The Ballad of the Sad Cafe

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe


“The Ballad of the Sad Café,” by Carson McCullers (1951), opens on the set of a small town in Georgia. The reader is introduced to Miss Amelia, an independent, lonely woman who owns a small store. On this particular day, an extraordinary event changes the course of Amelia’s life: she meets Cousin Lymon. Cousin Lymon, despite being a hunchback with rude mannerisms, reveals that Amelia has the ability to be a kind and gentle soul. He helps her discover love—and he becomes her beloved. While Cousin Lymon never returns Amelia’s feelings he instills a change in her. She opens a café, which serves as a meeting place for all of the townspeople. Through the café, the town develops a sense of community and pride. As per usual, though, all people have a troubling history. It turns out Amelia was once married to a man she did not love, albeit for 10 days. He comes back after his stint in the penitentiary to ruin Amelia’s life just like she ruined his. He steals Cousin Lymon’s devotion and, in turn, her ability to love. The novella ends just like it began, with a portrait of a sad town that has nothing to hope for.


Amelia- main character; exhibits some masculine gender roles
Cousin Lymon- hunchback; exhibits some feminine gender roles
Marvin- Amelia’s husband

What is love?

Love is really the central theme of the novella. All of the characters experience being the lover and the beloved; it is all very circular. First, Marvin loves Amelia, and in turns the love changes him into a kinder, more gentle person. Then when Amelia does not love him back he goes into a rage and becomes a lazy, angry person. Amelia, on the other hand, loves Cousin Lymon, who teaches her how to love just like she taught Marvin. Finally, completing the circle, Cousin Lymon loves Marvin because he sees the man that he wants to be in his demeanor. While all of the characters experience love of some sort, the story is really tragic after all because no one actually succeeds at loving or being loved in return.

What is gender?

Gender roles play a big part in terms of the story. Through the book, McCullers tries to get the reader to question masculinity and femininity. The most obvious example of different gender roles is through Amelia and Cousin Lymon. Instead of reinforcing masculine and feminine gender roles, Amelia and Cousin Lymon’s roles are reversed. Amelia exhibits more masculine traits—in appearance and in her actions—and Cousin Lymon is more feminine. Marvin has conflicting gender roles as well, although his are more discrete. He consistently reinforces masculine roles throughout the story but once in a while he is described as either appearing feminine or being homosexual. Gender roles also play a large part in how the characters are seen by the community. Marvin is consistently regarded as handsome, powerful, and malicious, while Cousin Lymon is seen as bothersome and a gossip. Amelia is a special case, however, because she asserts her independence and is actually accepted by the community. It is important to consider how gender roles fit into the story in order to understand the overall theme of love.


"The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" is a 1991 Merchant Ivory film, produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by Simon Callow, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Keith Carradine. Michael Hirst adapted the Edward Albee play, which in turn was based on a novella in a collection of short stories by the same title by Carson McCullers.

The story's protagonist is a lonely moonshiner named Miss Amelia who dominates a small Georgia town. She changes in attitude and kindness as two men, Cousin Lymon (a small, hunchbacked man claiming to be Miss Amelia's cousin) and Marvin Macy (Miss Amelia's ex-husband) enter her life. Her general store becomes a center for culture and music, and The Sad Cafe, itself, becomes a symbol of Miss Amelia's disposition. Amid this plot, issues of work vs. pleasure, material vs. psychological health, and conflicting loyalties emerge. The short story is told in flashback--giving the reader, first, a look at the ruined Cafe before seeing its heyday and subsequent demise.

*Vanessa Redgrave - "Miss Amelia"
*Keith Carradine - "Marvin Macy"
*Cork Hubbert - "Cousin Lymon"
*Rod Steiger - "Rev. Willin"
*Austin Pendleton - "Lawyer Taylor"
*Beth Dixon - "Mary Hale"
*Lanny Flaherty - "Merlie Ryan"
*Mert Hatfield - "Stumpy McPhail"
*Earl Hindman - "Henry Macy"
*Anne Pitoniak - "Mrs. McPhail"
*Frederick Johnson - "Jeff"
*Lauri Raymond - "Sadie Ricketts"
*Joe Stephens - "Henry Ford Crimp"
*Keith Wommack - "Tom Rainey"
*Kevin Wommack - "George Rainey"
*Laura Burns - "Molly Kelly"


External links

* enote article]
* [,9171,858141,00.html "Time" article, June 04, 1951]
* [ "New York Times" review of film, March 28, 1991]

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