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Ballad of the Sad Cafe

Page history last edited by David Hodges 14 years, 2 months ago


The Ballad of the Sad Café

by Carson McCullers


            When she was only twenty-three, Carson McCullers' first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, became a literary sensation. Since that time, her reputation has grown with every successive work.

            Such novels as Reflections In a Golden Eye, The Member of the Wedding and Clock Without Hands have won her comparison with such diverse masters as Melville, Flaubert and Faulkner -- which is to say: no critic has succeeded in easily capsulizing the full dimensions of her talent.

            Perhaps none of her works more brilliantly represents the variety and richness of her art than The Ballad of the Sad Café. In the already classic novella of the title, and in the tales which accompany it, the genius of Carson McCullers shines forth vividly -- and unforgettably.


            The town itself is dreary; not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where the workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street only a hundred yards long. On Saturdays the tenants from the near-by farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world. The nearest train stop is Society City, and the Greyhound and White Bus Lines use the Forks Falls Road which is three miles away. The winters here are short and raw, the summers white with glare and fiery hot.

            If you walk along the main street on an August afternoon there is nothing whatsoever to do. The largest building, in the very center of the town, is boarded up completely and leans so far to the right that it seems bound to collapse at any minute. The house is very old. There is about it a curious, cracked look that is very puzzling until you suddenly realize that at one time, and long ago, the right side of the front porch had been painted, and part of the wall -- but the painting was left unfinished and one portion of the house is darker and dingier than the other. The building looks completely deserted. Nevertheless, on the second floor there is one window which is not boarded; sometimes in the late afternoon when the heat is at its worst a hand will slowly open the shutter and a face will look down on the town. It is a face like the terrible dim faces known in dreams -- sexless and white, with two gray crossed eyes which are turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief. The face lingers at the window for an hour or so, then the shutters are dosed once more, and as likely as not there will not be another soul to be seen along the main street. These August afternoons -- when your shift is finished there is absolutely nothing to do; you might as well walk down to the Forks Falls Road and listen to the chain gang.

            However, here in this very town there was once a café. And this old boarded-up house was unlike any other place for many miles around. There were tables with cloths and paper napkins, colored streamers from the electric fans, great gatherings on Saturday nights. The owner of the place was Miss Amelia Evans. But the person most responsible for the success and gaiety of the place was a hunchback called Cousin Lymon. One other person had a part in the story of this café -- he was the former husband of Miss Amelia, a terrible character who returned to the town after a long term in the penitentiary, caused ruin, and then went on his way again. The café has long since been closed, but it is still remembered.

Comments (37)

David Hodges said

at 9:46 pm on May 20, 2010

As an example of Descriptive writing, this excerpt from Carson McCullers' short novel provides excellent examples of details that are more than merely accurate. The author makes careful, deliberate choices about what to describe and how. Certainly not everything she says about the town is entirely accurate, and certainly she suppresses details that would not fit the mood she wishes to create.

Discuss her technique in selecting the details that create an impression of the town and its cafe. How well do we understand her intentions? What can you predict about the lives of the characters who will inhabit the novel? What can you learn about your own descriptive essays from reading this brief passage?


at 5:01 pm on May 23, 2010

The writer who will inhabit the novel lives as recluse,solitary,oneness, and depressed. that impression cames to me during the writer uses spacific clauses like ,the twon is lonesome and estranged from other places in the word ,there is nothing whatsoever to do.
I can learn from this passage, how the writer discripes the things from the general to spacific.The writer discrips the twon first then the buliding which the writer lives,after that the spacific details
like person life and who the writer lives with.

David Hodges said

at 9:32 pm on May 23, 2010

You're clever to notice the progress from general to specific, Nourhan. It is also common for authors to insinuate connections between a place and its inhabitants, or the weather and the characters, as you've suggested. People who live in a lonely town will tend to be lonely people.

WeiWeiZheng said

at 4:00 pm on May 26, 2010

The writer described this essay from her view, how the town around in her eyes, connected to her thought that knew about the city where she lived. Also she gave her opinion. Ex. when your shift is finished there is absolutely nothing to do; you might as well walk down to the Forks Falls Road and listen to the chain gang. The writer stood on reader's side, to help reader become more clear when they read it. Consequently, the writer made reader to think and image on their head from her described words in the essay.
Add one more, the person who stand next to me is my little brother, don't think another one(Not my son) Smiling.....

David Hodges said

at 5:22 pm on May 26, 2010

Thanks, WeiWei! "The writer stood on the reader's side" is well put. It describes by metaphor the collaboration of reader and writer to create and transmit meaning. The writer's words alone are not enough; they must be heard and interpreted by a willing and cooperative reader. Of course, the reader can't do the job alone either; the reader follows the clues, the transitions, the innuendos the writer places in the text.

Baby Tanuwidjaja said

at 7:23 pm on May 26, 2010

When the writer described the town, she made the conclusion in the first sentence (The Town itself is dreay), and then she guided the reader with the datail why the town is dreary. She started with "not much is there except.." , than she follow up with "two colored windows and miserable main street" . When I read this story, I could feel that I was in that town by myself because how the detail the writer describe the situation and condition of the town. I feel like reading 3 dimension book.
My first impresion about the cafe, the writer describe the cafe a little bit different (I would say the opposite situation); the cafe had more life compare with the town. the colored streamers gives the impression that there is (at least) a live in the cafe.

David Hodges said

at 8:08 pm on May 26, 2010

I am so impressed by this class! Your comment about feeling you were inside a 3-dimensional book is excellent, Baby! You're also exactly right when you say the author offers us the conclusion first: the town is dreary, and provides the evidence after.

Your observation about the cafe is very astute. It was a lively spot at one time when Miss Amelia and her hunchback ran the place, and now the town is that much drearier since the place has been boarded up. Good work!

Mustapha said

at 11:26 pm on May 26, 2010

The writer described this essay from her own point of view.Describing the town first was a very awesome technique the writer use to tell the reader how the town looks like,and the writer give some example for the reader to picture flame how this town including the cafe looks like in his mind.I've learned how to write a very good essay from too specific to too general,as this writer did in her essay.

David Hodges said

at 7:14 am on May 27, 2010

Nice work, Mustapha. Those are three well-balanced sentences!

Bruna Dietrich said

at 12:09 pm on May 27, 2010

I just read a short review about the book. This short and sad excerpt make me curious about the rest of the story. I was wondering if the story involving the characters was so sad as the town that she just described.
Sometimes, when the writer is too descriptive or he does not describe very well, the reader can get tired quickly of this part of the book. The descriptive part in in many stories or novels is really important because you have to be able to imagine the place or the person to understand and feel the facts.
In my opinion, Carson McCullers described the small town with words that I could almost feel when I was reading.In the beginning I felt like: "I never wanna be in this place in my life, sounds so sad, ugly and spiritually empty."
However, after she repeat two times that there is nothing whatsoever to do in this town suddenly she started to describe a place(the cafe) with softer and nicer words. That make me feel like: "Hm maybe this lonesome town is not so bad."

David Hodges said

at 1:42 pm on May 27, 2010

Very nice work, Bruna. You write so well! I agree with you about writers whose descriptions go on too long. This short excerpt seems to avoid that problem, as you say, by turning its attention to specific details that introduce a character, then another, then a third, and thereby start to tell a story on the very first page.


at 7:18 pm on May 27, 2010

WOW! I really like this excerpt, because the details make me feel as if I am in the story. Her descriptive sentences make the story much more interesting and make me want to read more of the story. Although I am not a fan of reading, this story kept me interested. However, one thing i do not like about the story is that it is very depressing. It is very sad that the cafe, which was the happiest place in town, was destroyed.
Thank you for sharing this story with me. It was very interesting!

David Hodges said

at 8:24 pm on May 27, 2010

Thank you, Sevgi, for your honest assessment. Your sentences are beautifully made. If I share enough good writing with you, maybe I can convince you to do more reading on your own. (We'll see.) For me, good writing is everything, much more important than subject matter, tone, or mood; but that's just me.

Ana Morano said

at 12:01 am on May 28, 2010

The descripitive writing can sound easy, but is not. So, when you have a chance to read something like The Ballad of the Sad Café from Carson McCullers' you can understand why is not easy to do. The author need to know very well how to provide all the descripitive details without being tiring for the reader. Also, to know how to create feeling and suspense about the story is other important thing and Carson McCullers' did very well.
I like the way that this author mix the descripitive element about the places and the characters. This is more then just think about the meanings of the story, because I could start feel the story and sometimes is like if I was living over there too.
Even sad, was a good reading!

moshe edri said

at 1:24 am on May 28, 2010

The author Strengthens the reader's sympathy to the cafe' store in two ways: first by describing the city as a very boring place to be or live in , There is nothing special in the cafe' beside the fact that this is the only attractive ( for social Entertainment ) place in town .
The second way is by giving the cafe a tragic end, it had been destroyed by angry former husband; accordingly, the author Arouse the reader's interest in the cafe' by using his compassion feelings.
Also, the descriptions are very dramatic some of them even metaphorical; for example, "winters here are short and raw, the summers white with glare and fiery hot".
Personally i like metaphorical writing, i believe it's make the writing more lively.

David Hodges said

at 9:04 am on May 28, 2010

Very perceptive comment, Ana! You seem to be responding to the same characteristic Bruna mentioned in her comment, that good writers blend their descriptions with character development and bits of narrative to keep readers interested. This technique will enliven your own writing too. As you say, blending three strategies in one brief passage is difficult, but many of you have already demonstrated the technique in your first essays.

David Hodges said

at 9:21 am on May 28, 2010

What a brilliant comment, Moshe! You are clearly an alert and perceptive reader. I agree completely about McCullers' strategies to create sympathy in her readers for the café. You're the first to specify what sort of emotional reaction the author's descriptions inspire. Since you're fond of metaphor, I wonder if you noticed the significance of listening to the chain gang. It's a particularly poignant way to take entertainment.

WeiWeiZheng said

at 1:01 pm on May 28, 2010

After read it again and again, I found out this story tried to tell us," From the dreary town, it started writer's want and put her describe words over her view where slowly move to next place; finally, the way she went to it connected the most important place in her memorie 'the Cafe', to reflect her really feel about the Cafe and people who were there before. However, the writer step by step lead reader followed her way, make them focused on this story, and revealed her thought and intent.

David Hodges said

at 1:12 pm on May 28, 2010

Thanks, WeiWei! I see your grammar and punctuation need some work, but you're exactly right that the writer takes us on a tour of the dreary town all the way to the cafe, which leads her to reminisce about the cafe's history. We go with her because she intrigues us at every step. No single sentence satisfies us; instead, it hints that there is more to be revealed. Fun, isn't it?

WeiWeiZheng said

at 1:41 pm on May 28, 2010

Thank you too, I need to do more work as you say put youself on harder and harder, so I can improve myself on my work.

Kankamol said

at 2:28 pm on May 28, 2010

The writer described this passage as a word picture that helps the readers clearly understand and easily imagine this excerpt. She detailed the from the large point about the town to the small spot which is the window of the building. While I was reading this passage, I feel like I was walking on the street in that small town and keep going and going with the writer until I ended up with the sad cafe.
I can learn from this passage for my own descriptive essay a lot how to organize the descriptive essay. For instance, I have to describe the items in order by space; from left to right or from large to small, but not disorder it.
Thank you for your comment in advance professor !!

David Hodges said

at 5:48 pm on May 28, 2010

That's the spirit, WeiWei! The more you practice, the easier it will get!

clara lee said

at 6:08 pm on May 28, 2010

Reviewing of novel; Ballad of the Sad Café

This novel, Ballad of the Sad Café, is a good example of descriptive writing. Because the direction of this novel leaded me to understand how the character felt, and what it would be like if I lived in the town with them. The author, Carson McCullers is a very sharp person who sees every different dimension of dreary a boring town. I feel that the author described the town very clearly, specifically, and delicately. So that reader can be breathing with author. In other words, the reader can catch the author’s concept from what the author try to say.

The town is very old, and there was nothing for the people to enjoy in the town, except Sad Café. The café was totally different than dreary town which was the only place that people living in the town, enjoyed and gathered on Saturday night. The owner of the café, Miss Evans and the maintainer of the café, a hunch back named Cousin Lymon kept the café successful. Evans’s former husband, who had a terrible character, ruined their business. It was because of him, that the café had been closed for longtime. However, the memory of the café still remains in author’s mind, but as a sad memory.

This novel carried my curiosity and made me interested enough to read the next passage, what would be the happen next. This excerpt is a very good descriptive and interesting essay. I think that the author, Carson McCullers is a good writer.

After reading this novel, Ballad of the Sad Café, I learned to write a good descriptive sentence and how to lead the reader to the writer’s concept. Over all, I enjoyed the story.

Thank you, Prof. Hodges.
Truly, Clara
By the way, can I read your story that you mentioned to one of students in Wiki e-mail please, if you don’t mind?

David Hodges said

at 6:09 pm on May 28, 2010

That's great, Kankamol. You experienced what some of your classmates have also reported, that they were led on a tour through the town by a writer who knows where she's going.

What you say about organizing details according to space or size is VERY important!

In addition to all their other tactics, good writers use patterns that guide readers through the text. To describe a person I've known all my life, I might organize my details:

Spatially (left to right, as you suggested, but also top to bottom, from the head to the toes),
Temporally (how she looked when I was 5, when I was 10, 25, how she look now),
Far-to-near (how she looks when I first spot her across the room, what I notice as I get closer, how she looks when we're about to touch),
Philosophically (how her face has changed but her eyes have always told a clear, convincing story),
Sensorially (how she looks, sounds, feels, smells, tastes),
According to my age or position (if I'm five when I meet her, I only reach her waist, I can't see the top of her head, and I'm looking up her nose)!

Thinking this way will help you when you organize the re-writes for your Descriptive Essays!

David Hodges said

at 6:24 pm on May 28, 2010

That's wonderful, Clara! I'm glad you're reading this excerpt as an example to learn from. It certainly does a beautiful job of manipulating readers' emotions with detail. Your synopsis is entirely accurate and demonstrates your strong paraphrasing skill.

Of course you may read stories by me (hundreds of them, actually) by following the link from the David Hodges page. I invite you to share you own favorite web pages with your classmates too, by posting links on your own wiki pages.

philip said

at 7:14 pm on May 28, 2010

Carson Mccullers did a good job with this amazing description!She used a lot of technics to capture your attention, and also her description was so good that you can feel everything that she wrote.I think she is trying to get us in that place and she did very well.She is trying to put some smell,touch,feelings,sight, and also some taste in the story and like I said she did it very,very good.

David Hodges said

at 8:33 pm on May 28, 2010

Thank you for your comment, Philip. While I'm flattered that you have echoed my comment about details that evoke all five senses, I'm not willing to accept your list at face value. I have to challenge you to name five examples—at least one of each. Can you do it? If not, I'd like you to offer something else unique.

Kankamol said

at 9:35 pm on May 28, 2010

Thank you very much again professor !!! I will use this technique to improve my writing skill for a descriptive essay.
Ps. At first in my mind,my comment wasn't good enough but after I read your recommend for me... I did so well much more than what I thought.

Kankamol said

at 9:36 pm on May 28, 2010

I forgot to say something...... Have a nice (long) weekend professor :)))))))))))))))))

David Hodges said

at 9:44 pm on May 28, 2010

I wish you a wonderful weekend too, Kankamol. And not just you but the whole class!

I see what you mean about your comment, but you anticipated an essential technique we haven't had a chance to talk about in class yet. I am in your debt for introducing the concept early! Thank you.

Lin Yong Liu said

at 10:33 pm on May 28, 2010

The second paragraph sounds like a hunt house, because it describes the face of the house.
Anyway, I'm reading and thinking what the author talks about this story. The author writes descriptive of the town what she saw. Perhaps she wants to write about the condition of the town after she walked around the town; therefore, the readers will comprehend and/or feel like they have the same situation in their towns. At the end, it about the terribly sad about the cafe. The cafe seems unpopular and has not public restaurant anymore after the husband's problems.

Chunhui Hao said

at 11:48 pm on May 28, 2010

This description of the small café store like a pearl in the dark gave me really deep impress. According to the comparison of detail description, I can image an activity, sunshine, and clean small café store, which is in a dreary, lonesome, and toneless town, vividly.
The author didn’t write a lot of things about how shine about the café store, but I feel more lively than just descript the store. In addition, although the author didn’t say how humdrum this town, I feel more lively than blunt description. The author put a lot of attention to draw the background of the store to show how special it is.

and hope everybody have a good long weekend!!!!~~~~~~^-^

David Hodges said

at 5:32 am on May 29, 2010

That's clever, Lin Yong. I see what you mean about the haunted house. "a hand will slowly open the shutter and a face will look down on the town...—sexless and white with two gray crossed eyes." It does sound as if she's describing the face of the house! Thank you for finding something no one else had mentioned.

David Hodges said

at 5:36 am on May 29, 2010

That's very interesting, Charlotte! It is difficult often to find the exact words in a story that give us the impressions we form while we read. We think we've been reading about endless violence, for instance, but find when we re-read that only a few times is actual violence described. The power of the instances has a bigger effect than the number.

David Hodges said

at 5:41 am on May 29, 2010

In general, the quality of all your responses was extremely impressive, Four! Thank you very much for participating in this very valuable out-of-class assignment.

I'm disappointed not to have heard from all of you (Jeanine, Nafisa, Elizabeth). It's too late now for timely submissions, but I invite you to make contributions anyway!

To all of you: please enjoy your long holiday weekend. See a parade. Eat a cheeseburger. Honor the proud men and women who have given their lives in service to your own country. I will see you Wednesday!

philip said

at 10:01 am on May 31, 2010

well professor I 'm try to give some examples about all the senses. Here we go:
Taste: There were tables with clothes and paper napkins......(I can taste and image a restaurant)
Sight and smell: The very first one sentence I think describe very good sight and smell.I can smell and image the cotton mill,the peach trees and also the church.I can see and image the miserable main street.
Feelings:I think that all the paragraph is about feelings.she described and detailed everything, so I can feel and image almost all the story.

David Hodges said

at 11:18 am on May 31, 2010

Good work, Philip. The author does not make this job easy for you. Peaches and the cotton mill offer an opportunity to imagine smells, as you say, but we have to go out of our way to taste anything, imagining the cafe when it was active, unlike the day she describes it. As for feelings, I meant the tactile type, like feeling with your fingertips. The white hotness of the summer days we can certainly feel. The paragraphs are certainly effective without involving all of the senses, but McCullers missed other opportunities to engage the reader even more.

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