Five Novels by Carson McCullers: Classic Southern Gothic Fiction

Carson McCullers complete novels

Presented here is an overview of five novels by Carson McCullers (1917 – 1967), representing her body of long form fiction. Though known primarily for these books, she also wrote two plays, a number of short stories, children’s poetry, and other works.

Carson McCullers has earned a place among classic southern writers, along with William FaulknerFlannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams. Following each brief overview of these major works is a link to more in-depth reviews or analyses.

Most of McCullers’ work is set in the American South, centering on characters who struggle with loneliness and isolation. Her writing is associated with the genre known as Southern Gothic, defined by the Oxford Research Encyclopedia:

“Characteristics of Southern Gothic include the presence of irrational, horrific, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses; grotesque characters; dark humor, and an overall angst-ridden sense of alienation.”

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

Carson McCullers the Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Carson McCullers was just twenty-three when The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, her first novel, was published in 1940, but her insights into human nature demonstrated wisdom beyond her years. The book was acclaimed as the work of a prodigy by critics and fellow writers.

Through its characters, the story delves into their struggle to build bridges between their separate islands of loneliness. The central characters all, in some odd way or another, seek answers to their confused desires from Singer, a deaf mute. He appears to them a man of mystical understanding.

Some of the unforgettable characters include Mick, an adolescent girl who longs to express herself in music; Jake Blount, a wild, blundering reformer; and Dr. Copeland, the African-American patriarch. Their appeal to Singer is the appeal of all humanity to a silent, cryptic universe. (— from the 1940 edition, Houghton Mifflin Co.).

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Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941)

reflections in a golden eye novel 1941

Reflections in a Golden Eye  suffered a common fate of sophomore efforts that follow hugely successful first novels. When The Heart is a Lonely Hunter came out just the year before (1940), it established McCullers as a literary wunderkind.

Many reviewers objected to the intertwined plots of obsession, dark secrets, and repressed sexuality — both gay and straight — of the novel. It was, in fact, one of the few breakthrough novels that included gay themes in the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps, though, in the hands of such a young author, these themes were simply not well executed.

The convergence of obsessive desires and clandestine affairs leads to a murder at the climax of the novel. Despite the negative reception of Reflections in a Golden Eye, it was adapted to film in 1967 with an all-star cast that included Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, and Brian Keith. Like the novel, to which it was quite faithful, it got mixed reviews.

More about Reflections in a Golden Eye

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The Member of the Wedding (1946)

The member of the wedding by Carson McCullers

The Member of the Wedding (1946), Carson McCullers’ third novel (more accurately, a novella), followed the incredibly successful The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and the far less successful Reflections in a Golden Eye. The Member of the Wedding re-established McCullers, still in her twenties, as a literary force. 

The story centers on a lonely twelve-year-old girl, Frankie Addams, who prefers to be known as F. Jasmine. Her mother has died, and her father, a jeweler, treats her with benign neglect. The story takes place during a hot summer in a small Georgia town, finding Frankie consumed with worry that she doesn’t belong anywhere or with anyone.

Her dull existence is shaken up when her older brother Jarvis, an army veteran, announces that he is to be married. The slim novel is a portrait of the interior workings of F. Jasmine’s adolescent mind as she fixates on the wedding and contends with the insular small town that she inhabits.

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The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories (1951)

Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

When The Ballad of the Sad Café was first published in 1951, the original book included, in addition to the title novella, Carson’s other major works of fiction. In later editions, the title novella is presented with six short stories, as follows:

  • “The Ballad of the Sad Café”
  • “Wunderkind”
  • “The Jockey”
  • “Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland”
  • “The Sojourner”, “A Domestic Dilemma”
  • “A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud”

The title story, written in the genre of Southern Gothic, concerns Miss Amelia, a masculine and eccentric woman (who is also a moonshiner), her purported cousin Lymon (a hunchback), and Marvin Macy, a recently released convict two whom Miss Amelia was briefly married.

In an isolated small town in rural Georgia in the 1930s, a stranger named Lymon approaches Miss Amelia, claiming to be her cousin. Uncharacteristically, she takes him into her home, setting rumors swirling. Once Macy returns, all hell breaks loose and the story culminates in a twist that even for its bizarre plot might be surprising.

More about The Ballad of the Sad Café

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Clock Without Hands (1961)

Clock without hands - McCullers

Clock Without Hands was McCullers’ final novel. It received mostly favorable reviews, but by the time of its publication, her greatest successes were behind her. A mixed view of the novel, noting nearly a decade gap between this and her previous published work, had this to say:

Clock Without Hands reads like a plan for a novel or a flattened first draft, not the perfected expression of a writer who possesses moral concern and aesthetic awareness.

But, I suppose, we should remember that Hemingway wrote Across the River and Into the Trees and Faulkner wrote A Fable. If Clock Without Hands leads Carson McCullers beyond the present, it will serve a worthy purpose.”

Like in other McCullers novels and stories, this one contains queer themes, which may be one reason that reviewers in the 1960s weren’t always on board with her work. There are several plot lines in Clock Without Hands, each focusing on a major character:

J.T. Malone, proprietor of an old-fashioned drugstore in a small town is informed that he is fatally ill with leukemia. The heavy-drinking Judge Clane, who has a fantastic scheme to get himself re-elected to Congress after a long absence, while also making a fortune. Judge Clane’s grandson, Jester, and the mixed-race Sherman Pew, whom the judge engages as his secretary.

Learn more about Clock without Hands.

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More about Carson McCullers and her work

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