Frankie Addams is a twelve-year-old adolescent who is on the cusp of sexual and emotional awakening. Her angst comes in the form of extreme isolation and loneliness, because she feels totally disconnected from the world around her. She is not the member of any group. So she becomes obsessed with the fact that she is to be a member of the wedding of her brother Jarvis. She places all her hopes and dreams on this event. She hopes not only to make a connection with another group of human beings, but also to shed herself of her childhood persona.
But the task of escaping childhood is easier said than done. Frankie attempts to make surface changes to give the outward impression that she has suddenly transitioned into a womanlier phase in her life. However, the reality stands that she is incredibly naïve and ill-prepared for the adult world. This is particularly evident when it comes to matters of sex. Frankie is utterly ignorant about the subject and reacts with horror when she experiences or witnesses anything remotely sexual. Through use of imagery, McCullers subtlely hints that Frankie has not yet menstruated. And though Frankie probably does not know what menstruation is, she somehow knows to fear the coming of her period. In order to truly reach a greater level of maturity, she must use her experiences in the novel to end her naïveté and become less afraid of adulthoods many harsh realities.
A further reality Frankie must come to understand is what love is and what it means to be in a relationship with another person. In this quest, she is lucky to have the ever wise Berenice, who councils Frankie on the nature of love. Berenice cautions Frankie not to make the mistake of deluding herself to believe that Jarvis and Janice are going to take her away with them after the wedding.
Frankie is the archetypal coming-of-age character. Young and naïve, she must go through a relatively brief, but challenging experience of self-awakening in order to grow and learn. So that in the end one part of her has died-the child self-and another older version has grown and blossomed.
The six-year-old John Henry serves as a precise foil for Frankie. Where she is hysterical and off the wall, he is calm and collected. Where she is not rational, he is even-minded. Most of all, where she is a young soul attempting to grow up, he is an old, wise soul who is very much a child. Frankie uses John Henry as something of a soundboard onto whom she can project her fears and insecurities. Furthermore, she attempts to pass her childhood onto him, in some respects. When she gives him the doll she says she does not want, she is taking a representational step to distance herself from her childhood years. John Henry is safely half her age, so there is no ambiguity in claiming him to be the child and she to be the older sage. When she claims that John Henry should stay over because he looks scared, Frankie is merely displacing her own fears and projecting them onto John Henry, to take a Freudian angle on the situation. Then, there is an ironic turn when the two of them sleep together, which only further proves Frankie's continued youth and innocence despite her efforts. Here she is, sleeping with another male, but with no concept of how this might be strange and inappropriate for a purported adult woman to be sleeping with a little boy.
John Henry's death happens with just a whisper, much in the way that childhood just disappears one day and one wakes up older without even realizing it. In fact, so little is said about his death, that one might argue that he never existed at all except as a metaphorical representation of Frankie's lingering youth. After all, he is seldom engaged into conversation in any concrete manner, except when he makes isolated interjections. When he tags along with Frankie into town to get her fortune taken, he is so invisible, it is easy to forget he is there. So his eventual death is totally unsentimental because he was really only the shadow of a character to begin with, or a shadow of Frankie's character.
Berenice is a foil for Frankie in another way. She represents all Frankie has to learn and know. Firstly, she knows about love, sex and relationships, not necessarily in that order. And secondly, she knows about the real world, about the harsh realities of racism and how it divides people. She serves as a reality check for the delusional Frankie, always questioning Frankie's suspect motives and explaining Frankie's feelings to her, as if she understands the workings of the girl's mind better than Frankie does herself.
Berenice helps flesh out the novel's theme of bifurcation: the separation between two entities. She is herself split. She has one dark eye and one glass blue eye, thus her physicality has both black and white attributes. She discusses with Frankie what it means for a black person to be trapped in a white society. And we see how well she must understand this, what with her own body divided as such.
Considering that the novella was written in the 1940s, it is significant to recognize that a close, empathetic relationship between a white girl and a black woman would have been provocative. This novel seeks to break down stereotypes about black people and to try to give a wide audience a certain understanding and appreciation for the African-American struggle against oppression. Berenice's wise and likable character aids in this message of acceptance for people's differences, giving mid-20th century readers a chance to accept someone their prejudices might otherwise dismiss.