CRITICAL ESSAY

Philip Wood


Progression of Self:
The Adolescent Evolution of Gender Identity of Carson McCuller’s Characters
Mick Kelly in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
and Frankie Addams in The Member of the Wedding

.....In both the novels The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding, the search for gender identity becomes a centralized journey, as the characters of Mick Kelly and Frankie Addams attempt to rectify their desires for a masculine role or lifestyle with the cultural image of the “southern belle” forced upon them by society as a whole. Both young women dress like boys, assume masculine or androgynous names, and through their actions and words, attempt to project the image of a young man. However, as the two characters progress through adolescence and are forced to become young women, the pressures of society can no longer be resisted, and both are pushed to give on the issue. Mick becomes a store clerk, forced to give up her dreams of changing the world and taking a masculine profession. Frankie becomes F. Jasmine, wearing dresses and perfume, in an attempt to become more ladylike. No longer free to be tomboys, they attempt to conform to society. But the two end their chronicles in rather different states: Mick is subjugated, but Frankie adopts the androgynous Frances as her name, and finds companionship in a young woman her age, perhaps to indicate a lesbian interest.
.....In order to understand the journey the characters take, the feminine ideal in the South, where the two grow up, must be established. Mick is dismissive of her sisters, Etta and Hazel, both of whom aggressively pursue their femininity:
She [Etta] primped all day long. And that was the bad part. Etta wasn’t naturally pretty like Hazel. The main thing was she didn’t have any chin. She would pull at her jaw and go through a lot of chin exercises she had read in a movie book. She was always looking at her side profile in the mirror and try to keep her mouth set in a certain way…
Hazel was plain lazy. She was good-looking but thick in the head. She was eighteen years old, and next to Bill she was the older of all the kids in the family. Maybe that was the trouble. She got the first and biggest share of everything…Hazel never had to grab for anything and she was soft. (Heart 33)
.....The actions of these two sisters may have been the beginnings of “Mick’s revulsion with femininity”, resulting in her rebellion against the requirement of female beauty and her embracing of a more masculine ideal. (Danziger 4) Bombarded with these images of her sisters attempting to be beautiful at any cost, she rejects the lifestyle of the southern belle in favor of a more exciting life, playing the part of a boy as to escape the primping and chin exercises. McCullers also paints a picture of this vision of femininity as extremely confining, characterizing the extremely feminine Baby in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as being small and cute: “With her [Baby’s] yellow hair she was all pink and white and gold—and so small and clean that it almost hurt to watch her.” (Heart 127) Similarly, Janice, whom Frankie’s brother is engaged and whose marriage Frankie desires to be a part of, is also described as being petite. These characters both exemplify the traditional ideals of feminine beauty, but are limited by their very size; the implication here is that being a female is to be contained. (Gleeson-White 4) These idealized figures stand in stark contrast to both Mick and Frankie, who are described as being unusually tall. Mick towers over the boys at her party, and faults this for some of her social problems: “No boy wanted to prom with a girl so much taller than him.” (Heart 87) Frankie worries her height will ostracize her from society as a whole: “This summer she was grown so tall that she was almost a big freak…” (Member 2) Essentially, she seems to be too tall to fit into the southern concept of a lady. (Adams 558) This divergent body types set them apart from idealized womanhood, and force them to carefully evaluate their gender identity. (Gleeson-White 6)
.....The two characters clearly don’t align with the ideal of southern womanhood, resulting in a difficult adolescence in which the search for self takes center stage. Both embark on this journey from a similar viewpoint, but the resultant destination differs. Mick, at the start of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is ashamed of her very womanhood, unable to remedy this with herself: “When that was done she crossed over to the opposite wall and wrote a very bad word—PUSSY, and beneath that she put her initials, too.” (Heart 29) The implication here is Mick feels her sexual nature is somehow dirty, something to be ashamed of, perhaps further requiring her to adopt the nature and mannerisms of a young man. In addition, her career aspirations cause further gender confusion. She imagines herself becoming a great composer, playing for vast audiences, but she can’t picture what she would wear to these events: “To conduct the orchestra she would wear either a real man’s evening suit or else a red dress spangled with rhinestones.” (184) Mick ultimately has difficulty rectifying her female identity with her traditionally masculine desires for success and creative fulfillment. Frankie, on the other hand, had more experience with the sexual aspects of womanhood, having actually experienced sexual contact before, which makes her feel strange and ashamed: “In the MacKeans’ garage, with Barney MacKean, they committed a queer sin, and how bad it was she did not know.” (Member 22) Frankie is ashamed of her heterosexual act with Barney, ironically referred to as “a queer sin”. Frankie establishes the heterosexual norm as the strange act, while championing her desire to becoming involved in a three-way relationship in the marriage of her brother and his wife as the valid lifestyle.
.....Both Mick and Frankie attempt to shed their tomboy images, becoming a more traditional image of a woman rather than remaining an outcast rejected by their peers as “freaks”. Mick holds a prom, hoping this event will allow her to be viewed as a young woman, rather than a tomboy, and goes to great lengths to become a woman, at least in her choice of clothing: “Silk teddies she put on, and silk stockings. She even wore one of Etta’s brassieres just for the heck of it. Then very carefully she put on the dress and stepped into the pumps. This was the first time she had ever worn an evening dress.” (Heart 84) At the party, Mick attempts to retain the shy, retreating feminine image while still controlling the party, resulting in aggressive outbursts: “She hollered about the prom cards one more time…” (85) Unwittingly, she exposes herself as both a young woman and a tomboy, masculine entwined with the feminine. (Danzinger 10) Her journey towards “womanhood” as defined by the feminine ideal in the South is certainly not complete; ultimately, doubts are seeded as to whether she can achieve this goal. Furthermore, the question is raised whether she should attempt to become a southern belle at all. Both her sisters are endlessly vain, which she dislikes, and clearly her desire to become a great conductor will give her personal and creative fulfillment. But all these dreams are quickly being replaced by the concept of conformity.
.....Frankie, on the other hand, attempted a complete metamorphosis, dropping the masculine Frankie and becoming F. Jasmine, in an attempt to alliterate with her brother Jarvis and his fiancée Janice. As she adopts this role, so does she adopt feminine clothing and mannerisms, dressing as a girl: “She dressed carefully that morning in her most grown and best, the pink organdie, and put on lipstick and Sweet Serenade.” (Member 43) Like Mick, she hopes her physical appearance can result both in changing perceptions of her by the rest of her community and her own internalized behavior. However, no mere physical change can completely turn her into the model of the southern belle, and specters of her “old” self, Frankie, turn up as she travels through town:
It was the tractor man F. Jasmine chose to hear her plans—running beside him, her head thrown back to watch his sunburned face, she had to cup her hands around her mouth to make her voice heard. Even so it was uncertain if he understood, for when she stopped, he laughed and yelled back to her something she could not quite catch. Here, among the racket and excitement, was the place F. Jasmine saw the ghost of the old Frankie plainest of all—hovering close to the commotion, chewing a great big lump of tar, hanging around at noon to watch the lunch-pails being opened. There was a fine big motorcycle parked near the street-menders, and before going on F. Jasmine looked at it admiringly, then spat on the broad leather seat and shined it carefully with her fist. (53)
.....Despite her best efforts, her masculine nature presents itself again, both in her movements, running alongside the tractor yelling at the operator, and her wants and desires, as she admires the motorcycle, a typically masculine pursuit. It is not the clothes that make the tomboy, it would seem. The personality of Frankie, built by the young woman for 12 years as a resistance to the typical femininity, is too strong to be quashed by one day as F. Jasmine. Her sudden journey into what society has forced her to believe is womanhood is thwarted; her true nature, it seems, will win out in the end.
.....Similarly, Mick loses her battle with a new, feminine nature:
Down a block they had put in new pipes under the street and dug a swell deep ditch. The flambeaux around the edge were bright and red in the dark. She wouldn’t wait to climb down. She ran until she reached the little wavy flames and then she jumped.
With her tennis shoes she would have landed like a cat—but the high pumps had her slip and her stomach hit this pipe. Her breath was stopped. She lay quiet with her eyes closed. (Heart 91)
.....Despite all her best efforts, Mick still regains the desire to act like a boy, running out to play in the dirt. The contrast between the two potential lifestyles is exemplified in the shoes she wears; had she had her normal shoes on, she would have had no problems, but with the uncomfortable high heels, forcing her into a different role than she is accustomed, she fails. More broadly, this sudden, sharp change can only hurt Mick, rather than help her achieve her goals. (Danzinger 12) To reject her tomboy image is to reject her goals for the future, as well as her enjoyment of life.
.....Both girls, however, are ultimately faced with a turning point in sexual contact with a man, both of which result in very negative connotations. Mick and Harry, her neighbor, copulate while on a picnic together. Mick is mortified, and that night vows never to have sex with another mant: “’I didn’t like that. I never will marry with any boy’” (Heart 210) So close to the actual event, this statement can’t strictly be interpreted as a lifelong devotion to celibacy or a desire for lesbian contact, but rather the crushing weight of guilt from her own sexuality. Neither Mick nor Harry can accept the physical act, as Harry runs away and Mick refuses to even acknowledge what went on to her family members. Again, as with her graffiti earlier in the novel, she is unable to confront herself as a sexual being, stranding her in a sort of limbo. She won’t accept the entirety of her own femininity, yet she is unable to discard this aspect of herself at the same time; she needs to develop a balance between two natures.
.....Frankie, as F. Jasmine, undergoes a somewhat similar, albeit more violent, sexual trauma. The soldier she met while parading around in her feminine guise earlier invites her back to his room, where he attempts to initiate sex with her. F. Jasmine fights back and manages to escape, however, striking him with a water pitcher. She imagines this to be an insane, freakish image: “The next minute was like a minute in the fair Crazy-House, or real Milledgeville.” (Member 120) Again, she feels repelled by sexual congress with a man, as the heterosexual act becomes something freakish or queer. In fact, the preponderance of the word queer forces the reader to confront the notion that the normal is always “right” and the different always “wrong” or “freakish”. (Adams 562) Here, for Frankie, it is the coupling between man and woman that is wrong, something to escape by any means necessary. Frankie certainly rejects this traditional view of her sexuality, forcing her to search for something beyond the F. Jasmine persona.
.....Ultimately, the two characters must grow into gender roles they have been developing over the course of the novel, and here they assume very different identities. Mick’s is the more tragic; the family, in financial woe, basically forces Mick to take a job at Woolworths through emotion blackmail. (Danzinger 18) All her plans crushed, unable to assume the role of a great composer or conductor, Mick asks herself “What good was it?” (Heart 267) Mick has assumed the role of an adult, but this role is one without the creative or spiritual fulfillment she so desired. Dressed the part of a normal woman, in jewelry and stockings, she’s lost her “inside room”, the place she can escape to in order to write her music. Losing touch with her masculine identity, or perhaps her identity as a whole, she is left nothing, merely work and no passion. Although she retains hope that she can some day buy a piano, little seems bright for Mick. (Danzinger 20) Ultimately, by refusing to acknowledge both the masculine and feminine parts of herself, she had cut herself off from what she thought would be a bright future.
.....Frankie, on the other hand, finally having settled on the name Frances, seems to have a brighter future ahead of her. She has rectified the separate parts of her personality; not entirely a tomboy, but not the feminine ideal, either, she seems to be more androgynous as a whole. With a new friend, Mary Littlejohn, she begins to study great poets and plans a great future for the two of them: “Mary was going to be a great painter and Frances a great poet—or else the foremost authority on radar…When Frances was sixteen and Mary eighteen, they were going around the world together.” (Member 140) Here, Frances sees a future of creative fulfillment, as Mick did before taking a job in the store, or a more masculine profession as a scientist working with radar. She has found a companion; no longer does she need to attempt to force herself into gender roles she doesn’t want simply because she will be pushed aside otherwise. At the same time, she no longer desires to visit the freak house, a telling detail. She no longer considers herself to be a freak, rather, having found someone else, perhaps the “we of me” as she referred to Jarvis and Janice earlier, meaning she had come to accept herself, no matter how masculine, feminine, or anything in between she might be.
.....Both Mick Kelly and Frankie Addams explore their gender identity in their respective novels, however, the two have vastly different outcomes. Mick seems to be looking forward to a bleak future, empty of creative and spiritual growth, merely sleeping, eating, and working. Forced into a rut, she had been cheated out of a future by herself. She ultimately rejects a masculine pursuit and her masculine desires to follow her own needs, and instead becomes more feminine, choosing to nurture and protect her family through her work, resulting in her misery. Frankie, on the other than, chooses to embrace both sides of herself, becoming both masculine and feminine, looking forward to a life where she can decide her own fate while rectifying herself with the rest of the world. She is still a woman, but she will not reject her own traditionally masculine traits. For her, the heterosexual love is the queer love, something she has no desire for, instead finding fulfillment for all her needs in her friend, Mary. The characters, starting from a similar location, have walked different paths, one of self acceptance and self fulfillment, the other of repressed needs and desires, and of unhappiness.

Adams, Rachel. “'A Mixture of Delicious and Freak': The Queer Fiction of Carson McCullers”. American Literature. Septermber 1999

Danzinger, J.. “Mick Kelly: Dressing the Part”. 1999

Gleeson-White, Sarah. “Revisiting the Southern Grotesque: Mikhail Bakhtin and the Case of Carson McCullers”. The Southern Literary Journal: 2001

McCullers, Carson. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Riverside Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1960

McCullers, Carson. The Member of the Wedding. Time Incorporated: New York. 1965