Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Carson McCullers’ first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, explores what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “the labyrinth of the human heart.” Just as the spokes of a wheel revolve around a hub, the lives of Mick Kelly, Jake Blount, Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, and Biff Brannon revolve around the deaf-mute John Singer.

The teenager, Mick, is the only character in the book who grows or changes; the sections that relate to her are a Bildungsroman that traces a young girl’s movement from the instinctive emotionalism of childhood, through the advent of preadolescence and awakening sexuality, to the final thrust of maturity that brings disillusionment in love. Mick’s first disappointing sexual experience with Harry West left her feeling very old, “a grown person now, whether she wanted to be or not.” She gravitates toward Singer, who serves as her god until his suicide brings an end to her dreams. She knows that she will never become a famous musician and instead goes to work ten hours a day in a ten-cent store to contribute to the family income. Her childhood is over.

In her outline of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter—published first in Oliver Evans’ biography The Ballad of Carson McCullers (1965) and later in McCullers’ The Mortgaged Heart (1971)—McCullers states that the theme of her novel is “man’s revolt against his own inner isolation and his urge to express himself as fully as is...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Southern town

Southern town. Unnamed town that provides the novel’s principal setting. The town is based on Columbus, Georgia, where Carson McCullers spent her formative years. McCullers left the South when she was seventeen and continued to express her hatred of the region, especially its racism, throughout her life. For example, she refused to donate her manuscripts to a library in Columbus, Georgia, because it was segregated. She also stated sarcastically that she had to revisit the South occasionally to renew her sense of horror. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is the only novel McCullers wrote while residing in the South.

Mick Kelley’s house

Mick Kelley’s house. One of the biggest houses on the north side of town. Three stories tall, this large building is a boardinghouse in which some of the main characters reside. The house has a large front porch, where people gather to talk. The house needs repairs and painting and sags on one end. Its interior symbolizes the psychological and emotional states of the characters; the huge house often feels empty to the people who dwell in it, just as the people frequently feel lonely and isolated even though they are surrounded by others. Mr. Singer, the character in whom the other characters confide, rents a room from the Kelleys.

Mr. Singer’s room

Mr. Singer’s room. This room is small and has minimal furniture. There is a closet...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Carson McCullers’ fictional concerns reflect her private confrontation with bisexuality, her feelings that she was “born a man.” Virginia Spencer Carr reports in her biography, The Lonely Hunter (1975) that “Carson . . . spoke of herself as an invert and wondered if she would ever know the love of a woman who might answer her multileveled needs.” McCullers said herself that she felt that her second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) was the first open treatment of homosexuality in American literature.

Both Carson McCullers and the characters she created challenged the stereotypical notions of the Southern belle. Carr reports that Carson upset fellow writer Katherine Anne Porter by dressing in dungarees or men’s pants, a man’s white dress shirt buttoned at the top, and a boy’s jacket. Additionally, her female characters such as Mick and Frankie, in The Member of the Wedding (1946), have short-cropped hair and bear names as genderless as her own. As Biff Brannon points out in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, “Mick looked as much like an overgrown boy as a girl. And on that subject why was it that the smartest people mostly missed that point? By nature all people are of both sexes.” McCullers denies the validity of erotic love between individuals, but she espouses agape, the humanitarian ideal that transcends love between the sexes and encompasses a love and feeling of responsibility for all humanity. Such love connects all people—those who work on a chain gang, such as the prisoners in The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951), and yet are able to sing, as well as those who believe they are freaks because they lack a strong identity as either male or female and are otherwise different.

McCullers confronted issues of sexuality in nontraditional ways and devised a “science of love” that would show the relationship between a man and a woman as a spiritual rather than a sexual communion. Her contribution to feminist literature is important in its representation and acceptance of relationships of difference rather than the typical heterosexual standards and values prevalent in the society of her time.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The character of Mick is so politically naive early in the novel that when she is defacing the wall of a house under...

(The entire section is 1046 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

The idea of the grotesque has run throughout American literature, through the works of Melville, Hawthorne and Poe,...

(The entire section is 683 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Much of the time, McCullers writes with the close attention to specific detail that is characteristic of realistic fiction. She is always...

(The entire section is 209 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As one might guess from the title, this novel is about loneliness, not the separation of romantic lovers, but a more basic sense of isolation...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1940: England and France were at war with Germany, Italy and Japan: later that year France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg,...

(The entire section is 319 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

World War II had started in Europe when this novel took place, although America did not enter it until a year and a half later. Examine the...

(The entire section is 148 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Although particular elements of this novel may have had some precedent, the basic idea of a deaf mute who inadvertently becomes all things to...

(The entire section is 99 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Ballad of the Sad Cafe
Surely, there is no more bizarre couple in literature than the mannish, cross-eyed Miss Amelia in her...

(The entire section is 1180 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In 1968 the motion picture version of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was released. Alan Arkin starred as the deaf-mute Singer, and...

(The entire section is 71 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

The 1968 film adaptation of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, with a screenplay by Thomas C. Ryan and directed by Robert Ellis Miller, was...

(The entire section is 58 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Many of McCullers’ other significant works are collected in one volume, called The Collected Stories of Carson McCullers, Including The...

(The entire section is 284 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Virginia Spencer Carr, Understanding Carson McCullers, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.


(The entire section is 327 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical View: Carson McCullers. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. An introduction to McCullers’ major works and a group of critical essays focused on various texts, including Lawrence Graves’s “Penumbral Insistence: McCullers’s Early Novels.”

Carr, Virginia Spencer. The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1976. A biography, an important companion to McCullers’ fictional works, demonstrating the connections between the author’s life and experiences and her fictional themes and images.

Carr, Virginia Spencer. Understanding...

(The entire section is 343 words.)