Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a wide-ranging chronicle of a Southern town and its inhabitants, a novel that reminded me at times of To Kill a Mockingbird, if it had gone more broadly over the lives of its characters. McCullers follows the lives of five people: a mute, Singer; a thirteen-year-old girl, Mick; a black doctor, Dr. Copeland, and his family; a “Red” agitator who travels from town to town, Jake Blount; and the owner of a cafe, Biff Brannon. All these characters are seeking a way through the misdirections of life to some true purpose, but McCullers is unflinching in her portrayal of their failures.

McCullers opens the novel by writing, “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together” (3), a fitting opening given Singer’s eventual role as an imbiber of the stories of others. After his friend, the other mute in town, is sent by his cousin to an asylum, Singer becomes a confessional for those around him. It’s not that Singer offers advice – he doesn’t – but that, in a world that is never silent, that never allows a person the chance to be what he sees himself as being, he stands as a sort of reflecting pool, showing back to people just the version of themselves they wish to see. The room he pays for in Mick Kelly’s house becomes one of the most popular in the building, with the other major figures in the book streaming in and out of his space over the novel’s course. As Jake Blount might put it, Singer is one who “knows,” a man with a vision beyond his day-to-day life. What makes Singer such an attractive figure to the town is that he can be whatever they want him to be, can think whatever they imagine he thinks, for the simple reason that he can’t explain himself. Singer operates in a world that he often seems to find cryptic, and he is never able to understand the reason for his innumerable visitors, only to sit as their “faces crowded in on him out of the darkness so that he felt smothered” (384).

What makes Singer such an appealing figure to so many of McCullers’s characters may be that he, unlike them, is not a part of the town. Having lived there for years without their notice, secluded in his apartment with his friend Antonopalous, it is as if he comes out of nowhere after his friend leaves and he begins eating at Biff’s restaurant. He is at the same moment from everywhere and from nowhere, living his life separate from that of the town despite the claims people make on him: “The Turk at the linen shop who flung his hands up in his face and babbled with his tongue to make words the shape of which Singer had never imagined before” (385).

In giving her characters a confessional in Singer, McCullers makes their lives clearer to the readers; not just their day-to-day, their hopes and aspirations, but, through what they make of the mute, those parts of themselves they are unable to admit even to themselves. “Owing to the fact he was a mute they were able to give him all the qualities they wanted him to have.” McCullers’s vision of the town sometimes reads as a cold one; she is not gentle to her characters, she doesn’t shield them from sorrows that include a failing business, a dead spouse, a dead friend, a jailed and then disfigured son, growing up, and racism. Despite all that her characters go through, though, McCullers has a light hand that never seems to be guiding the plot, that never falsifies the lives she shows.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is an extraordinary novel, one that highlights not just life in the 1930s South but life, as a whole. There are characters here – Mick and Biff and Singer especially – that can’t be forgotten even months after finishing the novel. This is one of those rare novels that, first, demands reading; and, second, is able to give us at one time the feel for a specific time in a specific place, and the feel of our country as a whole.

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8 Comments

Great review. Yes to everything you stated. Because John Singer never said anything, he never said the wrong thing. The other characters ended up thinking that he was the only one who could understand them.

Also, I’m still thinking about the relationship between John Singer and the other mute…

Comment by yourmovedarlyn

Oh gosh, me too. I read this a few months ago, when I was home over the summer, which is why my review is a little…short? (I feel like it’s a long post to be calling “short,” but I’m also a person who has a hard time shutting up.) I’d like to reread this and do a whole bunch of posts on it, because there’s just so much to the relationships and what people see in one another, not to mention what comes up with race and the “Reds.”

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

It’s been one of those I’m-on-the-fence-about-it novels. You make it shine on a good light though.

Comment by Benoît Lelièvre (@BenoitLelievre)

I liked the character of Singer the best too, although his love for the other man was confusing and seemingly unreciprocated. Maybe I didn’t understand it.

Comment by Jenny

This book is on my classics TBR list. I even own a copy. I look forward to reading it — it sounds like one I’ll love.

Comment by Erin

I read this last fall and absolutely loved it. It was such a fascinating novel for many of the reasons you mentioned. It was also one I thought about longer after I closed it. In fact, I’m sitting here wondering why I haven’t picked up anything else by her. I need to remedy that. Great review!

Comment by jenn aka the picky girl

Can’t believe I still haven’t read. Need to bump it up on my TBR. Enjoyed reading the review!

Comment by Word Hits

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