Frankie Addams: Coming of Age in Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding
By Francis Booth | On | Comments (0)
Like Mick Kelly of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and her author, Carson McCullers, Frankie Addams is a tall, gangling tomboy. This in-depth look at the complicated young heroine of The Member of the Wedding (the 1946 novel) is excerpted from Girls in Bloom by Francis Booth.
“ … She was almost a big freak, and her shoulders were narrow, the legs too long … Her hair had been cut like a boy’s, but it had not been cut for a long time and was now not even parted.”
At the age of ‘twelve and five-sixths’ Frankie is five feet five and three-quarter inches tall and wears size seven shoes.
“In the past year she had grown four inches, or at least that was what she judged. Already the hateful little summer children hollered to her: ‘Is it cold up there?’ Frankie calculates that ‘unless she could somehow stop herself, she would grow to be over nine feet tall.”
Unlike Mick, however, Frankie doesn’t feel part of any community or family. She has no mother – again, there is an absence of a mother figure – a distant father who is always at work and a much older brother who is away in the army (the highly successful play that McCullers made from the novel specifies the setting as August 1945, at the end of the Second World War).
“It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.”
Frankie is not a member of the club of thirteen and fourteen-year-old girls at school who have “parties with boys on Saturday night. Frankie knew all of the club members, and until this summer she had been like a younger member of the crowd, but now they had this club and she was not a member. They said she was too young and mean.”
The sympathetic Berenice
The only people with whom Frankie has close contact are Berenice Sadie Brown, who has been ‘the cook since Frankie could remember,’ and Frankie’s six-year-old cousin John Henry; much of the novel and the play, which both take place in a very short timescale, are spent with the three of them around the kitchen table.
Like Portia in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Berenice is a very sympathetically-drawn Black female character from a time when white authors largely avoid African-Americans; she was played to great acclaim in the first production of the stage version of The Member of the Wedding, which opened on December 22, 1949 in Philadelphia, by local actress and jazz/blues singer Ethel Waters, who ten years earlier had been the first African-American to star in her own television show.
Frankie was played by a very young-looking, twenty-three-year-old Julie Harris, whose hair was cropped to make her look younger and more tomboyish; the day before the opening night the director asked to cut it even shorter and to do it herself, as Frankie had done. Harris went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for playing the same role in the 1952 film of the play, in which Ethel Waters also starred.
McCullers was concerned about racial balance in her work, and Berenice Sadie Brown may be based partly on the maid, Lucille, her family had when she was young. In her autobiography, McCullers tells the story of how Lucille, when ‘she was only fourteen and a marvelous cook, had called a cab to go home.’
When the taxi driver arrived, he shouted, ‘I’m not driving no damn …’ [the rest can be imagined] “People, kind, sweet people who had nursed us so tenderly, humiliated because of their color… We were exposed so much to the sight of humiliation and brutality, not physical brutality, but the brutal humiliation of human dignity which is even worse. Lucille comes back to me over and over; gay, charming Lucille.”
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Sick and tired of being Frankie
The wedding of which Frankie wants to be a member is happening in a few days in Winter Hill and Frankie cannot wait to go – unlike Mick, who is firmly anchored in her community, Frankie cannot wait to go anywhere away from where she is.
“I wish tomorrow was Sunday instead of Friday. I wish I had already left town.”
“Sunday will come,’ said Berenice.
“I doubt it,’ said Frankie. ‘I’ve been ready to leave this town so long. I wish I didn’t have to come back here after the wedding. I wish I was going somewhere for good. I wish I had hundred dollars and could just light out and never see this town again.”
“It seems to me you wish for a lot of things,” said Berenice.
“I wish I was somebody else except me.”
This was the summer that “Frankie was sick and tired of being Frankie. She hated herself, and had become a loafer and a big no-good who hung around the summer kitchen: dirty and greedy and mean and sad.”
Frankie has become aware of the outside world, not like “a round school globe,” but as ‘huge and cracked and loose and turning a thousand miles an hour.’ She is aware of the war, of Patton “chasing the Germans across France,” though it is “happening so fast that sometimes she did not understand.”
Frankie wants to join something, anything — but she cannot join the war. She wants to donate blood to the Red Cross so that the army doctors would say that “the blood of Frankie Addams was the reddest and strongest blood that they had ever known,” but the Red Cross say she is too young. Frankie feels “left out of everything … She was afraid because in the war they would not include her, and because the world seemed somehow separate from herself.”
All these things made her “suddenly wonder who she was, and what she was going to be in the world;” who is this “great big long-legged twelve-year-old blunderbuss who still wants to sleep with her old Papa.” But she is now too old to sleep with her father and sleeps alone in her room, a member of nothing. Her best friend has moved away to Florida and “Frankie did not play with anybody any more.”
It was also this summer that Frankie had become a criminal, at least in her own mind. She had taken her father’s gun from the drawer and gone out shooting with it on a vacant lot. She had also stolen a knife from the Sears and Roebuck store, but one sin had been worse than any of them.
One Saturday afternoon in May she committed a secret and unknown sin. In the MacKeans’ garage, with Barney MacKean, they committed a queer sin, and how bad it was she did not know. The sin made a shriveling sickness in her stomach, and she dreaded the eyes of everyone. She hated Barney and wanted to kill him. Sometimes alone in the bed at night she planned to shoot him with the pistol or throw a knife between his eyes.
Like Mick Kelly, after she has committed what we assume is the same sin, Frankie is afraid that people will see the difference in her, afraid of “the eyes of everyone.” After a while though this unspecified sin “became far from her and was remembered only in her dreams.”
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The Member of the Wedding was adapted to film in 1952 and 1997
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The much-anticipated wedding
The imminent wedding makes Frankie even more aware of her separateness. Her brother and his bride are hundred miles away: “They were them and in Winter Hill, together, while she was her and in the same old town all by herself.”
This is when Frankie has the revelation: she can be a member of something, a member of the wedding. McCullers comes up with one of the greatest sentences in coming-of-age literature:
“They are the we of me. Yesterday, and all the twelve years of her life, she had only been Frankie. She was an I person who had to walk around and do things by herself. All the other people had a we to claim, all other except her. When Berenice said we, she meant Honey and Big Mama, her lodge, or her church. The we of her father was the store. All members of clubs have a we to be-long to and talk about.
The soldiers in the army can say we, and even the criminals on chain-gangs. But the old Frankie had no we to claim, unless it could be the terrible summer we of her and John Henry and Berenice – and that was the last we in the world she wanted. Now all this was suddenly over with and changed. There was her brother and the bride, and it was as though when first she saw them something she had known inside of her: They are the we of me.”
For a moment Frankie believes she has come of age: “It was just at that moment that Frankie understood. She knew who she was and how she was going into the world.” But of course Frankie does not understand. She cannot be a member of the wedding, she cannot be the third person in a couple.
“I’m going off with the two of them to whatever place that they will ever go. I’m going with them … It’s like I’ve known it all my life, that I belong to be with them. I love the two of them so much.” Noting that her brother’s name is Jarvis and his fiancée is Janice she has already decided to change her name to F. Jasmine Addams.
“Jarvis and Janice and Jasmine. See?” she says to Berenice, but Berenice does not understand. Berenice asks what she will do if the couple don’t accept her. “If they don’t, I will kill myself,” she says, with “the pistol that Papa keeps under his handkerchief along with Mother’s picture.”
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Literary Tomboys in Coming of Age Novels
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Being the delusional F. Jasmine
F. Jasmine does not even discuss any of this with her brother, whom she has not seen for two years – we never see him at all: neither he nor his fiancée appear first-hand in the novel. But still she walks around the town “as a sudden member … entitled as a Queen … It was the day when, from the beginning, the world seemed no longer separate from herself and when all at once she felt included.”
Frankie is now so bold that she goes to a hotel room with a soldier – McCullers does not make explicit the fact that her brother is also a soldier and perhaps her desire to be a “member” of her brother and his new wife extends, if only subliminally, to the physical. Frankie has never met the soldier before and does not even find out his name. He seems not to realize how young she is and assumes she is a prostitute. Having got herself into a difficult situation, she does not know how to get out of it.
“F. Jasmine did not want to go upstairs, but she did not know how to refuse. It was like going into a fair booth, or fair ride, that once having entered you cannot leave until the exhibition or the ride is finished. Now it was the same with the soldier, this date. She could not leave until it ended. The soldier was waiting at the foot of the stairs and, unable to refuse, she followed after him.”
Once upstairs, neither of them seems at first to know what to do next.
“Already F. Jasmine had started for the door, for she could no longer stand the silence. But as she passed the soldier, grasped her skirt and limpened by fright, she was pulled down beside him on the bed. The next minute happened, but it was too crazy to be realized. She felt his arms around her and smelled his sweaty shirt. He was not rough, but it was crazier than if he had been rough – and in a second she was paralyzed by horror.
She could not push away, but she bit down with all her might upon what must have been the crazy soldier’s tongue – so that he screamed out and she was free. Then he was coming towards her with an amazed pained face, and her hand reached the glass pitcher and brought it down upon his head … He lay there still, with the amazed expression on his freckled face that was now pale, and a froth of blood showed on his mouth. But his head was not broken, or even cracked, and whether he was dead or not she did not know.”
Fortunately for F. Jasmine the soldier is not dead. She goes to the wedding as she had planned but nothing else goes according to plan. She cannot explain to them about the we of me and can only say: “Take me! And they pleaded and begged with her, but she was already in the car. At the last she clung to the steering wheel until her father and somebody else had hauled and dragged her from the car.” The wedding party drives off without her and she is left “in the dust of the empty road,” still calling out: “Take me! Take me!”
In the third part of the narration she is now called Frances; she had started as the tomboy Frankie, then briefly became the delusional F. Jasmine, but Frances seems to be her coming of age name, her woman’s name. Berenice talks to her kindly.
Frances could not stand the kind tone. “I never meant to go with them!” she said. “It was all just a joke. They said they were going to invite me to visit when they get settled, but I wouldn’t go. Not for a million dollars.”
The sense of separateness continues
But though her delusion has been shattered and she has come of age, Frances still returns the next day to the feeling of separateness. “There had been a time, only yesterday, when she felt that every person she saw was somehow connected with herself,” but now she sees the world again as something separate from her.
Having left her father a note saying she is leaving, Frances ends up back in the sleazy hotel where she had been with the soldier, but now a policeman is there; it turns out that her father has asked the police to try to find her. The Law, as she thinks of him, asks her what he is doing there.
“What am I doing in here?” she repeated. For all at once she had forgotten, and she told the truth when she said finally, “I don’t know.”
The voice of the Law seemed to come from a distance like a question asked through a long corridor. “Where were you heading for?”
The world was now so far away that Frances could no longer think of it. She did not see the earth as in the old days, cracked and loose and turning a thousand miles an hour; the earth was enormous and still and flat. Between herself and all the places there was a space like an enormous canyon she could not hope to bridge or cross.
The novel ends quite suddenly with a flash forward: we are told that she has met a new friend, Mary Littlejohn, and that John Henry has died of meningitis. “She remembered John Henry more as he used to be, and it was seldom now that she felt his presence – solemn, suffering, and ghost-grey.” At the very end her father has had a letter from her brother, who is now stationed in Luxembourg.
“Luxembourg. Don’t you think that’s a lovely name?”
Berenice roused herself. “Well, Baby – it brings to my mind soapy water. But it’s a kind of pretty name.”
“There is a basement in the new house. And a laundry room.” She added, after a minute, “We will most likely pass through Luxembourg when we go around the world together.”
Frances turned back to the window. It was almost five o’clock and the geranium glow had faded from the sky. The last pale colors were crushed and cold on the horizon. Dark, when it came, would come on quickly, as it does in wintertime. “I am simply mad about—”
But the sentence was left unfinished for the hush was shattered when, with an instant shock of happiness, she heard the ringing of the bell.
More literary tomboys to explore in Girls in Bloom
- Charlie Laborde (Charlie by Kate Chopin, 1900)
- Peggy Vaughan (A Terrible Tomboy by Angela Brazil, 1904)
- Irene Ashleigh (A Modern Tomboy: A Story for Girls by LT Meade, 1913)
- Petrova Fossil (Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, 1932)
- George Fayne (The Secret of Red Gate Farm by ‘Caroline Keene’, 1931)
- George Kirrin (Five On a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton, 1942)
- Mick Kelly (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, 1940)
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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth century culture:
Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938
Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.
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More about The Member of the Wedding
- Reader discussion on Goodreads
- 1952 film of The Member of the Wedding
- All-American Loneliness and a Universe of Yearning
- 1997 made for television film
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