Novel-Carson McCullers-1940.

Film-directed by Robert Ellis Miller-1968 (starred Alan Arkin& Sondra Locke).

The book and the film version that followed are similar. It is a powerful, simple novel, McCuller's first. According to Amazon.com, she was only 24 when she wrote it. It is a story about making connections with those who can't hear you and losing touch with people who lose their minds. It is about communication on many levels and the estrangement that people feel at different points in their lives. McCullers would not have used the word existential to describe this story of small town America, but it fits. Mostly, she captures the circles of approach/avoidance that people go through in their search for identity and empathy. It is probably not a coincidence that one of the main characters is a mentally ill Greek man(since it plays out so much like Greek tragedy).

The narrative is told from the point of view of teenage girl in small town Georgia. A deaf man, John, moves into the girl's home to rent a room. He has only one close friend in the world, a mentally ill man who is in and out of a state institution. The deaf man plays records on a phonograph, because it brings people to visit him, including the narrator. He likes watching their faces as they listen to the music. As the story proceeds, other people come and share their problems with the man, although he can neither give them absolution or hear their stories. They come anyway, and go away pleased and thankful. No one hears what John needs.

This is a book many American high school students are required to read. That's a pity. Because if it is forced reading, it is probably dismissed out of hand. It is an excellent book about America, the mentally ill and communication.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a powerful, moving, socially committed and poetic novel, written by Carson McCullers and published in 1940. Set in 1938 and 1939 in a medium-sized town in Georgia in the South of the United States of America, the book revolves around the lives of five main characters from different parts of society, and shows the relationships that come to form or already exist between them.

The main characters are:

John Singer

A deaf-mute, who comes to the town after his friend Antonopoulos is institutionalized. Antonopoulos is another deaf-mute, but unlike the quiet and gentle Singer is prone to sudden and unprovoked outbursts of violence, leading to him being locked up in an asylum far away. Singer is the centre around which all the other characters revolve. Because he cannot talk, everyone thinks he is wise. Because he cannot listen, everyone tells him their problems. But while he tries to do right by the people who visit him, all he yearns for is his friend Antonopoulos, and no one listens to his own sadness. As he walks through the varying neighbourhoods of the town, everyone sees themselves in him, makes him after their own image, but denies him any expression. This cruel irony is the heart of the story: a deaf mute is the only one who will listen, and the only one to whom people will open up and tell their deepest hopes, desires and fears. But they do not care about him.

Mick Kelly

A twelve year old girl, in love with music, who dreams of being a composer like her idol Mozart. She is one of a large family; her father owns the boarding house where Singer rents a room. Already taxed with looking after her younger brothers, and dealing with her older sisters, she finds herself thrown into adulthood through her relationship with neighboring boy Harry, and by her family's financial worries. Her dreams of escape through music must mirror those of McCullers, who began writing at an early age. She is portayed sympathetically as someone who is both a playful girl turning into a woman, and as a dreamer, who keeps a box full of music she has written under her bed and sneaks around her neighbourhood at night listening to people's radios outside their windows.

Dr Benedict Mady Copeland

A black doctor of intense political conviction and dedication to helping the poor of his race. Dr Copeland has raised four children according to his convictions: to have pride in their race and reject superstition and religion. However, they have all turned their backs on him. In the book the most important of his children are Portia and William. His daughter Portia works as a maid for the Kelly family at their rooming house. When she's not working, she spends her time with her husband Highboy (who is tall) and brother Willy socialising and going out on Saturday night; they are normal people who have outgrown their father's vision, attending church and not being concerned with politics.

In contrast, Dr Copeland is a driven man. He risks his own health trying to minister to his patients, many of whom are suffering more from poverty than from treatable disease. He knows this, and that their only hope lies in escaping the racism that keeps them down. However, he has (by his own standards) failed with his children, and his wife, who left him after he beat her in a violent rage. He befriends Singer when he visits him trying to find help for a deaf-mute little boy.

Jake Blount

A drunken would-be labor organizer, who is rescued at one point from a drunken rage by Singer and sleeps on his floor for a while, before finding work as a fairgroung mechanic. Blount has travelled from town to town, speaking of the evils of capitalism. His attempts to engage people are either comic or tragic in their ineptitude. Although he is an atheist, he makes friends with the preacher Simms, and they have much in common, standing in the street haranguing people about the evils of the world. Blount dreams of a Marxist revolution and earthly paradise; Simms dreams of heaven and building a church on a vacant lot. Although McCullers is sympathetic to his message, and describes the terrible poverty of the townspeople, Blount himself is pathetic.

Blount's methods are criticized by Dr Copeland for his refusal to join with other people and organize. But like Dr Copeland, he is fighting, or at least wants to fight, to better people's lives; however the two of the squabble over tactics when they should be working together He is a ranter and a loser, a man with no roots, only dreams he will never fulfil.

Biff Brannon

He is the most passive character, and the most ordinary, the one with the littlest to do. He owns a cafe where Singer comes every day for his meals, and he is sympathetic to Blount's plight even though his own politics are conservative rather than radical. His passion is all spent, his marriage a failure. Having no children of his own, he dotes on his sister's. He stands at his cash register watching everyone eat and drink.


The novel has two sides to it. Carson McCullers presents a small town full of sad little people. Like the figures in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio they are unable to communicate with each other. Each is laden down with their own personal sadness, the feeling that they have failed in life: the failed political radicals Blount and Copeland, and the failed family man Brannon. Even young Mick finds her dreams threatened by her family's financial problems.

But it is also a significant work in recounting the political situation of its time. McCullers was praised by Richard Wright, author of Native Son and Black Boy, for her portrayal of black characters, and she gives a complex range of these, from the everyday people just struggling to make a living like Portia, to Dr Copeland, a man of greatness and subtle and complex flaws. She also refers repeatedly to the poverty of the black people of the time. But with the portrayal of Jake Blount, she leaves open the question of whether the greater problem is racist or economic. And wider resonances are brought out with references to the rising problems in Europe, the crimes of Hitler and Mussolini as they move towards war; McCullers was one of the first writers to link the Nazis' treatment of the Jews in Europe to the treatment of blacks in the USA.

Despite its many qualities, it is not always a pleasant read, and shows the limits of its young author. Its first flaw is that McCullers seems to have little sympathy for her characters. Certainly, she empathises with their imagined sufferings, but there is a coldness, a contempt about these fools. She allows them no happiness, and occasionally mocks the pathetic, deluded figures cruelly. Perhaps this is because she hates the South. She fled her hometown as soon as possible, off to the North, to New York and university.

The other main criticism is related to this: its pessimism. The book offers no opportunity for improvement. The twin issues of racism and poverty are attacked by Dr Copeland and Jake Blount, but both of them are failures. The book indicates that the weakness of everyone is due to their isolation and loneliness, their despair and inability to communicate their true feelings; but this is far from a political manifesto.

Although there are passages of poetry delving deep into the characters hearts, and brief escapes from the mundane, the novel is a sometimes overwhelming slog through heartache and other people's misery. Moments of humor are few and far between - unless you count a precocious Shirley Temple wannabee being shot in the head by a BB gun - and this is arguably detrimental to the book. There is no sense of what life should be like; it at times seems to be wallowing in despair. But this is apparently the author's intent; her hatred and dismay for the life she has left behind and the world in which she still lives is manifest on every page.

In a century where every American writer seemed to be trying to write a great American novel expressing the full web of social connections in their society, it is perhaps surprising that a novel of this quality should be written by a 21 year old who spent much of her childhood and adult life stricken by illness. But although it is evidently an account based on sympathetic imaginings and second-hand reports rather than on direct experience, McCullers gives an amazing picture of a deeply flawed world. And if it is pessimistic, can we really say she is wrong?

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