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Carson McCullers: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

McCullers’ first novel propelled her straight to the forefront of American novelists. It is a novel still worth reading not once but many times and each time you can only be amazed at its brilliance. The story centres around John Singer. Singer is a deaf mute and close friends of another deaf mute, Spiros Antonapoulos. Unfortunately, Spiros is slowly going insane and is eventually taken to the county asylum where, unbeknown to the other characters, Singer regularly visits him.

When Spiros moves to the asylum, Singer moves into the Kelly boarding house. Mr. Kelly is a watchmaker by trade (and clearly based on McCullers’ father) who is struggling to make a living on his own after an injury at work. More important is his thirteen-year old tomboy daughter, Mick, clearly based on McCullers herself. Mick is fascinated with music, particularly classical music, and goes and listens for hours at people’s windows to records or piano (she has neither). Because her family is not well off, she spends much of her time babysitting her younger brothers but also goes off on her own and daydreams. McCullers’ portrait of Mick is just one of the many complex but lively characters McCullers creates and clearly prefigures Frankie in Member of the Wedding. Mick, like the other main characters, confides in Singer (unaware of his troubles) and, as with the other characters, he tries, in his own way to help them, even though he is unable to deal with his own problem, his relationship with Spiros.

The other main characters are also superbly drawn. Biff runs the local café, with his wife, Alice, and is devoted to the café but not entirely happy in his marriage, realising, only after Alice’s sudden death, that the marriage might have been worth more than he thought when Alice was alive. Biff is generous to a fault and very caring towards his clients, including Mick and also including Blount. Blount is a violent and aggressive man, who travels around the country, trying to urge the working man to overthrow his capitalist oppressors but fails to understand why they won’t listen to him. Both Biff and Singer befriend him, despite his violent temper. Finally, there is Dr Copeland, facing racism but also alienated from his children and not understanding why they cannot be like him.

But this is not a plot-driven book. It is McCullers’ larger than life and different characters that make the book a masterpiece of American literature. Her characters are in pain. They suffer and struggle and dream and, ultimately, die. None of these characters – and the same can be said for all of her characters – comes out ahead or happy. They all make mistake. They all witness or suffer violence and death. Not even Mozart can save them.

Publishing history

First published 1940 by Houghton Mifflin