Spiritual isolation is the abiding theme of Carson McCullers’s fiction. At the core of modern life, she saw a tragic failure of individuals to connect with one another emotionally, to return love, or to commit themselves to a socially edifying pattern of shared values. Her characters struggle through agonies of psychic stress to realize the radical loneliness in their lives. Sexual deviation, violence, and sexual initiation in adolescence move them to their personal crises.
Typically, her characters live in perfectly normal surroundings, such as a small mill town or an Army post in peacetime, but her revelation of their inner lives is so penetrating and their psychic turmoil is so grotesque that they seem to inhabit a world of existential dread. Overwrought inward obsessions define characters such as Weldon Penderton, Mick Kelly, or Frankie Addams, though their predicaments may appear absurd to ordinary people. Perhaps no American writer since Edgar Allan Poe has painted the mental landscape as well as McCullers; she has deftly delineated the subtle nuances of psychic states lying along the continuum linking psychosis and neurosis with normalcy.
Her relation to the literary tradition of southern gothic fiction is easily misunderstood. It is true that her characters include deaf-mutes, lunatics, criminals, fanatics, a giant in love with a dwarf, eunuchs, perverts, and variously mutilated, disfigured, and misshapen people; yet, the grotesquery in this gallery was not designed merely for sensational effect or regional humor. McCullers uses her bizarre characters to demonstrate how intricately the usual and the unusual are entangled in human nature, and, as a result, how delicate is that balance of wildly divergent impulses called normality. To overemphasize the grotesquery in her fiction may obscure one of her most valuable insights: Spiritual isolation is a universal condition of modern humankind and not the result of individual eccentricity.
A radical inability to connect meaningfully with others traps McCullers’s most memorable characters within themselves. Her best characters yearn to find meaning in life and to carve out a victorious place in the order of things. Mick Kelly aspires to master the cosmic harmonies of music and find fame on the concert stage. Doctor Copeland works to free blacks from the bondage of segregation. Others seek fulfillment in the rigid patterns of military life or the emotional concord of a good marriage.
Instead, they become deracinated souls, isolated from one another and cut off from the meaning they seek from life. Mick Kelly winds up behind a counter at a ten-cent store. Doctor Copeland is beaten by the police and alienated by his own family. Although some characters and situations in McCullers’s fiction reveal the glories of unselfish love, the warmth of domestic accord, and the capacity for courage in ordinary people, her plots tend to exacerbate rather than resolve antagonisms that divide people, and the prevailing mood is one of existential angst.
A critic once complained that The Member of the Wedding was without a beginning, middle, or end. McCullers’s fiction does depend upon character revelation, a lyrical style, and narratorial bearing more than a story line. Far from being plot-ridden, her stories are musically structured. She once told her publisher that The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was composed like a fugue, with theme and countertheme developed contrapuntally as characters interact in mingled harmony. The emotional pace and tone of The Ballad of the Sad Café and The Member of the Wedding are established by abrupt beginnings, long middles, and brief, haunting codas. The sound of music often sets the mood, reveals a character, or makes a point. For example, the rapture of a classical concerto transports Alison Langdon and her houseboy, Anacleto; a deaf-mute’s radio plays unheard; and the harmony of a chain gang’s song lifts each member’s soul.
A distinctive lyrical quality pervades language as well as structure in McCullers’s tales. Simple but intense, humorous yet sympathetic, elegant but never high-flown, her storytelling voice is capable of interweaving an utterly realistic narrative and wild descriptions and preposterous details. An uncanny instinct for colloquial idiom makes her tone ring perfectly clear and sweet, without a trace of sentimentality or judgmental dogma.
Some critics who admire her individual works have been disappointed with her career. They say that she limited her work to a narrow range, sociologically and intellectually, relying too much on characters like herself. Given that she worked within self-imposed limits and against odds beyond her control, however, McCullers achieved spectacular success. Her career was foreshortened by crippling pain and early death, but each of the books she wrote in her twenties sold more than half a million copies, and all were adapted to stage or screen or both. If she focused on the heart rather than the intellect, and on people rather than society, she succeeded nevertheless in illuminating the lonely depths of the souls of modern men and women made tragically incomplete by the failure of love.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
First published: 1940
Type of work: Novel
In a small southern town, four lonely people look to a deaf-mute for understanding and friendship.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was the result of a strange creative process. Bedridden for weeks, McCullers wrote some character sketches. One day, in a flash of inspiration, she announced to her mother that the story would revolve around a deaf-mute named Singer to whom others pour out their hearts. The novel grew organically, without a controlling plot.
In part 1, the five main characters are introduced. Always polite, immaculately clean, and soberly attired, John Singer is oddly paired with Spiros Antonapoulos, a fat, retarded deaf-mute. After illness requires him to stop drinking wine, Antonapoulos develops antisocial habits. Singer offers excuses to the police, but his friend is committed to an insane asylum.
At an all-night café owned by Buff Brannon, Singer meets the radical drifter Jake Blount and the respected black doctor Benedict Copeland, men who hold Marxist views and aspire to revolution. Despite sharing similar views, their personalities are quite different. Blount is, by turns, a well-spoken fanatic and a swaggering, violent drunk. He accuses capitalists of liking pigs more than people, because people cannot be sold as sausage. People in the café, except for Singer and Brannon, dismiss such talk as drunken ranting. By contrast, Doctor Copeland is quite dignified and high-minded and is a well-read student of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Single-mindedly devoted to the “strong, true purpose” of desegregation, Copeland uses his brain rather than his heart and thus alienates potential allies such as Blount and his own family. In their different ways, Blount and Copeland allow fanaticism to dry up their powers of love.
Mick Kelly, a talented yet lonely girl of thirteen, is the most fully drawn character. Her family runs the shabby boardinghouse where Singer lives. To him she opens the “inside room” of her being, confiding in him her innermost feelings and aspirations.
In part 2, frustrations abound. Mick’s experiences are tragically disappointing. To prove that she is like other girls, she throws a carefully orchestrated party but then finds herself delighted when order breaks down and guests go running through the neighborhood.
After her younger brother Bubber accidentally shoots Baby Wilson with a rifle and causes a superficial but bloody wound, Mick compounds Bubber’s agony with talk of a child-sized electric chair awaiting him at Sing Sing. As a result, the boy is never his open, playful self again. Mick then has an embarrassing encounter with the boy next door. At the swimming hole, Mick dares him to strip naked, and he does. She does too, and they have sexual intercourse, only to feel guilt and shame afterward.
Doctor Copeland’s struggle reaches a grim crisis when his son is tortured in prison by being tied up for three days with his legs in the air. Both feet are frozen and must be amputated. Demanding to lodge a complaint, Doctor Copeland is himself arrested, beaten, and kicked in the groin by the sheriff’s deputies. Blount distributes leaflets calling on workers to revolt, but he succeeds only in provoking a race riot that leaves two...
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