own generation as gothic in the sense that it is supernatural or escapist literature generally removed from everyday reality. Instead she dwells on the realism of Southern writing and finds it more indebted to 19th century Russian realism than to the gothic tale. As prime movers in the Russian school, she cites Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, two of her personal favorites whose influence on her own work is apparent in many ways, most notably in the tragicomic vision she shares with them. She notes that both Russian and Southern literature had their earliest origins in similar social and economic conditions, a controlling aristocracy and an oppressed peasant or slave class. In each case the dominant attitude which emerged as a result of this cultural phenomenon was, in her words, "the cheapness of human life."2

According to Mrs. McCullers, the cruelty and suffering which pervade Southern writing are the results of this attitude. She is quick to point out, however, that it is not so much the use of these themes that proves so provocative and shocking to readers as it is the method of presentation which Russian and Southern writers share in common, a technique that essentially reflects their approach to life itself: "The technique briefly is

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this: a bold and outwardly callous juxtaposition of the tragic with the humorous, the immense with the trivial, the sacred with the bawdy, the whole soul of a man with a materialistic detail."3

To demonstrate the technique, she cites a comparison between Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in which the awesomeness and horror of death is juxtaposed to mundane, selfish concerns: "In both there is a fusion of anguish and farce that acts on the reader with an almost physical force. Marveladov’s violent death, Katerina Ivanovna’s agitation about the supper, the details of the food served, the clerk ‘who had not a word to say for himself and smelt abominably’—on the surface the whole situation would seem to be a hopeless emotional rag-bag. In the face of agony and starvation the reader suddenly finds himself laughing at the absurdities between Katerina Ivanovna and the landlady, or smiling at the antics of the little Pole."4

Similarly, in As I Lay Dying, the funeral journey of the Bundrens takes on absurdist proportions as it is marked by a series of unmitigated domestic disasters—the loss of their mule, one son’s injured leg, the other son’s madness, the daughter’s seduction, all accompanied by the stench of the decomposing body. Yet despite these calamities Anse manages to remain single-mindedly preoccupied with the anticipated purchase of his new false teeth, the daughter with the cake she plans to sell, and the injured son with the carpenter’s tools he fears will be lost en route.

In citing these two parallel treatments of death interspersed with comic relief, Mrs. McCullers acknowledges that the writer’s use of such a technique is often regarded as peculiar or even tasteless: "Farce and tragedy have always been used as foils for each other. But it is rare, except in the works of the Russians and the Southerners, that they are superimposed one upon the other so that their effects are experienced simultaneously. It is this emotional composite that has brought about the accusations of ‘cruelty.’"5

Such criticism of this particular use of humor is not only unfortunate, but a trifle unrealistic. A comic treatment of death is not necessarily irreverent and may in fact be humane, for death itself need not be all gloom and morbidity, although our culture has conditioned us to think and respond in these terms. Perhaps a more realistic attitude is the conviction that death has its light and frivolous moments, an attitude readily apparent in the fiction of other contemporary Southern women.

Katherine Anne Porter’s treatment of death in "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" and more recently Eudora Welty’s treatment in The Optimist’s Daughter are not only humane and compassionate but amusing as well.

Not surprisingly the attitude expressed by Mrs. McCullers in her essay is consistent with the tragicomic vision which surfaces in her novels. She

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presents us with two of the most effective examples of this comic aspect of death in Clock without Hands, a novel which in many ways adheres more closely to the prototype of the Southern novel than any of her other works. As the novel opens, J. T. Malone, the town druggist, learns that he is dying from leukemia. Seeking to enlist the sympathy and moral support of his friend Judge Fox Clane, a Southern aristocrat verging on senility, he solemnly informs him that he is dying of a rare blood disease to which the Judge replies in utter disbelief, "‘A blood disease! Why, that’s ridiculous—you have some of the best blood in this state. I well remember your father who had his wholesale pharmacy on the corner of Twelfth and Mulberry in Macon. And your mother I remember, too—she was a Wheelwright. You have the best blood in this state in your veins, J. T., and never forget that.’"6 Oddly enough, the Judge’s outrageous diatribe on Malone’s superior bloodlines, rather than dismaying the dying man, fills him with pride and offers him the briefest respite.

In this type of "juxtaposition of the immense with the trivial," particularly in the face of impending death, Mrs. McCullers reaches her forte. A similar situation occurs at the conclusion of the novel when Jester, the Judge’s grandson, warns Sherman Pew, the orphaned mulatto "amanuensis" of the Judge, that his life is endangered as a consequence of his brazen move into a white neighborhood. Confronted with death, Sherman, like Faulkner’s Bundren family, exhibits a greater concern for the material than the spiritual. Even at the cost of his life, he refuses to forsake his newly acquired possessions—his "bought-on-time baby grand piano, bought-on-time genuine antique sofa and two chairs," the "bedroom suit, with the pink sheets and boudoir pillows," and the "four brand new Hart, Schaffner & Marx suits."7

Although Clock without Hands in its treatment of death presents us with these two superb examples of the technique described by Mrs. McCullers in her essay, it is by no means the only novel in which the tragicomic vision of the author is manifested. There are countless examples of scenes and situations throughout her work in which violence is mitigated by humor. The Ballad of the Sad Café, despite its forlorn theme of unrequited love, is strongly infused with backwoods folk humor superimposed on violence. The murderous wrath of Miss Amelia against her prodigal husband, Marvin Macy, is undercut by humorous blunderings as she bungles several attempts to murder him, the most humiliating of which occurs when she accidentally receives the poisoned plate of food intended for him. Humorous brutality sets the tone for much of the ensuing action. Miss Amelia’s reputation as an expert pugilist has made her a legendary figure in the backwoods and swamps, and the popular story goes that she

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once pulverized a shyster lawyer who dared to cheat her in business dealings.

The culminating action of the novella is the scene in which she and Macy slug it out over the loyalty and affection of Cousin Lymon, the grotesque little hunchback. Despite the tragic implications of Miss Amelia’s defeat, the fight is in many respects a ridiculously comic affair described in as much deadly earnest and trivial detail as a Howard Cosell sports report (at one point, we are told, one of the spectators, his mouth open in amazement, swallows a fly). The classic example of this combination of violence and humor is pointed out by Leslie Fiedler in that sordid spectacle in Huckleberry Finn where Pap lies dead on an abandoned raft in a cabin scrawled with obscenities, and Fiedler notes that such a fusion of horror with humor is the hallmark of American fiction.8

Like Twain, Mrs. McCullers has a flare for creating memorable dramatic scenes designed to horrify and amuse readers simultaneously. One of the ways in which she accomplishes this is through the injection of child characters into roles and situations normally reserved for adults. The result is the diminution of the tragic effect by the heightening of the comic effect. Such a situation occurs in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in the near-tragic shooting of Baby Wilson, the talented toddler, by Bubber Kelly, a grade-school boy smitten by her infant charm and beauty—in effect, a parody of the impassioned lover who tries to do away with the indifferent beloved. The tragedy is undercut by the proliferation of petty details and material concerns. As Baby lies sprawled and bloody on the sidewalk, she clutches in her fist her candy box prize, an apt reminder of her material aspirations for stardom. Her mother’s overriding concerns are for adequate and just compensation for the cost of the toddler’s ruined soiree costume and her new permanent wave, and she is quick to express her outrage over the irreparable damage done to Baby’s promising career as a second Shirley Temple. A special touch of comic horror is added to the scene by Mick Kelly’s admonition to her brother Bubber that in the state prison there are little electric chairs perfect for "frying" small-fry criminals like himself.

This children’s dramatization of impassioned love illustrates the writer’s heavy reliance on humorous parody in character creation and in the depiction of relationships between characters with the result that individual characters and character relationships are at once laughable and pathetic, comic and bizarre. The classic example of such a relationship occurs in The Ballad of the Sad Café in the uncommon romance that develops between the manly giantess Miss Amelia and the effeminate little hunchback Cousin Lymon. What we are presented with is a ludicrous parody of courtly love where the roles of male lover and female beloved

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have been scrambled and in which all the social amenities are scrupulously observed. In her desperate but comic effort to woo Lymon, Miss Amelia feeds and clothes him in grand style, plies him with gifts, and caters to his every whim. But all is not laughter in this romantic affair, for in the end Lymon deserts his benefactor-lover, and Miss Amelia, in despairing resignation over her rejection in love, becomes a recluse.

This tragicomic depiction of the human pair is a distinctive mark of McCullers’ fiction, and we note its conspicuous appearance in her very first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, in the friendship between the two mutes, John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulos. Like the Lymon-Amelia romance in The Ballad of the Sad Café, this peculiar intense relationship culminates in tragedy when the unexpected death of Antonapoulos prompts the bereaved Singer to suicide. The relationship of the two mutes is an interesting variation of the male pair that dominates American fiction and film, and it assumes the popular form of the "straight" man with his comic sidekick. In appearance and personality, Singer and Antonapoulos resemble Laurel and Hardy. Antonapoulos is an enormous roly-poly figure given to mischievous antics and public temper tantrums, and he is passionately fond of food and cartoons. In contrast with his beloved fat friend, Singer is a mere slip of a man, Spartan and reserved, and extremely anxious to avoid the kind of public commotion Antonapoulos is so fond of creating.

Still another interesting variation of the human pair that assumes comic proportions is found in Reflections in a Golden Eye in the relationship between Alison Langdon and her Filipino houseboy, Anacleto, a modern representation of the American archetypal pair of the mistress and the devoted but foolish dark servant. Anacleto is a vain little buffoon, monkeyish in appearance and manner, whose loyalty to his mistress borders on absurdity and is the subject of cocktail party jokes and gossip, which allege that he perfumes Alison’s urine samples before sending them to the lab.

Lymon, Antonapoulos, and Anacleto are comic figures whose outlandish appearances and behavior delight as well as shock us. We cannot fail to be amused at the notion of Mr. Antonapoulos arrayed like a king holding court in the ward of the state asylum and jealously guarding his cartoon projector from his fellow patients, or Cousin Lymon prancing around Miss Amelia’s cafe in his bright green shawl and knee breeches telling tall tales and setting neighbors and relatives at odds with one another, or Anacleto slavishly imitating the ballet as he performs his household chores. Yet underneath this gay and frivolous exterior, there is the insistent threat of tragedy revolving around love and death—the unrequited love of Miss Amelia for Cousin Lymon and the untimely deaths

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of Antonapoulos and Alison which radically alter the lives of Singer and Anacleto.

Thus the presentation of Mrs. McCullers’ grotesque pairs of "lovers" is calculated to evoke horror and amusement, and it comes as no surprise that humor of this sort is often overlooked or else dismissed as perverse and unnatural by critics. Nevertheless, this mixed humor is decidedly more realistic since life itself is filled with incongruities, being neither all laughter nor all tears. As Mrs. McCullers argues in her essay, such a mixed vision of life is inherent within Southern culture itself; consequently, the Southern literary imagination seizes upon the juxtaposition of the idyllic aspect of life with the barbaric—the sentimental attachment for the black mammy with the inhumanity of racism itself. Witness the case of Judge Clane in Clock without Hands who foolishly dotes on his servants Verily and Sherman Pew one minute and is instrumental in planning Sherman’s murder in the next.

Although Mrs. McCullers’s Southern heritage ostensibly explains the tragicomic vision which emerges in her fiction, it does so only in the abstract sense of accounting for it in all Southern writers as a homogeneous group whose writing is shaped by a common experience. But in the case of Carson McCullers this mixed vision is also highly individualized, the result of coping with personal adversity and tragedy most of her adult life. Her stormy marriage to Reeves McCullers and his subsequent suicide, the successive number of debilitating strokes which sapped the author of her emotional, physical, and even financial resources—all of these undoubtedly contributed to the formulation of an attitude or philosophy which enabled her to accept the most painful experiences with dignity and courage. In short, the tragicomic vision of which we have been speaking enabled her in her personal life, as well as in her writing, to discern a saving humor in the grimmest situations.

GUILFORD TECHNICAL INSTITUTE

NOTES

    1The Mortgaged Heart (New York: Bantam Books, 1972), pp. 285–293. "The Russian Realists and Southern Literature" first appeared in Decision in 1941. The following discussion of affinities between Russian and Southern writing is based upon this essay, and only direct quotations will be footnoted.
    2lbid., p. 285.
   3lbid., p. 286.
   4Ibid.
   5lbid., pp. 286–287.
   6Clock without Hands (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), p. 13.
   7lbid., pp. 202–203.
   8Love and Death in the American Novel, rev. ed. (New York: Dell Publishing, 1966), pp. 26-27.

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