ElCicco#CBR4Review#22: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Carson McCuller’s first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, was published in 1940 when the author was 23. Set in 1939, on eve of war and during the Great Depression, the story centers around John Singer, a deaf mute in a small southern town. The action follows the course of a year when the lives of the several characters intersect through Singer. This is the story of individuals on the fringe, searching for a variety of things but mostly wishing to be understood by someone, to find a soul mate.
Singer works as engraver for a jeweler. At the beginning of the novel, he lives with his friend Antonapoulos , another deaf mute whose family institutionalizes him, leaving Singer friendless and isolated. He moves out of their apartment into the Kelly’s boarding house so as not to be painfully reminded of the loss of his friend. After moving and changing his lifestyle, he encounters several people who are drawn to him and who visit him frequently.
Mick Kelly is a 12 year old girl. Her family takes in boarders because her father had accident and is unable to work as carpenter. Her three older siblings work to help supplement the family income, while Mick is responsible for little brothers Bubber and Ralph. Mick is a dreamer and often wanders around at night, restless, imagining travel abroad and composing great music. She wants a piano and to learn to play, but her family’s poverty is a huge obstacle to realizing her dreams. She practically stalks Singer when he is out, following him down the street, watching where he goes, and she seems to have a schoolgirl crush on him. Singer has a fondness for Mick and even buys a radio for her to listen to when he is out. Mick talks to Singer of music and her hopes, assuming that the deaf mute understands and identifies with her aspirations.
Jake Blount is a drifter/labor organizer and alcoholic who argues and gets into violent fights on a regular basis. His attempts at teaching the working and unemployed poor of the town about the inequity of capitalism and the need for organization to change the system fail, further infuriating him and contributing to his drinking problem. He often turns to Singer in his anger and rage, going on and on about his ideas. Singer has a calming influence on him and Blount assumes that Singer understands and agrees with him.
Dr. Copeland is an African American physician in the town and father to four grown children — Portia (the Kelly’s cook), William, Hamilton and Karl Marx. Dr. Copeland is a man of intelligence, impeccable manners and quick anger. He alienated his wife and his children when they were still young with his dark moods, violence and his mission to make his children leaders like himself. Restless for change for African Americans and angry about oppression, Dr. Copeland sees Singer as the one white man who understands, who is righteous and decent. Copeland also thinks Singer is a Jew, and therefore more sensitive to the plight of African Americans.
Biff Branson owns a cafe that stays open late into the night. Singer, Blunt and Mick frequently appear there at odd hours. Biff has compassion for people, especially Blount and Mick. He tries to figure them out and lend a helping hand where he can, but Blount and Mick don’t show much recognition or appreciation for what he offers. Biff is also a mothering sort of person, wishing sometimes that Mick and his niece Baby were his own children and that he could take care of them. Like all the others, Biff is looking for something, but he isn’t sure what. Biff is unhappily married to Alice but when she dies, he feels a sort of nostalgia and sadness, not so much for the loss of her but for the lost opportunities for a real love. Biff seeks out Singer, but unlike the others, he doesn’t have something important to say, no grand idea to expound upon. Biff has questions and one that he asks himself is “…why did everyone persist in thinking the mute was exactly as they wanted him to be — when most likely it was all a very queer mistake?”
Biff, as the most observant in the group, hits very close to the truth with that reflection. Everyone thinks that because Singer pays attention and communicates little to them (they don’t ask a lot about him) that he is what they are looking for, that he understands, and that he is just like them. Singer is like them, but not in the way they think. Singer, like the others, is lonely and searching, too, looking for understanding and a true friend or soul mate. He reads lips but often does not understand what others are telling him, and he longs for his old friend Antonapoulos. To console himself, he writes long letters to his friend which he never sends because Antonapoulos can’t read. Even when Singer visits him at the institution (a long trip that he can only afford to take every 6 months), it seems that Singer’s joy is greater than his friend’s at their reunion and that Antonapolos takes very little interest in his life.
I won’t reveal what happens to Singer at the end of the novel, but Mick, Blount and Copeland suffer major setbacks in realizing their dreams. Given the poverty in which they live and the increasing violence in the world around them (racial violence locally and Hitler on the rise abroad), one might expect the setbacks to finally crush these people, but each shows a resilience, a refusal to give up, a reason to keep going. The final scene is Biff at his restaurant, alone, reflecting on the other characters, and this revelation: “…in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and those who — one word — love. His soul expanded.” And then Biff feels terror, that “…he was suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith.” He is momentarily paralyzed, then turns to face the sunrise and another day.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a depressing novel but it is honest in showing the crushing poverty and racism in the South in 1939, and at revealing the complexity of the innermost thoughts of its characters. The end shows resilience in the face of adversity, which is always a welcome message, and one that would have been especially needed in 1940.