“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”
As a title The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter suggests romance, but Carson McCullers’ classic novel does not deal with the course of true love. Instead she echoes themes found in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
“The men who fought the American Revolution…meant what they said about freedom,” said Jake Blount, one of the metaphorical hunters in the story. He continued:
“They fought so that this could be a country where every man could be free and equal…This didn’t mean that twenty per cent of the people were free to rob the other eighty per cent of the means to live. This didn’t mean for one rich man to sweat the piss out of ten thousand poor men so that he can get richer. This didn’t mean the tyrants were free to get this country in such a fix that millions of people are ready to do anything…just to work for three squares and a flop.”
Readers who follow the Occupy Wall Street movement (the concern for the 99 versus 1 percent, the rise in foreclosures and unemployment, and the shrinking of the middle class) will understand why the novel was chosen for Door County Reads.
But The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is more than a diatribe against the underbelly of capitalism. It is an emotionally engaging story of yearning and of loss. At the hub of the tale is a deaf mute, John Singer. Around him rotate the lives of other characters: Mick Kelly, a 14-year-old girl who lives in a struggling boarding house that her parents maintain; Dr. Benedict Copeland, an aging black physician who has alienated his family because of his obsession with improving the lives of his people; Jake Blount, a down-and-out intellectual who is tormented by social injustice; and Biff Brannon, a soft-hearted proprietor of a cafО frequented by the white central characters.
The story is set in a mill town in Georgia during 1939, a troubling time for America: the country had been ravaged by the Depression and is now threatened by the specter of Nazi aggression in Europe; Blacks find themselves only nominally freed from slavery.
John Singer emerges as an ironic savior in the story. Living in an upstairs room in the Kelly boarding house, he serves as a mute counselor by turns to Mick, Dr. Copeland, and Jake. While Singer is an expert lip reader, none of his guests know sign language. He listens and nods, and when necessary, writes brief answers to questions. Each of these characters finds him comforting, as in his room he provides refreshments along with mute reassurance. They invariably discover peace in his presence, as if they had been blessed by a Father Confessor.
Subsequently they become deeply attached to him. None realizes that while Singer reads lips, he does not understand everything said to him; he is not a messiah. Singer’s best friend, Antonapoulos, is a deaf mute, but one with serious developmental and emotional problems. Singer’s is devoted to the man who, unfortunately, does not reciprocate his attentions.
While our hearts go out to the entire cast of characters leading lives of quiet desperation, most poignant are the fates of John Singer and Mick Kelly. Singer is truly isolated, for while he doesn’t lack acquaintances, his hearing impediment is a barrier that allows him to feel an emotional intimacy only with Antonapoulos. And Mick is a bright young woman coming of age at a time and place that stifles her impressive potential.
“There are corporations worth billions of dollars,” said Blount, responding to this repressive time and place, “and hundreds of thousands who don’t get to eat.” Readers see a representation of these citizens in this fictional town. Blount advocates “calling crowds of people together and getting them to demonstrate.”
“In the face of brutality I was prudent,” agrees Dr. Copeland. “Before injustice I held my peace.” As a consequence when he went to see a judge about the brutality his son had experienced in prison, a white deputy sheriff beat the frail old man and drug him to jail, a politically transformational experience for the physician. “I know now how wrong I was. I have been a traitor to myself and to my people…Now is the time to act and to act quickly. Fight cunning with cunning and might with might.”
Dr. Copeland named one of his son’s Karl Marx. Blount tries to get workers to organize.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is not a feel-good novel. But neither is it nihilistic. CafО proprietor Biff Brannon keeps his restaurant open from early morning until late at night, a sanctuary for hungry hunters who need both emotional and nutritional sustenance. He offers discounts and lets tabs grow. While during much of the story he remains in the background, he emerges as a value center at the conclusion:
“The silence in the room was deep as the night itself. Biff stood transfixed, lost in his meditations. Then suddenly he felt a quickening in him. His heart turned and he leaned his back against the counter for support. For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor…of those who labor and of those who – one word – love.”
But at the same time, “he felt a warning, a shaft of terror,” although ultimately he would “pull himself together and be reasonable.
“Somehow he remembered that the awning [of his restaurant] had not yet been raised. As he went to the door his walk gained steadiness. And when at last he was inside again he composed himself soberly to await the morning sun.”
Acclaim for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
McCullers published her famous first novel in 1940 at age 23. The book became an immediate bestseller and has since been included on lists of 100 best English-language novels issued both by Modern Library and Time Magazine. In addition, Oprah chose it as one of her “Book Club” selections.
Reflections in a Golden Eye and The Member of the Wedding have also enjoyed success. All three novels became popular films. Writing in the Southern Gothic tradition (a style that uses macabre ironic events to examine values of the American South), she became friends with both Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.
Always in poor health, she died in 1967.