The Gender Roles in "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe"

Amelia's small shop becomes a hopping meeting place when the hunchbacked Lymon arrives in town.
... Kevin Forest/Photodisc/Getty Images

Carson McCuller’s “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe” demonstrates that love happen unexpectedly between two people who don’t seem to belong together. McCuller’s story focuses on the relationship between Miss Amelia, a shop owner in the small Georgia town of Cheehaw. Amelia has a brief marriage to a rough-and-tumble outlaw, Marvin Macy, before falling in love with a hunchbacked visitor, Lymon. In the end, the jilted Macy and the unloving Lymon attack Amelia, ransack her store, and she ends up alone in her shop.

1 Traditional Townsfolk

Though “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe” centers around the relationships of Macy, Lymon and Amelia, the townsfolk of Cheehaw provide a constant backdrop to these three characters interactions. The townsfolks’ curiosity in the relationships of Miss Amelia stem from the fact that she continually defies their expectations. This is because the townsfolk represent traditional gender roles in which women are dainty and attractive and they love men who are rugged and handsome. Amelia defies this expectation by rebuking the handsome and “manly” Macy’s love, while pursuing her weakling, hunchbacked cousin, Lymon.

2 Submissive Marvin Macy

At the beginning of the story, Marvin Macy is a quintessential manly man. He is a tough and attractive outlaw who frequently robs and steals. While the townsfolk expect Macy to treat Amelia as he would any of his robbery victims, he ends up falling in love with her. He even goes so far as to reform his behavior so as to make himself more appealing to Amelia. His gender role transitions from a dominant to a submissive male. In social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s view, the relationship between Macy and Amelia transitions from a relationship defined by masculinity in which Macy is clearly defined as the man and Amelia as the woman to a relationship defined by femininity in which Amelia assumes a position of authority.

3 Dominant Cousin Lymon

Several weeks after Amelia ends her marriage to Macy, a hunchbacked stranger enters Cheehaw claiming to be Amelia’s distant cousin. Almost immediately, the stranger, Lymon, becomes the object of Amelia’s affection. Though he is neither tough nor handsome, Lymon begins to assume the position of the dominant male, not only in Amelia’s life, but also in the town itself. Psychologist Talcott Parsons' model of dominance suggests that Lymon has become the dominant male figure in a Type A gender grouping, which is one in which gender roles are clearly separated and the man stands in a dominant position.

4 Enigmatic Miss Amelia

Amelia’s gender roles in “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe” change throughout the story, making her a difficult character to assign a specific role. In her relationship with the townsfolk, she is a strong, independent woman, what Parsons would label a Type B female. When Macy arrives, Amelia’s strength enhances to the point where she becomes dominant over him. However, when Lymon arrives, Amelia suddenly transitions to a more traditional, Type A female role. Her constant shifting between roles in the story aligns with philosopher Judith Butler’s position that all female gender roles are unnatural manifestations of social pressure.

Samuel Hamilton has been writing since 2002. His work has appeared in “The Penn,” “The Antithesis,” “New Growth Arts Review" and “Deek” magazine. Hamilton holds a Master of Arts in English education from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Master of Arts in composition from the University of Florida.