Analysis of passage from The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1951; rpt. 1971), pp.3-5
Carson McCullers short story “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe” is set in a town that is immediately established as remote, rural, and Southern: it is located near a cotton mill, there are peach trees all over the area, and there is only a single church. Even the buses are three miles away, which suggest the stranded and isolated nature of the residents. The main street is only two miles long, and there is “nothing whatsoever to do” during the long, hot summers. Even the nearest train stop (the significantly named Society City) is far away. The largest building looks lonely and is boarded up completely. This large building, half-painted and left unfinished becomes a kind of metaphor for the town, as well as the woman who ran the cafe that used to exist within its walls.
The decrepit state of the building foreshadows what will happen over the course of the rest of the story, given that it is said to have been owned by a woman who was once very rich. The cafe used to be the most exciting thing in this very unexciting town. “Miss Amelia inherited the building from her father, and it was a store that carried mostly feed, guano, and staples such as meal and snuff. Miss Amelia was rich. In addition to the store she operated a still three miles back in the swamp, and ran out the best liquor in the county.” This immediately causes the reader to wonder what happened to the building, to the cafe, and to Miss Amelias wealth.
Miss Amelia, obviously the figure who hides in the house and sometimes looks down at the street with her crossed eyes also emerges as a question, as she is said to be “a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles like a man. Her hair was cut short and brushed back from the forehead, and there was about her sunburned face a tense, haggard quality.
” She sounds strong, capable, and masculine. Another aspect of foreshadowing is the fact that mysteriously, Miss Amelia was married for ten days, but this marriage was event “unlike any other marriage ever contracted in this county.” What is it about this marriage that turned Miss Amelia into the “face” that “will look down on the town a face like the terrible dim faces known in dreams — sexless and white, with two gray crossed eyes which are turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief.” And what has made the building and the town so miserable?
The town itself now seems to be like a prison, a fact underlined by the symbolically significant comment that “these August afternoons — when your shift is finished, there is absolutely nothing to do; you might as well walk down to the Forks Falls Road and listen to the chain gang.” This suggests the universal symbol of a chain gang as well as further underlines the oppressive, Sothern atmosphere. Miss Amelia is now imprisoned by the boarded-up building, and it is said that her former husband was a “terrible character who returned to the town after a long-term in the penitentiary, caused ruin, and then went on his way again.” Something happened that caused Miss Amelias and the towns misery, turning the town from a social place to a place where listening to the songs of the chain gang is the only entertainment. Is what happened to the cafe the reason for the towns plight? The current state of blight stands in contrast to how the cafe used to be, full of gaiety and life: “there were tables with cloths and paper napkins, colored streamers from the electric fans, great gatherings on Saturday nights”.