The Tragicomic Vision in the Novels of Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers
Carson McCullers, ©Louise Dahl Wolfe. Vintage print

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."

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 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."

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."

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.’"

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 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.’" 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."

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

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