The dictionary defines a ballad as “any light, simple song, especially one of sentimental or romantic character, having two or more stanzas all sung to the same melody.” While there is no singing in this novella and the story is anything but simple, I find the title fitting. It is easy to imagine this being turned into a song. The writing is lyrical, full of imagery and astute observations. The story of a twisted love triangle is sad and left me feeling a bit melancholic.
The three characters in the love triangle are Miss Amelia, a masculine woman who knows good liquor and remedies for all ailments except “female complaints”; Marvin Macy, her husband of less than a week who left and ended up in prison; and Cousin Lymon, a manipulative dwarf with the talent to offend and entertain at the same time. Marvin Macy loves Miss Amelia, Miss Amelia loves Cousin Lymon, and Cousins Lymon loves Marvin Macy. While each is passionate in his/her way, not one shows much compassion. Each character is flawed and weird, yet also completely human.
McCullers does a brilliant job conjuring up the somewhat downtrodden inhabitants of a sleepy Southern town where neighbors watch each other because they have nothing better to do. The tension slowly builds as people unhurriedly wait for the conflict between the three main characters to come to a head.
“There were times when Miss Amelia seemed to go into a sort of trance. And the cause of these trances was usually known and understood. For Miss Amelia was a fine doctor, and did not grind up swamp roots and other untried ingredients and give them to the first patient who came along; whenever she invented a new medicine she always tried it out first on herself. […] Often, when there was a sudden keen gripe, she would stand quite still, her queer eyes staring down at the ground and her fists clenched; she was trying to decide which organ was being worked upon, and what misery the new medicine might be most likely to cure. And now, as she watched the hunchback and Marvin Macy, her face wore this same expression, tense with reckoning some inward pain, although she had taken no new medicine that day. […] Marvin Macy folded the knife he had been honing, and after looking about him fearlessly he swaggered out of the yard. The embers in the pit were turning to gray feathery ashes and it was now quite dark.”
At first glance, it might seem odd to explore a theoretically beautiful feeling like love and have it depicted by slightly grotesque characters. But in McCuller’s story, love itself becomes grotesque. The reader is reminded of all the twisted forms that love can take on. The story ends with the ultimate betrayal, and love remains unrequited.
Reading The Story of the Sad Café has put me in the mood for more Southern Gothic literature. I’m glad I have Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood on my TBR Pile challenge.