Wednesday 29 August 2012

Guest Post - Jane Smith

Giving The Member of the Wedding Another Chance

The first time I read The Member of the Wedding, I was a thirteen-year-old in Mrs. Sally Walker’s 8th-grade Language Arts class. I hated it. The protagonist was so stupid and annoying. She was unnecessarily negative all the time, sullen, immature. Contemptuous of childhood, and stuck in a sort of terrified awe of adulthood. She was constantly failing to understand things, but she also lashed out crudely at other people for the same fault.

She was just like me, of course. Or, not quite. She was a little younger and a lot more culturally sheltered than I was. But that just made it even worse. I could pretend to be so much beyond her kind of nonsense…just as she acts toward John Henry. Precisely to the degree that it resonated, I despised the book. I also had a younger sister, and especially during this phase of our lives, we were like a lot like Frankie and John Henry in reverse.

It seems unwise to make kids on the cusp of adolescence read this book. I think the inclusion of these kinds of characters in the school curriculum is supposed to be a gesture of, like, “hey kids, we know you’re seething with angst and rebellion...that’s totally groovy, and we understand.” But that’s the last thing you want to hear when you’re seething with angst and rebellion. Let alone, “Your homework is this book about sexual confusion. It’s pretty damn depressing and not at all salacious.” There’s something almost Orwellian about your adult oppressors wanting to prove that they really “get” you.

I had a similar problem with Catcher in the Rye a few years later. By the end of high school my angsty phase was truly over. My soul had been utterly rescued by the sex and drugs from which the grown world had been trying so hard to protect me. Holden Caulfield just seemed like a bummer to hang out with.

But if I had still been in the awkward years when I read Catcher, I might well have hated it more. (Or I would have loved it, in which case apparently I would have become a crazed assassin.) Rereading the Salinger book recently, my impression had not changed. I could appreciate the subtleties, craft aspects, etc., a lot more, but Catcher still did not move me.

But rereading Member of the Wedding was a completely different experience. The main reason was, it seemed a lot funnier. My youth had obscured the irony operating in these books, but obviously it’s one of the primary factors in the workings of each. I think the close 3rd –person perspective, compared to Holden’s overbearing 1st, makes Frankie less obnoxious and more pathetic (in the good sense). We get her thought patterns (which are dead-on, especially the quasi-mythic narratives she makes up for herself, or has learned by heart as in the case of Ludie), but we’re conscious that it doesn’t line up exactly with how a fully separate 3rd-person (whether some perfectly objective Voice of God, or McCullers herself as a grown person) would see the situation.

So now I’m older, wiser, and rereading the book has made a McCullers believer of me. I intend to watch the 1950s movie some time…though I’ve heard it’s mediocre. I’m in an open-minded mood now, though. Maybe I should go back and try some other book I hated as a kid. Now where did I put that copy of Ivanhoe?

Jane Smith, a freelance blogger and writer, specializes in various types of information screenings, often writing for Email her your questions and comments at

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