The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

McCullers’ debut novel was published in 1940 and is listed at number 17 of the Modern Library’s List of 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century.  The book is also included in Time Magazine’s list of 100 Best Novels of All Time.

Below is an essay written by Richard Wright, an author who is also included in the Modern Library’s List (at number 20 for ‘Native Son’).  Wright’s essay neatly covers some of the primary issues raised by the book. (*Spoiler Alert* – The essay includes storyline spoilers).

Looking forward to comments from readers.

Richard Wright.  “Inner Landscape.”   New Republic.  103 (Aug. 1940):  195.

“In her comments prefacing the outline she sent to a publisher, McCullers makes it clear that the novel is about “five isolated, lonely people in their search for expression and spiritual integration with something greater than themselves.” She explains the novel’s three-part structure as a fugue (a musical composition featuring several repeating themes): Part One introduces the broad theme of “man’s revolt against his own inner isolation and his urge to express himself as fully as possible” as one voice, first through John Singer and then through the other major characters. Part Two demonstrates the inevitable failure of each person, which is brought on by a combination of free will and environmental entrapment. Part Three functions as a coda; the situations of the characters ultimately end up worse than they were before Singer entered their lives.

McCullers sets off the novel’s principal theme—man’s struggle against isolation and his need for expression—by using five “counter-themes” (McCullers conceived her projected novel as a work of music). Each of these five counter-themes—the need for people to create a unifying deity or principle, the likelihood that any such manmade god will be an illusion, the societal suppression of individuality, the perversion of man’s urge to cooperate with others, and the shining moments of heroism that occasionally characterize otherwise ordinary individuals—develops and elaborates on the principal theme.

Out of the tradition of Gertrude Stein’s experiments in style and the clipped, stout prose of Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway comes Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.  With the depression as a murky backdrop, this first novel depicts the bleak landscape of the American consciousness below the Mason-Dixon line.  Miss McCullers’ picture of loneliness, death, accident, insanity, fear, mob violence and terror is perhaps the most desolate that has so far come from the South.  Her quality of despair is unique and individual; and it seems to me more natural and authentic than that of Faulkner.  Her groping characters live in a world more completely lost than any Sherwood Anderson ever dreamed of.  And she recounts incidents of death and attitudes of stoicism in sentences whose neutrality makes Hemingway’s terse prose seem warm and partisan by comparison.  Hovering mockingly over her story of loneliness in a small town are primitive religion, adolescent hope, the silence of deaf mutes – and all of these give the violent colors of the life she depicts a sheen of weird tenderness.

It is impossible to read the book and not wonder about the person who wrote it, the literary antecedents of her style and the origins of such a confounding vision of life.  The jacket of the book tells us with great reserve that she is twenty-two years old.  Because the novel treats of life in the South, we assume that she is Southern born and reared.  A recent news story says she is married and now lives in New York.  And that is all.

I don’t know what the book is about; the nearest I can come to indicating its theme is to refer to the Catholic confessional or the private office of the psychoanalyst.  The characters, Negro and white, are “naturals,” and are seen from a point of view that endows them with a mythlike quality.  The core of the book is the varied relationships of these characters to Singer, a lonely deaf mute.  There are Mick Kelly, a sensitive, adolescent white girl; aged Dr. Copeland, the hurt and frustrated Negro; Jake Blount, a nervous and unbalanced whiskey-head; and Biff Brannon, whose consciousness is one mass of timid bewilderment.  All these characters and many more feel that the deaf mute alone understands them; they assail his deaf ears with their troubles and hopes, thereby revealing their intense loneliness and denied capacity for living.

When the deaf mute’s friend dies in an insane asylum, he commits suicide, and act which deprives the confessional of its priest.  The lives of Miss McCullers’ characters are resolved thus:  Mick Kelly is doomed to a life of wage slavery in a five-and-ten-cent store; Dr. Copeland is beaten by a mob of whites when he protests against the injustices meted out to his race; Jake Blount stumbles off alone, wistfully, to seek a place in the south where he can take hold of reality through Marxism; and Biff Brannon steels himself to live a life of emptiness.

The naturalistic incidents of which the book is compounded seem to be of no importance; one has the feeling that any string of typical actions would have served the author’s purpose as well, for the value of such writing lies not so much in what is said as in the angle of vision from which life is seen.  There are times when Miss McCullers deliberately suppresses the naturally dramatic in order to linger over and accentuate the more obscure, oblique and elusive emotions.

To me the most impressive aspect of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race.  This cannot be accounted for stylistically or politcally; it seems to stem from an attitude toward life which enables Miss McCullers to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.

In the conventional sense, this is not so much a novel as a projected mood, a state of mind poetically objectified in words, an attitude externalized in naturalistic detail.  Whether you will want to read the book depends upon the extent to which you value the experience of discovering the stale and familiar terms of everyday life bathed in a rich and strange meaning, devoid of pettiness and sentimentality.”


About 100greatnovels

In 1998 the Modern Library published a list of the 100 best novels of the 20th Century. This blog is to function as an online book-club to discuss the books included on this list. Please feel free to leave comments regarding your thoughts on the novel examined in each post. PS. Please ignore the Reader's List. This blog focusses on the Board's List (at least for the time being).
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2 Responses to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

  1. Bron Pyle says:

    What an amazing book. The end was shocking but in a way, looking back on the stories which intertwined throughout the book, perhaps not wholly unexpected. In all honesty I found the first 50 pages quite hard going. Her style of writing is vivid and detailed and by the end of book I was thoroughly enjoying her descriptiveness but did struggle through the initial chapters as I adapted. There were characters that I liked more than others but no characters which I disliked. It wasn’t until the end of the book, that I realised how little I knew about Singer. His life was a world of silence which came through the lack of detail about him in the book. The most poignant moment for me of his story (what little we did learn about him) was when we learnt why he put his hands in his pockets – his hands were his method of communication and with them tucked away, he tried to supress his need to be heard, to communicate, to interact with the world. Out of all the characters and in the end, I think that he was the person who needed to talk the most, to be heard and to have someone listen to his thoughts, words, dreams, problems. His loneliness and the loss of his one true friend was heartbreaking.

    My favourite story was Mick Kelly – the tragedy of her circumstances but the way in which she took small steps each day to realise her dreams was inspiring. The fact that she would ultimately end up being the person who she tried so hard to avoid was the sadness of her story. Both the doctor and the drunk were limited by their circumstances as well – both with potential to be something great but limited by external forces (in the case of the doctor) and by internal demons (in the case of Jack the drunk). The one character which I really struggled to understand was Biff Bannon – he was a creepy dude. I didn’t really get into his character.

    I have been recommending this book to lots of people – it certainly would not have been on my reading radar without book club. Thanks Lish!

  2. Thanks for your comments, Bron. I particularly agree with your insights on Singer and Mick Kelly. The tragedy of these two characters is gut wrenching – Singer with his intense isolation and Mick’s ultimate resignation to an ‘ordinary’ life.
    I still can’t get over the fact that McCuller’s wrote this novel when she was 23!

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