The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Highly recommended.
Only 23 years old when she wrote The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers captures the restless energy of adolescence and the loneliness and isolation of those who choose not to fit into their world — Mick Kelly, an artistic teenager whose titles and graffiti reveal a darker side to her personality; Jake Blount, an itinerant socialist; Benedict Mady Copeland, a consumptive black physician; and Biff Brannon, sexually ambiguous owner of the New York Café. Linking this disparate group of outsiders is the ironically named John Singer, a man who cannot talk (or sing). They are drawn to him, as lonely people are to someone they believe will listen and understand. They never step out of themselves to discover that Singer listens, but he doesn’t understand, nor do they realise that he, too, is lonely and isolated — or why.
Just as these four impose their concept of Singer upon him, he has his own idol — his companion of 10 years, Spiros Antonapoulos. While Singer’s lonely friends project upon him the character of a wise, knowing, understanding man, Singer in turn imposes a similar personality on Antonapoulos. His life revolves around his rare visits to the asylum to which Antonapoulos is eventually taken. As the reader’s awareness of Antonapoulos as a childish, greedy, and lazy man grows, so grows Singer’s faith in him as gentle and wise. As a fellow mute, Antonapoulos is all Singer has, so he both idealises and idolises him — in the same way that Mick, Blount, Copeland, and, to a lesser extent, Brannon idealise and idolise Singer.
Rarely do any of the four interact, except when Blount and Dr. Copeland engage in a circular argument about how best to help their peoples — victims of capitalism in Blount’s case, blacks in Dr. Copeland’s. These two groups have much in common, but just as Blount and Dr. Copeland remain in bitter conflict, so do their peoples — a conflict which is alluded to throughout and which culminates in a brawl at the carnival grounds where Jake works. Dr. Copeland and Jake never find common ground, nor do the poor white laborers and oppressed blacks they wish to enlighten. Dr. Copeland’s self-sacrificing but hopeless dedication and Jake’s self-destructive brutality could be seen as representing their time and place, the 1930s South.
Sexual ambiguity pervades the novel. It is never clear whether Singer and Antonapoulos are lovers, although it seems like that that is what lies behind Singer’s uncritical devotion. Even when Antonapoulos’s selfish, greedy, irrational behaviour drives away a third mute, Singer is merely disappointed at the loss of a potential friend — as long as he has Antonapoulos, he is content. After Antonapoulos leaves, “. . . in the spring a change came over Singer . . . his body was very restless . . . unable to work off a new feeling of energy.”
This sexual energy is shared by Mick, who is always restless. This isolates her even more from the rest of her family: her father, a disabled carpenter trying half-heartedly to make a living; her mother, for whom Mick acts as a substitute parent for her younger brothers Bubber (George) and Ralph; her older brother Bill, once close to her and now distant; and her older sisters Hazel and Etta, who have been forced from adolescence into adulthood through work and their own conventional interest in celebrity. (One could speculate about the nature of the “diseased ovary” Etta develops.)
Mick lives in an “inside room,” where she finds peace in music and in her perceptions of her friendship with Singer. Later, after her sexual initiation, she finds herself slyly manipulated into taking a job by her apparently solicitous family; at this point, she notices that, while the “inside room” is still important, she has less time and energy for it. McCullers exposition of Mick’s transition from inventive childhood to dulling adulthood is subtle and is one of the best aspects of the novel.
Of the four, Brannon is the most enigmatic. After his wife dies, he redecorates in what seems a distinctly unmasculine way (in contrast to his heavy, black beard, the subject of many comments). Even more interesting, he begins to wear his late wife’s perfume. While he observes, defends, and supports Jake, his sexual feelings are focused on Mick, to whom he seems distant and cold (in her naiveté, Mick attributes his attitude to the fact that she and Bubber shoplifted gum from the café). Not surprisingly, after Mick is sexually initiated, obtains a job, and begins to dress and behave more like a girl on the cusp of womanhood, Brannon loses interest and consequently warms up to her. She is now no more of a challenge to his impotence than his late wife was.
McCullers weaves a dense cloth of themes. First, there is the inward and selfish nature of loneliness. No one ever truly reaches out; in fact, Mick’s Jewish neighbor Harry, appalled by fascism and Hitler, and Brannon are the only characters who are interested in the greater world. The conditions of the working poor and the black experience are eloquently portrayed without much narrative or focus on details. By the end, everything and nothing has changed. Mick is determined to escape fate through music, unlikely as it seems; a weakened Dr. Copeland becomes unable to carry on his “strong, true purpose.” Blount leaves town to find someone who will finally accept the basket of ideas that haunts his nightmares; Brannon, “suspended between bitter irony and faith,” faces the dawn exactly as he has for years.
McCullers’ portrayal of these disparate characters are true to life and reveal a remarkable insight into people, no matter their age, gender, race, or background — an insight that is lacking in her self-absorbed characters. The heart is a lonely hunter, so it will find what it wishes to — love — in the most unlikely of places. It would take many re-readings to mine the richness here.
31 May 2004
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf