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activist, Benedict Copeland; and a lonely and sexually ambiguous restaurant owner, Biff Brannon, who has increasingly withdrawn from human contact since the death of his wife.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.