Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Rules of Life that Separate One Person from Another

There are two major components in this, the major theme of the novel. The first is the concept of division between people. McCullers writes that "This was the summer when for a long time [Frankie] had not been a member." This signals to us that Frankie's attempt to find unity with other people serves as the main conflict of the novel. The second element to the theme has to do with life's universal rules. As Frankie attempts to grow up and seek membership into the adult world, she discovers that certain life rules encumber her. The most important rule has to do with the fact that married couples only include two people, shutting Frankie out of her dream of becoming a threesome with Janice and Jarvis. Berenice also helps Frankie to understand with greater empathy what a struggle it is for minorities to deal with the division between the races.

The Way that Surface Changes, Impression and Thoughts Can Belie What Exists Beneath

Frankie's two name changes—to F. Jasmine and then to Frances—mirror her attempts to alter her personality. The F. Jasmine self is supposed to be adult-like and sophisticated, while Frances is more world weary and realistic. But, as we learn, this change is only superficial and does not change the person inside. Furthermore, Frankie has a noticeably large disparity between her thoughts and what goes on in her unconscious. We, as the readers, are given direct access to the surface components of her thoughts and actions, but have little trouble seeing what hidden motivation lies beneath them. For example, when Frankie responds with ignorance to her exposures to sex, we know that she is unconsciously aware of what has happened, though she won't allow herself to recognize this.

Sexual and emotional development, loss of innocence

This is a classic bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel. So Frankie's sexual development plays a central role in the resolution of the conflict. In the classic form of this kind of story, a young and innocent person on the brink of sexual or emotional discovery takes an abrupt plunge into the world of experience. This often involves a journey of some sorts. Frankie's sexual innocence is challenged by her encounter with the Soldier who attempts to sleep with her. And her emotional ignorance is shattered as she realizes that she was kidding herself to think that she could hook up with her brother and his wife. Both of these events take place within the context of a journey to another place: into town and to Winter Hill, respectively. At the end of the novel, we see a changed character, transformed by the mere forty-eight hour period of the novella.


McCullers makes repeated use of vivid primary colors to describe both the physicality of the characters and the landscape around them. She pays particularly close attention to eye color, repeatedly pointing out that Frankie has gray eyes while Berenice has one brown and one blue. The first sentence of the novel says that the summer during which the events take place is "green." McCullers does not specify what she means by this, but we can assume it has to do with newness and the freshness of youth. Red is another important color, mostly because of its rare usage in the novel. When it does finally appear—describing the color of Frankie's blood and of the Soldier's hair—it has a sexual connotation. The reluctance to mention the color mirrors Frankie's fear of and ignorance about sex and menstruation.


Eyes are the window to the soul for these characters, revealing their secrets and the otherwise hidden facets of their personalities. When Berenice says Frankie is jealous of her brother's marriage, she says she knows because of the color in her eye. Berenice has one glass eye, which is blue, while the other is brown. This split plays on the major theme of division and reveals her inner conflict: she is torn between her desires to remain young and free or to settle down with T.T. Eyes also represent the difficulty in seeing things from another person's point of view, speaking to the theme of the division between people. At one point, Frankie tries on John Henry's glasses. She later comes to the conclusion that it is impossible to understand his point of view.

The passage of time

In Part Two, F. Jasmine reflects that her life is divided into three parts: the past, the immediate present, and the future. This may seem self-evident, but it points to the huge importance of this isolated part of her life as a defining moment in her development. This moment is all about moving forward, up and out…all the way into adulthood. McCullers employs the use of the imagery of clocks in order to add a feeling of suspense and anxiousness about the passage of time. McCullers toys with the concept of linear time, asking us to alter our usual concept of one event leading logically to the next in a straight line. She skips over a large section of time in Part One and then returns to it in Part Two. Furthermore, any of the parts including Janice and Jarvis are never described first hand, rather in reflection after they happen.

The ticking clock, the bell

After F. Jasmine hits the soldier over the head, she has something of an epiphany in which she connects the moment to all of the other encounters she has had with sex. She has a distinct feeling of uneasiness, which she connects to times in her kitchen, "when, after the first uncanny moments, she realized the reason for her uneasiness and knew that the ticking of the clock had stopped." But she realizes that there is now no clock to shake and wind. The clock represents her sexuality, her biological clock, and her oncoming menstruation. We know that she has finally reached a certain development by the end of the novel because "the ringing of the bell" interrupts her. The bell becomes the announcement that she has progressed through time and has made it into sexual maturity.

Playing cards

Playing cards are components in the theme of rules and regulations, because card games are governed by rules. Frankie, John Henry and Berenice play cards twice during the novella, and in the end, we learn about another series of failed bridge games. In the first game, Frankie is exasperated with John Henry for not being able to follow the rules when he refuses to put a jack next to a queen. What Frankie is really upset about is sex, because she knows that John Henry understands the sexual connection between the jacks and the queens. As we later learn, he once removed the jacks from the deck, and then the queens as well, so they could keep the jacks company. This in turn ruined the game, literally because the deck was not complete, but figuratively because he took the sex out of game. This informs us that sex is a fundamental quality of the game of life.

Dissonant piano scales

In Part Two, Chapter 2, John Henry, Berenice and F. Jasmine hear a piano tuner working in the neighborhood. He keeps playing scales, but never actually finishes them, always leaving a dissonant sound as he stops on the last note between the G and A notes. F. Jasmine remarks that, "there is a curious thing that seems to make the difference between G and A all the difference in the world." This remark touches on the dissonance that plagues her very existence. As she hangs on a hinge, waiting for what she wants to finally come to her. And what she desires is unity, or consonance, rather. She marvels that only one step can divide her from that feeling.