Rediscovered Classic: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Editor's Note: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers' debut novel, was written when the author was 23 years old. It is characteristic of the Southern Gothic style of literature. This style places eccentric and often damaged characters in impoverished or oppressed settings as a way to examine issues of morality, innocence and social justice.  Although McCullers set all of her works in the south, she herself left Georgia for New York at a young age. Other well-known writers of the Southern Gothic style include William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O'Connor.

In a small Georgian factory town in the late 1920s, amid much social, political and civil unrest, John Singer walks the heated streets. After a long-time friend and fellow deaf person, Antonapoulos, is institutionalized, the vacuum in Singer’s life spurs him on an endless search for human connection. His silence and outward calm attract a series of characters whose own hectic souls long for solace, each with a specific agenda.

Singer listens. He rarely responds. Indeed, he cannot understand their fervor, agitation, intensity. In truth, he may share ideologies with them, but he provides little more than a room, drink, food and that scarcest of commodities - time. His heart is turned toward his friend Antonapoulos who, ironically, scarcely seems aware of his existence. So, everyone is searching.

Biff, the proprietor of the New York Café, has been freed to explore a new feminine side of himself by the death of his wife. He scrutinizes his patrons, noting their sexual nuances, deficiencies and attributes. He is generous with outcasts and reluctant to share himself with anyone but Singer.

Jake, a social activist, breezes into town on the wings of alcohol and crashes to reality when he can’t arouse the passions of the oppressed workers. He turns to Singer for affirmation, talking for hours before even realizing he’s deaf.

Dr. Copeland is a black physician who at great personal cost educated himself in the North and came back to Georgia to practice and to inspire his progeny to greater heights. Alas, they are mired in the social bog of racism and fighting to maintain a fragile foothold. He turns to Singer, who once lit a cigarette for him – something no white man had ever done – and discloses Marxist views which he is certain Singer shares.

Mick, a gawky teenage girl attempting to escape a grinding life of poverty, finds a finger-hold of beauty in music. When she first hears a Beethoven symphony playing on a neighbor’s radio while crouching outside in the bushes, she melts into another universe of pleasure. From then on, music becomes her “inside room” which she ironically attempts to share with the deaf Mr. Singer. Her chaotic coming of age climaxes when she leaves high school to help with family financial woes.

These four characters spin around the hub of Mr. Singer’s serenity, amid a swirl of sexual tensions, religious fervor, drunkenness, street fights, parties, speeches and violence.

-Lois Glick, Great Falls Library

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