Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers

Even if you have difficulty enjoying this slow-paced novel, where not a whole lot happens, you have to admit that it has a great title. The title is key to understanding the novel's themes: loneliness, a hunt for friendship, a hunt for truth, and a look at what people carry in their hearts. This is yet another adult novel often required for teenagers to read in high school. While my adult self found the novel absorbing and thought-provoking, I can imagine my teenage self may have been bored. The vision of life McCullers paints is very sad, rarely happy, as the reader follows a year in the lives of five characters, and yet you get a sense that we all face the same problems and concerns the characters in the novel face, to some degree.

The back cover of the novel says Mick Kelly, a young girl, is the main character, but I'm not sure the novel truly does center on any one character. There is also Biff Brannon, who owns a barely successful bar; Doctor Copeland, a black doctor who wants to elevate his race above the problems of the day; Jake Blount, a drunkard obsessed with the ideology of Karl Marx; and Peter Singer, a deaf mute whose best friend was just transported off to a mental care facility. The novel takes place towards the end of the Great Depression, just as Hitler is beginning to lead the world into World War II, and it seems this depression has taken a toll on the people not only financially, but emotionally. Of the five characters listed above, only two seem somewhat happy: Mick because she's young, and Singer because he's always happy to have company.

As the story develops, all five of these characters become connected in some way - namely to Peter Singer. Singer's deaf mute status seems to lend him an air of authority. He doesn't talk, and he can only listen by reading lips, but the other four characters love talking to him. They vent their frustrations, problems, and ideas, and he responds with a knowing nod, a smile. He's a silent man who understands. Not so subtly, Singer plays as a God figure. Those who talk with him feel better afterward, and they make a habit of visiting him often. They believe he understands what they're feeling and saying, just as those who pray believe God understands them. However, it's clear that Singer is just as human as them. He is lonely and merely loves the company. His heart desires to see his friend, Antonapoulos, who he visits now and then. Antonapoulos plays the same role for Singer that Singer does for everyone else. Singer can't communicate to the others except by writing brief messages, but Antonapoulos can read sign language, and thus Singer can pour his heart and soul out to his friend. This is what everyone desires, anyway.

The desire to be understood is perhaps the novel's strongest theme. Jake Blount and Doctor Copeland both have noble, yet radical, beliefs that serve to alienate themselves from the world. Blount turns to alcohol and Doctor Copeland turns bitter. Blount is fervent about his socialist beliefs and tries to spread them through pamphlets and passionate words. It most wounds him to realize that hardly anyone shares in his beliefs, and even those who may sympathize won't go so far as to take action. Doctor Copeland shares the same wounds, only his are aroused by his race and his family. As a black man, he elevated his station in life by becoming a doctor. He got married and had several children. He wanted nothing more than to see his children raise themselves above their station, and his grandchildren, and so on. However, his wife silently undermined his efforts and his children ended up not so well off. Not only that, but, except his daughter Portia, they avoid him. It's difficult to blame them, once you learn his entire family history. However, the fact that, in his eyes, he failed with his children is difficult to bear. Whether he can go home at night feeling good about the day depends on whether or not his patients seem to understand what he says about his "purpose" for the black race.

Doctor Copeland and Jake Blount are very similar to one another, yet they are not close friends. Both enjoy the companionship of Singer because they can share their thoughts with someone they believe to be a sympathetic and understanding character. At one point of the novel, Blount and Copeland do have a long conversation, and what happens I will not say, except that it isn't too surprising. Yet it offers a useful insight into human character.

The events that happen in the novel are mostly the sort of everyday things that can happen in anybody's life on a regular basis. A few major events do happen, but McCullers writes in such a dispassionate tone that there's no shock. Mostly we follow characters living, breathing, thinking. We see the dark secrets they harbor. Biff, for one, feels a sort of attraction towards Mick, and at times it seems more than fatherly. Though he has a wife, the love between them has long wore out. Of the five characters, Biff seems the most aware. He's the only one who doesn't view Singer as a God figure, but observes that this is how Blount, Copeland, and Mick see him. And Mick, she is just a young girl growing up. She's a tomboy, as seems to be the case in many modern-day classics, and she has anger issues. She loves wandering alone, seeing the world at night, sneaking under the windows of wealthier homes and listening to music playing on the radio. She develops a fondness for classical music and has a desire to learn the piano. However, her family is poor. They have a large home and rent out rooms to boarders, so Mick's only chance to be alone is by leaving the house. After a terrible tragedy, however, Mick loses this opportunity to be by herself. She must get work, and with work she must sacrifice that special inside room, which requires time alone to enjoy. That inside room contains all of her thoughts and dreams. Each of us have such a room, and reality often sets in to intrude upon it.

There are times when the novel does drag on, and other times when you wonder why McCullers decided to include pages upon pages of Blount and Copeland ranting. There are also plenty of moments of quiet reflection, and moments of beauty. Mostly, we feel the novel's harsh, stark reality. It doesn't seem quite like the kind of life most of us lead. The world McCullers creates feels much more depressing than the life that I know - then again, everyone's lives are deeply personal and there are no doubt plenty who see life in the same stark terms as the characters in the novel. What does feel universal is the desire to be heard, to be understood, and the feeling that very few people do understand us. It is the reason I write these reviews - to talk about my thoughts, to share them with others, and to make sense about the books that I read. In today's world of social media, that is why we like posts and retweet messages, to show our appreciation and understanding of what others say. And in the future this will be true as well, but in a different form. Whether or not her characters seem more or less sad than the people you may know, it's impossible to deny that McCullers's themes are universal for all people in all times.


  1. I thought I would enjoy this book more than I did...It started out good for me, but then fell off. It seemed like everyone was just trying to verify their existence in simple ways, but it was somewhat boring.

    1. Yeah, I had some similar thoughts about how the characters verified their existence, but I attributed it to a feeling of hopelessness during the Great Depression era. Thanks for stopping by, Amber!