This novel, McCullers’ second after The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is set on a military base in the South in the 1930s. It follows two marriages—that of Captain Penderton and his adulterous wife Leonora, and their neighbors, the sickly Alison Langdon and her husband (and Leonora’s lover) Major Morris Langdon, through the heart attacks and death of Alison at a sanatorium, and Captain Penderton’s growing obsession with the enlisted man Private Ellgee Williams, whom he catches in his wife’s room watching her sleep and shoots and kills him.
As the opening paragraph explains, “There is a fort in the South where a few years ago a murder was committed. The participants of this tragedy were: two officers, a soldier, two women, a Filipino, and a horse” (3). Throughout the novel, the themes of sexual deviance and Southern identity frequently emerge, and it is at times implied that they are related in some way. Though Leonora is “not a pure-bred Southerner,” she is “Southern enough” in her ways to offend her husband’s sensibilities (12-3). Captain Penderton seems to make distinctions between Leonora’s southern-ness and his own “pure-bred” Southern identity—for the Captain, his southern heritage is distinguished as a “history of barbarous splendor, ruined poverty, and family hauteur….the Captain set exaggerated store by the lost past” (71-2). Interestingly, the distinctions which the Captain makes between levels of southern identity are through food. Leonora’s southern-ness can be seen in her dirty stove—“Their gas stove was not crusted with generations of dirt as her grandmothers’ had been, but then it was by no means clean” (13) and the “plain, heavy Southern meals” which Leonora and Major Langdon enjoy, unlike the “subtle cookery of New Orleans” and the “balanced harmony of French food” which the Captain prefers (113). Leonora’s southern identity is a class-based one, while the Captain’s is one of aesthetic heritage.
Specifically, Leonora’s problematic identity is based on a sense of sexual excess—not only does she herself take lovers, but she is described as “a little feeble-minded” (16), a quality which endears her to some (such as the Major) and which simply reinforces her husband’s misogyny. Captain Penderton from the beginning of the novel is described in queer terms, such as “having a penchant for becoming enamoured of his wife’s lovers” (11). While his own understanding of his sexuality is in terms of balance—“Sexually the Captain obtained within himself a delicate balance between the male and female elements,” this balance is one of infertility: he possesses “the susceptibilities of both the sexes and the active powers of neither” (10). Throughout the course of the novel, he develops a growing obsession with Private Ellgee Williams, one which drives him to stalk the soldier and the homo-ness of the world of the enlisted man. Unlike his own home, which is pervaded by the feminine sensuality of his sexually active wife, Captain Penderton longs for the world of the barracks, “two thousand men living together in this great quadrangle” (97), “the neat cots placed in a row, the bare floors, and stark curtainless windows” (118). The masculine aesthetics for which Captain Penderton longs are acknowledged as a place of queer behavior (122). Ironically, by the novel’s end the Captain’s obsessive desire has feminized him, as Williams’ invasion of his bedroom reduces the Captain to “clutch[ing] the front of his wrapper and press[ing] his hand against his breast” (126). The perverse homosocial connection which the Captain realizes exists between himself and the soldier through the sleeping figure of his wife drives him to murder the soldier in the last scene in the novel.
One reading of the novel would identify in Private Williams a root of sexual deviancy, one which the Captain kills in a futile attempt to uproot such perversion. Private Williams is completely of a world of “homo-ness,” as he was raised in an exclusively male household by a father who preached that “women carried in them a deadly and catching disease which made men blind, crippled, and doomed to hell” (18-9). Amusingly, he hears similar ideas in the homosocial world of the military in their warnings against venereal disease, and the result is that “Private Williams had never willingly touched, or looked at, or spoken to a female since he was eight years old” (19). With this foundation, the Private’s vigils at the bedside of the sleeping Leonora seems to be his own flirting with sexual deviance, as he approaches the altar of what he understands as the root of sexual sin.
That such a hegemonic institution as the military should be designated as such a queer space is perhaps best summarized by a conversation between the two officers over dinner: “You mean…that any fulfillment obtained at the expense of normalcy is wrong, and should not be allowed to bring happiness. In short, it is better, because it is morally honorable, for the square peg to keep scraping about the round hole rather than to discover and use the unorthodox square that would fit it?” (114). Major Langdon agrees, and Captain Penderton disagrees. Nevertheless, they both acknowledge the existence of what Tennessee Williams (in his 1971 afterword to the novel) describes as “something almost too incredible and shocking to talk about….the incommunicable something that we shall have to call mystery which is so inspiring of dread” (133). In McCullers’ vision of the South (which Tennessee Williams ties to a larger “Gothic School” of southern writers), there is this intuition of unspoken decadence which these writers are able to articulate and evoke in their work, and it is this acknowledgement of the dreadful and mysterious which makes them so popular.