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The title says it all: this novella is a story of a café… one that is sad. Or, the café is a stand-in for its proprietor, the sometimes-churlish Miss Amelia, because its health depends on her psychological state.
When she is happy, and lover to Cousin Lymon, she opens the café, with its eight tables and chicken dinners, cherry juice, and homemade whiskey. The narrator notes that it seemed like Miss Amelia opened it for her hunchback paramour, for "[...] it was a thing that brought him company and pleasure and that helped him through the night." (Ballad.78)
But this bright café isn't in evidence at the time its story is told. Instead, it's "boarded up completely and leans so far to the right that it seems bound to collapse at any minute." The largest building, at the center of town, does call to mind broken-down and defeated tall Miss Amelia, dealing with the fall-out of Marvin Macy's revenge.
By the time we're told the story, this building is closed-up, just one window on the second floor [of Miss Amelia's heart] where sometimes a passerby may see that the shutters are open to reveal a face "sexless and white, with two gray crossed eyes which are turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief." (Ballad.2) Miss Amelia and her grief are part-and-parcel of this sad setting and its tragedy.
During the café's heyday, the cafe proves to be a much-needed community gathering-place. The "timid" townspeople must learn what it's like to see each other off-the-clock from the mill, because they're "unused to gathering together for the sake of pleasure" (Ballad.73). But they take to it eventually, and it becomes a happy place where the people of the town learn to be friendly to one another.
Though there are other places in town where people gather, at the mill or the church or one of the other stores, the narrator offers such fleeting glimpses of these places that it sometimes feels as if the town is comprised of "the café " and "not the café."
So what happens when the setting is moved out of the café and into town? What kind of town is this, anyhow?
The town is nameless, but specific. McCullers works to build a setting that feels visually rich. There are those pesky peach trees (see Symbols for more), but also the church with its "two colored windows," (Ballad.1) "newly plowed" fields (Ballad.42) and "the old wagon wheel by the side of the road" (Ballad.231).
This isn't just any Southern town—although it might look like it. It's the town: the town where our story takes place.
And this town is also a repository for a lot of the emotional goings-on. As the narrator writes toward the start of the story:
[…] the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world. (Ballad.1)
Notice that it's only "like" an isolated place. In fact the text says that the town is near the highway, not too far from Fork Falls or Cheehaw. It isn't actually an isolated place, but it feels that way.
Because most of the action happens in and around the café, there's a sense of a crowd without hearing about every single family, their homes, and where they work. The narrator parcels out what a reader needs.
Before and after the café, the narrator seems almost frustrated by the town's lonesomeness. "There is absolutely nothing to do in the town," they write. "The soul rots with boredom" (Ballad.231).
Though the Depression's moniker refers to the economy, it also has to do with the American mood after WWI was over. In the wake of the stock market crash of 1929, it was hard to keep sunny without food in your stomach. At that time in Georgia, most of the population was rural, with a large share of folk working as sharecroppers, or people who rented land on which to farm.
African Americans made up a little more than a third of the population, many having gone North during the Jim Crow era. Though the Depression-Era American South was known for racism and the KKK, we don't get much of a peek of that in Ballad.
There is one exception, and no one should be surprised that Marvin Macy was a clansman, revealed when we learn that after his first departure, Miss Amelia "cut up his Klansman's robe to cover her tobacco plants." (Ballad.95)
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