The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter Carson McCullers
(Born Lula Carson Smith) American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and poet.
The following entry presents criticism on McCullers's novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940). See also Carson McCullers Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 4, 10, 12, 100.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940) was McCullers's first published work and established her literary reputation. Originally entitled The Mute, the novel chronicles the story of a deaf-mute man and his connection to several lonely inhabitants of a small Southern town. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter has been lauded for its sharp insights into the awkwardness and frustration associated with adolescence, unrealized love, spiritual isolation, and the failure of interpersonal communication. The novel remains one of McCullers's most highly regarded works and is considered a fitting introduction to her oeuvre.
Plot and Major Characters
Set in a small town in Georgia in the late 1930s, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter focuses on deaf-mute John Singer, who befriends four alienated characters who consider him a kindred spirit and believe that only Singer can understand their plight: an adolescent girl, Mick Kelly, who is forced by poverty and strict gender roles to give up her dream of a career in music; a political radical, Jake Blount; a disillusioned African-American doctor and civil rights activist, Benedict Copeland; and a lonely and sexually ambiguous restaurant owner, Biff Brannon, who has increasingly withdrawn from human contact since the death of his wife. Each of these frustrated and isolated characters is drawn to Singer, and believes that he cares about them and empathizes with their situation. Yet in reality, Singer listens only to be polite and is a bit confused by their attention and expectations. In fact, he cares only for his mute friend Antonapoulous, an enigmatic man who has been placed in a mental institution. When Antonapoulous dies, a bereaved Singer commits suicide. Kelly, Blount, Copeland, and Brannon are left to make sense of his death and continue their frustrated search for love and acceptance.
The inability to communicate and connect with others is regarded as a dominant theme in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; as Copeland, Brannon, Kelly, and Blount confide their secrets to the deaf-mute Singer, they engage in essentially a one-sided friendship with a man who is bewildered by their attention. Singer's only confidante is the mute and simple-minded Antonapoulos, whose death leaves Singer completely alone and suicidal. Emotional intimacy is often not reciprocated in the novel, and the futility of interpersonal communication is a recurring theme in all of McCullers's work. Every major character in the novel is afflicted with a sense of spiritual isolation and loneliness. Frustrated ambition is another main theme in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: Mick Kelly dreams of becoming a music conductor or composer, but poverty forces her to take a spirit-numbing job at Woolworth's department store; Blount unsuccessfully attempts to organize workers at the local mill; and Copeland strives for racial equality and justice, but is alienated from his people by his intellectualism and Marxism. Mick Kelly's initiation into adulthood is viewed as an integral aspect of the novel, and she is considered one of McCullers's most engaging and disarming characters. Several critics have noted the parallels between the character of Mick and McCullers's own childhood and adolescent experiences and note that Mick's situation reflects the limited opportunities available to young women during that time.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is regarded as a notable first novel and a fitting introduction to McCullers's work. The book established her literary reputation and is viewed as one of her best-known and most highly regarded works. Reviewers praise it as a remarkable achievement for a twenty-two-year-old author. Critics debate whether the novel should be read as a realist work or an allegorical one. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is often discussed as a political parable on fascism, particularly the psychological conditions that make fascism possible. The religious imagery in the novel has also been a recurrent topic of critical interest, and several critics perceive the character of John Singer to be a Christ-like figure. Commentators have provided feminist interpretations of the novel, and investigated the autobiographical aspects of the story. Some critics view The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter as a work of the Southern gothic tradition and her characters as grotesques. Yet others commend her tender, complex portrayal of lonely, frustrated individuals struggling to express themselves, find acceptance and love, and fulfill their dreams.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (novel) 1940
Reflections in a Golden Eye (novel) 1941
The Ballad of the Sad Café (novel) 1943
The Member of the Wedding (novel) 1946
The Ballad of the Sad Café: The Novels and Stories of Carson McCullers (novels and short stories) 1951
The Square Root of Wonderful (play) 1958
Clock Without Hands (novel) 1961
Sweet as a Pickle, Clean as a Pig (children's poetry) 1964
The Mortgaged Heart: The Previously Uncollected Writings of Carson McCullers (short stories, poems, sketches, essays) 1971
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SOURCE: Evans, Oliver. “The Tongue and the Heart: The Case of the Silent Singer.” In Carson McCullers: Her Life and Work, pp. 36-58. London: Peter Owen, 1965.
[In the following essay, Evans discusses The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter as an allegorical novel.]
The novel on which Mrs. McCullers had started to work during the year she was ‘resting’ in Columbus did not begin to take definite shape until after her marriage, and even then it did so very gradually. She knew that it was to be a book whose central theme was loneliness and love, and she had roughly decided on its pattern: the protagonist was to be a Jew about whom the other characters knew very little but to whom, for some reason, they all turned in their distress and confided their innermost hopes and fears. Somewhere in an art gallery she had seen a portrait of a Jew whose expression—wise, kindly, and compassionate—supplied her with the physical image of her character, whom she named Harry Minowitz. It is also possible that, unconsciously, she was endowing Harry Minowitz with some of the characteristics of her own father, and that this character represents to that extent a projection of the father image: Minowitz, like Mr. Smith, is a jeweller, and his relationship with the other characters is of a distinctly paternal type. It had not yet occurred to her to make her protagonist a deaf-mute, and Mick, at...
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SOURCE: Graver, Lawrence. “Carson McCullers.” In Carson McCullers, pp. 5-20. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969.
[In the following excerpt, Graver asserts that not only is The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter “an admirably complete introduction” to McCullers's themes and subject matter, “but it raises in a complex and provocative way the major critical issues posed by all her important work.”]
Since Carson McCullers' gifts as a novelist are essentially celebratory and elegiac, it is appropriate that the simple facts of her life should evoke both wonder and melancholy. She was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, on February 19, 1917, of French Huguenot and Irish ancestry. Lamar Smith, her father, had come a few years earlier from Society Hill, Alabama; her mother, Marguerite Waters, had been born in Dublin, Georgia.
From an early age, Carson was recognized as an odd, lonely girl of uncommon talents and her parents tried to be especially sensitive to her needs. When, at five, she revealed a passion for music, her father bought a piano; when, at fifteen, she first began to shape plays and stories, he came home one day with a typewriter. To both the piano and the typewriter she devoted an unusual amount of energy. As she was later to recall: “[In childhood] my main interest had been music and my ambition was to be a concert pianist. My first effort at...
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SOURCE: Knowles, Jr., A. S. “Six Bronze Petals and Two Red: Carson McCullers in the Forties.” In The Forties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French, pp. 87-98. Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1969.
[In the following essay, Knowles places The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter within the context of American literature around the time of World War II.]
We are dogged by coincidence. As this essay is written, Carson McCullers has succumbed to a long illness, bringing to earth all the rumors of her decline. At the same time, in theatres across the country a controversial motion picture version of Reflections in a Golden Eye has stirred new interest in this curious imagination that first captured our attention nearly thirty years ago. The writer perishes, the reputation is nourished: not the exchange we would have wanted, but more acceptable than complete oblivion. Nineteen sixty-seven has, ironically, managed to be another “McCullers year,” although more than a decade has passed since her last novel, and in retrospect her active career as a writer seems a very small one. Conscious of these ironies, we now look back upon her work and ask, How did it seem then, and How does it seem now?
Perhaps these questions are best approached by beginning at the beginning: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Her first full-length novel, it still seems to capture Carson...
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SOURCE: Millichap, Joseph R. “The Realistic Structure of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” Twentieth Century Literature 17, no. 1 (January 1971): 11-17.
[In the following essay, Millichap provides a structural analysis of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in order to illustrate the psychological and social realism of the novel.]
Carson McCullers produced before her death in 1967 a small but impressive body of fiction: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1940; Reflections in a Golden Eye, 1941; The Member of the Wedding, 1946; The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, 1951; Clock Without Hands, 1961; and twelve short stories published between 1936 and 1967. Her career was marked by successes, both popular and critical, and by controversy. The controversial aspects of her work become apparent in even a cursory examination of the criticism concerned with it. Conflicting opinions regarding the interpretation of individual works, the value of her overall achievement, and her place in American literary history abound. Some commentators compare her favorably with Faulkner, others judge her a failure; some find in her work a stark realism, others a Gothic romanticism. This latter critical dichotomy has created an unresolved problem in the analysis of her fiction. The present article demonstrates through structural analysis the psychological and social realism of The Heart Is a Lonely...
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SOURCE: Cook, Richard M. “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” In Carson McCullers, pp. 19-45. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1975.
[In the following essay, Cook offers a thematic and stylistic examination of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.]
I want—I want—I want—was all that she could think about—but just what this real want was she did not know.
—The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Carson McCullers published her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, in the spring of 1940, when she was just twenty-three years old. With its publication McCullers first gave full expression to a concern that was to be the basis of almost everything she would write—a concern for man's “spiritual isolation,” his revolt against that isolation and his need to achieve a perfect communion with others.1 She also introduced in this first novel that particular type of character the “grotesque,” who, because of his peculiar incapacity or deformity, most movingly dramatizes the plight of the human being in isolation. Looking back at her work almost twenty years after The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, McCullers wrote: in her essay “The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing”:
Spiritual isolation is the basis of most of my themes. My first book was concerned with this,...
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SOURCE: Rich, Nancy B. “The ‘Ironic Parable of Fascism’ in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” Southern Literary Journal 9, no. 2 (spring 1977): 108-23.
[In the following essay, Rich investigates the role of politics in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and perceives the novel as a political parable.]
Although Carson McCullers referred to her novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, as “an ironic parable of Fascism,” critics have not taken her statement seriously,1 either because it seems too general a reference to the social and economic conditions of the novel or because it appears too restrictive in terms of the theme of isolation.2 Considerable evidence, however, suggests the probability that politics was a motivating factor in the genesis of the novel and that the parable is a key not only to broader implications in the theme but also to the tight construction McCullers claimed and reviewers have so often questioned.3
Shortly before beginning work on the novel, the author expressed some desire to become politically active and even attempted to start a magazine for this purpose.4 In an outline written for her publisher, she specified as causes for man's “inner isolation” a “wasteful short-sighted society” and an “unnatural social condition.”5 The text itself has hundreds of political allusions, casts...
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SOURCE: Rubin, Jr., Louis D. “Carson McCullers: The Aesthetic of Pain.” Virginia Quarterly Review 53, no. 2 (spring 1977): 265-83.
[In the following essay, Rubin asserts that many of the main thematic concerns in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter are drawn from McCullers's own life.]
I think it is not without importance that the all-night restaurant in Carson McCullers's first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is called The New York Cafe. In the small-sized Southern city in the late 1930's, when the story takes place, there is little doing at night and none of the people involved in the story is either very contented or very hopeful; the New York Cafe is the only place for them to go, and its forlorn hospitality is indicative of what is barren and joyless about the lives of those who go there. From Columbus, Georgia to New York City is a long way.
Biff Blannon's restaurant is presumably called the New York Cafe because of the ironic contrast between what it is and what its name signifies. The name is an attempt at sophistication, at the glamour of the big city, at a greater than provincial importance; New York is the metropolis, where important things happen and ambitions come true and talent is rewarded and all is exciting, rich, romantic. Set in the backwaters of civilization (as Carson McCullers's imagination saw it, anyway), the pathetic name given the all-night...
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SOURCE: Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “A Feminist Reading: McCullers's Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” In Critical Essays on Carson McCullers, edited by Beverly Lyon Clark and Melvin J. Friedman, pp. 129-42. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1996.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1979, Spivak offers a feminist interpretation of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.]
We are in trouble over sex, race, and class. Any intellectual, any reader, any teacher must try to understand the world, even if she must remind herself constantly of the perils of taking understanding as a privilege or a goal. If she is a feminist, she must try to change the world, even if she is cautious enough at every step to reiterate at least two things: the sense of a “world” is the ever-shifting and many-planed converging point of interminable determinations; and even a “change” conceived of as a restructuring must be called again and again into question.1 Even within this careful framing she cannot ignore that the categories of the class struggle are the best developed tools for understanding and change. Her first reaction, hesitant though not adverse, is that these categories are macro-structural. When the sexual struggle is translated into the class struggle, or when it is understood as analogous to the class struggle, the micro-structural daily intercourse between and among the sexes in...
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SOURCE: McDowell, Margaret B. “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940).” In Carson McCullers, pp. 31-43. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.
[In the following essay, McDowell delineates the defining characteristics of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.]
I. ISOLATION AS MAN'S FATE
The principal theme of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Carson McCullers declared, lay in the first dozen pages: an individual's compulsion to revolt against enforced isolation and his or her urge to express the self at all costs. She thought of the work in 1938, even in one of its earliest forms in The Mute, as consisting of variations on this principal concept. Thinking of her projected novel as analogous to a work of music, she enumerated in her proposal to Houghton Mifflin, five “counter-themes” that would, each of them, elaborate upon the central theme: the need for a person to create a unifying principle or god; the likelihood that any god that man creates will be chimerical or fantastic; the likely suppression by society of the individual; the deflection by social pressures of man's natural urge to cooperate with others; and the impressiveness of the heroism which occasionally appears in ordinary individuals. At times, these subsidiary themes would be obvious; at other times, they would be more difficult to define:
These themes are never...
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SOURCE: Paden, Frances Freeman. “Autistic Gestures in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” Modern Fiction Studies 28, no. 3 (autumn 1982): 453-63.
[In the following essay, Paden contends that by examining the autistic hand gestures of the five main characters in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, “we will see how their hands reveal the alienation that they feel in their unsuccessful quests for love and acceptance.”]
She observed the length and shape of the fingers, their curves in repose, the character of the nails, the smooth cuticles, the veins that made small ridges upon the back of the hand and seemed to swell from wrist to finger joints. She liked looking at rings on fingers, too. They enhanced the beauty of the hand; there was a quality of oneness about them which implied reciprocity.1
In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers endows her characters with a kind of psychology that is profoundly autistic.2 They need listeners, not in order to exchange views, but rather to serve as mirrors in which they can see themselves reflected.3 Although seeming to reach out to others, they are, in fact, trying to get in touch with themselves.
Each of the novel's major figures—John Singer, Jake Blount, Dr. Copeland, Mick Kelly, and Biff Brannon—seeks love or social reform, but each,...
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SOURCE: Perry, Constance M. “Carson McCullers and the Female Wunderkind.” Southern Literary Journal 19, no. 1 (fall 1986): 36-45.
[In the following essay, Perry investigates McCullers's 1936 short story, “Wunderkind,” as the origin of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and surveys the autobiographical aspects of the novel.]
Carson McCullers's first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), symbolizes her own story of growing up in the thirties as a Southern female prodigy. Like her predecessor Frances Newman, who also wrote a novel about a Southern girl who longs to be an artist, The Hardboiled Virgin (1926), McCullers shows how “social forces” damaged ambitious people, particularly when they were female (“Author's Outline” 129). For example, a humiliating sexual initiation is a central experience for each heroine. Recent discussion of McCullers's novel has examined its connection to other novels about aspiring women artists, treating Mick as the major character (Huf 105-123). In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Mick first appears standing confidently on the roof of a house under construction. Yet by the story's end, she no longer challenges the world from its rooftops. She is frustrated in her attempts to study art, disturbed by what she has learned of female sexuality, and haunted by nightmares in which houses collapse upon her. Spivak and Huf argue that the...
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SOURCE: Carr, Virginia Spencer. “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” In Understanding Carson McCullers, pp. 15-36. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Carr discusses thematic and stylistic aspects of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.]
Carson McCullers worked on the manuscript that eventually became The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter under the influence of Sylvia Chatfield Bates, her creative writing teacher at New York University who had recommended her to Whit Burnett's short-story writing course at Columbia University. Believing in the young student's potential, Bates encouraged McCullers to submit a short story she had written in her class, “Wunderkind,” to Story magazine, edited by Burnett. He bought the tale for publication in the December 1936 issue of Story and listened, also, to the long rambling plot of a novel that his young pupil explained had been gestating for almost a year.1
Several months later, while home in Georgia to recuperate from a rheumatic fever attack, McCullers wrote Burnett that she was working hard on her novel every day, but that it made no sense because her protagonist kept changing. She envisioned him first as John Minovich, a man in a small southern town to whom various people kept talking and relating their troubles; then she made him a Jew and called him Harry Minowitz, but the new...
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SOURCE: Whitt, Jan. “The Loneliest Hunter.” Southern Literary Journal 24, no. 2 (spring 1992): 26-35.
[In the following essay, Whitt views the character of John Singer as a Christ figure in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.]
“I've lost the presence of God!” cried the author of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter late in her career. Remembered afterwards by the group of artists who had been with Carson McCullers at the Yaddo Artists Colony, the statement provides a tragic thesis for both McCullers' life and her work. Haunted by a Christ who remained entombed, a twenty-one-year-old McCullers created an allegory in which numerous characters seek to work out their own salvation by relaying their individual fears to John Singer. Singer, a deaf mute, becomes a paralyzed Christ figure, so restricted by the expectations of others that he is fictionalized by them.
Only the author and the reader know Singer; Mick, Dr. Benedict M. Copeland, and Jake Blount merely fashion him into the savior they crave. For each he takes on a different face, a singular ministry. Copeland, a persecuted black doctor, believes Singer to be a Jew; Blount insists he's Irish. McCullers herself refers to Singer as a “repository,” for all his friends “impute to him all the qualities which they would wish for him to have.”1 Furthermore, the all-too-ordinary theme of isolation in an indecipherable...
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SOURCE: Bradshaw, Charles. “Language and Responsibility: The Failure of Discourse in Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” Southern Quarterly 37, no. 2 (winter 1999): 118-26.
[In the following essay, Bradshaw analyzes John Singer's relationship with the other main characters in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, focusing on how Singer's status as a deaf-mute affects their concept of Self.]
I distrust the compromised word “love,” but the responsibility for the Other, being-for-the-other, seemed to me … to stop the anonymous and senseless rumbling of being.
Primary to Emmanuel Levinas's ethical philosophy is his assertion that there exists an “Other” prior to and absolutely different than the being of the “Self.” Indeed, the Self depends upon the Other as a referent for its existence, making this Self-Other dichotomy the fundamental relationship in determining identity. Yet, in its attempts to internalize and make meaning of this relationship, the Self naturally reduces, or totalizes the Other into digestible concepts—concepts which can be used by the Self to construct a distorted identity from a complex existence. Even the very act of gazing upon or touching another can result in this totalization (Totality 194). But within the physical manifestation of the...
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Carr, Virginia Spencer. The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1975, 600 p.
Biography of McCullers.
Savigneau, Josyane. Carson McCullers: A Life, translated by Joan E. Howard. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001, 370 p.
Biography of McCullers.
Chamlee, Kenneth D. “Cafes and Community in Three Carson McCullers Novels.” Studies in American Fiction 18, no. 2 (autumn 1990): 233-40.
Explores McCullers's use of cafés as an important physical or symbolic setting in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Member of the Wedding, and The Ballad of the Sad Café.
Eisinger, Chester E. “Carson McCullers and the Failure of Dialogue.” In Fiction of the Forties, pp. 243-58. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963.
Thematic analysis of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
Additional coverage of McCullers's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 21; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of American...
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