Study Guide

Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories Genre

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Southern Gothic; Parable; Tragedy

Putting the Gothic in the Southern, and the Southern in the Gothic

Is the setting Southern? Check. It seems to be in Georgia, in an unnamed cotton mill town of little note or exception.

Is the story Gothic? Yes indeedy. There's no getting around that The Ballad of the Sad Café is a strange little story of outcasts in a sleepy town, behaving both sweetly and savagely. None of the characters are straightforward in their conduct or emotions, and crimes and violence big and small figure prominently in the plot. While nothing that happens is strictly magical, almost everything that happens is super dark and unexpected.

Lesson Up

If this story is a parable, what morals and values does it show us?

Maybe it's about gender: a masculine woman challenges an actual man and fails. (Ugh.)

Maybe it's about fun… and how we shouldn't have any.

Or maybe it's all this mumbling about love, its transformative power and the way it can unite a town. After all, Miss Amelia fell in love and opened a café, and the town celebrated this love together by drinking whiskey and eating chicken. And that coda with the chain gang certainly seems to testify to the beauty of union, right?

The Ballad of the Sad Café is a slippery story open to lots and lots of interpretations. The other stories in the collection, however, offer easier (if super-difficult) truths. Frances in "Wunderkind" learns that not everyone is meant to be special. In "Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland," Mr. Brook learns that lies mean nothing in the face of charming love. In her shorter stories, McCullers seems insistent on offering protagonists that learn lessons not at all, and then all at once.

This Isn't Your "Happy Place"

The Ballad of the Sad Café is a tragedy, and there's no getting around it. Once Marvin Macy leaves town in the cloud of his failed marriage, Miss Amelia and the town live peaceably, if not pleasurably.

There's no café, and that's okay. But then Cousin Lymon works his weird wiles, and a new café improves life for everyone. By the time Marvin Macy returns, there's suddenly a lot to lose. So when he and Lymon wreak their havoc, Miss Amelia and the town have lost a lot.

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