'Lonely Hunter' Readalong Notes: Part One
Cerith Mathias offers her thoughts for discussion on part one of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.
For more details on our readalong in June, click here. Comment on this post to join in the discussion or tweet using the hashtag #LonelyHunterDSM.
Even before Lula Carson McCullers arrived in the world in February 1917, her mother told their hometown that her child would be “unique.” Buoyed by an oracle’s predictions of fame and fortune, McCullers’ mother was in no doubt that her daughter was destined for greatness. By the time McCullers was 19, the soothsaying rang true — her first story, ‘Wunderkind’ was published in the December 1936 issue of Story magazine. Just four years later, at the age of 23, her debut novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published to widespread critical acclaim. Despite Carson’s young age, the emotional maturity and sensitivity of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, with its major themes of racial injustice, poverty, the desire to achieve meaningful connection with others, is, put simply, astounding.
Just how autobiographical is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter?
McCullers draws heavily upon her own upbringing in Hunter. The small mill town described in its pages bears a great deal of resemblance to McCullers’ own childhood home of Columbus, Georgia. The character of Mick Kelly is thought to be largely autobiographical, sharing many traits with the young Lula Carson, a first name the author dropped when she was 13.
In her biography of McCullers The Lonely Hunter, Virginia Spencer Carr writes that the author often felt isolated from her peers when growing up, finding herself on the periphery of games, clubs and parties. Mick similarly roams the summer streets, awkward and lonely, even finding it difficult to connect with her own kin at home.
It was funny, too, how lonesome a person could be in a crowded house.” – Mick, Chapter 4
This feeling of isolation and of ‘otherness’ is a recurring theme throughout McCullers’ work, explored many times over through a myriad of different characters.
Loners, freaks and the grotesque are of course central tenets of Southern storytelling, featuring in the works of the greats of the genre from Faulkner to Flannery O’Connor. However, McCullers’ portrayals are compassionate and sympathetic; misfortune is deployed in the hope of inspiring understanding and empathy in the reader, rather than to contribute to an overall (Southern) Gothic atmosphere.
A McCullers family trip to the 1927 Chattahoochee Valley Fair’s freak show had a great influence on the then 10-year-old Carson. Virginia Spencer Carr writes that an affiliation was born between the author and “… these strange withdrawn creatures who sometimes stared at her sullenly or smiled and crooked a finger beckoningly.”
McCullers’ obvious identification with those on the sidelines, marginalized by the constraints of poverty, class, race, gender, sexuality and physical or mental ailments was obvious from a young age according to Carr, and was magnified by her childhood experiences in the Jim Crow segregated, depression-era South, in which The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is set.
“Carson would never have written as she did,” Carr said during a Scholars Conference panel discussion at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival in 2000 “… had the South not been part of her milieu, an important part because it included memory, imagination, her ambivalence, her anguish.”
McCullers and Mick share a love of music too — McCullers initially aspired to be a concert pianist, only changing her mind late in her teens when her beloved music teacher moved away.
Main themes: Communication, Isolation, Loneliness, Reciprocity
Part one of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter introduces us to the novel’s main characters, and to its main themes. For me, the key theme of the novel is communication – and through it the achievement of that essential, though often unattainable human need of meaningful connection with another. The need for reciprocated love and understanding.
Such a connection is something that each of the five main characters hungers for, though ultimately its meaning differs for each. Each character strives to overcome loneliness and isolation — caused by factors both personal and environmental.
The story centers on deaf-mute John Singer, who becomes the confidant of four citizens of a small Southern town: teenager Mick Kelly, local café owner Biff Brannon, political activist Jake Blount and colored physician Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland.
Each character is struggling to have their voice heard, to have the thing they wish to communicate to be understood.
For Mick Kelly, her desire to find a place to think, to be with her music and reconcile her inner-turmoil sends her to aimlessly roam the streets night and day “… without never being satisfied.”
Café owner Biff Brannon finds little satisfaction within the stone-cold confines of his loveless marriage, choosing instead to spend his time with the ‘bums and freaks’ that patronize his premises.
I like freaks,” Biff said.
“I reckon you do! I just reckon you certainly ought to, Mister Brannon—being as you’re one yourself.” – Biff and Alice, Chapter 2
Dr. Benedict Copeland is both figuratively and physically bowed by the burden of racial injustice, his bent body wearily shuffling the town’s streets caring for a community that seems unwilling to care for itself. His mind filled with the words of Shakespeare, Marx and Spinoza, but his voice “… lost somewhere deep inside him.”
And drifter Jake Blount, consumed by the plight of the poor, rallying angrily against the expendable existence of the factory worker, yet finding no camaraderie or desire for action amongst his fellow workers.
But what I’m getting at this. when a person knows and can’t make the others understand, what does he do?” – Jake Blount to John Singer, Chapter 4
Singer acts as a calming, soothing influence for the four, each finding respite from wretchedness when in his company, though of course the conversation is always one-sided. All four project and derive their own meaning from their time with him. Part one ends by noting:
The mute was always thoughtful and composed … Mick Kelly and Jake Blount and Doctor Copeland would come and talk in the silent room—for they felt that the mute would always understand whatever they wanted to say to him. And maybe even more than that.”
Singer, though always ready to receive his guests with courtesy and grace, doesn’t really understand the significance each has placed on his friendship. Though the four believe the connection is reciprocated by Singer, it is not.
For John Singer, his one true companion is Antonapoulos, a fellow deaf-mute. Both are introduced to us in the opening pages. Singer and Antonapoulos live together in the town for 10 years, until the Greek is taken ill and is sent by his cousin to live in an institution. When Anotnapoulos is gone, Singer pines for his friend, and though his visitors call often, Singer’s communication with them is minimal: a smile, a courteous offering of a cool glass of water, a bed for a fellow in need. His hands, which always move at a mile a minute when signing lengthy conversations with Antonapoulos, remain tightly clenched and stuffed in his pockets.
In Singer and Antonapoulos’ relationship we can draw many parallels with the way Mick, Dr. Copeland, Jake and Biff view their friendship with Singer. Antonapoulos rarely, if ever, reciprocates his friend’s affections. He is described by McCullers as ‘lazy’ and disinterested. Singer, however, doesn’t seem to notice — choosing to interpret their friendship in a way that pleases him, deriving from it meaning that may or may not be there, in much the same way as the four characters have done with Singer himself.
In this way McCullers begins to explore the different manifestations of human interaction, of interconnectedness, of affection, understanding and love. Perhaps the questions she will attempt to answer in Parts 2 and 3 will be is there such a thing as pure, wholly reciprocated love? Or is it a delusion? Can we ever really connect and understand each other?
Interestingly, McCullers’ original title for the novel was, simply, “The Mute”; it was subsequently changed at the request of her editor. However, from this original title perhaps we can better understand the meaning McCullers was driving at — who is the mute she is referring to? Is it Singer, or indeed all of the novel’s characters, who each struggle to speak and be heard. Or is McCullers referring to wider society? Using a small, ordinary Georgia town as a microcosm of the greater social and economic problems of the depression-era Deep South and indeed a world on the brink of the second World War.