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Desiring Brotherhood


he is, in a way, castrated and impotent. Early in the novel,

McCullers depicts an incident in which Penderton is paralyzed and

emasculated by his voluptuous and tempestuous wife. The incident

begins with Penderton’s reprimand of his wife for her lounging

downstairs without her shoes or boots (“You look like a slattern

going around the house like this”). When being asked if she intends

to sit down to dine with the Langdons in such a fashion, Leonora

replies, “And why not, you old prissy?” (McCullers, 2001c: 316).

Then, to ridicule his impotence, she strips herself naked before

going upstairs to dress. Penderton follows her to the foot of the

stairs and threatens to kill her for her insolence, whereupon she

taunts him again. She asks: “Son, have you ever been collared and

dragged out in the street and thrashed by a naked woman?” (317).

McCullers describes Penderton’s unorthodox sexuality in the

following way: “Sexually the Captain obtained within himself a

delicate balance between the male and female elements, with the

susceptibilities of both the sexes and the active powers of neither”

(McCullers, 2001c: 314). His predilection for passivity is further

linked to the death drive: “In his balance between the two great

instincts, toward life and toward death, the scale was heavily

weighted to one side

to death” (314-315). Against a U. S. imperialist

project of a forward-looking positivity and heteronormative

manhood, Penderton’s impotence and radical negativity contribute

to an anti-imperialist, queer, counterhegemonic imaginary.

Through his openness to death, Penderton is able to reach a new

level of experience and existence unbound by mastery and heroism.

This dispossession of the autonomous self through its self-

shattering desire bespeaks masochism. Indeed, besides being

impotent and homosexual, Penderton also indulges in masochism.

As a seven-year-old boy, he fell in love with “the school-yard bully

who had once beaten him”; he even stole his aunt’s “old-fashioned

hair-receiver” as a “love offering” to his persecutor. Always afraid

of horses, “he only rode because it was the thing to do, and

because this was another one of his ways of tormenting himself”