Moorefield House Publishing
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter Review
|Posted on January 19, 2017 at 10:05 PM|
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Reviewed by Jacob Hammer
This book had been on my mind for a month or so before I decided to read it again. The last time I had read it was about three years ago and I knew that I wanted to experience it again when I found myself recommending it to everyone anytime I had a chance.
There’s a lot that could be said about this book. McCullers gives us incredible insight into her characters. I find myself empathizing with them in visceral ways that I rarely experience with anyone else’s fiction. In some ways it’s totally heartbreaking. Within this heartbreak there is a sweetness that has no match and that makes the emptiness and ache of the aftermath worth it to me.
The storyline of the book revolves around several characters. One is Mr. Singer who is deaf and mute and living in the town the novel takes place in. His one friend, Antonapoulos, is also deaf and mute and eventually suffers from some unnamed illness and must go to an asylum leaving Mr. Singer on his own in the world with no one to speak sign language with. Another is Mr. Brannon who runs one of the local restaurants which almost all of the characters frequent. He is feeling distant from his wife at the start of the novel and enjoys spending time in the quiet of the night shift at the café. Mick is a young girl in a large family that operates a boarding-house in the town. She is learning about a passion she has for music, but continually facing obstacles like her family’s increasing poverty throughout the book. Jake Blount is a drifter who comes in to town, frequents the café Brannon owns, eventually gets work at a carnival in town, and is fervently interested in labor rights and class issues. The final character is Dr. Copeland who is a black physician devoted to helping his people not only physically, but to inspire them to rise from the position they are in (during the late 1930s South) to one of equality. There are many other side characters who help to create connections between the main characters of the narrative as well, but who do not get the focus that is given to these few.
Some of the essential connections among these characters are the loneliness that all of them feel deep down and also the passion they possess which drives them despite the adversity surrounding and pressing upon them from every side. This is especially apparent in how Brannon, Mick, Blount, and Dr. Copeland all begin to turn to Mr. Singer and speak to him alone. He is very kind to them, but admits in letters to his friend at the hospital that he does not understand them all the time and that he does not know why they turn to him to lay down their dreams and their struggles. Yet they continue to come and increasingly rely on him as different tragedies and successes occur for each of them in the pursuit of their dreams. What goes ignored by everyone in the midst of their own troubles is how truly alone Singer is. The only person he could (or it seems want to) communicate with is far away in a hospital where Singer is rarely able to visit him. He begins to retreat and come undone. The reader is able to see this because of the third-person omniscient narration that McCullers uses so deftly, whereas the other characters remain completely unaware of his struggle. Singer pines away even lonelier than the others to such an extent that when his one true friend eventually dies in the hospital, he goes home and quietly kills himself. This comes as an incredible shock to those who had depended on him to take all their worries and burdens and be their sole confidant.
This is when the novel really begins to unravel and the tragedies that had been deepening and waiting for most of the other characters become suddenly apparent to them. Blount puts this very well as he reflects on what Singer had meant to them all and where they are left by his death:
And how much further was he now than then? No further. Nothing had happened except that he had made a friend and lost him. He had given Singer everything and then the man had killed himself. So he was left out on a limb. And now it was up to him to get out of it by himself and make a new start again. (pg. 345)
The characters all separately resolve to continue pursuing their dreams, but they are more sobered. They all acknowledge the adversities facing them and, realistically, the reader is left fairly sure that they will not achieve what they were hoping to achieve. This seems like it would be totally disheartening and a terrible place to end things. Mick, though, says something important in reflecting on her dreams of being a composer:
Maybe she would get a chance soon. Else what the hell good had it all been—the way she felt about music and the plans she had made in the inside room? It had to be some good if anything made sense. And it was too and it was too and it was too and it was too. It was some good. (pg. 354)
I think if we can remember this, then there can be some hope in this novel. There is some light because there is value in the experience of the dream. Even if things conspire and we don’t get to do as much as we had hoped, we at least lived for something larger than ourselves and it made the difficulties that we faced worth something in the end.
This novel will leave you wounded and hurting and it will also leave you feeling oddly less alone. McCullers’ ability to connect us to these characters with the third-person omniscient narrator is so deft that we come to understand these characters so deeply and we rise and fall through everything with them. We become Singer and we even become a person that Singer is able to speak to. We learn from the characters not only from what they say about themselves, but how they feel, what they want, and how the other characters see them. We the reader embody them in all their loneliness and find ourselves less lonely, in a way, and aching for the connection that could cure the wounds we find in ourselves.