A story that heals under its dark and depressing guise
–book review of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
When I first finished reading The Ballad of the Safe Café, there were many things that I did not understand. I knew immediately that the book reads like William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily, another classic gothic short story that takes place in the American South, but I could not enjoy McCullers’s story despite the daunting similarity in style, language, and narrative of the two.
Many things from The Ballad of the Sad Café confused me, especially the triangle relationship between the three already odd protagonists. The only thing that stayed with me was the one-page long argument about love—which to me—did not make much sense at first glance. I hated feeling perplexed after finishing a book, so I started rereading the story and turned to friends for discussion in our book club. From the discussions, I started to see the value of the grotesqueness and queerness of the characters and the story, and I realized that my own biases limited my tolerance and imagination.
Now, after some reflections, I come to understand and define the book as a satirical piece that challenges my preconceptions and breaks down cultural and social norms about who people are supposed to be with based on their own characteristics. The book successfully satirizes those who cling to a rather utilitarian or social Darwinist approach when understanding and seeking love; that is, the book uses its marginalized characters (and especially Ms. Amelia who displaces unfeminine characteristics) and their feelings for one another to demonstrate that “love is a joint experience between two persons” and that love is for anyone and everyone.
So often, people look for self-interests in relationships with others that they ignore the true essence of love. Under such competitive environments and the trap of Social Darwinism, it has become a norm for people to look for good qualities in their partners for them to fall for; similar to Darwin’s evolution theories, humans naturally believe that their romantic relationships have to connect to “natural selection” and reproducing powerful descendants. But McCullers’s story tells us to break from that trap and that people are not supposed to love who they are expected to love and that people with defects are worthy of love.
She writes, “the most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love. A man may be a doddering great-grandfather and still love only a strange girl he saw in the streets of Cheehaw one afternoon two decades past. The preacher may love a fallen woman. The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits.”
In a world where cultural and social “norms” dictate who we are supposed to fall in love with, The Ballad of the Sad Café defiles such ideas and argue that love can be sporadic, random, unexpected, and unexplainable. Despite being mediocre, ordinary, and different, McGullers tells the world that love can be beautiful for everyone. Under the dark and grotesque storylines, I slowly came to understand the healing effects of the book.
When I was reading the book, my own biases resembled voices of the town people and bystanders who ridicule the protagonists. I realized that I failed to appreciate the story partly because my prejudices were telling me that it made no sense for Ms. Amelia to reject Marvin but love Lymon. After all, I was trapped in my biases as a reader, and the book perfectly showed that with my initial reactions.
In the end, to love is a form of power and freedom, which is why McCullers makes the famous statement that “most of us would rather love than be loved.” Although sad and depressing in tone and timbre, The Ballad of the Sad Café actually gives us a nice break from the world with so many expectations about who we are and who we should love. The book satirized and challenged me as a reader to rethink my positions, and it is a healing story in a sense that it showed that whether hunchback, disabled, or unfeminine in the traditional sense, it is never for the world but for those who love to define attractiveness.
information: The Ballad of the Sad Cafe– Carson McCullers