By Clover Carroll
If you’ve ever felt like an outsider, or that the system is rigged against you, you will feel right at home in the world of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. This year’s Big Read selection, which will be discussed at the Crozet Library Book Club at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 7, is at once a troubled coming-of-age story and a tender account of thwarted love and irreparable heartbreak, set against the backdrop of racial, class, and religious oppression that characterized the 1930s. But the tenderness struggles to survive in the bleak, soulless landscape of this celebrated novel.
Hunter interweaves the lives of five disparate characters living in a small southern mill town in Georgia during the Great Depression. Biff Brannon welcomes all into his all-night New York Café, and finds himself only after the death of his unloving wife. Jake Blount is a hard-drinking Marxist who moves from town to town trying to organize an uprising of the poor, laboring class.
Benedict Copeland, a self-educated black medical doctor who devotes himself to serving his people, is so bitter about the treatment of the Negro race that he is unable to find peace. Mick Kelly, the most fully realized character, is a 12-year-old tomboy who lives for music and retreats to the “inside room” of her imagination to escape the painful realities of her family’s poverty. Throughout the book, these representative—some have called them allegorical—characters seek communion and love from other characters, but instead find only increased isolation. They are loosely connected by their somewhat hollow friendship with the fifth and central character in the book, deaf-mute John Singer, who rents a room in the Kelly boardinghouse and whom they frequently visit to pour out their hearts.
The book takes its fitting title from the poem “Lonely Hunter” by William Sharp, which not only captures several of the book’s themes, but also sums up Singer’s plight:
What are all songs for me, now, who no more care to sing?
Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.
Green is that hill and lonely, set far in a shadowy place;
White is the hunter’s quarry, a lost-loved human face: O hunting heart, shall you find it, with arrow of failing breath,
Led o’er a green hill lonely by the shadowy hound of Death?
The first chapter is devoted to the intense love John Singer feels for his deaf-mute roommate, Spiros Antonapoulos, and their enjoyment of each other’s company. But after an illness, Antonapoulos’ behavior becomes erratic and unpredictable, so his cousin has him committed to an asylum 200 miles distant. Singer misses him terribly, but can visit only rarely, each time bearing thoughtful gifts.
Singer both embodies and enacts the novel’s overriding theme of loneliness and alienation. As he walks the streets at night longing for his friend, “the emptiness was very deep inside him…. In all the crowd he seemed the only one alone” (209).
His name is ironic, since he neither sings nor speaks. Moreover, his condition symbolizes the inability of all the characters, and by implication of humanity in general, to truly communicate with each other. There are numerous examples of endless talking but complete absence of listening—Jake to Singer, Mick to her siblings, Biff to his wife, Copeland to his family, even Singer to Antonopoulos. Singer’s role as the confidant of all the other characters is also bitterly ironic, because, while they each believe he is the only one who truly understands them, he does not really understand most of what they tell him at all. “And Mick—her face was urgent and she said a good deal that he did not understand in the least” (320). But the biggest irony is that while all the characters view Singer as their dearest friend, none of them actually knows the first thing about Singer himself or of his painful yearning for his absent friend—of whose existence they aren’t even aware.
The book’s brooding, elegiac tone is appropriate to the several tragedies it relates. Mick’s six-year-old brother accidentally shoots a neighbor child in the head. Mick’s carefully planned “promenade” party turns into a melee, and her introduction to adolescent sex leads only to pain for both parties. Copeland’s son Willie suffers extreme abuse in jail that results in the loss of both feet, and when Copeland tries to see the judge about it, he is beaten. This naturalistic novel portrays an indifferent universe with little or no hope for the future; in the background, Hitler has just invaded Poland. The only actively felt love story, that of Singer and Antonapoulos, ends in tragedy.
McCuller’s style is objective, like that of Ernest Hemingway. She seldom tells us the characters’ feelings, but lets us infer these from their actions and her spare descriptions of setting. Brannon reflects, as he looks back on the past year in the final pages of the novel, “there was something not natural about it all—something like an ugly joke” (358). His following epiphany about humanity’s need for love is too little, too late—too weak to erase the overwhelming despair of the book as a whole.
McCullers, who published Hunter in 1940 at the age of 23 to great critical acclaim, was passionately devoted to music but had to give up piano after a bout with rheumatic fever at age 15. In spite of suffering from a series of illnesses throughout her life—including pleurisy, pneumonia, rheumatic fever, and strokes that left her paralyzed on the left side for the last 20 years of her life—she wrote five other novels, including A Member of the Wedding (1946), two plays, as well as short stories including Ballad of the Sad Café (1943) before her death in 1967. Her works are often characterized as southern gothic fiction, along with those of Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, and William Faulkner. One could also liken this book to To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), but without the warmth or hopeful ending.
While the author’s depth of human understanding is unusual in one so young, and her use of irony inspired, her youth is reflected in the novel’s lack of cohesion. Just as the characters fail to ever truly love or communicate with each other, the various plot lines fail to coalesce into one coherent whole.
In my opinion, numerous opportunities for communion are rejected for no apparent reason. Why can’t Singer accept the frequently offered friendship of the other characters? Why is the adolescent attraction between Mick and Harry Minowitz portrayed as empty and meaningless rather than sweet and romantic? Why does Copeland unfailingly reject the love of his family, especially his daughter Portia? And why does Jake and Copeland’s final “meeting of the minds” turn into an argument so intense it almost kills the doctor?
The Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts designed to revitalize the role of literature in American culture. The Big Read encourages citizens to read for pleasure and enlightenment, providing citizens the opportunity to read and discuss a single book within their community. JMRL’s goal is to encourage all residents of Central Virginia to read and discuss the same notable book. There will be many programs and events throughout the month of March discussing the book along with its themes of isolation and deaf culture (jmrl.org/bigread). I hope to see you at one of them!