'Lonely Hunter' Readalong Notes: Part Two
Cerith Mathias offers her thoughts for discussion on part two 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. Comment on this post to join in the discussion or tweet using the hashtag #LonelyHunterDSM.
The second part of the novel is where the bulk of the story takes place. Here, through further interaction with Mr Singer, we learn more about each of the main characters — about the “… business in their minds always that does not let them rest.”
Themes: The inability to communicate, connect and be understood
This is the key theme of the entire novel. Each of the main characters struggles to find their voice, a way of communicating and of being understood. Ironically the four — Mick Kelly, Jake Blount, Dr. Copeland and Biff Brannon — all find solace and perceived understanding by sharing their innermost thoughts with a deaf-mute.
Mick Kelly – Can’t connect with people in the same way she does with music. For Mick “… all the time no matter what she was doing — there was music.” The first time she hears Beethoven is an intensely emotional scene, where amongst the notes she finds for the first time a sense of belonging and a distinct identity of her own, which she continues to construct and nurture within her “inside room,” the personal, private place within herself.
This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her — the real plain her.” – Chapter 1
Part two sees Mick’s transformation from child to adult, where due to her family’s financial dire straits Mick is forced to abandon her “plans and feelings,” and live instead in the “outside room.” She loses her virginity, though she finds intimate human contact lacking. McCullers describes the experience with detachment, devoid of all emotion:
It was like her head was broke off from her body and thrown away. And her eyes looked up straight into the blinding sun while she counted something in her mind.” – Chapter 11
This is, of course, the polar opposite of Mick’s extremely physical reaction to music.
Dr. Copeland – He is unable to communicate with his community in a way that is satisfactory to either himself or them. He isn’t even able to speak in a meaningful way with his own children. He is isolated from both his family and wider society by his “strong true purpose,” his striving for racial equality — a battle that those around him seem unwilling to join.
“Us has got our own way of doing things,” his daughter Portia tells him.
As a doctor, he cares for his community’s physical health night and day, but his inability to heal the injustices of the segregated South weighs heavy upon him. Despite his attempts to school his children, bestowing upon each a namesake from his studies — Portia, William, Hamilton and Karl Marx — they are disinterested in his teachings.
Both Dr. Copeland and his family become figuratively and literally crippled by racism; his son has his feet amputated after being mistreated by a white prison guard, and Dr. Copeland is beaten and imprisoned for attempting to seek justice. The old man’s inability to communicate takes its toll, often his words remain caught inside, the pain and suffering of an entire race trapped in his chest, burning hot and angry. His tuberculosis-afflicted lungs the physical manifestation of his muted voice.
If once he could tell it all to them, from the far away beginning until this very night, the telling would ease the sharp ache in his heart. But they would not listen or understand.” – Chapter 2
Jake Blount – Despite the abject poverty all around in the small mill town, political activist Jake Blount is unable to motivate his fellow workmen to protest against their situation. His outbursts are either ignored or laughed at and “The loneliness in him was so keen that he was filled with terror.”
It is only when he is with Singer that Blount finds solace, that he feels he is being listened to and understood. Indeed, he admits that were it not for Singer, he would have moved on from the town long ago. For in the company of his friend his “…words were formed and spoken with relief.”
Biff Brannon – Forever on the sidelines, he observes those around him with detachment, yet aches for meaningful interaction. His interest is piqued by Singer, but he does not place upon him the same significance as the others do. Biff is intrigued by the way the others interact with Singer, and notes their deification of him.
… because he did not speak it made him seem superior. What did that fellow think and realize? What did he know?’ Biff wonders.” – Chapter 2
Singer – His relationship with his friend Antonapoulos is as one-sided as his relationship with the four main characters. Emotional intimacy is not reciprocated, though this does not deter Singer; it is as if he does not notice. He exists purely within the bubble of his imagined connection with Antonapoulos — his interaction with his friend is his sole, driving purpose in life.
When, at the end of part two Singer is told of Antonapoulos’ death, his purpose is robbed from him. Upon returning home and without warning to his “disciples” or the reader, Singer “… brought out a pistol from his pocket and put a bullet in his chest.”
In Singer and Antonapoulos, we see McCullers’ starkest comment on what she perceives as, ultimately, the futility of interpersonal communication, a theme present in all her work.
Mick wants to learn piano and be a famous conductor or a composer, but her family’s financial situation leads her to work in the town’s Woolworth’s Department Store. Here, McCullers also shows the limited prospects for women at that time. Dr. Copeland is too busy tending to the sick and doesn’t have the time to dedicate to the “strong true purpose.” Biff Brannon is frustrated by the confines of gender roles, a frustration McCullers herself felt. Biff harbours maternal feelings and notes:
“By nature all people are of both sexes. So that marriage and the bed is not all by any means.” – Chapter 1
Biff is hesitant to interact with others for fear of not being accepted, choosing instead to observe; “He watches,” Singer writes of him in a letter to Antonapoulos.
Other than Baby, his beloved niece, Biff’s interaction with others is stilted and strained. His only meaningful connection to wider society comes from an obsessive compulsion to collect newspapers, to organize them in chronological order, marking each passage of historical significance.
Three sets of outlines – one international beginning with the Armistice and leading through the Munich aftermath, the second national, the third all the local dope from the time Mayor Lester shot his wife at the country club up to the Hudson Mill fire.” – Chapter 1
It is as if by absorbing and hoarding other people’s words and experiences, Biff is saying “I was here,” a living, breathing soul touched, moulded and moved by events going on around him. A personal archive reflecting his understanding of, and connection with the wider world.
Singer is seen as a Christ-like figure. The four gather round him like disciples. For Blount and Dr. Copeland, Marxism is their religion. Though again, here McCullers comments on the inability to connect — despite Blount and Dr. Copeland’s seemingly shared ideals — they talk at cross purposes, cannot find common ground and part dissatisfied.
The events are all played out against the backdrop of wider political changes — in the U.S., the nascent Civil Rights Movement as it is known today, and beyond, in a world on the brink of the Second World War. This constant threat of violence builds throughout part two of the novel, culminating with a devastating crescendo as Singer takes his own life.
Mick & Music
Thoughts from journalist and first-time McCullers reader Adrian Masters on Mick’s relationship with music.
The first time Mick hears Beethoven is intensely physical. It leaves “a bad hurt,” “a terrible hurt” and “the music boiled inside her.” It’s no wonder then that her clenched fist goes up to her throat, when “all the different instruments bunched together for each note like a hard, tight fist that socked at her heart.” I know that stomach-clenching, heart-stopping feeling, even though it’s pop music, or a certain kind of pop music, that does it to me rather than the classical music that so affects Mick.
I first felt it more than 30 years ago with a Cocteau Twins song, “Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops,” and although I’ve experienced it with other bands and other songs, as well as some novels, poems and paintings, it’s still the Cocteaus who make it happen most. I can think right now of 10 or 15 of their songs which, from the first chords, bring a tight knot to my stomach, tears to my eyes and a sense of being utterly overwhelmed, that nothing is more important than this music. When I saw their singer Elizabeth Fraser’s first solo gig a few years ago, I sat with my fists clenched and muscles tensed. It was almost too painful to enjoy.
People often describe reaction to music like this as ecstatic or euphoric. It certainly can be emotional. But for me as with Mick, the total abandonment is as much a physical experience as it is emotional, and sometimes it seems too much: “The whole world was this music and she could not listen hard enough.”
It’s also not something you can share, even if you’re listening in a crowd of other people. It belongs in the “inside room” that Mick identifies elsewhere in the novel, the place in her life where private experiences take place, distinguished from those that occur in the “outside room.”
Thankfully, I don’t hit myself like Mick does once the music’s finished, but what she does next is familiar. Sometimes the only response left is to fall asleep, because the physical feeling is so overwhelming that all you can do is let the real world stop for a moment.
Final thoughts/questions for part two:
What exactly is McCullers saying about human interconnectedness? Do we ever really, truly know one another?
Are we to assume that all attempts at meaningful connection are futile? (Spoiler alert! I think no — we will discuss hope in McCullers’ work during part three)
What comment is McCullers making on wider social responsibility?
Considering the book was published in 1940, some of the ideas contained within would have been considered radical: racial equality in Jim Crow’s Deep South, Dr. Copeland talks of marching on Washington, Marxism, unionizing, political activism and her subtle examination of sexuality and gender roles.