Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Sojourner - Carson McCullers

Author: Carson McCullers
Date: 1950
Setting: primarily New York, in the 1940s
Availability: Read The Sojourner on line, free

Carson McCullers photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1959 July 31. Collection of Library of Congress

Story: John Ferris, the sojourner, has returned from Paris to the United States for his father’s funeral in Georgia. It is revealed in the first sentences of the story that he has been a world traveler, and his half-awake, half-asleep dreams may symbolize his inability to grasp real life.

While waiting in New York, to catch a plane back to Europe, he happens to see his ex-wife, Elizabeth. He follows her for blocks, but can’t quite convince himself to approach her. He returns to his hotel, and impulsively calls Elizabeth. She invites him to dine that evening with her new husband and family; he accepts.

The evening is pleasant, but with moments of strain, politeness, and always that sense of unreality. Elizabeth plays the piano- reminding John of what he has lost, John speaks cautiously with Bill, her current husband. The most distressing moments come when their young son Billy learns that this stranger and his mother used to be married. He cannot accept this as a possible situation, and after being initially friendly with John, turns hostile when his outbursts result in being told that he can’t stay up to have cake for dessert.

John tries to focus on his current love, Jeannine, and her son. He even portrays the relationship to Elizabeth and Bill as stable and that they are on the brink of marriage. The truth is that Jeannine is just one more woman in a sequence of loves since the divorce, and he doesn’t particularly like her son.

The story closes with a poignant scene, back in Paris, between John and Jeannine’s boy, Valentin. John reaches out in an attempt to create an actual relationship.

Commentary: The Sojourner seems to be descriptive of John Ferris both in a physical sense- he never stays in one place for long, and a psychological sense- he is unable to form lasting relationships.

He was close to his father, but "Papa Ferris" is now dead. He has lost Elizabeth who haunts him; her music keeps coming back to him in inverted, minor motifs, always fragmented. He has lost a father, he has no wife, no son, no one to hold him in one place. There is a sense that John always brings too little to a relationship, and that too late. The final sentence Valentin speaks is the essence of the problem: "Monsieur Jean, the guignol is now closed."

Author info: Carson McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith in the state of Georgia, 1917. She is best known for the novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Her stories were always set in the American South, and always dealt with themes of the difficulties of love and human relationships. Her health was fragile. She suffered several strokes at an early age, and died in 1967.

Unusual Words:
The Tuileries- gardens at the Louvre museum in Paris
guignol- refers to a puppet theatre which is sometimes playing at the Tuileries

Language skills 10
Depth of meaning 10



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