Review: The Heart is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Fireflies, front sitting porches, summer evenings, the Café “Community Center” — it’s all part and parcel of the American South, on the eve of the Second World War, along with polio, typhoid, pellagra, poverty and legal racial segregation.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a good, though dark, story. I have first read excerpts for an English assignment back in college, and now that I’ve read it in full I found it much more enjoyable than I expected. I understand that this can be categorized as American Gothic, and though Gothic conjures up dark, dank, spooky or frightening imagery, this story is one more of stifling futility. It presents a good historical perspective on the thoughts and ideas of the 30’s (the rise of Socialism). Yet, it really does have a contemporary feel to it.

The first section of this novel has six chapters — one chapter focused on each of the five main characters, and then the sixth concerning their continuing relationship to one another. The first two chapters take place much earlier than the continuing action of the rest of the novel. The first chapter introduces John Singer, the deaf-mute, and it is written in the vague, fable-like tone that all of the parts concerning Singer are told in. His relationship with another mute, Antonapoulos, is explained: they live together and spend their free time together, but after ten years Antonapoulos starts showing erratic behavior — stealing from the cousin he works for, exposing himself in public, etc. Singer spends all of his money trying to make restitution for his friend’s crimes, but the cousin has Antonapoulos committed to the state insane asylum two hundred miles away. Singer moves into the boarding house owned by the Kelly family and begins eating his meals at the New York Cafe. The second chapter takes place one night at the cafe: all of the five main characters pass through this chapter, but it is primarily about the cafe owner, Biff Brannon. When he is coming off of his shift and going to bed, his wife is rising to go to work. Brannon admits to his wife that he has a fondness for what he calls “freaks.” Their conversation is about how to handle a third main character, Jake Blount, who has spent every night at the cafe since arriving in town twelve days earlier: he gets drunk, doesn’t pay his bills, and terrorizes the customers. Mick Kelly, a twelve-year-old girl from town, comes in to buy a pack of cigarettes. Blount leaves briefly and returns with Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, a black physician, insisting that he will buy him a drink in defiance of segregation laws, until Dr. Copeland shakes his grip and leaves. Singer, the deaf-mute, takes Blount home to sleep off his drunkenness.

Throughout the rest of this section the backgrounds of the characters are revealed. Mick Kelly watches after her younger brothers throughout the summer, and she is obsessed with music. She recalls a Mozart melody she heard and she tries to make a violin out of an old ukulele. She is also brash, offensive, and vulgar to the other members of her family. Jake Blount takes a job with the carnival that moves around town, and he dreams of leading a revolution against social injustice. He strongly opposes racism and holds Marxist views about economic inequality, but he distances himself from everybody except Singer because of his tendency to get drunk and argue. Dr. Copeland does not get along with his children — as an educated black man in the South, he feels that blacks have to rise above their station, and he is disappointed that his children are average. When Singer goes away for a week to visit his friend at the end of this section, all of these characters are worried, because they each feel that he is the one person who understands them.

Most of the action in the book takes place in the long middle section, which spans fifteen chapters. Mick enters Vocational High School, and, in order to get to know her new classmates, she throws a party, dressing in girl clothes for the first time; she is disappointed when the rowdy neighborhood children crash the party, although her new classmates do not seem to mind. Biff’s wife dies, and he becomes more withdrawn, more self-involved, and he takes on effeminate traits such as wearing perfume. Doctor Copeland’s son William is arrested and sent to prison, and, at the request of his daughter, Portia, the doctor attends a family function, at which his father-in-law, a farmer, angers him by talking about God: he lets his anger show, alienating his family further. Mick’s younger brother, playing with a rifle, shoots Baby, who is Biff Brannon’s niece: her mother agrees to not press charges if the Kelly family will pay for Baby’s first-class hospital treatment, but the bills destroy the Kellys financially. In the middle of this section is a chapter about Singer visiting his friend at the asylum, and then writing him a letter. It is through this letter that readers find out what Singer thinks of all of the people who confide in him: he does not generally understand what they are talking about, and thinks they are foolish and crazy. Mick takes piano lessons from a girl at school, practicing in the gymnasium while the boys play basketball.

After weeks of being out of contact, William comes home: due to torture and abuse at the prison farm, he has lost his feet to gangrene. Dr. Copeland, going to see a judge he knows about the matter, is mocked and beaten by a deputy sheriff and thrown in jail for the night, crushing his dignity. Jake, who has seen racial tensions flaring at the carnival, goes to see the doctor upon hearing about these mistreatments: the two of them cordially agree to form an alliance to demand social justice, but they disagree about how to reach their goal, and the argument flares until racial insults are thrown. At the end of this section Singer goes to see Antonapoulos again, only to be told that his friend is dead. He goes home and kills himself.

The last section is about what happens after Singer’s death and how if affects the surviving characters, who counted on him to be their moral compass whether he understood them or not. This section is divided into four chapters labeled Morning, Afternoon, Evening and Night, respectively, of August 21, 1939. Doctor Copeland, the proud, educated man who could not tolerate his father-in-law’s simplistic religious groveling, is too ill to care for himself, and so he is taken away to the country, lying in the back of the farmer’s old mule-wagon. Jake Blount, who meant to be the man who could bring the races and classes together, takes part in a race riot at the carnival: after holding back at first, he finds himself joining in and swinging his fists ferociously. He leaves town with a sense of having accomplished nothing, but with hope for the next town he will end up in. Mick takes a job at Woolworth’s in order to help with the family’s mounting bills. It means giving up her dream of studying music. In the end she stops at the New York Cafe to have a beer and a sundae, indicating the mixture of child and adult at which she is frozen. Biff Brannon spends his time in the basement among the newspapers he has collected over the past twenty years, isolated from his customers and employees, living in his own world.

Very early in the book Biff Brannon announces to his wife, “I like freaks.” Her response is “I reckon you ought to, Mister Brannon — being as you’re one yourself.” What Biff has in mind is the affinity he has for the struggling underdog, or, as the book puts it later, “a special feeling for sick people and cripples.” Although Brannon himself is physically healthy, his connection to the physically deformed is an indication of the weakness that he sees within himself, a weakness that shows itself in his inability to connect to his wife when she is alive and is even more pronounced in his withdrawal from society after her death. The other main characters display signs of social weakness that range from the obvious to the sublime. Mick Kelly, the only female in the group, is a young girl, wielding no real authority but burdened with responsibility for her younger brothers. She tries to enhance her stature by acting tough, using a boy’s name and dressing boyishly and smoking, but her false strength is revealed by the fear she has of being found out after her first sexual encounter. In the end, it is her family’s financial vulnerability that dashes her dreams of pursuing a career in music. Jake Blount’s weakness is alcoholism, which keeps him from following through with any plans he makes, confusing his thinking and driving him to rage when he has a point to make. Beside the social disadvantage of being black in the South in the 1930’s, Dr. Copeland has to deal with the tuberculosis that is eating away his body. John Singer, though stable and respected about town, is shut off from humanity, both by his handicap and by his obsession with Antonapoulos. The novel uses these weaknesses to bring the characters together, both for practical reasons (Blount drinks at Brannon’s cafe, Singer boards at the Kelly house) and for commiseration with one another. The other four are drawn to Singer because his weakness is openly displayed, and they feel that he can understand them.

To varying degrees, all of the main characters feel that they understand where they fit into society, but they all are actually missing something that would help them function in their world. This is a part of McCullers’s concept of the grotesque: each character has an outstanding aspect that makes them different from the norm, and yet they keep looking for acceptance. The most obvious case of this is Dr. Copeland, who is so isolated by his concept of his intellectualism that he cannot even fit in with his own family, although he cannot give up his intellectualism, either, because it is what makes his illness and society’s racism bearable. Similarly, Jake Blount is driven by intellect, except that his thoughts are often interrupted by flashes of anger. In anger, he once quit an organization that he himself had founded, unable to accept the behavior of the other members: “They had stole the fifty-seven dollars and thirty cents from the treasury to buy uniform caps and free Sunday suppers,” he tells Singer indignantly. Biff Brannon has an identity problem while his wife Alice is around, because she is a constant reminder of his impotence, but when she dies he is able to incorporate female personality traits in with his own, and he finds peace in that way. The most obvious case of one of the main characters searching for their identity is Mick, who, as an adolescent, has not yet found out who she really is: she throws a party for her new classmates in order to find her place, and explores sexuality with Harry Minowitz, and she gives in to what a career in music can tell her about herself, but ironically, after she has found a self that she is comfortable with, she is denied following the music career because of financial difficulty. Each of these characters goes to Singer because they think that he is like them: ironically, Singer does not identify with any of them, but with the Greek, Antonapoulos — but even though he is deaf Antonapoulos does not see much of himself in Singer. Some of the minor characters, too, bring out the theme of Search for Self, although they do not belong within the circle formed by the main characters. Mick’s Dad, for instance, shows this theme by trying to acclimate to a new job after being injured as a roofer, while Portia and Willie and Highboy create an unusual composite identity by spending most of their free time as a threesome.

This book is not structured like a traditional novel, which would use a more systematic method to follow the ways in which the events in the main characters’ lives affect each other’s, and so by traditional standards it appears to be chaotic, even uncontrolled. The story lines of the five main characters are developed side-by-side with each other, so that readers would have difficulty picking one that is more important than the others. The shape of the novel is in fact based in musical theory, with the three parts organized as a fugue would be. The first section opens with Singer’s story alone, like a musical solo, and then weaves in the other voices in balanced increments, playing off of each other and creating distinct harmonies, ending with Singer again — since words are not exchanged in Singer’s sections, the story is told completely in narrative, giving these outside chapters a hushed, thoughtful feeling. The second section, fifteen chapters in total, is much busier, still concentrating on one character per chapter but complicating their lives with struggles and misery, giving the full rich tone of an entire orchestra, still following various individual strands but doing so with greater fury. This section ends with the climactic event of the novel, John Singer’s suicide. The third section is a coda that does not develop any new ideas but returns to each of the four remaining characters to confirm that they did in fact end up living the destinies that they seemed to be headed for earlier. This section is divided into quarters in a new way, dividing one day, August 21, 1939, into morning, afternoon, evening, and night, echoing Singer’s isolation at the end as Biff Brannon shouts to his assistant and receives no response. Basing the design on a musical form reflects both the musical training that Carson McCullers had (and that Mick in the novel would like to have) and the irony that runs throughout of the music that plays on the radio in the room of the deaf man.

3 thoughts on “Review: The Heart is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

  1. I love how thorough this review is and I also love dark books so I will definitely have to try this one out. Thank you. PS. Your eyeliner in your photo is SO rad. I wish I could pull that off.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Pump Up Your Book Spotlight: Unconquered by J.D. Davis & Kindle Giveaway! | Books in the Burbs

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