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The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
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Group Reads: Pre-1980 > Discussion questions for "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter"

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message 1: by Lawyer, "Lawyer Stevens" (last edited Mar 22, 2012 02:57PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 3115 comments Mod
Although our group read of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunterdoes not begin until April 1, 2012, here are some discussion questions from the Readers Guide to the novel provided by the National Endowment For the Arts.

The complete NEA Reader's Guide may be found at:

Carson McCullers took her novel's title from a poem by William Sharp (under the pseudonym of Fiona Macleod--editor's note). How does this title relate to the novel's five main characters?

Why might McCullers have changed it from her original title, “The Mute”?

Isolation and loneliness are key themes in the novel. How are they different?

What are some of the ways the characters seek to alleviate their feelings of isolation and loneliness?

The narrator describes the main characters as both ordinary and heroic. Do you agree?

What fuels John Singer's devotion to his companion, Spiros Antonapoulos? How does Singer feel after Antonapoulos is sent to the asylum?

Why would McCullers choose to tell us so little about Singer's past?

Mick Kelly has an “inside room” and an “outside room.” What does this mean? Is this true for the other characters as well?

How different is Dr. Copeland's view of the world from his daughter's? What does he want for Portia? Why does she reject her father's ideal?

Why does Jake Blount try to find the person who wrote a Bible passage he saw on a wall? Is this passage significant in any way to Blount's socialist message?

Why can't Biff Brannon confide in Singer? How does he feel after his wife's death?

What is the role of religion in the novel? How does this affect the actions and beliefs of the characters, especially Jake and Dr. Copeland?

How and to whom does each of the characters in the novel express love?

Do you find the ending of the novel disheartening or hopeful?

In what ways do the themes of the novel resonate with issues of class and race today?

Happy reading,

Lawyer Stevens

message 2: by Lydia (new)

Lydia | 5 comments I think the reason Singer is not drawn in more fully is that he's really a filter through which the other characters are seen. Making him deaf and sort of unmoored in history allows him to more clearly reflect the town and the people in it. I have more to say on this but don't want to give spoilers! :)

The thing that struck me so deeply when reading this book was that Carson McCullers was in her early 20s when she wrote it. Amazing how she can write Biff Brannon, for example, and all of these older, world-weary men and their angst and frustration... as a young woman. She was so brilliant.

John | 5 comments Building on Lydia's idea, I think reading Singer as a tabula rasa might be a better metaphor than a reflection; reflection implies the characters are seeing themselves sent back, whereas the tabula rasa gets to the heart of how the characters use Singer. Whatever anyone needs, they can project whatever they need to onto him because of the lack of definition (and the other aspects of his condition). I don't think it's as much he reflects the town or its people as serve as a receptacle for everything the people want to be.

I really was interested in the ideas of loneliness/isolation. They are peculiar; you can be one without the other, you can impose them both upon yourself or have them imposed upon you, and so on. One of the things this book shared with "As I Lay Dying" (honestly the only 2 Southern Lit books I've read) was the bleakness and sense of isolation. Is this common in Southern Lit? If so, why?

message 4: by Lydia (new)

Lydia | 5 comments I think it's common in all literature. Isolation is a very base human fear -- our biology tells us that isolation is death. I don't think of it as something specific to Southern fiction though I see what you mean when you reference Faulkner.

When I think of Southern lit I actually think more of community, how communities form collective identities, etc. Southern lit, maybe more pop Southern lit, tends to be more about connection than isolation. Maybe that's why when you do juxtapose isolation with the themes of the South it becomes so powerful.

Mike (xolotl-ltolox) | 7 comments Singer makes me think of a priest and the confessional. His room is small and neat; he's formal but approachable and nonjudgmental when his penitents call, and they leave seemingly refreshed (I've only just started part two). I knew a monk once from Belgium whom I think of when reading this book. Speaking to him was like speaking into a great gulf that he contained for you so that you wouldn't fall into your own, if that makes any sense at all.

message 6: by Lydia (new)

Lydia | 5 comments Michael wrote: "Singer makes me think of a priest and the confessional."

I totally get that. A deaf priest, what a thought.

Jessie J (subseti) | 324 comments I like this priest analogy: when they are all in the confessional together (Singer's room), it is uncomfortable.

Not only is Singer the priest for Blount, Mick, and the Doctor, Antonapoulos is Singer's priest. He's even dressed as the "pope" at one point (in the infirmary). And Antonapoulos us just as clueless about what Singer is trying to say as Singer is about what the other three are saying.

Biff Brannon is the most intriguing character. He is the agnostic, who is present, yet questioning. He knows that there's something "not quite right" about Singer, just as he knows there's something not quite right about himself. He remembers that Singer used to follow behind Antonapoulos, just as Blount follows behind Singer.

What is common to me in all Southern literature is futility, but I'm probably not the best person to talk about that. ;^)

Mike (xolotl-ltolox) | 7 comments Singer and Antonapoulos are interesting. I sometimes wondered if muteness was meant to be symbolic of the outsider status and alienation of homosexuality, especially in the south of that time.

(view spoiler)

I've only read a little southern literature, but I would say futility definitely seems one of the common themes.

Elle Thornton | 57 comments Jessie wrote: "I like this priest analogy: when they are all in the confessional together (Singer's room), it is uncomfortable.

Not only is Singer the priest for Blount, Mick, and the Doctor, Antonapoulos is Si..."

I kept thinking of Antonapoulos as Buddah: inscrutable, half smile, big belly, calm (for the most part).

message 10: by Christa (new)

Christa | 55 comments I like Singer and Mick's relationship (though I am despairing the last quarter of the book). Rumor has it. . . probably wikipedia, that McCuller took the name from another poem or author (I'll source check, and post). Mick's inside and outside are very real to my mind (and as I am deaf, Singer's inside and outside are very real to me as well). Mick is looking at the outside world as the real world, inside, she has to behave, and conduct herself in a manner that her sisters can't stand, and has a brother who tolerates her. I don't think her mother likes her, and when she's coming of age, I think she tries things out with Singer that he skillfully ignores, or doesn't realize are happening. There is a great song done by the Questionnaires, then later by Shawn Colvin, called, "Window to the World." It would fit in with this discussion well, because how we see ourselves is much differently than the world outside our own eyes. I see that when I'm with deaf friends and and communicating with ASL, hearing people stare, and sometimes, I'll unplug from my cochlear implants, and watch with no sound. The deaf world is natural for Singer, and you do learn to have a presence that no one notices, and you pretend to hear just fine (when I'm plugged in) even when someone is running past you and your hearing isn't quite right. I think Singer as a priest is interesting. . .but as a shield, might be more realistic.

message 11: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike (xolotl-ltolox) | 7 comments Christa, can I ask why you think Mick's mother didn't care for her?

Singer as shield makes more sense. I think maybe others were able to project their hopes and secret desires on him without rejection; once he was gone, maybe unexpressed hope can't sustain itself.

I enjoyed your post very much. Thanks for taking the time to make it.

message 12: by Christa (new)

Christa | 55 comments Mick's mom seems to distance herself in much of the book. Without divulging too much, when it comes time for Mick to work or continue with school, it is the first time she really seems to go to bat for her. Otherwise, she's sending her out with the younger kids, and using her as a second mother. Neither parent seems judgmental, Mick's the grand tomboy, until she is coming of age and dressing up. . . I hope that makes sense.

Thank you for asking about it, and if it doesn't let me know!!

Jessie J (subseti) | 324 comments Two with one stone:

Why might McCullers have changed it from her original title, “The Mute”?


Mick Kelly has an “inside room” and an “outside room.” What does this mean? Is this true for the other characters as well?

The inside room is Mick's inner life, lived separately from the interactive life with her family, friends, and neighbors. I think everyone probably has an inside room. Mick's is filled with music, but it doesn't translate well to the outside room (she doesn't know how to write music, so can bring it from the inside to the outside--she is mute).

Blount's inside room is one where he is a great motivator for the poor in the class struggle. He can't translate it to the outside room because he doesn't know how to be an orator. His frustration causes him to drink, and that also inhibits his abilities to translate from the inside room to the outside--he is mute.

Dr. Copeland's inside room is one where he is a great leader for the Negro race. He can't translate it to the outside room because of his anger. Since the episode with his wife when she left, he has tried many ways to control that anger, but it is still there, and it makes him mute.

Brannon's inside room is one where he is an effeminate mother figure. He can't translate it to the outside room because he would be ridiculed by society, and it makes him mute.

Susan | 5 comments I agree with the narrator that the main characters are ordinary and heroic. They are ordinary because each one leads a life that is similar to that of many others, neither outstanding nor unusual. They are heroic because each seems to have a private longing, hope, or even a vision, which he or she is aware of and struggles to attain or keep in view, at least during the main part of the book. SPOILER ALERT: I was saddened by the ending of the book during which, I believe, each character lost the passion to pursue that hope, that vision; in fact lost the hope and the vision itself -- the struggle to achieve racial parity, the struggle to achieve economic equality, the longing to create music, the reaching out for love.

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