Seeing the Reality of Adulthood: Eye Symbolism in The Member of the Wedding

The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers discusses the life of a 12 year old girl, Frankie, who is transitioning from childhood to adulthood.­ Frankie feels disconnected from the rest of the world, having lost her mother when she was born, and has a distant father who is barely mentioned. In the novel, she spends much of her time with her housekeeper, Berenice, and her cousin, John Henry West, as she comes to realize that she is not a member of anything. When she hears that her brother is getting married, she desperately latches on to the idea of being a member of the wedding and attempts to jump into adulthood. However, she comes to realizes that adulthood is not as a great as she had pictured it and learns about the dangers of growing up.

McCullers uses the symbol of the eyes to illustrate the inner conflicts characters face throughout the novel about the realities of adulthood. Berenice’s glass eye symbolizes her desire to remain young. Berenice is described in the beginning of the novel as having “a left eye that was bright blue glass. It stared out fixed and wild from her quiet, colored face, and why she wanted a blue eye nobody human would ever know. Her right eye was dark and sad” (McCullers 5). Berenice’s natural eye color is dark, however she chose to have a glass eye that was bright blue. The fact that she chose the color blue is significant because blue is typically associated with clarity and vision, however she cannot see out of the eye because it is not a real eye. The contrast between her two eye colors illustrates the contradiction Berenice is facing with her decision to remain young or settle down. While discussing Frankie’s obsession and jealousy of the wedding, Berenice tells her that what “she needs to begin thinking about is a beau” (McCullers 82). Having a beau, or boyfriend, is a task typically associated with young adulthood. However, Berenice, a fairly old woman, has a boyfriend of her own by the name of T.T. Williams. When Frankie asks Berenice why she doesn’t settle down, she quickly responds by saying “I ain’t gonna marry him” (McCullers 95). Berenice’s quick response to this suggestion indicates a fear of marrying T.T. Williams. Berenice is scared to marry T.T. and settle down with him because she is unsure of her future and what settling down might entail. She will have to let go of her young image if she is going to marry T.T. Williams. Similarly, her fake, blue eye represents the clarity she pretends to see in her life. She acts as if she is sure she will not settle down or get married. On the other hand, her dark eye illustrates the fear she has of moving on in life and settling down with her boyfriend.

Frankie’s eyes symbolize her confusion about maturity and adulthood. While talking to Frankie about her obsession with the wedding, Berenice tells Frankie that “she could see right through them two gray eyes of hers like they was glass. And what she saw was the saddest piece of foolishness she ever knew” (McCullers 107). Frankie’s eyes are gray, a color that is a combination of black and white. Black is a color typically associated with fear and the unknown, while white is associated with purity and innocence. These two colors contrast, giving her a grayish eye color, illustrating her struggles associated with the coming of age. She is set on becoming an adult, however she still has a sense of innocence that holds her back. Her innocence was illustrated when her father asked her: “who is this great big, long-legged, twelve-year-old blunderbuss who still wants to sleep with her old papa” (McCullers 24). Frankie had slept in the same bed as her father for many years, something a young child might typically do when they are scared, however she had gotten too big and her father no longer allowed it. This innocent gesture, coinciding with the color white in her eyes, was no longer accepted in her house and she begins to feel as if she is being forced to grow up. In order to try and prove she was an adult, she “committed a queer sin with Barney MacKean. The sin made a shriveling sickness in her stomach, and she dreaded the eyes of everyone” (McCullers 26). Although it does not explicitly say, it is likely that Frankie had sex with Barney in order to try and prove she was a mature adult. However, it is evident that she horribly regretted it and is extremely unhappy and scared that she had tainted her innocence. In relation to her eyes, this fear of having lost her innocence is represented by the black color. She is scared and does not know what to do because adulthood is an unknown concept to her. Thus, Frankie is stuck in an awkward and uncomfortable stage where she is transitioning from childhood to adulthood. The white and black color come together to form a gray color, just as her innocence is put up against her fear of adulthood.

John Henry’s glasses act as a symbol, illustrating Frankie’s understanding about the realities of adulthood. In the beginning of the novel little John Henry “had a little screwed white face and he wore tiny gold-rimmed glasses” (McCullers 5). It is significant that his face is white because white is a color that is associated with innocence. In addition, his glasses have gold rims which act as a filter to preserve Henry’s innocence. After making a terrible looking biscuit man, John Henry simply “looked at it through his glasses, wiped it with his napkin, and buttered the left foot” (McCullers 10). Although the biscuit man looked horrible, John Henry did not seem to notice its flaws as he looked through his gold-rimmed glasses. This can be applied to the larger theme of the novel in that the glasses filter out the harsh realities of adulthood. At one point in the novel Frankie tells John Henry to take off his glasses. He gives her them and as she “looked through the glasses, the room was loose and crooked. Then she pushed back her chair and stared at John Henry. There were two damp white circles around his eyes” (McCullers 14). When Henry looked at his messy biscuit man, he did not see any flaws with it. However, when Frankie put’s on the glasses it has quite the opposite effect. To her, everything looks flawed and crooked. The glasses aid her vision, for she is able to better see the flaws in the room. In addition, she sees that John Henry has white circles around his eyes. This further suggests that the glasses had been used a symbol to illustrate the filter-like effect the glasses had had on the innocence of John Henry. The white circles around his eyes indicate that he had been protected from the realities of adulthood, thus preserving his innocence. The reason Frankie sees differently than John Henry is because she has been exposed to some of the harsh realities of adulthood. This is best showcased by Frankie’s interaction with the soldier. When she goes up to the soldier’s hotel room “he grasped her skirt. Limpened by fright, she was pulled own beside him on the bed…and in a second she was paralyzed by horror” (McCullers 136). The soldier had attempted to have sex with her, which terrified her, giving Frankie insight into the tough situations associated with adulthood. Because of this, she was able to see past this veil of innocence, unlike John Henry who was completely oblivious to the harsh realities of adulthood.

Within The Member of the Wedding, eyes showcase the difficulties of maturing and becoming an adult. Berenice’s glass eye symbolized her desire to remain young. Frankie’s gray eyes symbolized her internal struggle between innocence and adulthood. And lastly, John Henry’s glasses showcased the harsh realities of growing up that are hidden by innocence.

The Role of Social Constructs in McCullers’ “Member of the Wedding”

In the novel Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers, the story of young Frankie Addams is told as she begins to navigate the world, documenting from her perspective, her exposure to harsh reality of the world as she begins to develop into a young woman. The time period from which the novel is from was characterized by division, including racial and gender discrimination, as well as strong marginalization on the basis of sexuality. Through the technique of characterization, McCullers highlights the effect of these social constructs in creating a divisive society which ultimately marginalized its people.

Through the characterization of John Henry, McCullers highlights the divisive nature of gender binaries and gender identity. John Henry is described “[wearing] a jonquil dress” (McCullers124). The use of the word jonquil, which is a perennial yellow flower, depicts the femininity of his character, as flowers are typically associated with feminine characteristics. Furthermore, his wearing of the dress reinforces the effeminate gender identity that is attributed to John Henry. There are clear character similarities with Lily Mae Jenkins, particularly in their choice of feminine clothing. Lily, a boy who had changed his gender after falling in love with a man named Juney Jones, is described “prissing around with a pink satin blouse and one arm akimbo” (81). The pink satin blouse which Lily Mae wears depicts his delicate femininity and obvious defiance of social constructs during the time period, as it was not typical of a man to associate himself with feminine characteristics or cross gender constructs. In Lily Mae Jenkin’s instance, his character is ostracized, as is exemplified by Berenice’s comment in which she bluntly states, “You don’t need to know Lily Mae Jenkins” (81) as if he was unworthy of being known. Similarly, John Henry seems to be isolated. In his physical description, it is revealed that he “had the largest knees Frankie had ever seen, and on one of them there was always a scab or bandage where had had fallen down and skinned himself” (McCullers 4). Through his flawed physicality, including the scabs and bruises typically associated with children, John Henry is attributed with a gawkish, childlike adolescence. It appears, through this description, that her possesses a lack of comfort in his own physical body and appearance, alluding to his qualities which have ultimately ostracized him from the rest of society. By contrast to the feminine qualities that are attributed to John Henry and Lily Mae Jenkins, Frankie takes on more masculine characteristics. She is described with “brown crust on her elbows” (90). As it was considered a normality for girls to be clean and remain indoors during the time period, Frankie evidently crosses the gender constructs. Similar to John Henry, she feels as if she is ostracized, seeking refuge under the protection of her brother and her fiancée in order to compensate for the fact that she can’t find a place in her own life. This division is further exemplified within the House of Freaks. Inside, there was a “Half-Man Half-Woman, a morphidite. This Freak is divided completely in half – the left side is a man and the right side a woman” (20). There is a clear marginalization on the basis of gender, as the division between the right and left side indicates a clear division caused by gender identity. Furthermore, the morphidite is ostracized from society as a result of his defiance of social constructs, which is evident through the fact that the person is referred to as a Freak, lacking any identity of his or her own.

Through the crafting of the character Berenice, McCullers illuminates the divisive effects of racial discrimination within the time period. In her brief physical description, she is described with having “something wrong… Her left eye was bright blue glass [whereas]… her right eye was dark and sad” (5). The color blue of the glass eye is associated with stability. However, this stability simply an illusion, as exemplified by the fact that the glass eye is artificial and she merely wears it as a scar of the injuries inflicted by her prior husband. The juxtaposition of the color of her blue glass eye with the dark and sad right eye indicates a split in her physical appearance and metaphorically, her cultural identity. The artificial glass eye gives the illusion of stability and confidence, signifying her tolerance to the fact that she had been ostracized by a society which was dominantly white and discriminatory. However, beneath this façade, she appears to have a far deeper sorrow and passion for her cultural identity, stating that “they done drawn completely extra bounds around all colored people. They done squeezed us off in one corner by ourself” (119). It is evident through this passage that Berenice is ostracized. Entrapped by the bounds which imprisoned the colored people, Berenice depicts a very clear division on the basis of cultural identity and race. The marginalization caused by racial discrimination is further exemplified by the description of the House of Freaks. Within the House of Freaks, the “Wild Nigger knocked the rat’s head over his squatted knee and ripped off the fur and crunched and gobbled and flashed his greedy Wild Nigger eyes” (20). The man is characterized very scornfully, as indicated by the fact that he eats the head off of a rat and therefore embodies the qualities of a wild animal. These qualities are attributed to the population of black people, as the word nigger typically applied to all blacks during the time period. Furthermore, the racial marginalization during the time period is exemplified by the fact that the man is on display in the House of the Freaks merely on the basis of his racial identity, therefore implying that all African Americans embody these same qualities.

Lastly, through the relationship between the soldier and Frankie, McCullers highlights the effects of sexuality in contributing to Frankie’s understanding of immorality and evil. Frankie’s sexual development seems to root from her desire to be an adult. This is exemplified by the fact that she marvels at the idea of going on a “date, a grown word used by older girls” (74). However, when confronted by her first true sexual experience with the soldier, the room which she is lured to is described with “a glass pitcher full of water and a half-eaten package of cinnamon rolls covered in blue icing and fat flies” (135). The description of the cinnamon rolls, which are typically associated with warmth and sweetness, are representative of Frankie’s naïve and innocent perception of sex, which seems to relate more to her yearning maturity and being accepted. Furthermore, the blue icing, a color which is often associated with maturity and stability, symbolizes her desire for maturity. However, this depiction of sweetness and warmth is juxtaposed alongside the rot and decay associated with flies. This symbolizes her realization of the true nature of sex, which seems to fall short of the ideas that she had conjured of maturity and therefore being accepted. Furthermore, her harsh realization of the true nature of sex is exemplified by the description of the soldier inviting Frankie into his room, where he “grasps her skirt and, limpened by freight, [Frankie] was pulled down beside him on the bed… She felt his arms around her and smelled his sweaty shirt” (136). His oppressive sexual dominance, as noted by the fact that she smells his sweat, which is typically associated with masculinity and strength, is further reinforced by the description of him wrapping his arms and constraining her beneath him. This contradicts the idyllic vision that Frankie had perceived, which depended upon the naïve belief that all people, including the soldier, had good moral intentions. However, the true intentions maintained by the soldier, as exemplified by his attempt to rape her, seems to be more of an immoral lust for power and dominance rooting from his human weakness and insecurities. This relationship provides an epiphany for Frankie, in which she is exposed to the harsh reality of immorality and evil, which seemed to contradict her disposition that all people hold values in line with her own.

“We all of us somehow caught. We born this way or that way and we don’t know why. But we caught anyhow” (119). This quote from Berenice Sadie Brown, a colored woman marginalized from the rest of society during the time period, depicts the reality that division is a fundamental piece of human nature. In the novel Member of the Wedding, Frankie is gradually exposed to the harsh reality of this truth through her numerous brushes with social constructs, changing her perception of the world drastically. Despite her naïve disposition that everybody is unified under the same values and her own feelings of being ostracized, she soon finds, through her different experiences and relationships, that no person is free from division, particularly with regards to the racial, gender, and sexual constructs that dominated society during the time period.

Works Cited:

McCullers, Carson. Member of the Wedding. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1946. Print.