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.

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