Carson McCullers McCullers, (Lula) Carson (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

McCullers, (Lula) Carson 1917–1967

An American novelist, short story writer, poet, and playwright, McCullers is considered one of the most skilled authors of the southern gothic tradition. Noted for her fine dramatic sense of detail, McCullers dealt thematically with concepts of alienation and loneliness. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is her best known work. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Irving H. Buchen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

McCullers images the artist as a screen on which is projected a series of emerging and expanding stills whose flickering breaks dislocate the continuity of causality; or because the artist sees and is seen, he is the eye of a golden bird as well as the observer of the reflections of that golden eye. Such a state is tyrannically relationless and unwilled, for nothing is translated or translatable into anything except itself. Things tenaciously remain things, feelings, feelings; and nothing is symbolic of anything, yet. If any conversions do occur they do so only under the melding power of the unconscious to animate things with feelings and to concretize feelings with things. The initial creative process then to McCullers is the special art of dreaming while awake.

Significantly, that semi-awake state is for McCullers predominantly musical and visual, not verbal, and seems to flourish at the dawn of time or pre-consciousness. Although for McCullers and for some of her more complex characters, that is but the first stage of a developing progression, for many it is their initial and only one. Not accidentally, her preference for children and adolescents as well as for child-like adults like Spiros and Leonora is of a piece with her preoccupation with states of mind that are closer to the unconscious than the conscious, more involuntary than willed, more pristine than sophisticated. The result is a host of characters who are curiously incomplete, only half-formed, half-human. Perhaps the most dramatic example of an arrested child is Ellgee Williams whom McCullers describes as having the "strange, rapt face of a Gaugin primitive" …:

The mind is like a richly woven tapestry in which the colors are distilled from the experiences of the senses, and the design drawn from the convolutions of the intellect. The mind of Private Williams was imbued with various colors of strange tones, but it was without delineation, void of form….

(pp. 530-31)

It is crucial at this point to recall that Williams is a voyeur and that the theme of voyeurism appears as persistently in McCullers' work as that of art. Ellgee's voyeurism is comparable to dreaming while awake; he takes in or projects the images of Leonora's naked flaming body on the screen of his mind and patiently waits for those stills to achieve the coherence of design. The unformed mind, indeed, equals unformed art; and the cohesive power of art appears as the cohesive power of love. Indeed, John Tucker in The Square Root of Wonderful speaks about his loveless life in the same way McCullers speaks about Ellgee's undefined mind. Tucker tells Mollie that before he met her, "'there was no back or front to my life … No back or front or depth. No design or meaning'"…. Before art, there is nothing; without love, life is nothing. The great terror for McCullers is the void; or as Philip puts it: "'nothing resembles nothing. But nothing is not a blank. It is configured hell'"…. In short, McCullers' aesthetics and characterization focus on the redemption of the void by form—hence, her enormous emphasis on what precedes not what follows consciousness—on what invites design not so much on what enriches or extends it. The considerable care and energy that a Henry James expends on sensibility and consciousness are shifted by McCullers to what constitutes the foundations of both. In the process, what is clearly established is not only McCullers' receptivity to the child as the emblem of the unconscious, but also her recognition that the child is permanently alive in the adult as the agent of the unconscious. Her adult freaks and grotesques actually represent mangled shapes born of the disparity between the child and the adult, for in McCullers' world wholeness is defined by all the characters who never achieve it. (pp. 531-32)

[What] McCullers' pervasive use of dreams in both her artistic theory and her actual works makes clear is the extent to which her entire vision is rendered obliquely, through a glass darkly or more appropriately bathed in the reflected golden light of a bird's eye. Moreover, McCullers' dreams tend to make use of brilliant colors and forms; movement tends to be orchestrated or choreographed. In other words, for McCullers, dreams tend to be closer to music and the plastic arts than to literature. It is therefore not accidental in this connection that none of her artists or artist-figures is a writer. They are predominantly musicians, a few are painters and sculptors, and one is a dancer. It is the musical and visual that dominate not only her dreams but also McCullers' mode and characterization. Indeed, to the extent that the imagination and mind of both the musician and the plastic artist are closer to the unconscious and more reluctant to employ analysis or conceptualization, then one can better understand why McCullers, aside from her substantial early training in music, has placed such enormous emphasis on dreams in her work and has created an artistic theory which forces literature to be subservient to the other arts. In any case, for McCullers, dream is the natural ally of art. It is ancient and permanent and yet new and transient; it is situationally personal and yet mythic. It also adjusts the mystery of existence and the mystery of art in that while the meaning may be obscure or even finally unknown, the effect is gripping and ultimately possessing. Above all, in its final flowered form dream offers the promise of a closed circle; or as Frankie Addams puts it, "the telling of the...

(The entire section is 2299 words.)

Nancy B. Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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, 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. 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. (p. 108)

Perhaps the most logical way to approach this novel is as a parable, for its context clarifies such mysteries as the function and meaning of Antonapoulos, its structure is clear, and its theme is specific. The parable has a conventional protagonist pitted against specific forces, but develops in thematic patterns rather than in traditional plot formation, treating successively the ideas of the nature of government, the failure of democracy, and the condition of freedom. The thematic patterns are delineated by situation and setting and dramatized through character and action. The parable's theme is an affirmation of the democratic process, but its implications are the universal problems of illusion versus reality and the nature of man himself. It not only supports but also greatly strengthens the theme of isolation. Far from being restrictive, it extends the dimensions of pathos already perceived…. Government in this parable … is represented by a deaf mute, and the instrument of oppression is the sound of silence, an image which McCullers introduces in her opening chapter where no word is spoken.

The author's decision to objectify the negative force of government as John Singer was the turning point in the construction of the novel, for it provided a means of dramatizing the image of silence and created a concrete symbolic structural device for the parable.

Singer, who is seen by most reviewers as the pivotal character of the novel, achieves that status because the eye of every other character is on him. Minor characters who remain nameless except as they are associated with various ethnic, business or agricultural groups, think he is one of them, and major characters believe him sympathetic to the social, economic or political interests they pursue. The accuracy of their assumptions remains moot, for Singer neither confirms nor denies. In fact, aside from walking the streets, visiting Antonapoulos, and eating at Biff's café, Singer does almost nothing in the novel. He appears prominent, but in reality he is little more than a memory or an expectation in the minds of the other characters during a major portion of the action. The few specific acts which essentially define his character suggest democracy at work, for he takes in the homeless, gives money to the poor, and brings technology (the radio) within the reach of all. But his chief characteristic is his muteness, which is the mark of his distance from others. Moreover, the accessibility which brings others to him gradually diminishes as the novel progresses, so that as a symbol of government, Singer clearly exemplifies its ineffectuality. He welcomes people to his room at first because they relieve his solitude and sorrow, but in chapter seven of Book II, which is the mid-point of the novel, he comes to grips with the fact that these people "do not attend to the feelings of others"; feeling "alone … in an alien land," he gradually withdraws…. [As] the figure of Singer gradually fades into the background, the parable shows that for all practical purposes government has become defunct.

Its absence is clearly manifest in the official silence which follows each successive act of violence (the violence begins in earnest in chapter seven and continues to become worse)…. [It] is not what people do that is incredible; it is the fact that nobody does anything. It is the sound of silence. This is, after all, not Fascist Germany but the land of the free. This is the Sunny Dixie Show (which incidentally "wants" a mechanic) with its "bright lights … and lazy laughter" where, in a strange Kafkaesque way, everything seems normal…. Jake senses something "sullen and dangerous" … under the deceptively bright Dixie Show, and this something is the insanity of imagining that everything is fine when reality clearly shows that it is not. "America," says Jake, is a "crazy house" … and in fact it is a grotesquely distorted world where people seem oblivious to reality.

To clarify this point and dramatize her image of insanity, McCullers presents us with a king who rules benignly over a lunatic asylum.

Like Singer, Antonapoulos is a deaf mute, which signals that his role in the parable is associated with government; also like Singer, who used to be able to talk and was functional in the beginning of the novel, Antonapoulos was originally sane and a part of the work force in the town. But unlike Singer, Antonapoulos has always remained just out of view of the major characters. Singer is the arm of government, which is symbolized in chapter one by his continually trying to move the chess men around. But Antonapoulos is puzzled by the practical business of the game; he does not understand the female figures and prefers whites over blacks, an analogy to the historical confusion of how these minority figures should be treated in a free democratic society. The "dreamy Greek" is impractical because he symbolizes an ideal. His strange pagan/Christian aura is not really strange at all; it signifies his role in the "ironic...

(The entire section is 2331 words.)

Louis D. Rubin, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I think it is not without importance that the all-night restaurant in Carson McCuller'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...

(The entire section is 3117 words.)