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The Ballad of the Sad Cafe: Learning Who We Are?
on December 2, 2000
The brilliance of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe lies in the fact that it teaches us how to identify ourselves. The crux of the story seems to rest on what may be called an explicit explanation of the lover and the beloved. It's a critical distinction that most do not make; and may well explain why so many human relationships fail. McCullers writes:
"First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons--but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries."
The author asserts that the beloved is only a stimulus for the stored-up love of the lover. She then goes on to say that the beloved can be of any description. "The most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love." The preacher and the fallen woman. The greasy-headed person with evil habits. "In fact, the most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp." McCullers concludes this passage by saying: "Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself." This is a significant point worthy of a lifetime of memory.
As The Ballad of the Sad Cafe unfolds the reader watches the characters' roles transfer from the lover to the beloved. Marvin Macy (the lover) seeks the affections of Amelia Evans (the beloved). But Amelia rejects Macy. Then Amelia (the lover) becomes enamored with Cousin Lymon (the beloved); and then Cousin Lymon, the lover with the hunchback) seeks the attention of Marvin Macy (the beloved).
In the end, Marvin and Cousin Lymon destroy Amelia--physically, mentally, and spiritually. For her, lost love has been a terribly destructive force. She is never the same.
What is clear is that as humans we are often out of character in our relationships. Who are we: the lover or the beloved? Without this understanding our relationships are doomed to fail. This may not have been McCullers' deliberate intent in the work, but it certainly is a distinction well worth making and remembering.