The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

by Carson McCullers

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1195

Two mutes—one a grossly overweight Greek man named Antonapoulos; the other, a tall, immaculate man named Mr. Singer—live together for ten years in a small, Southern town; they have no other friends. After an illness, the Greek man changes. When he begins to be obscene in public, the cousin for whom he works sends him to the state insane asylum. Mr. Singer is despondent without his friend.

Mr. Singer starts to eat all of his meals at the New York Café, owned by Biff Brannon, who feels a particular connection to people in need. When Jake Blount, a squat, powerful man, comes to town, he goes on a weeklong drinking spree at Biff’s expense. One night, Jake finds Mr. Singer eating at the café, and he decides that the mute man is the only person who can understand him and his message. Mr. Singer takes the drunk Jake home, providing him a temporary place to stay. Only in the morning does Jake realize that Mr. Singer is hearing impaired and mute. He still feels, however, that Mr. Singer can understand everything.

Mr. Singer takes a room at the Kellys’ boardinghouse, where he encounters Mick, one of the Kelly children. Just entering her teens, Mick is a gangly girl, always dressing in shorts, a shirt, and tennis shoes. She loves music and will go anywhere to hear it. Some nights, she goes to a big house in town where she can hear symphonic music through the open windows while she crouches in the shrubbery. At home, Mick never shares her dreams or yearnings with anyone except Mr. Singer, who lets her talk to him when she is lonely.

Mick decides, after entering high school, that she needs to make some friends. Planning a dance, she invites only high school students. Mick decorates the house with fall leaves and red crepe paper, and she borrows an evening dress, high-heeled shoes, and a tiara from her sisters. On the night of the party, the guests arrive and separate into groups. When Mick hands out the promenade cards, the boys go to one side of the room, the girls to the other. Silence descends. A boy named Harry finally asks Mick to promenade around the block, but, while she and Harry walk, all of the neighborhood children join the party. By the time Mick gets back, the decorations are torn, the refreshments gone, and the invited and the uninvited guests mixed up so badly that the party is in a state of bedlam. Everyone congregates in the street to run races and jump ditches, the partygoers forgetting their nearly adult state. Mick finally calls off the party after she has been knocked breathless on a jump she could have made easily in her tennis shoes.

Portia works for the Kellys. Her father, Dr. Copeland, is the only African American doctor in town. He is an idealistic man who has always struggled to help his people to raise themselves out of their poverty and ignorance. One night, Mr. Singer steps up to help Dr. Copeland light a cigarette in the rain. It is the first time a white man has ever offered him help or smiled at him.

Jake, who finds a job as a carousel mechanic, tries to rouse the workers to revolt. He spends each Sunday with Mr. Singer, explaining that he aspired to be an evangelist until he understood the inequality in the world. Jake unintentionally insulted Dr. Copeland twice, but he is one of the first to talk about doing something about the injustice that done to Willie, Dr. Copeland’s son. Willie was sentenced to hard labor for knifing a man. After Willie and two others tried to run away from the prison camp, the guards put them in a cold shack for three days with their bare feet hoisted up by a looped rope. Doctors had to amputate both of Willie’s feet. Dr. Copeland, trying to see the judge about his son’s case, is severely beaten and put in jail. Mr. Singer and Portia obtain his release on bail, and Jake goes with Mr. Singer to Dr. Copeland’s house. Jake and Dr. Copeland argue bitterly through the night, verbalizing their differing visions of how to advance justice in the world.

Attracted to Mr. Singer’s peacefulness, Mick visits him whenever she can. He purchases a radio for his visitors’ enjoyment, but, of them all, Mick is the most heartened by the music. Those are hours of deep pleasure for her. Beginning to record songs that exist in her imagination, Mick is certain that she will become a famous composer. She also fascinates Biff. After his wife dies, he watches as Mick began to mature, but he seldom speaks to her. He is equally quiet with Mr. Singer when he visits at the Kellys’ boardinghouse.

Mr. Singer does not know what to think of Dr. Copeland, Biff, Jake, and Mick, but they are always welcome to visit him. During his vacation, Mr. Singer travels to see his Greek friend. Although Mr. Singer brings him beautiful presents, Antonapoulos rejects everything but food. Only in the presence of his friend does Mr. Singer take his hands out of his pockets. Then his hands fly as he tries to relate in sign language everything he has seen and thought since his friend went away. The man shows no interest, and Mr. Singer tries even harder to communicate. When he leaves, Antonapoulos is still impassive.

Mr. Singer’s rent provides the Kelly family with some reliable income, but they are constantly plagued by financial problems. The situation worsens as the family is forced to pay hospital bills after one of the boys shoots a neighbor child. When a sister becomes ill and cannot work, the loss of her salary places the whole family into a dilemma. They learn about a job opening at the local variety store, but they initially decide that Mick is too young to work. For the first time, they talk about her welfare, their concern prompting her to apply for the job. Mick gets the position, but each night she is too tired for anything but sleep.

Mr. Singer again makes the long trip to the asylum to see Antonapoulos. Again, he is laden with elaborate gifts. When he reaches the asylum office, the clerk tells him that his friend is dead. Stricken, he travels back to town, goes to his room, and shoots himself. Mr. Singer’s suicide leaves his four visitors lonely and confused. Dr. Copeland, still sick, broods over it. Jake joins a deadly fight and, after hearing that the police are looking for him, leaves town. Mick does not sleep well for weeks after the funeral. All that she has left is Mr. Singer’s radio. She feels cheated because she has no time, no money, no feeling anymore for music, but she has no one to blame for robbing her of her dreams. Biff, who had watched Mr. Singer with Jake and Mick, still puzzles over the relationships he has observed. He wonders if love might be the answer to human isolation and loneliness.

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