Book Review: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Posted June 13, 2014on:
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, Houghton Mifflin, 1940, 359 pp.
Somehow, I made it through an English major with multiple courses and a lifetime devotion to southern literature without reading Carson McCullers. My last trip to the library, I decided to rectify that vacancy in my knowledge. I want to say that I am glad I did, which is true, but The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was full of such pathos and sorrow that it feels ingenuous to associate reading it with anything resembling joy. Beauty, truth, the human spirit, artistry—yes. Gladness, however, is in short supply.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the story about loneliness and isolation, as situated in a small Massachusetts mill town in the Great Depression. The central character is John Singer, a deaf-mute, whose best friend, roommate and fellow deaf-mute has a breakdown and his family sends him to an asylum. Singer loses the only person with whom he can communicate openly, and he is thrust into silence.
The four other characters in the story are equally lonely, but each find their way to Singer and find in him someone who listens to them (he reads lips). Mick Kelly, a young teen girl whose parents run the boarding house, aspires to leave the shabby mill town and see the world. She has a gift for music that goes undeveloped because she had no access to a piano or lessons—only living for the occasional presence of a radio. Doctor Benedict Macy Copeland is the most educated man in town, and black. His education separates him from the African-American community that makes up his patients, and his race separates him from everyone else. His strictly-held political ideas about how to advance the good of his race have even alienated him from his wife and children. Jake Blount is a mechanic with a head full of ideas about Marxism and revolution. He visits with fellow laborers trying to get them to understand, but he presents as a blowhard and his frustration only grows that he cannot find anyone who can understand as he does. Biff Brannon owns the local café where Singer and Blount dine nightly. After the death of his wife, the business begins to fall apart around him, while he stands at the counter and watches other people’s lives and conversations, always apart from relationship with them.
Singer’s silent presence makes them feel as though they are not alone, as though someone listens and understands and cares about them. They begin to visit his room in the boarding house, pouring out their hearts and concerns in his silence. Singer does not find companionship in them, because they cannot read his sign language, but they find solace in him. As the novel unfolds, the reader hopes the four people coming to Singer might find companionship in one another—Blount and Copeland plotting together for revolution, Brannon’s compassion for Mick Kelly opening a way for her to escape her poverty.
Sadly, this story is not hopeful. Its ending is as sad and lonely as its beginning. Perhaps this is the reality of the world, which is regularly cruel and pointless—but I’ll admit to desiring a bit more hope in my novels most of the time, even if it’s only pretend. Sometimes, though, I turn to a novel because I feel sad and need to find a way to dive more deeply into that dark place. McCullers does that just beautifully, presenting the pathos and isolation of this world with grace and subtlety. It’s not a tragedy, but it’s a sorrowful glimpse into the loneliness of the world. It left me with my sadness, but what a beautiful sorrow it is. There is joy in that recognition.
*Side Note: I got behind in writing reviews of what I have been reading, so I caught up by writing these three novel reviews in a row, for All the Living, The Lost Mother and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I realized in doing so that all three of them are stories about people grappling with profound loneliness and isolation. I would not describe myself as lonely right now, but I am certainly contemplating what would draw me to these three books in a three week period.