Study Guide

Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories What's Up With the Ending?

Advertisement - Guide continues below

What's Up With the Ending?

What's a Coda?

The ending of this story is a coda, entitled "The Twelve Mortal Men." "Coda" is a term that comes originally from music, which makes a lot of sense, given that the chain gang is singing. Here, the coda acts as a sort of separate conclusion, not of the story of Miss Amelia, but the larger story as told by the narrator. By laying the main story beside the coda, we can examine its thematic relationships and content to understand new things about the text.

The Twelve Mortal Men… and Even More Questions

Miss Amelia boards up her building, and the narrator reiterates how "dreary" the town is without the café. "There is absolutely nothing to do in the town" (Ballad.231).

Okay, we think. That must be the end. It fees right, and after all, we're back where we started: Southern town boredom. But McCullers isn't satisfied with that, and moves further down the road, sending us readers to listen to the singing of the chain gang, a real left-turn signified by its own subtitle.

A Left-Turn With Prior Signaling

Is this ending, which seems to have nothing to do with the "ballad" itself, actually so strange a move? Maybe not.

After all that's happened to Miss Amelia and the town, it would be easy for anyone to forget this note in the early pages:

These August afternoons—when your shift is finished there is absolutely nothing to do; you might as well walk down to the Forks Falls Road and listen to the chain gang. (Ballad.2)

About midway through, just before Marvin Macy's appearance, the narrator notes that the sight of autos coming through town isn't exception. After all, since they're working on Fork Falls, "the cars hauling the chain gang" (Ballad.150) are a common sight. It certainly feels like a nudge, or a cue, to remember the chain gang just outside of town.

Just before the break, the narrator says once again, "You might as well go down to the Forks Falls highway and listen to the chain gang" (Ballad.231). Any reader could be excused for missing this repeated refrain on the first go 'round. But does it mean the same thing the second time through? And what is it preparing us for as we go listen to the chain gang's singing ourselves?

The first suggestion to go listen to the chain gang sounds sarcastic. The second time, it seems like a serious and important prescription. So the question becomes: what has changed for the narrator (and the reader), that listening to the chain gang now seems worthwhile?

In the ending passage itself, the song of the chain gang is elevated by description:

It is music that causes the heart to broaden and the listener to grow cold with ecstasy and fright. (Ballad.232)

The music makes one beautiful, transcendent thing out of the voices of twelve convicts. It's powerful, but also asks us to put the book down and think. How does this apply to the story of the town and Miss Amelia?

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...