The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers: Summary, Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson presents a summary and analysis of Carson McCullers' 1951 novella, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. The story is a Southern Gothic narrative about a strange young woman who becomes the victim of a sinister plot in her isolated town.

Overview of the Story

The Ballad of the Sad Café is a novella that was published along with six short stories in a collection with the same name. The short work represents some of the core themes and literary elements found throughout much of McCullers' fiction.

Plot Summary

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe is set in an isolated Georgia town. The main protagonist is a young woman named Miss Amelia Evans. One day, a hunchback with a suitcase arrives on her doorstep, claiming to be her kin. Miss Amelia takes the stranger in, and rumors begins to circulate around the town. Miss Amelia is known for being rational and level-headed, so the townsfolk are not sure what to make of this.

When the rumors escalate, a group of eight men show up at her store and are surprised to encounter the hunchback who seems to have made himself at home. Miss Amelia shows the men the very same hospitality that she has shown the hunchback. She serves them liquor and crackers, and they all have a merry time. This is the beginning of the café. Miss Amelia and the hunchback, who claims to be her cousin, Lymon, create a new tradition in which the townsfolk come together for food and fellowship.

Over time, Miss Amelia develops romantic feelings for her cousin. The townsfolk are somewhat surprised about this, though they recall that the woman has a rather strange history when it comes to men. She was once married for a mere ten days to Marvin Macy, a very violent and cruel man who ended up in prison after committing a string of felonies after his marriage imploded. When he is released, Marvin returns to town and vows to ruin his wife's life, just as she has ruined his. When he realizes that Cousin Lymon admires him, he takes advantage of this circumstance to use the man to break Miss Amelia's heart. This culminates in a fight between Miss Amelia and Macy. When she is about to prevail over her husband, Cousin Lymon interferes and detracts her, and Macy wins the fight. He and Cousin Lymon then destroy the café, break into the register, and make off with the money. Miss Amelia is left bruised and beaten.

Important Themes

McCullers' narrative emphasizes the sense of despair and isolation that follows a failed romance. At the very end of the story, the narrator references a chain gang, The Twelve Mortal Men, who pass through the rural town, singing their sorrows. The chain gang's song expresses the sentiments of loneliness and despair that Miss Amelia feels after Cousin Lymon's betrayal. The story also presents the irrational nature of love. Miss Amelia is regarded as a level-headed gal, who manages a strict business. But she lets her heart rule her head, falling for the charms of two deviant criminals.

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