Study Guide

Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories Narrator Point of View

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Narrator Point of View

Third Person Omniscient

In Ballad, and the other collected stories, we're never too close to the action. That seems to be true even in "Wunderkind," "Madame Zilensky," "The Sojourner," and "A Domestic Dilemma," all super-traditional third-limited stories that align themselves with a single main character. (More on that below.)

We get that outside-looking-in signal ASAP, as when our narrator describes Miss Amelia in the aftermath of all that has befallen her. In the first pages of the novella, the narrator describes the quiet town, and the strange, leaning building with boarded-up windows. There is one second-floor, window that isn't boarded up, and "sometimes in the late afternoon when the heat is the worst a hand will slowly open the shutter and a face will look down on the town." (Ballad.2)

The slow zoom into the meat of the story lets us know: our storyteller will take their time, giving us what we need when we need it, but we'll never really know what Miss Amelia or anyone else is really thinking.

The Heart of a Town

The only real "emotional interior" we're offered is that of the town, and we know from these pages that the narrator is in on its chatter. We may not know what Miss Amelia or Cousin Lymon or Marvin Macy truly thinks, but we hear all manner of murder rumors and thoughts about the nature of love from the townspeople. It becomes up to the reader to piece together the chain of town murmurs and main character actions to get a full sense of what exactly may be going on.

In some of the stories, like "Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland" and "Sojourner" we're closer to the emotions of main characters Mr. Brook and Ferris. We know what they think, and how they feel, but we don't always know what's going on in the world around them, when they're mistaken or lying. In others, as with "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud" we stay mostly on the outside, listening to the old man explain the science of love.

No matter the narrative technique, McCullers always seems to keep her cards close to her chest.

Tense Tense

A lot of the tension in Ballad seems to come from the use of verb tense. We begin in the narrator's present, after all of the tragedy is done. "The café has long since been closed, but it is still remembered" (Ballad.3). We know that the café is no more, but we don't know why… and this makes continuing to read all the more tantalizing. It's a good old-fashioned mystery, and then the real story begins, in past tense.

Elsewhere, the narrator monkeys around with foreshadowing, reminding readers of parts of the story they may have forgotten.

All wrapped up in the happy patter of Miss Amelia and Cousin Lymon's companionable love? Don't be, the narrator reminds us:

[…] the memory of his passion and his crimes, and the thought of him trapped in his cell in the penitentiary, was like a troubling undertone beneath the happy love of Miss Amelia and the gaiety of the café. So do not forget this Marvin Macy, as he is to act a terrible part in the story which is yet to come. (Ballad.97)

Because the narrator has positioned themselves as a storyteller, they can remind readers of what's important… or what they think we should be paying attention to.

Check out another example:

Now time must pass. For the next four years are much alike. There are great changes, but these changes are brought about bit by bit, in simple steps which in themselves do not appear to be important. (Ballad.76)

That last moment makes us think it's worth wondering: are there ever times when it feels like the narrator is misdirecting us?

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