Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1249

Carson McCullers’s first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter , immediately received praise from many reviewers who commended her insights into the human condition. They lauded the work as one of a few truly distinguished first novels in American literature. Other critics have written of the text’s failures, particularly...

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Carson McCullers’s first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, immediately received praise from many reviewers who commended her insights into the human condition. They lauded the work as one of a few truly distinguished first novels in American literature. Other critics have written of the text’s failures, particularly focusing on weaknesses in plot and style. Despite these criticisms, the novel continues to receive a great deal of scholarly attention.

Some critics have focused on the allegorical qualities of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. They interpret the novel as a parable and the characters as abstractions of ideas more than as representations of real and complex individuals. The plot and characters, such scholars argue, dramatize McCullers’s viewpoints about love and teach the audience how to avoid isolation.

In addition to these analyses, many scholarly commentaries have centered on The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter as an example of southern gothic fiction. Critics have compared this and other texts by McCullers, such as The Member of the Wedding (1946) and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1943), to works by Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, and William Faulkner. Like these twentieth century writers, McCullers is praised for portraying the painful realities of southern life. Realistically depicting small-town dullness and meanness, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter highlights the social landscape of human desperation and separation. McCullers reflects the intolerance, poverty, and isolation of the South. Revealing the vast contrasts of the region, the novel exposes a cultural system that proliferates racial fear and hatred, rigid gender roles and expectations, and class division and conflict. McCullers also translates the general symptoms of this society into intersecting narratives of individual lives. The characters of the novel, with their peculiar incapacities and deformities, embody themes common to southern grotesques: violence, disease, mutilation, and death. In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, McCullers presents a harsh society in which oppression pervades human existence. Despite the actualities of southern repression, McCullers also offers glimpses of the noble human struggle to create meaning and to connect.

The residents of the novel’s small southern town are engaged in a lonely search for love. They are frustrated by rigid gender roles, inequalities in race and class, failed personal relationships, and their inability to communicate with one another. Mick Kelly, Biff Brannon, Jake Blount, and Dr. Copeland are acutely aware of their isolation. These muted characters, in revolt against their loneliness, strive fruitlessly to share their dreams and desires. They fail in their attempts to express themselves.

At the center of the novel is a mute man, John Singer. He and his exceedingly overweight Greek friend, Antonapoulos, are cut off from everyone except each other. Although Singer was taught to speak in school, speech repulses him, and he rejects it as unnatural. After Antonapoulos is institutionalized, Singer keeps his hands trapped in his pockets. He becomes the most isolated character in town. The irony of his name apparent, he sings for no one. Although Singer meets other mutes, he is convinced that he can share his thoughts only with Antonapoulos. Singer continues his efforts to communicate with his friend, a grotesque man who remains uninterested in anything but his own physical pleasures. Despite Singer’s desperate longing, he is unable to connect with the object of his adoration. Totally impassive, the Greek remains unresponsive to Singer’s needs, and he is unmoved by Singer’s presence.

In ironic duplication of Singer’s futile relationship with Antonapoulos, other principal characters of the novel attempt to communicate with Singer. Believing that they are abnormal because they do not adhere to the expectations of their society, they try to escape their isolation through Singer, but he remains closed to them. This does not matter, however, because Singer is less a person than a catalyst. They refer to him as Mr. Singer, a signal of their emotional distance from him. Unconcerned about Singer’s unresponsiveness, his disciples see what they imagine him to be. Singer serves as a mirror of their own desires. His muteness makes him all the more appropriate for their projections. For these characters, love is not a selfless expression but a marred attempt to communicate their own needs and dreams.

Jake is a frustrated social reformer, his aspirations of stirring the masses to revolt never realized. His powerful arms and nail-scarred hands reveal the potential violence that lies just beneath the surface of his character. Desperately searching the South for an audience to listen to his tirades about the plight of the working classes, Jake focuses on Singer. The mute man becomes Jake’s audience.

Dr. Copeland, a black doctor who suffers from tuberculosis, is consumed by the desire to save his people from meekness and compliance. Stern and inflexible, he alienates himself from the people he seeks to help. Unlike her father and other characters in the novel, Portia connects with others. Despite her father’s uncompromising nature, Portia loves and cares for him, and she mothers the Kelly children. Before Willie is sentenced to jail, Portia establishes a loving, interdependent relationship with her husband and her brother. Unable to join that family community, Dr. Copeland directs his attentions to Singer. The doctor reads far more into a simple gesture of kindness than is warranted, viewing the mute man as the only compassionate white man whom he has ever known. Convinced that Singer is a Jew, Dr. Copeland communicates with him as a member of another oppressed people.

Possibly the most richly developed character in the novel, Mick Kelly has a boy’s name and measures herself against male role models. She struggles to find a voice in a society that maintains rigid gender expectations. She discovers an outlet in music. Certain that Singer hears music in his head, Mick allows only him into the inner room of her imagination, where she dreams of writing beautiful symphonies. When financial need requires her to surrender her autonomy for the sake of the family, Mick consults Singer. She feels that only he can understand her needs, and she requires his permission to quit school and take a job. Sacrificing her dreams of becoming a composer, Mick molds herself into acceptable gender expectations. She is cheated of her dreams and loses her vitality and hope.

The heavy-jawed Biff is trapped in a loveless marriage. Childless and alone after his wife’s death, he feels a compelling need to connect with those around him. He is a participant and an observer of the lonely search for love and human connection. Biff offers selfless love in an attempt to eliminate his own isolation and the isolation of the other characters. Despite his sincere efforts, Mr. Singer, Jake, Dr. Copeland, and Mick dismiss Biff or view him with suspicion. Ironically, they reject the only person who accepts them and attempts to connect with their humanity. Despite their rejection, Biff clings to his hopes for the possibility of human redemption and love.

Love is everything in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Human communion is essential, yet McCullers demonstrates that it is also immensely complex, perhaps impossible. Most of McCullers’s characters are driven to each other to satisfy selfish needs and desires, but she asserts that the most important love is unselfish. True human communion involves both give and take. The novel ends with an image of Biff waiting for the dawn, hoping that humans can someday share the rare and evanescent love that they so desperately need.

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