The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers was first published in 1940. The story takes place in an unnamed Depression-era Southern town and revolves around the lives of John Singer, Mick Kelly, Biff Brannon, Jake Blount, and Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, a diverse group of all trying to survive life. We follow each character’s hopes and dreams, ups and downs, in heartbreakingly written narrative. The center of the group is the deaf-mute John Singer. Each of the other main characters gravitates toward him, frequently visiting him to unload their burdens and dreams.
John Singer, a man who starts the novel off living with his equally mute, though not deaf, roommate and best friend Spiros Antonapoulos. But circumstances cause the pair to be separated when Spiros is sent away to an insane asylum. It’s after this event that each of the other characters gravitate toward Singer, using him as an outpost to express thoughts and desires they can’t tell anyone else.
Overall, I loved this book. The characters were extremely fascinating and well-developed with the exception of one. The secondary characters are often just as well-developed as the main characters. The prose is lovely and McCullers does a fantastic job utilizing the setting to mirror each character’s journey. The book’s themes carry over to today showing a modern reader just how far we have or haven’t come as a society.
To me the two strongest, most interesting characters are Singer and Dr. Copeland. Singer starts the novel happily going through life doing his job in a jewelry store while his roommate, Spiros, who is also mute but not deaf, works in a candy store. They do everything together and it’s Spiros which gives Singer strength and is the one person he can communicate with. He believes Spiros understands him though the reader at times wonders if Spiros truly has full mental capacity.
When Spiros is committed, this sinks Singer into a depression and causes him to move into the boarding house owned by Mick Kelly’s family. It is here that we start to see the other characters gravitate toward him believing him to be a great listener (he is as he learned to read lips). Others speak to him, treat him as some kind of wise person, but he rarely speaks back. His only form of communication, besides the sign language he used with Spiros, is pencil and paper. Without Spiros, Singer’s emotions become pent up until he can let them out when he visits Spiros. Others trust him with their deepest thoughts and desires yet he trusts no one but Spiros.
My other favorite character is Dr. Copeland, the town’s black doctor whose patients are the black community. Through his work he sees the injustices, prejudices, and lack of opportunity which exists in his community. He tried to fight this by raising his own children to be as educated and socially conscience as him. Yet none of them show the same need for education and desire to fight. Instead they, like everyone else, work just to survive each and every day. They are simply too tired to fight and Dr. Copeland is too old and sick to fight.
Dr. Copeland is a hard man to love. His relationship with his children is strained. Yet despite his gruff manner, many of his patients have named their children after him. But he doesn’t see this as having a positive impact on the community. Dr. Copeland would rather see his patients and their children stand up and fight and work to improve their lives.
Through the doctor the reader is given a front row seat to so many social issues America still struggles with today. We see how difficult it is for the black community in the town to trust any white person as so many of the whites in the town look down upon them. But in Singer Dr. Copeland finds himself trusting a white person for one of the few times in his life believing he is understands the struggle. So he starts visiting Singer to vent his frustrations.
Jake Blount is one of the characters I find myself rather ambivalent about. He wanders into the town, a true vagabond, and spends the first few weeks of his time in town hanging out all day at the New York Café. At first he’s a drunk but eventually stops and begins work at the local amusement park. He fancies himself an intellectual, a communist, and indeed he is well read. His nomadic lifestyle gives the reader a broad glimpse into the Depression.
Like Dr. Copeland he wants to fight an oppressive system. Unlike the doctor, he has the energy to try. He tries a few times to rally his co-workers to protest and to educate them, but those efforts fail. Like the other characters, Singer is his outpost believing very much like Dr. Copeland that this is a man who understands. He has no idea Singer often can’t clearly read Blount’s lips enough to understand what he’s saying.
My two least favorite characters are Brannon and Mick Kelly. Brannon because I felt he was underdeveloped and really didn’t fit into the rest of the narrative. Most of his time in the novel is spent working at the New York Café which is in the same building as his home. He rarely leaves and this is the problem for me. Though his café attracts Singer, Blount, and Mick Kelly, overall he is disconnected from the world at large. Brannon comes across as almost void of emotion even after his wife dies. His point of view didn’t add anything to the story nor gave any insight into the other characters. He also has, by our standards, an odd affection toward Mick. It may very well be a fatherly instinct as he has no children of his own, but even Mick gets a creepy vibe from him.
My other least favorite character is Mick Kelly. She’s the only female main character and is the youngest. The middle child in a large, poor family she starts off the story as a tomboy. Mick is tough yet very motherly in that she is the primary caretaker for her two younger brothers though her mother is alive and well. As the novel progresses she transitions into what would be considered more ladylike mainly inspired by when Singer moves in. She develops this odd crush on him, stalks him, and waits for him to come home each day. It’s not made clear what the attraction because she’s often tongue-tied around him.
Unlike Brannon, she has some fascinating characteristics such as loving classical music even stealing away in the night to listen to music as it flitters into the open from people’s radios. She starts composing her own music and practices after school on a piano located in her school’s gym. But then a horrible accident forces the family into deep poverty and eventually she makes a fateful choice.
On a scale of one to five pencils I’d give The Heart is a Lonely Hunter four pencils. It’s heartbreaking and completely honest in its portrayal of a group of flawed people.