A Strength and Weakness
Very early in the book Biff Brannon announces to his wife, “I like freaks.” Her response is “I reckon you ought to, Mister Brannon-being as you’re one yourself.” What Biff has in mind is the affinity he has for the struggling underdog, or, as the book puts it later, “a special feeling for sick people and cripples.” Although Brannon himself is physically healthy, his connection to the physically deformed is an indication of the weakness that he sees within himself, a weakness that shows itself in his inability to connect to his wife when she is alive and is even more pronounced in his withdrawal from society after her death. The other main characters display signs of social weakness that range from the obvious to the sublime. Mick Kelly, the only female in the group, is a young girl, wielding no real authority but burdened with responsibility for her younger brothers. She tries to enhance her stature by acting tough, using a boy’s name and dressing boyishly and smoking, but her false strength is revealed by the fear she has of being found out after her first sexual encounter. In the end, it is her family’s financial vulnerability that dashes her dreams of pursuing a career in music. Jake Blount’s weakness is alcoholism, which keeps him from following through with any plans he makes, confusing his thinking and driving him to rage when he has a point to make. Beside the social disadvantage of being black in the South in the 1930’s, Dr. Copeland has to deal with the tuberculosis that is eating away his body. John Singer, though stable and respected about town, is shut off from humanity, both by his handicap and by his obsession with Antonapoulos. The novel uses these weaknesses to bring the characters together, both for practical reasons (Blount drinks at Brannon’s cafe, Singer boards at the Kelly house) and for commiseration with one another. The other four are drawn to Singer because his weakness is openly displayed, and they feel that he can understand them.
B Search for Self
To varying degrees, all of the main characters feel that they understand where they fit into society, but they all are actually missing something that would help them function in their world. This is a part of McCullers’s concept of the grotesque: each character has an outstanding aspect that makes them different from the norm, and yet they keep looking for acceptance. The most obvious case of this is Dr. Copeland, who is so isolated by his concept of his intellectualism that he cannot even fit in with his own family, although he cannot give up his intellectualism, either, because it is what makes his illness and society’s racism bearable. Similarly, Jake Blount is driven by intellect, except that his thoughts are often interrupted by flashes of anger. In anger, he once quit an organization that he himself had founded, unable to accept the behavior of the other members: “They had stole the fifty-seven dollars and thirty cents from the treasury to buy uniform caps and free Sunday suppers,” he tells Singer indignantly. Biff Brannon has an identity problem while his wife Alice is around, because she is a constant reminder of his impotence, but when she dies he is able to incorporate female personality traits in with his own, and he finds peace in that way. The most obvious case of one of the main characters searching for their identity is Mick, who, as an adolescent, has not yet found out who she really is: she throws a party for her new classmates in order to find her place, and explores sexuality with Harry Minowitz, and she gives in to what a career in music can tell her about herself, but ironically, after she has found a self that she is comfortable with, she is denied following the music career because of financial difficulty. Each of these characters goes to Singer because they think that he is like them: ironically, Singer does not identify with any of them, but with the Greek, Antonapoulos-but even though he is deaf Antonapoulos does not see much of himself in Singer. Some of the minor characters, too, bring out the theme of Search for Self, although they do not belong within the circle formed by the main characters. Mick’s Dad, for instance, shows this theme by trying to acclimate to a new job after being injured as a roofer, while Portia and Willie and Highboy create an unusual composite identity by spending most of their free time as a threesome.
C Race and Racism
This novel was praised by critics, both black and white, for the clear and honest way it dealt with the problems blacks were subjected to. The issue of race is approached slowly and carefully at first. The first black characters, Willie and Portia, are introduced in their menial positions as, respectively, fry cook and maid. To modern readers, their patterns of speech, their dialect, may seem offensive or comical. When Dr. Copeland is introduced, he seems to fit another stock type: that of the black intellectual who resents the social rewards that have not been available to blacks and resents his own people for accepting their second-class citizenship. It soon becomes apparent, however, that McCullers has created characters who are more rounded than stereotypes. Dr. Copeland’s high-minded nobility is impressive, but Portia’s capacity for love for her brother and for her grandfather when he comes to visit makes the doctor’s studies of Marx and Spinoza seem small and unimpressive. The tragedy of what happens to Willie, losing both of his feet while jailed for defending himself in a fight, shocks his family, but it is not presented as being anything so unusual that the authorities would take action about it. When Dr. Copeland goes to speak with a judge of the Superior Court that he knows, he is stalled by a deputy sheriff, then verbally abused, then assaulted and arrested. When he resists arrest he is beaten mercilessly and tossed in jail. Upon his release he is admonished by his daughter, who explains to him, impatiently, “Father, don’t you know that ain’t no way to help our Willie? Messing around at the white folks’ courthouse? Best thing we can do is keep our mouths shut and wait.” On a personal level, there is mixing of races in this novel-Portia is treated like a wise older sister in the Kelly household, and Singer is waiting with Copeland’s family when he is released from jail. On a larger level, though, relations between the races break down, as shown by the riot at the carnival or in the way that Dr. Copeland and Jake Blount, trying to form an organization to fight oppression, can only hold their alliance for a few minutes before they start arguing, and as soon as they start arguing racial insults are spoken.