The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

What a lovely, lovely book. I cannot believe Carson McCullers wrote this at age 23. Set in the mid 30s, the book centers around John Singer, a deaf-mute who works as an engraver at the jewelry store. When the story opens, Singer lives with another deaf-mute, Spiros Antonapoulos. Singer knows sign language; Antonapoulos does not. The two are close and need no words to feel as though they understand one another. Each knows the other so well and so intimately. Antonapoulos becomes ill and changes after his health returns. Shortly thereafter, the Greek’s cousin sends him away to be cared for, and Singer is devastated. Alone, he thinks of his friend and finds himself

shap[ing] the words before he knew about it. Then when he realized he was like a man caught talking aloud to himself, it was almost as though he had done some moral wrong. The shame and the sorrow mixed together and he doubled his hands and put them behind him. But they would not let him rest.

Outside of his community, which included him and Antonapoulos, there is no room for his sign language. It becomes to him something shameful instead of a natural way of living. He cannot stand to live in the same place and moves to a local family’s – the Kellys – boarding house.

The four other main characters are all developed in relation to Singer. Mick Kelly, the daughter of Singer’s landlord, has a passion for music. Jake Blount, a slightly crazy drunk with an abhorrence for injustice and the travails of America, sees something in Singer. Biff Brannon, the owner of the New York Cafe, spends his nights watching people and thinking. Doctor Copeland, an African-American doctor with a deep-seated rage, tries to come to terms with his family and his community.

This is such a quiet novel. It is so unassuming. I think that is partially why I was so swept away. It’s simply about life. Of course, things happen, but there are no major plot twists and turns. The most fascinating aspect of this book was how these four characters all see John Singer. An enigmatic character, he becomes whatever his friends need him to be. Or, as McCullers says,

An old Negro woman told hundreds of people that he knew the ways of spirits come back from the dead. A certain piece-worker claimed that he had worked with the mute at another mill somewhere else in the state – and the tales he told were unique. The rich thought that he was rich and the poor considered him a poor man like themselves. And as there was no way to disprove these rumors they grew marvelous and very real. Each man described the mute as he wished him to be.

His four friends visit him individually in his room, Mick seeking his radio and the music he cannot hear, as well as knowledge of an interior life that she enjoys herself but does not quite understand. Biff seeks to know more about Singer and thinks by looking into his eyes he can determine what makes Singer so special. Blount wants a comrade, someone to share his frustration, someone different but like himself. Lastly, Doctor Copeland desperately hopes that in Singer he has found a white man who understands his people’s plight.

But more importantly, Singer lets them. He has lost his one true companion, and these others simply fill the time he cannot spend with the one person he feels truly understands him, although there are indicators that Antonapoulos could not understand Singer’s sign language either. And although the books discusses race and class issues as well as Mick’s coming-of-age, it mostly probes the question I think everyone asks him or herself over the span of a lifetime: can anyone truly know another being?

Thought provoking and intelligent, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is truly a classic novel, and I urge you to read it. If you have read it, what else did you pick up on? Did you love it? Do you think my assessment of the characters is correct?


9 responses to “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

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