The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Only connect…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

John Singer shares his life with his one friend, Spiros Antonapoulos. They are both deaf mutes and, while Singer can lip read, only Antonapolous understands his sign language. With all other people, Singer can only communicate by writing short messages on slips of paper. So when Antonapolous is committed to an asylum, Singer is left profoundly alone. He moves from the small apartment the two men had shared to a boarding house and takes all his meals at a local café, and gradually he attracts to him a small group of broken and lonely people, each of whom finds his silence allows them to talk openly to him in a way they can’t to other people.

Biff Brannon owns the cafe along with his wife, Alice. Lonely in his unsatisfactory marriage and childless, Biff watches the people who frequent the cafe and offers a kind of rough kindness to some of the misfits who happen along. Jake Blount is one such misfit – a drunk with Communist leanings who longs to meet others who share his politics. Mick Kelly is the daughter of the owners of Singer’s boarding house, a young girl whose life is circumscribed by the poverty of her circumstances, but who secretly longs to write music. And lastly of Singer’s little group of disciples is Doctor Benedict Copeland, a black doctor who has devoted his life to leading his people out of ignorance but has failed, even with his own family from whom he is now mostly estranged. Each sees in Singer someone who seems to understand them and gives them the courage to face the obstacles in their lives. But Singer, though he listens, cannot speak and lives for the rare occasions when he can take a break from work and visit his friend Antonapolous, where he frantically pours out all his pent-up thoughts through sign, to a man who seems neither to understand nor care.

Nothing had really changed. The strike that was talked about never came off because they could not get together. All was the same as before. Even on the coldest nights the Sunny Dixie Show was open. The people dreamed and fought and slept as much as ever. And by habit they shortened their thoughts so that they would not wander out into the darkness beyond tomorrow.

For me, the stories of Biff and Jake didn’t work quite so well, though each had some points of interest. But Dr Copeland’s story is very well done, highlighting the poverty and cruel injustice experienced by black people, and the gulf between his ambition and the reality of what he could achieve within a system rigged against him. His character is also an excellent study of a man who is respected and even loved by the people he serves and leads in his wider community, but who fails utterly in his domestic life, taking his disappointments and frustrations out on his wife and children; a man so consumed with the desire to improve humanity that he fails to understand and connect with the individual needs of the humans around him.

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Mick is a wonderful character and the one who gives a small glimmer of hope amid the general bleakness. McCullers’ description of her sneaking around to listen to music through the open windows of those wealthy enough to own radios and record players shows the real disparity in this society where even the simplest cultural opportunities are available to only a fortunate few. Mick’s efforts to teach herself first to play piano and then to find a way to write down the music she hears inside her are beautifully written. Although the desperate poverty of her family means that her education has to give way to the need to earn money, there is the feeling that maybe she will somehow find a way to lead a more fulfilling life in time.

Why hadn’t the explorers known by looking at the sky that the world was round? The sky was curved, like the inside of a huge glass ball, very dark blue with the sprinkles of bright stars. The night was quiet. There was the smell of warm cedars. She was not trying to think of the music at all when it came back to her. The first part happened in her mind just as it had been played. She listened in a quiet, slow way and thought the notes out like a problem in geometry so she would remember. She could see the shape of the sounds very clear and she would not forget them.

And Singer himself, for much of the book a silent background against which the stories of the others are played out, gradually becomes more vivid as the true loneliness of his life is shown – a loneliness caused, in his case, by physical rather than emotional barriers. Seemingly stable, holding down a job and surrounded by people who read into the blankness of him whatever they need and lack and then value him for that, he just wants that simple thing they see in him – a willing listener, someone who seems to understand.

He came to be known through all the town. He walked with his shoulders very straight and kept his hands always stuffed down into his pockets. His grey eyes seemed to take in everything around him, and in his face there was still the look of peace that is seen most often in those who are very wise or very sorrowful. He was always glad to stop with anyone who wished his company. For after all he was only walking and going nowhere.

Carson McCullers

While the premise is a stretch, with Singer’s deaf-mutism a rather contrived vehicle to bring this disparate group together, and while some of the stories work better than others, overall this is a profound and moving study of the ultimate aloneness and loneliness of people in a crowd, and of the universal human desire to find connection with another. The writing is beautiful, emotional but never mawkish, with deep understanding of the human heart and sympathy for human fallibility – a book that fully deserves its classic status.

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59 thoughts on “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

  1. I do like novels where different people’s stories are brought together like this, FictionFan. It’s a very effective way to explore who we are as people, if that makes sense. And character studies, when they’re done well, can be moving. It’s interesting – and you see it here – how certain sorts of people do encourage us to open up, even if we wouldn’t to most people.

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    • Yes, cafés are great settings for that and she did a great job of showing how each of them saw in Singer whatever it was they needed from a listener. Astonishing that she wrote it so young. Between her and Mary Shelley, I feel totally inadequate… 😉

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    • I didn’t know that but I did wonder while I was reading it – it felt like she was describing an experience she’d had first-hand somehow. She certainly seems as if she must have been a pretty unique individual to write something with so much depth at such a young age.

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    • As I mentioned in an earlier post, I love the title. But your excellent review has confirmed what I feared: the story, however moving and beautifully written, is probably just too sad for me to enjoy.

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      • It is sad but, I’m not sure why, I didn’t find it depressing. Maybe it was because I felt Mick’s story provided a bit of hope, or just because it was so empathetic to the characters. I’m not a fan of utterly miserable books but this one got under my guard…

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  2. Kudos to you, FF, for this lovely review. Not sure if I could force myself to read this one — certainly not now, when things are already as bleak as can be! I’m glad to hear the writing is so exceptional though, so perhaps I’ll give it a try (when we’re on the other side of this global mess!)

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    • Thanks, Debbie! This was another one that I read before all this nightmare began – it’s just taken me this long to write a review of it. It’s not totally bleak but it is an emotional read, so probably one that would be better to leave for a happier time… 🙂

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  3. This is one of those “Southern Classics” that I feel a bit ashamed to admit I’ve not read. In fact, I’ve read very little from any of the classic southern writers… male OR female. So many of them are angst-filled.

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    • To be honest, I thought it sounded as if it would be awful, but it’s not nearly as bleak as the basic premise suggests. Somehow the sympathy with which she writes the characters lifts the overall feel of it and though there are tragedies a-plenty, she kinda underplays them, so that they’re moving without being too traumatic. And Mick even provides the occasional bit of fun! I suspect you might enjoy it…

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  4. A book that never fails to move me – and the author was so young when she wrote this, that it seems incredible she had such an understanding of psychological depths and such compassion.

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    • I know, it’s astonishing! How could someone so young have such understanding – most of us don’t gain it in a lifetime! Between McCullers and Mary Shelley, I’ve decided I’m totally inadequate… 😉

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  5. I’ve just listened to a sample of this, and I think I will continue, as I am curious to see how McCullers develops the characterisation of Singer and his companion. From the little I’ve heard so far, I guess I must keep in mind that this is very much a book of its time. The vocabulary she is using around disability would be seen as unacceptable today: deaf people and users of Sign Language are no longer refered to as mutes for example, and certainly not in the first line of a novel, as it could suggest that it is their deafness which is the most defining aspect of their personalities. I’m sure this was far from McCuller’s intention as she wrote this, and even today, writing authentically about disabled people and using appropriate descriptive language around disability is very tricky, which is possibly one of the reasons why we are still underrepresented in literature. I may come back to this thread when I have finished the novel and let you know how I got on with it. Thanks for putting it on my radar.

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    • I wonder what you’ll think of it – I’ll be interested to hear! I must say that at the beginning I was quite uncomfortable at how she portrayed both Singer and Antonapolous, and I do think, as you say, that to a pretty big degree their disabilities defined them. But while I never totally shed my unease over Antonapolous, Singer eventually became a much deeper portrayal. It left me with lots of unanswered questions though, which I won’t go into before you’ve read it since I wouldn’t want to put my doubts in your mind. I did give her a pass for the outdated language, though, because even though I don’t think this is how a deaf person would be portrayed now, I do think she was far more understanding of the possible psychological impact than I’ve come across in books of or before her era, and indeed, even in many contemporary books. I hope you enjoy it, and look forward to hearing your opinion!

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  6. One of my all time favourites FF – I love Carson McCullers and am (tentatively) planning a ‘Year with Carson’ reading challenge for 2021 where I read all her books again over the course of the year. So glad you enjoyed this one.

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    • It was my first McCullers and I must say I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it at all, so it came as a very pleasant surprise! It’s one of those books that’s far more nuanced than the blurb makes it sound – astonishing that she wrote it so young. I look forward to seeing which of her others you tempt me with next year… 😀

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    • This was my first McCullers and truthfully I wasn’t expecting to like it at all, so it came as a very pleasant surprise! I shall now be investigating her other stuff – is there one you’d recommend?

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  7. I love the sound of this one! Why are there so many classics, I haven’t read yet? Not sure, I’ve even heard about this one before… Good to see you are back writing reviews! 🙂

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    • Haha, I know – and every classic just adds more since now I want to read all of her other stuff too! Thank you – must admit I’m so far behind with reviews now I don’t know if I’ll ever catch up – I’ve forgotten some of the books already… 😉

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  8. Yay! I’m so glad this moved you. I loved it too. I saw Cathy’s comment about a Year of Reading Carson and I think I’ll have to join in if she does that! I have only read one other book of hers, Clock Without Hands, which I liked.

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    • I now feel as if I have to read all her other stuff, so although I can’t take on yet another challenge at the moment, I might dip in and out with Cathy’s challenge too. I shall check out Clock Without Hands… 😀

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  9. Despite hesitancy about how Deaf people might be portrayed in this story, which you have already written about, I am really interested in the idea of fraught communication which somehow does achieve some of the goals of communication anyway. I had already downloaded this based on your earlier alert and I’m even more keenly looking forward to reading it.

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    • Although the terms she used are outdated, she showed far more sympathy and understanding of the person beneath the disability than was normal, I think, as far back as this. Antonapolous was more disturbing to me – his portrayal I mean – because I couldn’t really understand why he was as he was. Although it was Mick’s story I enjoyed most, I think it will be Singer’s that will linger in my mind. I do hope you enjoy it as much as I did – I think you will!

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  10. I’m so glad you enjoyed and appreciated this book. Carson McCullers really got to the heart of human nature in this book by recognising that everyone needs someone to listen to them. At 23 years of age!

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    • Yes, indeed, I can’t get my head around how she could have understood all these different characters so well at that age – it would have been remarkable at any age, in fact! I must read more of her… 😀

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  11. Oh, how long has this one been lurking on the tbr! It’s not one I’ll be picking up right now but you’ve certainly moved it up the queue a significant distance. Dare I say this… reading your review put me in mind of how I feel when reading Steinbeck – and I know how your thoughts on his work! I should point out I have still to tackle his longer books so I may easily end up agreeing with you. But as I read your thoughts here, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row floated to the surface. In happier times I’ll see how this one compares 🙂

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    • Ha! Well, it had been on mine for several years, so I won’t criticise. 😉 There definitely is a similarity to Steinbeck, but the major differences for me are that her characters are far more believable, and she’s clearly more focused on truthful human interactions than on using the characters to make political points and manipulate the reader’s emotions as Steinbeck does. Truthfully, I think this is in an entirely different class, but then as you know, apart from The Grapes of Wrath, I don’t understand why Steinbeck gets the praise he does. I think you’ll love this when you get to it… 😀

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  12. This is one of those books one could read for the title alone. And with this review, it’s a cinch.

    So I think I’ll lay down my Nostromo (after slogging my way through 68 of 566 pages, I don’t see it in your TBR column any longer, FF . . .) and pick this up when the dozen or so Used Books stores in Santa Fe open back up. I hope that comes soon, as I’ve about had it with this virus thing.

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    • Definitely one worth your time – her writing is beautiful and she’s so perceptive about human frailties.

      Haha – I hate to admit it but I loved Nostromo, and after a slow start ended up racing through the rest. Don’t ask me why – by all rights I should hate Conrad’s style – it’s such hard work to read him! But again I just find him so perceptive. I must try to write my review before I forget what I thought of it – I’m so far behind. Yes, I’m very bored with the plague now, and would quite like to meet a human being in the flesh before I forget how to talk out loud… 😉

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  13. Hmmm this sounds like a good book, something i’d definitely enjoy. Have you noticed though, that many of these ‘great american classics’ are terribly depressing? sort of like Dickens, but transplanted to North America? Unhappy people, poor people, all struggling to get by? I wonder why that type of writing and characterization tends to get more recognition…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dickens depressing??? Never!! Well, OK, sometimes. Well, now I think about it, you have a point… 😉

      I do agree about American fiction – it seems to specialise in everyone being miserable and cruel and lonely. I’d say that maybe that says something about American society except that 20th century Scottish fiction is also mindnumbingly depressing and I don’t recognise it as being a true reflection of the Scotland I know at all!

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