Marzie's Reviews > The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
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bookshelves: classic-read

4.5 Stars

The most astonishing thing about The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is that Carson McCullers wrote it in her early twenties and it was published when she was only 23 years old. The human struggles in this novel are poignant, fascinating and quite surprising for a novel written by a young woman in the 1940's. Tackling topics that include racism, Marxism, religion, disability, and sexuality, McCullers created a complicated crazy quilt of characters, all revolving around her deaf-mute protagonist John Singer. The handling may not always be deft or sophisticated but her writing is clear and she examines topics that were rarely addressed in her day.

Communication, isolation, and connectedness are the central themes of this book: everyone tells John Singer all their hopes, fears, hatreds, without even being sure he understands their confidences but no one reaches out or appears to listen to the deaf man at all. None of the other characters understand him, or know him, in any depth. Singer is the well into which they pour their emotions and needs, but no one recognizes the desperation of this quiet, kind man, other than perhaps Dr. Copeland, who is too busy with his own personal struggles to see how desperately alone, depressed and forlorn John Singer becomes over the course of the book.

The varied cast of central characters is headlined by Mick Kelley, a fourteen-year-old loving daughter/sister and aspiring musician, who represents the only point of hope for the future in this entire novel. Additional characters include Dr. Copeland, an African-American doctor who rightfully bristles at the terrible lot of black people in American, Biff Brannon, owner of the local café, whose hardworking but no longer loved wife dies midway through the book and Jake Blount, a disgruntled alcoholic who espouses socialism but a different flavor from that of Marx-reading Dr. Copeland. These four characters all develop a relationship with Singer that is unidirectional to varying extents. Singer, the deaf man, is there to "listen" to them and that is all. At least Dr. Copeland seems to care about Singer as a person, admiring his kindness and generosity, but he holds him up an idealized white man and that seems to get in this way of his truly being Singer's friend. Mick, in the way that is all too common with teens, doesn't seem to really see John Singer as a three-dimensional person. She feels his kindness and seeks him out to share her hopes, but she never attempts to learn to understand and communicate with him. Jake and Biff neither understand Singer nor are motivated to seek much understanding of him. The lack of connectedness to Singer and to their others in their own lives is painful. Every character in the book seems fairly disconnected from everyone else. Spouses from each other, parents from children, siblings from each other. Even when Mick seems to connect to a prospective boyfriend, he departs.

One of the hotly discussed subtexts of the book is the relationship between John Singer and his best-friend and former roommate, fellow deaf-mute Spiro Antonopolous, who is interred for mental health reasons by his callous cousin Charlie Parker. While much has been written in retrospect about the relationship between John and Spiro being sexual, to me the essential point is that John loves Spiro. Spiro was the one person that John could easily communicate with, prior to Spiro's descent into what appears to be schizophrenia or a severe mood disorder. The tragedy of Charlie's unilateral decision ripples through John Singer's life, severing the only close emotional relationship he had and depriving him of the one person who could understand him. We know little of either man's background but their finding each other seems to have been vital for their surviving in a world that devalues the differently abled, at least for a time. As one fails, the other slowly spirals into depression and loss, culminating in the crushing end of Part 2. They shared a life together and what they did in that life sexually seems secondary to the love and devotion Singer feels. Spiro is the only person that John Singer loved and to whom he was connected. In fact, other than Mick's relationship with her baby brother Bubber, John and Spiro's relationship is the only truly loving relationship we encounter in the book, though by the time we meet Spiro, it too seems like a fairly unilateral relationship.

While one could quibble with some aspects of the plot, this is a powerful novel and one of the earliest novels to feature a protagonist who is disabled, or more accurately, differently abled, given John Singer's wholly normal cognitive and emotional capacity.


"There he lies in the darkness, under the frail white flowers,
Heedless at last, in the silence, of these sweet midsummer hours...
Green wind from the green-gold branches, what is the song you bring?
What are all the songs for me, now, who no more cares to sing?
Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill."

from The Lonely Hunter by Fiona McLeod, quoted from the poem from which Carson McCullers drew the title of this novel.
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Reading Progress

June 24, 2018 – Started Reading
June 24, 2018 – Shelved
June 29, 2018 – Shelved as: classic-read
June 29, 2018 – Finished Reading

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