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 focusing on weaknesses in plot and style. Despite these criticisms, the novel continues to receive a great deal of scholarly attention.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1249 words.)

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