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”