- North to the Future:Captivity and Escape in The Member of the Wedding
The youthful desire to escape has played a central role in American literature with novels such as The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn depicting flights from the constraints of civilized society. While the captivity tropes in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding have often been discussed in connection with the protagonist’s gender identity, there has been less focus on the importance of the dream of escape. Additionally, critics such as Harilaos Stecopoulos and Noah Mass have tended to downplay the specificity of Frankie Addams’s experience of female adolescence and the novel’s themes of gender and sexuality. In this article, I examine the dual motifs of captivity and escape in The Member of the Wedding and the way in which they are linked to the protagonist’s search for belonging and the development of her gender identity. I suggest that Frankie Addams is a character torn between the categories of “criminal” and “traveler” and that the desire to escape is what drives her forward. My argument is that viewing Frankie as a traveler, albeit one who does not actually go anywhere, will offer a new reading of one of the classic American narratives of female adolescence. [End Page 81]
The overwhelming mood for much of The Member of the Wedding is one of stifling confinement. This is in part due to the novel’s style and structure. Within the novel’s tripartite structure, each section represents a new stage in the protagonist’s development. These developments are marked not only by dramatic changes in the protagonist’s view of the world and sense of self but also by the changes in her name. In Part I, our protagonist is known by her informal nickname, Frankie. In Part II, she reinvents herself as F. Jasmine. In Part III, she reverts to her given name, Frances. These constant reinventions are particularly remarkable given the brief span of the novel: the novel covers just a few days in the life of its protagonist. Furthermore, these momentous changes are combined with a distinct lack of external events; Elizabeth Freeman suggests that the novel works “not through plot but through a series of linked performances: fantasies, soliloquies, hallucinations, recounted tales” (119). For much of the novel, Frankie simply lingers in the kitchen or on the streets of her hometown. In this way, McCullers accurately depicts the stillness and boredom of small town life and the feeling of claustrophobia that a young person with a tumultuous inner life might experience in such a setting. A number of words, such as “green,” crazy,” and “sudden,” are constantly repeated throughout the narrative. As well as mimicking the limited vocabulary of its young protagonist, this gives the narrative a feeling of being confined. The combination of the novel’s compact form and repetitious language juxtaposes a sense of urgency with a feeling of stagnation.
The Member of the Wedding is saturated with images of confinement. We are told that Frankie is haunted by the thought of the town jail. The jail troubles her because she identifies with the prisoners: “their eyes, like the long eyes of the Freaks at the fair, had called to her as though to say: We know you” (146). It is interesting to note that the inmates are repeatedly described as “criminals,” rather than “prisoners” or “convicts.” This word choice assigns blame and emphasizes the act of committing a crime. The fact that Frankie identifies with these criminals points to her own feelings of guilt and shame. In her own mind, she is not an innocent captive yet is being punished for a crime. We know that Frankie has shoplifted during the summer, but this seems an unconvincing explanation. Instead, one suspects that Frankie’s real crime is her nonconformity, particularly her gender nonconformity. While her tomboy gender presentation has been acceptable during childhood, adolescence seems to have brought with it the pressure of feminization. This is perhaps because, as [End Page 82] Ellen Matlok-Ziemann suggests, Frankie “is keenly aware of the fact that for a female to be...