Study Guide

Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories Tone

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Conflicted Moralist/Philosophical Outcast

Like a sentimental grandfather telling the story of his first love, the narrators in McCullers's work are all set to tackle the world's ills and the "Big Truths" of living like love and death. But that doesn't mean that they tell us what to think.

Take the poetic waxing of the narrator in Ballad, which discusses the purifying qualities of Miss Amelia's whiskey:

It is known that if a message is written with lemon juice on a clean sheet of paper there will be no sign of it. But if the paper is held for a moment to the fire then the letters turn brown and the meaning becomes clear. Imagine that the whiskey is the fire and that the message is that which is known only in the soul of a man— then the worth of Miss Amelia's liquor can be understood. (Ballad.34)

The narrator's not telling us anything particularly new—in vino veritas comes to mind—but the stakes are higher, and we're not just talking about drunk confessions, we're talking about "the soul of a man."

McCullers seems perfectly satisfied to let the foolish drunk, or the pathological liar, or the nosy townspeople take a swing at big proclamations. The characters are imperfect, however, and their faults are pretty dang difficult to ignore.

So readers are left to think about the nature of wisdom and whether the meaning of love means less coming from a man with his nose in his beer mug just before dawn. McCullers doesn't tell us how we should live, merely what has happened to her characters and what they've "decided" to learn.

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