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Free Study Guide for The Member of the Wedding-McCullers

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Frankie Addams

The protagonist of the novel is a girl suffering through the last summer of her twelfth year. She has been cut off from the friendship of other girls. Her best friend has left town and the other girls she used to play with have grown up one year beyond hers and won’t let her be in their club. Her mother died when she was too young to remember her. Her mother figure is the housekeeper of her house.

She spends most of her time inside the kitchen with two others who with her make up a sort of constructed family. Berenice Sadie Brown acts as mother to the two children, attempting to teach them the values of life. She does what she can to provide love, comfort and discipline for Frankie, but Frankie is a handful. She acts out her frustrations with erratic behavior, deciding that doing something sudden like marching around the kitchen with a pan on her head is better than sitting with her uncomfortable feelings, throwing a knife across the kitchen to demonstrate her anger, stealing her father’s pistol and shooting it in a vacant lot in town. She always comes back to Berenice with what she encounters in the world outside the kitchen. When she has her encounter with the strange, red-haired soldier, she asks Berenice what she should think about him. She talks out all her ideas with Berenice, telling her about her newfound sense of connection with the people of the town. Sometimes Berenice understands where she’s coming from and sometimes Berenice thinks she’s out of control and in need of nothing more than a nice little white boy beau.

Frankie is a dramatist. She acts out parts she makes up. Her closet has no clothes in it but the costumes of her various acts. The parts she mentions indicate something of Frankie’s preoccupations. She dresses up as a football player and she dresses in a Spanish shawl and acts like she’s Spanish. Football players are the center of attention; they’ve achieved recognition by their physical prowess. Being large is an asset to a football player. If Frankie were Spanish, she wouldn’t be a white girl from a small southern town. She would be from someplace distant enough to provide her with a new and exciting identity. Frankie’s fantasy life is as dramatic as her costumes. She decides she wants to dress as a boy and join the Marines. If she can’t do that, she wants to give blood to the war wounded. She imagines this latter goal as an alternative means of making herself famous. Somehow the soldiers will know that it is she who has given them the life-saving blood and they will celebrate her as a war hero in her own right.

Sometimes she seems not to know the difference between reality and fantasy. Berenice is the voice of truth in her life, but she doesn’t often listen to Berenice, or, rather, it takes a while for Berenice’s words to sink in. For instance, when Frankie asks Berenice what she would think of a soldier acting as the red-haired soldier acted, Berenice asks if the man was drunk. This hasn’t occurred to Frankie before and it changes her image of the soldier and her sense of her own safety with him. On the way home from the humiliation of the wedding Frankie sits in the back of the bus with Berenice in the Jim Crow section. Berenice tries to cheer Frankie up with the prospect of a party. It will be a double kind of party. There will be nice finger sandwiches inside for the grown up party and then there will be a rough party outside where the guests can act like rowdy children. Berenice adds the idea that they can call the newspaper and get Frankie’s name put in the paper again, adding to her worldly recognition. Here, Berenice shows her recognition of Frankie’s middle state of existence, between childhood and teenage years. Moreover, she recognizes that Frankie is looking desperately for identity and that Frankie has latched onto the idea that publicity is a form of acquiring identity.

Frankie’s child status doesn’t completely end when she turns thirteen and gains a new best friend. At the end of the novel, she is still fantasizing about being a world traveler with her new friend Mary Littlejohn and becoming famous. She is unable to deal directly with her emotions about the death of John Henry. She is also unable to deal directly with the great loss that will be the loss of Berenice Sadie Brown in her life. As Berenice sits slouched and despondent in the kitchen on that last day, Frankie busies herself with sandwiches and with talk of her new friend, avoiding noticing that Berenice is already lost to her, avoiding it because she is too young to know what to do about it.

Berenice Sadie Brown

Berenice Sadie Brown is one of the most interesting mother figures in literature. Like thousands of families in the south at the time the novel is set, the Mr. Addams has his African-American housekeeper raise their daughter. Berenice is responsible for running the house and for raising Frankie almost single-handedly all for six dollars a week, not even enough money to be able to pay her own way for a day of fun with friends. Berenice isn’t living on this money by herself. She takes care of Big Mama, an invalid who lives in her house, of unnamed relation, and she supports her nephew Honey, who seems unable to manage steady employment. Still, Mr. Addams doesn’t hesitate to complain to her about the amount of food eaten in the house with the implicit accusation that Berenice is taking some of it home.

Berenice treats Frankie with a kind of rough love. When Frankie throws the knife past Berenice to hit the wall under the staircase, Berenice isn’t afraid to call her "Devil!" She is the first to tell Frankie that her crazy plans to join the wedding and go off with her brother and his fiancee on their honeymoon are never going to reach fruition and to warn her against falling in love with such things as weddings.

Berenice’s method of teaching is telling slow stories to the children. Part of the time it seems as though she’s talking to herself. Sometimes she seems to forget that she’s talking to young children and has to catch herself before she says too much for them to understand. Berenice is lonely. Caught in a life of work from dawn till dusk in a kitchen with two bored and restless children, Berenice talks herself into comfort. In doing so, she teaches Frankie the art of storytelling. Frankie thinks of Berenice’s storytelling as a sort of a song she knows and has heard often but which gets under her skin and stays with her.

Most of Berenice’s stories are about her one true love, Ludie, her first husband who died of pneumonia after years of a good marriage. Berenice tells the children that she sometimes wishes she had never known Ludie because it showed her what life could be and made her lonesome for it for the rest of her life. After Ludie, Berenice married several men who reminded her of Ludie but who turned out to be terrible for her. The last at the mere mention of whose name startles her into fright hurt her so badly that he put her eye out. Now she has one blue eye which Frankie regards with superstitious awe.

Berenice carries on her present life with the persistence of a woman who shoulders great responsibility and who has little power to make the world just for those she loves. The end of the novel sees the tragedy of this great woman reduced to despair. Her nephew has been put in jail and she has run around town trying to get white people to speak for him or give her money for his bail. It’s clear that her efforts will have been in vain. Honey will undoubtedly serve his nine years in hard labor and come out even more broken in spirit than when he went in. The white child she essentially adopted, John Henry West, has died a horrible death of meningitis. She has watched in horror as his body is twisted with pain until he can no longer cry out. Now she is left to lead her life outside the stifling Addams kitchen and Frankie has moved on to other preoccupations and isn’t mature enough to recognize the loss that Berenice’s absence will be.

John Henry West

John Henry has a fairly small part to play in the novel. He is the embodiment of the sweet and innocent child. His fantasies for a new creation are fantasies of empowerment. He wants an arm that will reach miles distant to get what he wants or a tail like a kangaroo’s that will enable him to have a seat wherever he is. He wants people to be re-created as half boy and half girl and when Frankie teases him that they will put him in the freak show, he closes his eyes and smiles delightedly at that thought.

John Henry knows no gender boundaries yet. He loves the doll Frankie’s brother gave her and which she threw away as too childish. He loves to dress up in Berenice’s shoes and wander around the kitchen. He dresses in Frankie’s girls’ costumes and follows her around town looking like a shrunken old woman. John Henry’s death symbolizes the death of Frankie’s childhood. The violence of his death symbolizes the fundamental injustice of the cosmos.


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