She explained in a letter to her husband Reeves that it was 'one of those works that the least slip can ruin. It must be beautifully done. For like a poem there is not much excuse for it otherwise.'
She had originally planned to write a story about a girl who was in love with her piano teacher. Then she had what she called 'a divine spark'. 'Suddenly I said: Frankie is in love with her brother and the bride...The illumination focused the whole book.'
The novel is more concerned with the psychology of the three main characters and an evocation of the setting than with incident. Frankie does, however, have a brief and troubling encounter with a soldier. Her hopes of going away having been disappointed -- her fantasy destroyed --a short coda reveals how her personality has changed. It also recounts the fate of John Henry West; and Berenice Sadie Brown's future plans.
The Member of the Wedding is told from the point of view of Frankie, who is a troubled adolescent. But for some critics it is a mistake to view The Member of the Wedding as a ‘sweet momentary illumination of adolescence before the disillusion of adulthood’ , as it is sometimes regarded. Or as Patricia Yaeger puts it ‘an economical way of learning about the pangs of growing up’ .
For Yaeger and the British novelist and critic Ali Smith this is to sentimentalise the work. They suggest that such a reading misses much of its profundity , darkness and what Smith calls its ‘political heft’. . It should be seen, according to Smith as a ‘very funny, very dark novel’, and a ‘combination of hope, hopelessness and callousness.’
Another critic, Margaret B McDowell has also stressed the role of Berenice Sadie Brown (and to a lesser extent John Henry West) in counter-pointing Frankie’s story.
McCullers herself adapted the novel for a Broadway production directed by Harold Clurman. It opened on January 5, 1950 at the Empire Theatre, where it ran for 501 performances. The cast included Ethel Waters, Julie Harris, and Brandon De Wilde.
Waters, Harris, and De Wilde reprised their stage roles, with Arthur Franz, Nancy Gates, and Dickie Moore joining the cast, for the 1952 film version. The screenplay was adapted by Edna and Edward Anhalt and directed by Fred Zinnemann. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for Julie Harris, in her debut screen appearance.
The 1997 film version, adapted by David W. Rintels and directed by Fielder Cook, starred Anna Paquin, Alfre Woodard, Corey Dunn, and Enrico Colantoni. Rintels used the original novel rather than the play as his source material.
The Young Vic theatre, in London, produced the stage version of The Member of the Wedding in 2007, directed by Matthew Dunster Frankie Adams was played by Flora Spencer-Longhurst and Berenice Sadie Brown by Portia, a member of Philip Seymour Hoffman's LAByrinth Theater Company.
McCullers' own narration of 'The Member of the Wedding' was used by Jarvis Cocker on his debut album, 'Jarvis'. It forms the introduction to the 11th song on the album, Big Julie and consists of his re-writing of the opening lines of the book. In the original these are: "It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid."