'Lonely Hunter Readalong Notes: Part 3
Cerith Mathias offers her thoughts for discussion on the third and final part of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.
For more details on our readalong in June, click here, and get the notes for part one here and part two here. Join in our Twitter chat Tuesday, June 30, from 1-2 CST for further discussion using the hashtag #LonelyHunterDSM.
The final part of the novel deals with the aftermath of Singer’s suicide as each of the main characters struggles to understand why he took his own life, and how the loss of their friend and confidant impacts upon them.
With Singer’s death, McCullers underlines the point that no meaningful communication has taken place between any of the characters, and without the achievement of this connection — from which understanding and ultimately dignity is gained — they each remain lonely and unfulfilled.
However bleak this may appear, McCullers’ message is ultimately one of hope.
In her initial outline of the novel, McCullers describes the book as a “… story of five isolated, lonely people in their search for expression and spiritual integration with something greater than themselves.”
It is the connection with others through the thing that is “greater than themselves” that offers the four remaining characters — Mick Kelly, Jake Blount, Dr. Copeland and Biff Brannon — a chance of happiness.
John Singer’s passion, his driving force in life, is his love for his friend Antonapoulos. However, this emotional attachment is not reciprocated, leaving Singer cut off, existing within a construct of his own imagination. He talks endlessly to Antonapoulos, his hands signing the words he wishes so badly to share, but his friend does not pay attention. When Antonapoulos becomes ill and is sent to live in an institution, Singer walks the streets of the small town where they once lived together, thinking always of his friend, of the things he will tell him when they next meet. In his loneliness, he writes Antonapoulos letters, though he knows his friend cannot read.
When Antonapoulos dies, Singer’s hopes for the future, his purpose for living is gone.
This contrasts sharply with the four remaining characters, who each have a passion within, one that is curated in the “inside room.” It is through fostering and sharing this passion that McCullers is suggesting meaningful connection with others is possible.
Mick, Jake, Dr. Copeland and Biff’s stories do not end with Singer’s death; each is able to move on. Though all wounded by the loss of their friend and by the oppression of the constraints of life in the depression-era South, each believes that they will recover, that things will get better — and all four will keep moving forward, finding understanding and empathy if they continue to search for it.
Mick learns that despite the terrible shock of discovering Mr. Singer’s body, and the dark, seemingly never ending heartbreak over losing her companion, that human endurance prevails. The strength from within her “inside room” allows her to function in the outside world.
But through all those days she held down the job. She wrapped packages and handed them across the counter and rung the money in the till. She walked when she was supposed to walk and ate when she sat down to the table. Only at first when she went to bed at night she couldn’t sleep. But now she slept like she was supposed to, also.” – Chapter 3
Despite the tragedy that weaves through all of McCullers’ work, also present is a fundamental belief in the strength of the human spirit, not only to endure but to flourish in the face of adversity.
For, otherwise, as Mick asks:
What good was it? That was the question she would like to know. What the hell good it was.” – Chapter 3
Dr. Copeland, gravely ill with tuberculosis, is forced to leave the town to live with his family in the country. However, he makes himself believe that he will be back to tend to his “strong true purpose” within a few months.
But how could he leave when there was neither beginning nor end, neither truth nor purpose in his thoughts.” – Chapter 1
Jake Blount is forever moving forward — eyes fixed firmly on the road ahead, not daring to glance back at a troubled past, only a beat behind him. “But was this flight or was it onslaught? Anyway, he was going. All was to begin another time.”
The characters take charge of their lives after Singer’s death, the events that follow making them all reassess their connection to their surroundings.
“There was hope in him,” McCullers writes of Jake “and soon perhaps the outline of his journey would take form.”
Mick’s job takes over, making her too tired for her “inside room”; Dr. Copeland is forced to abandon his quest for equality due to illness; and Jake is forced to flee the town following a fight in which a man loses his life. Biff Brannon continues to question all that is going on around him, no nearer to cracking the puzzle of life’s meaning that plagues him so. And yet, each character continues to hold on to their dreams, to their passion despite the reality of their circumstances.
But maybe it would be true about the piano and turn out ok.” – Mick, Chapter 3
The novel closes with café owner Biff Brannon terrified, but also invigorated by the things that life holds in store for him, certain to be both glorious and terrible, all set against the constant reminder of the hastening passage of time. “Would he just stand here like a jittery ninny or would he pull himself together and be reasonable?” he asks himself.
We leave Biff to face the new day with trepidation and determination, in exactly the same way, as McCullers wisely knew, we all do.
As he went to the door his walk gained steadiness. And when at last he was inside again he composed himself soberly to await the morning sun.” – Chapter 4
Life is hard and often unaccountably cruel McCullers is saying, but we keep moving forward with passion and with hope, striving to connect, to be understood. For what else is there to do?
Writer and producer Trey McCain writes of McCullers’ examination of the lost art of listening:
After Antonopoulos’s departure, a silent Singer wanders the streets, an action mirrored in Mick’s quest for solitude and contrasted with Blount’s search for strikers. Dr. Copeland makes his rounds, treating his patients almost by compulsion. Brannon welcomes the streets inside at the New York Café.
The movement of these characters resonates with me. I enjoy the pace of walking and the details of everyday life it provides. It’s also a good reminder of the way things once were. Here, we catch a glimpse of the South before personal cars, when passenger trains were common for out-of-town travel. The connection each of the “Lonely Five” has with the city is important. They capture the South on the cusp of change, from an agrarian-dominated society to one increasingly industrialized and urban.
McCullers’s intimate description of the city in its squalor reminded me of Le Spleen de Paris (Paris Spleen), a collection of prose poems by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). Building on his previous work in Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), the poet floats from one scene to the next in a shutter-quick montage of life in modern Paris. “Les Yeux des pauvres” (“The Eyes of the Poor”) seats the poet in a café awash with light as an impoverished family looks on from outside, dazzled by the new brilliance of gas illumination. The New York Café offers a similar beacon in the night, where Brannon keeps his vigil despite slow business, with no hand against those who can’t pay. In “Le Joujou du pauvre” (“The Toy of the Poor”), the poet observes the parity between two children, one rich and one poor, both delighted with the poor child’s rat. Blount and Dr. Copeland are likewise caught in the blatant inequality among the hovels and shanties of the new, industrial South.
But while Baudelaire plunges into the masses of city life, seeking understanding through anonymity, Blount and Dr. Copeland search for recognition and fraternity that never materializes. Blount’s isolation is reflected in empty Sunday streets and scoffers; Dr. Copeland struggles with the distance between himself and his family and people. Rejection fuels their internal struggle and is given voice in Singer’s apartment.
McCullers’s prescient depiction of societal injustice resonates with many today, myself included. She provides a response to this age-old frustration through the unwitting John Singer: compassion built on small kindnesses — a gentle word, a meal together, an eager ear — that brings light to dark times. It’s a good reminder in both the South and the U.S. at large, where lines have been drawn between ideologies surrounding race, class, gender and age. Perhaps we should set aside shouting and embrace the lost art of listening.