Maybe the only hunchback you've heard of is from Notre Dame... but get ready to meet another. In Carson McCullers's novella The Ballad of the Sad Café, a giantess falls in love with a hunchback, and the hunchback falls in love with the giantess's estranged criminal hubby, all in Depression-era rural Georgia. Ballad was first published in Harper's Bazaar in 1951, and was published alongside the stories as The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories later that year.
McCullers, a Southern Gothic goddess of mid-century America, is known for her misfit characters and earnest, angsty stories that deal with the nature of human existence. During her life, McCullers was known as a difficult if charming weirdo, and her characters in this collection (and in novels like The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter) don't stray far from that rep.
In 1963, baller playwright Edward Albee adapted the novella for the stage, amplifying the dialogue and simplifying the plot. This play script is what film director Simon Callow used to adapt Ballad to the screen in a 1991 Merchant Ivory (read: period-piece tragedy) flick. Both ultimately received mixed reviews… which makes us think that to get the full complement of dusty, weird heartbreak, you ought to go straight to the source.
We're guessing that if you have a pulse, you've fallen in love. And we're guessing that—at least once—you've fallen for someone who's a little… embarrassing. Maybe not to you, oh lovesick Shmooper: your beloved is perfect in your eyes. But have you ever blushed when telling your buddies about your newest crush?
Maybe you fell hard for a dude that snorts when he laughs. Or a girl who's really into taxidermy. Or the guy who looks like a dead ringer for Mr. Potato Head. Or a woman who has ears that make Dumbo look like an ear model.
In world where marketing and culture is busy showing us who we're supposed to be, and who we're supposed to fall for, McCullers understands that love is a big, lovely, messy, and inconvenient force that can strike at any time. Even—nay—especially when your sweetie pie is less than perfect.
Don't believe us? Here's a partial list of people and things characters in The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories fall in love with:
A sickly and kind of lazy and mischievous hunchback.
A misanthropic giantess.
A broken-legged jockey.
Yep. That's right. One character practices his science of loving until he goes gah-gah over water vapor in the sky. Clouds, however pretty they are, won't love you back. But it doesn't matter if your crush is unrequited, just like it doesn't matter if she or he or they or it rate high on a hotness scale of 1 to 10. Love is a many-splendored (and super inconvenient) thing.
We won't pretend that McCullers's stories aren't tragic. In fact, there are a lot of broken hearts in these pages. But reading her stories gives us a nice break from the guilt of not being supermodels or super stars and gives us permission to be human, to love and be loved just as we are: whether you're a professed weirdo outcast or just have a zit on your nose.
That kind of self-acceptance doesn't come easy or cheap, but it sure is nice to take a moment to remember that anyone (even you!) is worthy of love, simply because you are.
Whether you're in a serious romantic partnership or a professed solo act, against the rabid commercialism of the "Valentine's Day Industrial Complex," or, a dyed-in-the-wool chocolates-and-flowers devotee, The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories has got you covered.
The Carson McCullers Project
A clearinghouse of info for the Carson-obsessed.
Carson Gets Her Own Center
Columbus State University offers all manner of readings and events in her legacy, including an archive of documents regarding her life and career.
The Official Site of Columbus, Georgia
See what Carson's hometown has been up to since she left.
An Adapted Adaptation
This 1991 film adaptation was actually based on playwright Edward Albee's adaptation for the stage.
Carson Takes Broadway
A bio-play tries to get inside the author's head.
Carson's Bad Rap
She never seemed that interested in a respectful legacy.
Carson McCullers & Friends
Marilyn Monroe, two writers, and some cocktails.
The Author's Drinking Habits
She liked a drink, for better or worse.
Behind the Scenes of the Ballad Flick
What it was like adapting the novella.
How A Glamorous Movie Star Became an Androgynous Giantess
Vanessa Redgrave talks about becoming Miss Amelia.
Adapting the Story to Celluloid
A survey of the Ballad film adaptation, and its reception.
Albee Talks McCullers
An adapting playwright on the Southern Gothic Queen.
Sorghum Syrup Makes A Comeback
Just like Miss Amelia used to make!
The Fight on Film
The climax of Ballad in living, tense color.
The Angst & Ms. McCullers
Angst isn't just for teenagers anymore. (Was it ever?)
I'm On A Boat
Or, Carson McCullers is on a boat, being interviewed.
The Sad Café, with Singing Muppets
The horses join in!
Poet Charles Bukowski Reads His Un-Gentle Poem About McCullers
"all her books/about the cruelty/of loveless love"
A Different Kind of Ballad
The Eagles write a song about a very different "café."
A Beethoven Concerto Played on Violin
Just like Heime plays.
A Picture of Carson McCullers and Adapting Playwright Edward Albee
What happy-looking friends! (That's sarcasm, folks.)
Book Jacket Feat. A Gustav Klimt Painting
Fine art illuminates strange love.
Young Carson McCullers
A portrait of the author as a young woman.
A General Store Like Miss Amelia's
A man leans on a counter in a general store.