Life in Death: Part Two of The Heart Is a Lonely
May 21, 2004
If you have a question, no matter how trivial you think it might be, chances are someone else has it too! And our literary guide has the answer! Oprah's Book Club member lindylou asks: "I don't understand Biff's reaction after his wife's death. Why does he use her perfume and hair rinse? Is this his way of grieving her death or grieving for a life they never had?"
Virginia Spencer Carr replies, "Your question regarding Biff's reaction to his wife's death and your uncertainty as to how to interpret it is not surprising. You might think first about his domestic behavior while Alice was still alive. Remember the way he re-makes the bed after she has finished her 'Sunday-School lesson,' impatient for her to leave? 'Deftly he reversed the sheets in all possible ways, putting the top one on the bottom, and turning them over and upside,' then strips himself naked and gets into bed after she leaves the room.
"Truly, I would not take as devotion any of his actions after her death. His trading the iron bed in which they had both slept for a studio couch, buying blue sick cushions for the couch, buying a thick red rug for the floor and a wall hanging of a beautiful cloth of Chinese blue to cover up most of the cracks, unsealing the fireplace and laying it with pine logs, making deep red curtains for the windows on his sister's sewing machine, and placing a small Japanese pagoda 'with glass pendants that tinkled with strange musical in a draught'—all thrilled him, and nothing in the room reminded him of Alice.
"Yet his dabbing on his ear lobes and wrists Alice's Agua Florida (perfume) and using her lemon hair rinse provoked, over time, a growing 'sense of the past.' He was reminded of their good days, and of his mother when he was a child watching her combing and knotting her long black hair. Biff remembered being six when his mother took away the beautiful scraps of cloth he played, as though to remind him that he was a boy and was expected to behave as one. Biff imagined himself in ancient Greece, 'walking in sandals on the edge of the blue Aegean. The loose robes girdled at the waist. The loose robes girdled at the waist. Children. The marble baths and the contemplations in the temples.' McCullers, too, loved best imagining things that did not require a confrontation with reality.
"Your asking if Biff's using Alice's perfume and lemon hair rinse were a means of grieving her death—or grieving for a life they never had—prompts me to conclude that McCullers portrayed Biff and his imaginings of being a father/mother figure to the children in her novel long after his original rejection of Alice, much as their creator (McCullers) rejected Reeves, her husband, divorced him, and remarried him four years later upon his return home from battle during WWII as a wounded Army Ranger, a reunion fraught with hostility, separation, threats, and reconcilliation, a union severed irretrievably by Reeves's suicide. But that's another story."
Life According to Carson McCullers Mick Kelly isn't the only one who retreats to an inner room to create, recover and dream. Read McCullers's candid thoughts about the most intimate details of her life—her failed marriage, the fear of writer's block, her debilitating illness and more. Join McCullers on a visit to her own inner room.
Carson's Circle of Friends No matter whether she was in New York, Paris or Rome, Carson McCullers seemed to find her way into the homes of some of the most influential writers of her generation: Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams, W.H. Auden and more. Plus, find out what McCullers and Marilyn Monroe have in common! See who was part of McCullers's literary crowd.