Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers (review)

Carson McCullers is another of those authors I’ve been aware of for many years, but had never got around to reading. So when I saw Clock Without Hands in the half-price sale at Blackwell’s Charing Cross, I knew I had to have it. First published in 1961, Clock Without Hands was McCullers’s final novel prior to her death in 1967 (aged 50 years). She is widely recognised as one of the great American writers of her time, and Gore Vidal described her writing as ‘one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-rate culture.’

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Set in 1953 in a small town in Georgia, USA, Clock Without Hands focuses on four men whose lives are connected both in the present and by events in the past. As the book opens, thirty-nine-year-old J.T. Malone, owner of the local pharmacy, learns that he is suffering from leukaemia and is given only twelve to fifteen months to live. This news prompts the unassuming Malone to reflect on his life and its disappointments: the ‘Jew grinds’ that had crowded him out of medical school thereby forcing him to move over to pharmacy instead; the lack of intimacy and love in his stilted marriage; a sense of bewilderment as to where or how he had lost his way in life:

As he sat holding the pestle there was in him enough composure to wonder at those alien emotions that had veered so violently in his once mild heart. He was split between love and hatred – but what he loved and what he hated was unclear. For the first time he knew that death was near to him. But the terror that choked him was not caused by the knowledge of his own death. The terror concerned some mysterious drama that was going on – although what the drama was about Malone did not know. The terror questioned what would happen in those months – how long? – that glared upon his numbered days. He was a man watching a clock without hands. (pg. 27, Penguin Classics)

Malone’s closest friend and confidante is Judge Fox Clane, a rambunctious former congressman who has suffered his own tragedies in life. Some seventeen years have passed since Judge Clane lost his son, Johnny (to suicide), his daughter-in-law (who died in childbirth) and his wife (to cancer), but the death of his son in particular continues to haunt his thoughts.

Judge Clane believes in white supremacy and the ‘noble standards of the South.’ He is firmly in favour of maintaining racial segregation in all aspects of civilised life, and as such his views are in direct opposition to those of his grandson, the sensitive Jester Clane (the third of our four main characters and Johnny’s son):

‘The time may come in your generation – I hope I won’t be here – when the educational system itself is mixed – with no colour line. How would you like that?’

Jester did not answer.

‘How would you like to see a hulking Nigra boy sharing a desk with a delicate little white girl?’

The Judge could not believe in the possibility of this; he wanted to shock Jester to the gravity of the situation. His eyes challenged his grandson to react in the spirit of Southern gentlemen.

‘How about a hulking white girl sharing a desk with a delicate little Negro boy?’

‘What?’

Jester did not repeat his words, nor did the old Judge want to hear again the words that so alarmed him. It was as though his grandson had committed some act of insipient lunacy, and it is fearful to acknowledge the approach of madness in a beloved. It is so fearful that the old Judge preferred to distrust his own hearing, although the sound of Jester’s voice still throbbed against his eardrums. He tried to twist the words to his own reason. (pgs. 29-30)

Jester befriends a local black boy, Sherman Pew, a bright, confident and articulate orphan who, as a baby, was left abandoned on a church pew. Sherman is unaware of the identity of either of his parents, but is especially keen to find his mother. Pew is also connected to Judge Clane in more ways than one; he once saved the Judge from drowning, and is now in Clane’s employ as an ‘amanuensis’  to write letters, read poetry, fix drinks and attend to his medical needs. At times, Sherman revels in his position as Judge Clane’s ‘jewel’; he considers himself a cut above the other household help and often behaves in a rude or fickle manner towards Jester, whose feelings for Sherman run deep.

As the narrative unfolds, we learn more about events in the past, revelations that shed a different light on the connections between these characters. The circumstances surrounding Johnny’s suicide become clear to Jester prompting him to choose a particular path for the future. And when Sherman discovers information regarding the identity of his parents, the consequences of subsequent events touch all the main players in this novel.

I greatly enjoyed Clock Without Hands; the four main characters, particularly Judge Clane, are skilfully realised. McCullers explores some thought-provoking themes with great insight and understanding of the human condition. Malone and Judge Clane both experience periods of isolation and detachment, but their responses differ; Malone faces up to his own mortality and seeks solace and understanding in the church (although few answers are forthcoming); Clane feels threatened by the prospect of racial integration and aims to guard against any advance in this movement. Perversely, there are times when he seems to forget that Sherman is black, but the Judge’s relationship with this young man is born out of guilt as well as gratitude for saving his life.

Ultimately, Clock Without Hands focuses on interracial tensions and injustices and how these ‘sit’ alongside our beliefs and principles. The novel’s title is significant here; racial integration would move the clock forward, but Judge Clane seems content for the South to remain in the early-sixties or revert to bygone days.

Clock Without Hands is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy.

44 thoughts on “Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers (review)

  1. susanosborne55

    Another one for the list! I remember being brought up short by an essay in Ann Patchett’s The Story of a Marriage about seeing the Ku Klux Klan marching down the main street of her home town. This would have been in the ’60s.

    Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    I was just writing a comment here when my Internet connection crashed – and it took two hours to recover. Anyway, I lost my train of thought, but it was something along the lines that this is one Carson McCullers books that I haven’t read, but she has an inimitable ability to see into the heart of disappointments, to describe lost characters in search of meaning, identity, purpose in life. It sounds really compelling, especially when you consider that at the time the book was reading, these issues were still unresolved (as if they are now… ahem!).

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    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Argh, how annoying! I hope you’re up and running again and thank you for dropping back to comment; I’m glad you persevered.

      Yes, I agree she does have that rare quality; it’s what I was trying to get at with my comments on her insight and understanding of the human condition. She writes with such compassion and empathy too, but never in such a way that feels sentimental. Yes, a very compelling book for its time and still of some relevance today, sadly.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      How wonderful, Cathy. I wished I’d studied literature instead of going down the science route at Uni. It sounds as if I should read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as my next by McCullers.

      Reply
          1. poppypeacockpens

            Got Ballad of Sad Cafe & other stories on my tbr mountain – but from review & comments can see me acquiring more. I second Cathy re Flannery O’Connor – I think you’d love her – she was quite brilliant at capturing human behaviour & nuances.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Ooh, I look forward to hearing how you get on with Ballad of Sad Cafe. I definitely want to read more by McCullers. And thanks for the link to Flannery O’ Connor story you posted on twitter, I’ll have a read of it during the week. A short story is the perfect taster for a new-to-me author!

              Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I read “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe” many moons ago – alas I can remember nothing about it…. :S Perhaps time for a revisit!!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Haha, I can remember very little of some of the books I read many years ago, so you’re not alone. It’s good to revisit authors every now and again, and I like the way you cover a mix of classics and recent releases on your blog.

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    I do like the fact that some of these characters seem terribly flawed. Sometimes I think that authors have trouble getting into the heads of people like Judge Clane. It is commendable when a writer gives it a try.

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. I guess it’s often the flaws that make characters feel more human and alive. McCullers does a great job in fleshing out the different sides to Judge Clane’s character, and she’s using him as a focal point for many of the novel’s themes.

      Reply
  5. realthog

    Thanks for a very evocative review . . . and for the reminder. I bought myself The Heart is a Lonely Hunter a few months ago, realizing I’d managed never to read any McCullers. The book’s glares at me accusingly from the shelf every now and then. I really must get round to it soon!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Glad to be of service, John! Looks like you’re on to a winner with The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and I’m sure I’ll be buying a copy myself before the year is out. Sometimes it’s a case of being in the right mood for a particular book, don’t you think? Some of my books have been sitting on the shelves for a few years, but I know their time will come.

      Reply
  6. Guy Savage

    I have a couple of McCullers novels on the shelf but not this one, and this one does sound interesting–although to be honest I usually avoid novels in which death and disease are guests at the table.

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    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It sounds as if you might be better off with the ones you have, Guy, as the leukemia diagnosis does hang over Malone like a death sentence from the opening pages. I really liked her writing style though and definitely want to read more.

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    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Lindsay. In some ways, I wished I started with The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as it was her first novel, but there we go. Lisa and Cathy liked it a lot, so it sounds as if you’ve picked a good one.

      Reply
  7. 1streading

    Great review. Yet another American writer I haven’t read (this is becoming a theme). However I have decided that October will be American lit month in my life at least!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you. Well, October is a good month to choose because November’s shaping up to be German Lit Month! Looking forward to seeing your choices for both (assuming you’re thinking of joining GLM).

      Reply
  8. Annecdotist

    Ah, lovely to be reminded of a fabulous novel by a wonderful female writer. I was lucky enough to discover her in my late teens (won’t say how long ago that was) and so pleased she is still being read.

    Reply
  9. Jonathan

    I’ve loved all the Carson McCullers books I’ve read…but I haven’t read this one! I always thought that it was unfinished and so wasn’t too eager to read it.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Ooh, I knew Clock Without Hands was her final novel but wasn’t aware it might have been unfinished. It doesn’t read that way as all the strands in the narrative seem to reach a point of closure at the end of the novel. It’s worth a look, especially as you’ve loved her other books, and it might be interesting to compare with her earlier ones.

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      1. Jonathan

        I’ll definitely have to check it out and re-read some of the others as well. I think it must have been my mistake in thinking it was unfinished.

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        1. jacquiwine Post author

          No worries, Jonathan. She did leave an unfinished work at the time of her death, but if Wikipedia is to be believed it looks as if it was her autobiography. I’d be very interested to hear how you think Clock Without Hands holds up to her others.

          Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Helen. I think you’d like this one very much. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is firmly on my list; in fact, I should have started there!.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Sad Café’s a novella, I believe; perhaps the novels were her forte. Interested to hear what you think of the ones you have on your shelf as when you get them, Seamus.

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  10. Scott W.

    The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was one of those novels I was required to read growing up in the South, and requirements like that can put one off a book and a writer for some time. So I was surprised when I picked up McCullers as an adult (Reflections in a Golden Eye) to find how really good she is (and yes, especially at exploring the weird psychological nooks of the South). This one I have not read; thanks to your post, I’ll try to remedy that one of these days.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Ah…thanks, Scott. I can relate to that experience of being made to read something as a child or teenager, and I suspect many of us have encountered something similar. I recall having to read Thomas Hardy, and the requirement to analyse the life out of The Mayor of Casterbridge at school turned me off this author for several years. I do want to read more by McCullers, though, so I should take a look at Reflections in a Golden Eye.

      In other news, Beautiful Antonio, Madame de and Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day have all made their way onto my bookshelves in recent weeks, so thank you for those recommendations!

      Reply
  11. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  12. Max Cairnduff

    I’ve read Ballad and liked it, but like Seamus didn’t love it. I remember it fondly though, and I think the writing was good.

    She seems to have a thing for flawed characters, going from that and this. Will you read Heart do you think?

    Eric Ambler, I’ll be curious to see what you think of that. I’ve not read him yet but he’s definitely on my radar.

    Madame de is a delight. There’s a review at mine, but in summary I thought it genuinely excellent and absolutely loved it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How nice to have a comment from you on an older post. She does seem to have a talent for characterisation, and what I like about this is her ability to write about flawed/damaged characters with insight and compassion, to render them human in a way that feels convincing.

      Ballad of the Sad Cafe sounds like one to skip, for now at least. Yes, I’m keen to read Heart as so many others seem to have enjoyed it (and there’s a Thievery Corporation/David Byrne track which I love with the same title). I probably should have started there but never mind.

      Eric Ambler – well, Topkapi: The Light of Day came via Scott so I’m sure it’ll be great. Next year, hopefully. I also have Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios to read, another recommendation (from realthog).

      I hadn’t realised you’d reviewed Madame de! I’d been eyeing it up, but hadn’t seen a review anywhere, and then I happened to notice it on Scott’s list of books read this year (a re-read I think). There isn’t a review as far as I know, but he loved it too. I’ll take a look at your review over the weekend. Cheers, Max.

      Reply

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