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Carson McCullers: Clock Without Hands

McCullers laboured for a long time over this, her last novel. It is perhaps her least successful novel but an unsuccessful McCullers novel is still worth more than most writers’ successful novels and it is well worth reading. Its main theme is racism. It is set just before court-ordered integration in a small Southern town where the white townspeople – particularly Judge Fox Clane – are firmly convinced that blacks are inferior and should be kept in their place. As in other McCullers’ novels, several of the main characters revolve around one strange outsider, in this case, Sherman Pew, a black foundling, so named because he was found in a church pew.

The other main character is J T Malone, local drugstore owner and good family man, though somewhat insecure as he has, to a certain degree, depended on his wife’s money and her work. At the beginning of the novel he learns that he has leukaemia and might be dying. Judge Clane is an old and retired judge who is considered too old-fashioned even for the people of the town, who have refused to re-elect him to Congress. Apart from his racist views, his main ambition is to have the United States recognise Confederate money and convert it into US dollars (he has some ten million Confederate dollars). He also mourns his son who killed himself and is bringing up his now grown-up grandson, whose mother died giving birth to him. The grandson, Jester, is studying law and learning to fly and is afraid of but despises his grandfather.

But all revolves around Sherman Pew. He rescued Judge Clane from drowning and now goes to work for the Judge, reading to him, helping him but, unknown to the Judge, despising him for his reactionary views. Pew has grandiose ideas about himself but he is also a champion of his race. Jester, also unknown to the judge, becomes friends with Pew and then becomes attracted to him. The secret of Pew’s origins and the Clanes’ involvement in his origins gradually comes out but not before Pew decides to take one final and decidedly risky step for his cause, a step which will cost him his life. Malone is involved in this but, at the last minute, backs out and leave Pew’s execution to another man though he, too, dies at the end. Three of the four protagonists end up dead, leaving only the Jester to carry on the fight.

Publishing history

First published 1961 by Houghton Mifflin