The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers
Tweens seem to rule the world these days. They can turn musicians into overnight sensations and average teenagers into international icons. They have a 24/7 lineup of TV shows that celebrate young people’s talent, popularity, and worldliness while bumbling adults revolve around them. They wield smartphones and navigate the ’net with a technological savvy that puts us older folks to shame. Basically, American tweens hold a whole lot of power.
But that doesn’t make the tween experience any easier. Anyone will tell you—12 is quite possibly the hardest age of life, caught as one is between the pleasures of childhood and the responsibilities of being an adult. A tween is too big for the kids’ table yet too immature to dine with the adults. A tween is between.
Carson McCullers capitalizes on that tween angst in her 1946 novel, The Member of the Wedding. Though our world has undergone a sea change since the ’40s, the emotional landscape of being a tween has not. McCullers takes us inside the skull of 12-year-old Frankie Addams, where the feelings we find—isolation, boredom, awkwardness, pain, fear—are all too familiar.
Like so many her age, Frankie is prone to exaggeration when it comes to what she feels. She distorts her appearance: “This summer she was grown so tall that she was almost a big freak, and her shoulders were narrow, her legs too long.” Her boredom mushrooms into erratic behavior and violent thoughts: “She would do anything that suddenly occurred to her—but whatever she did was always wrong, and not at all what she had wanted. Then, having done these wrong and silly things, she would stand, sickened and empty, in the kitchen door and say: ‘I just wish I could tear down this whole town.'” And her confusion turns into self-loathing: “This was the summer when 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.”
For all their dramatic overstatement, Frankie’s feelings are no less real. As she reminds us, navigating the treacherous territory of the preteen experience can be painful, bewildering, and downright frightening at times. And it can be, more than anything, lonely. Loneliness is at the heart of McCullers’s thoughtful novel and her sensitive tween heroine. Frankie feels left out of pretty much everything in life: “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.”
It doesn’t help that the world around her is in a between state of being. The late August season means summer has come to an end, before fall has really taken hold. Being out of school also leaves Frankie feeling unmoored. And the everpresent shadow of World War II hangs over them all, having divided nations and fractured families and communities whose men have gone overseas to fight.
But Frankie’s sense of exclusion comes primarily from her tween condition. Her age puts her between childhood and adulthood, too old to continue carefree play with her 6-year-old cousin, John Henry, but too young to be invited to join the neighborhood club of teenage girls. Her father has recently said she has to move out of his bed at night, yet she still longs to sleep by his side. Searching for somewhere to belong, she changes her name to F. Jasmine, then Frances, and she wanders her small southern town, exploring areas previously forbidden and unknown: the jail, The Blue Moon bar, the black community of Sugartown.
Amid all this uncertainty, Frankie’s brother, Jarvis, brings a glimmer of hope when he comes home to get married. Frankie immediately latches on to the alluring couple. “‘They were the two prettiest people I ever saw. . . . I bet they have a good time every minute of the day,'” she dreams. Jarvis and Janice’s wedding gives Frankie purpose and, with it, hope for a new future: “For when the old question came to her—the who she was and what she would be in the world, and why she was standing there that minute—when the old question came to her, she did not feel hurt and unanswered. At last she knew just who she was and understood where she was going. She loved her brother and the bride and she was a member of the wedding. The three of them would go into the world and they would always be together.”
It doesn’t require a lot of insight to guess that Frankie’s dream of living happily ever after with them gets dashed. In fact, it’s such a foregone conclusion that McCullers spends very little ink on it. The majority of the novel concentrates instead on the fantasies that Frankie spins in the day or two leading up to the wedding. This is too brief a period for Frankie to reach any true understanding or develop a sense of self, though somehow we know that will come. Most 12-year-olds do emerge from that painful transitional period, with some sort of identity intact.
In the end, the tiny window we get into this particular preteen’s world proves both reassuring and unsettling at the same time, because, while things in part resolve, they also remain the same. World War II will end, though new wars rage on around the globe. Civil rights will mend the black-white split of this southern town, while racism remains a strong undercurrent in our country. And McCullers’s Frankie Addams will grow out of her difficult tween stage of life, yet other kids like her still suffer through it every single day.