The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Carson McCullers's The Heart is a a Lonely Hunter, written (astonishingly) when she was only twenty-three, has one of the most gripping openings I have read this year:

In the town were two mutes, and they were always together.
Although my rather old Bantam edition of the novel, which can't conceive that a novel by a woman wouldn't principally be about women, claims in dreamy language that this is "a searching and sensitive novel of innocence lost" in which "the heroine is the strange young girl, Mick Kelly," it in fact centers on one of the two men from the opening sentence, the elusively silent John Singer. Singer is profoundly in love (although with an arguable lack of eroticism) with his obese and mentally unstable friend (the other "mute" from the opening sentence) Spiros Antanopoulos, with whom he shares every aspect of his life. When Antanopoulos's behavior becomes increasingly erratic and aggressive, a relative decides (without consulting Singer) to send him away to a residential facility, and his friend is forced to reassess his living situation.

From this point forward the book falls into its true structural conceit, following Singer as he moves to a rented room in the house of the financially strained Kelly, but more frequently concentrating on the lives of four people who come to idolize the deaf man: Mick, the tomboyish middle daughter of the Kelly clan, who is convinced that only Singer, who has never heard music, can understand the transcendent effect that Mozart has on her; Jake Blount, a tormented and idiosyncratic socialist whose desire to enlighten the town's mill workers blends into his alcoholism and creeping delusions; Biff Brannon, the owner of the New York Cafe, the social center of this small Southern town, whose mournful reaction to his wife's sudden death (he dabs her perfume on his head every day) mingles with an increasing sense of discomfort with a thwarted maternal - not paternal - instinct, an unseemly fascination with children; and Dr. Copeland, the town's black doctor, a committed Marxist, isolated and continually thwarted in his desire to inspire a radical change in racial relations through his family and patients. Every week these characters flock to Singer's room, eager for a listener, fascinated by their friend, but fascinated in a manner that uses Singer's silence to obliterate any trace of humanity that would interfere with his status as a symbol in their lives.

When Singer walks the streets, people follow him, building up a mythology around his silence which he finds utterly baffling. Everyone who sees him seems to believe he shares their life experience, and understands it as no one else does. His incredible loneliness amidst all this attention, and his ultimate choices, are such a striking, if complex, indictment of this sort of behavior that I am surprised to find that the novel has evoked criticism for stereotyping the deaf. His is, it seems to me, the most interesting, because the least understood, character. McCullers deflates the mystique of deafness, of silence, while maintaining Singer's dignity, complexity and free will. He is no more a symbol than he is a savior or a stereotype; he is simply a man whose capacity for understanding and love seems vast and is sorely tested.

Even more problematic and complex for the modern reader (as for the readers of the 1940 first edition) is the novel's treatment of race. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is shot through with the language of racism, making it difficult to read at times, and some of the rhetoric about race is troubling. The most disturbing moments, however, originate in the attitudes of imperfectly educated characters. While McCullers's white characters call the aging black radical "uncle," "boy," "Reverend," or (by his first name) "Benedict," her narrator never addresses him except as "Dr. Copeland." His navigation of the complexities of grass-roots political change is nuanced and dispiriting. How, he has to ask himself in one scene, does one judge an essay contest for black students to lay out aspirations for their race in which most of the entries announce with rage their intention never to be servants, but the only truly coherent essay declares:
I want to be like Moses, who led the children of Israel from the land of the oppressors [...] All colored people will organize and there will be a revolution, and at the close colored people will take up all the territory east of the Mississippi and south of the Potomac. I shall set up a mighty country under the control of the Organization of Colored Leaders and Scholars. No white person will be allowed a passport - and if they get into the country they will have no legal rights.

I hate the whole white race and will work always so that the colored race can achieve revenge for all their sufferings. that is my ambition. (155-156)

At the awards ceremony, Dr. Copeland gives a long speech about Karl Marx (which, uncoincidentally, is the name of one of Copeland's sons, who chooses to go by "Buddy") before giving the award to the author of this essay. "Do you wish me to read the essay I have written?" asks the young writer, who had tried to castrate himself after his eleven year old sister was raped by her middle-aged white employer. Dr. Copeland politely demures.

This is the kind of rich characterization McCullers lavishes on her characters, who suffer more eloquently than any others I have encountered recently, but there is an uncomfortable sneering at the majority (in this case, the other, incoherent essay writers) by her characters and the novel itself, here and elsewhere. And what are we to make of moments like this, when Copeland tries to inculcate his political beliefs in his children:
"They would sit close together and look at their mother. They would talk and talk, but none of them wanted to understand. The feeling that would come on him was a black, terrible, Negro feeling" (70).

In the end, the cynical complexity of the novel and the vividness of its sympathy with all its characters were so great that I decided that although McCullers's expression was uncomfortable ("dated," would be another way of talking about texts like this), her writing was, in fact, boldly progressive and strikingly modern. This is particularly true in her treatment of sexuality (which causes the characters no end of self-conscious confusion) and the contemporary political specters of fascism and Marxism (Mick, the inveterate racial bumbler, is always offending her Jewish neighbor, on whom she has a fumbling crush, by jokingly "Heil Hitlering" him, and then is baffled by his excruciated glare).

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, with its gothic ensemble yoked to environment and history, reminds me of a less lyrical, but also less opaque, Winesburg, Ohio. It is tremendously easy to become immersed in this novel of infinite detail and flowering cynicism, just as it is very easy to become confused and offended by its politics (in my case, more by its less examined assumptions than by its explicit rhetoric). This offense, at least for me, was surprisingly constructive after its first wave, forcing me to examine, without idealism, the depressing difficulty of the energetic characters, desperate to find an outlet for their activist minds in a sluggish, resistant world.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
Carson McCullers

  • You can find The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter at Amazon or at most other bookstores and libraries.
  • Wikipedia features interesting articles on both the novel itself and its author
  • Dan Schneider raises a number of intriguing points in this review for Monsters and Critics (which, be forewarned, deals with the plot of the novel in great detail, including the end), and takes issue with the designation of McCullers's writing as "gothic".

4 Responses so far.

  1. Laura says:

    I just picked this book up at a library book sale last weekend. It has called out to me from other shelves before, but I'd never acted on it. I finally decided I am meant to read this book. Your review is great and I'm really looking forward to it.

  2. I am so glad that you enjoyed the review, Laura! It is quite heartening to get such a nice comment.

    Let me know what you think of "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter"...

  3. Anonymous says:


    would you say it is hard to read in terms of vocabulary and grammar? I learned English at school, but i think i did good with "Freedom" from Jonathan Frantzen.
    I´m not sure to buy "The heart is alonely hunter" because of the time it was written - as language changes over decades i´m not sure if it´s too hard for me to unterstand. What do you think?


  4. I think if you could make it through a tome like Freedom, you are in great shape to read "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter." The language isn't archaic at all. Let me know what you think....

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