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Introduction

This was Carson McCullers’s first novel, published in 1940, when the author was just twenty-three years old. It started out as a short story in a creative writing class, and an early, working draft of the novel, then called The Mute, was submitted for a Houghton Mifflin Fiction Fellowship, for which McCullers won a cash prize and a publishing contract. Her editors at Houghton Mifflin convinced her to change the title. Upon its publication, the book was received positively by reviewers, who were all the more enthusiastic about it because of the author’s young age. The book introduced themes that stayed with McCullers throughout her lifetime and appeared in all of her works, such as “spiritual isolation” and her notion of “the grotesque,” which she used to define characters who found themselves excluded from society because of one outstanding feature, physical or mental. The story takes place in a small town in the South in the late 1930s. The five central characters cross paths continually throughout the course of about a year, but due to the imbalances in their personalities they are not able to connect with one another, and are doomed to carry on the loneliness indicated in the title. An indication of their lack of coping mechanisms is that the one character that the other four confide their hopes and aspirations and theories to is a deaf-mute, who cannot fully understand them nor communicate back to them anything more than his nodding acceptance of what they tell him. Throughout her short career, McCullers’s novels continued to present characters who were cut off from mankind, although, many critics believe, never as successfully as in this first, brilliant stroke.

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Carson Mccullers

McCullers was born Lulu Carson Smith on February 19, 1917, in Columbus, Georgia. Her family had deep roots in the South: her great-grandfather, Major John Carson, owned a two-thousand acre plantation with seventy-five slaves before the Northern army burned the plantation and freed the slaves during the Civil War. Her father, Lamar Smith, was a watchmaker, like Mick Kelly’s father, and owned a jewelry shop like the one John Singer works in. From early childhood, Lulu Carson was expected to achieve great fame, and while she was growing up her parents did what they could to encourage her interest in music. She started formal piano lessons at age ten, and progressed swiftly through her studies in music, which were intense and consuming. After a bout with pneumonia at age fifteen, she started to question whether she had the stamina to be a concert pianist, and turned her attention to writing. She kept her parents believing that she was interested in music, and so when she was seventeen she was sent to New York to study at the Juilliard School, but when she arrived, she enrolled at Columbia University, which had better creative writing teachers, including Sylvia Chatfield Bates, who was a major influence. While home for the summer in 1936 she met Jim McCullers, an army corporal who was also interested in writing, and the following summer they were married. Living in North Carolina with him, McCullers was able to devote all of her time to writing: in a few months, she developed an outline and the first chapters of a novel she called The Mute, which Bates suggested she submit to a writing competition. It won a $1,500 Houghton Mifflin fellowship and a publishing contract, and was published as The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter the following year, when the author was twenty-three years old.

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Plot Summary

A Part One

The first section of this novel has six chapters-one chapter focused on each of the five main characters, and then the sixth concerning their continuing relationship to one another. The first two chapters take place much earlier than the continuing action of the rest of the novel. The first chapter introduces John Singer, the deaf-mute, and it is written in the vague, fable-like tone that all of the parts concerning Singer are told in. His relationship with another mute, Antonapoulos, is explained: they live together and spend their free time together, but after ten years Antonapoulos starts showing erratic behavior-stealing from the cousin he works for, exposing himself in public, etc. Singer spends all of his money trying to make restitution for his friend’s crimes, but the cousin has Antonapoulos committed to the state insane asylum two hundred miles away. Singer moves into the boarding house owned by the Kelly family and begins eating his meals at the New York Cafe. The second chapter takes place one night at the cafe: all of the five main characters pass through this chapter, but it is primarily about the cafe owner, Biff Brannon. When he is coming off of his shift and going to bed, his wife is rising to go to work. Brannon admits to his wife that he has a fondness for what he calls “freaks.” Their conversation is about how to handle a third main character, Jake Blount, who has spent every night at the cafe since arriving in town twelve days earlier: he gets drunk, doesn’t pay his bills, and terrorizes the customers. Mick Kelly, a twelve-year-old girl from town, comes in to buy a pack of cigarettes. Blount leaves briefly and returns with Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, a black physician, insisting that he will buy him a drink in defiance of segregation laws, until Dr. Copeland shakes his grip and leaves. Singer, the deaf-mute, takes Blount home to sleep off his drunkenness.

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Characters

A Spiros Antonapoulos

Antonapoulos is the person that John Singer cares most about in the world, even though there is little evidence that he returned Singer’s affection. The book’s first chapter concentrates on their ten years of life together and how Antonapoulos behaved more and more badly as years passed-stealing from the restaurant, urinating in public, pushing people around-until his only relative, Charles Parker, has him committed to an insane asylum. Throughout the rest of the book Singer pines for his friend’s companionship, even though most of his memories of him seem to involve Antonapoulos drinking or stealing money or in some other way taking advantage of his friendship.

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Themes

A Strength and Weakness

Very early in the book Biff Brannon announces to his wife, “I like freaks.” Her response is “I reckon you ought to, Mister Brannon-being as you’re one yourself.” What Biff has in mind is the affinity he has for the struggling underdog, or, as the book puts it later, “a special feeling for sick people and cripples.” Although Brannon himself is physically healthy, his connection to the physically deformed is an indication of the weakness that he sees within himself, a weakness that shows itself in his inability to connect to his wife when she is alive and is even more pronounced in his withdrawal from society after her death. The other main characters display signs of social weakness that range from the obvious to the sublime. Mick Kelly, the only female in the group, is a young girl, wielding no real authority but burdened with responsibility for her younger brothers. She tries to enhance her stature by acting tough, using a boy’s name and dressing boyishly and smoking, but her false strength is revealed by the fear she has of being found out after her first sexual encounter. In the end, it is her family’s financial vulnerability that dashes her dreams of pursuing a career in music. Jake Blount’s weakness is alcoholism, which keeps him from following through with any plans he makes, confusing his thinking and driving him to rage when he has a point to make. Beside the social disadvantage of being black in the South in the 1930′s, Dr. Copeland has to deal with the tuberculosis that is eating away his body. John Singer, though stable and respected about town, is shut off from humanity, both by his handicap and by his obsession with Antonapoulos. The novel uses these weaknesses to bring the characters together, both for practical reasons (Blount drinks at Brannon’s cafe, Singer boards at the Kelly house) and for commiseration with one another. The other four are drawn to Singer because his weakness is openly displayed, and they feel that he can understand them.

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Construction

A Grotesque

The idea of the grotesque has run throughout American literature, through the works of Melville, Hawthorne and Poe, and may in fact have to do with the democratic political system, which emphasizes the individual over the collective. In twentieth-century literature, it is usually associated with Southern writers such as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Put simply, “grotesque” refers to work that portrays characters who each have an exaggerated trait or characteristic, which is used to symbolize their entire personality. McCullers once explained that “Love, and especially love of a person who is incapable of returning or receiving it, is at the heart of my selection of grotesque figures to write about-people whose physical incapacity is a symbol of their spiritual incapacity to love or receive love-their spiritual isolation.” Clearly, this applies to John Singer in the novel, a character who is loved by all of the other main characters but who is only perplexed by their attentions. The first chapter establishes the world that Singer lives in-a world where he and his friend Antonapoulos live together, walk to and from work together, and spend their evenings quietly playing chess. Because of his “physical incapacity,” his deafness, that world does not change much for Singer, even when his friend moves away and new characters come around. With Singer setting the tone as the most obvious example of the story’s use of the grotesque, the other characters are given conditions that are less physically noticeable but hinder their emotional capacity just as badly: Dr. Copeland’s tuberculosis makes him anxious that the work he finds important will be completed; Jake Blount’s alcoholism causes every nearly-meaningful conversation to deteriorate into ranting; Biff Brannon’s androgyny, which some critics have suggested is caused by impotence, makes him self-fulfilled, with no need to connect with anyone else; and Mick’s budding adolescence suspends her in a void between childhood and womanhood, distracting her from her love of music until economic circumstances take away that choice, possibly forever.

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Historical Perspective

A Fascism

The character of Mick is so politically naive early in the novel that when she is defacing the wall of a house under construction she includes the name Mussolini along with the comic-strip crime fighter Dick Tracy and the inventor of light bulbs, phonographs and moving pictures, Thomas Edison. At that time in world history, Fascism had reached its height as a political power. The word itself was coined by Benito Mussolini during his rise to power in Italy after World War I ended in 1918-he defined fascism as “organized concentrated authoritarian democracy on a national basis,” although most other sources would not forget to include the words “totalitarianism” and “authoritarianism” in their definition. Fascism is unlike democracy because it gives the government control over all aspects of its citizens’ lives; it is unlike Communism because it emphasizes the nation, and not the worker, as being the most essential element in life. In 1848, when the capitalist economic system had established roots all over the world and the Industrial Revolution had made it strong, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Communist Manifesto. Their fear was that the way the free-market economy divided the world between two groups-the rich, who owned the means of production, and the workers who provided the labor-made slaves out of the laborers. They encouraged workers to unite. In the early twentieth century, socialism was popular in many countries around the world, and in 1917 Russia was taken over by the Communist Revolution (in general, the distinction between the two is that socialism advocates changing the government from within the system, while Communism supports revolutionary overthrow). In Italy, as elsewhere, Communism appealed to the poor, and many of the people were suffering in poverty after a post-war economic collapse that made their money practically worthless. Property owners, however, feared that Communism would take away what they had, and many middle-class people equated a Communist take-over with anarchy and chaos. Mussolini, a former Socialist, gained the support of people who had been made to feel powerless because of the economy’s collapse and who liked the Fascist party’s strong pro-Italy rhetoric. His rise to power was driven by a combination of the promise to restore order and the violence of Fascist thugs in black shirts who committed murder and arson against socialists. In 1922, violence against Socialists was so bad that they called a national strike against the transportation sector: Mussolini used this politically to take control of the government, gaining citizen support because he got the trains to run on time. Between 1925 and 1930 he turned his control of the government into a dictatorship, with absolute control over all media and all aspects of the people’s lives. At the same time, the same elements that brought the Fascist party to government control were at work in Germany, where Hitler was using the promise of order, the threat of Communism and a hatred of people considered “outsiders” (in this case, Jews, blacks, Catholics and Gypsies) to build the Nazi empire.

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Questions

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 effect that the war had on race relations in the South: did things get better or worse? Did the war affect the situation at all?

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Compare and Contrast

1940: England and France were at war with Germany, Italy and Japan: later that year France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, and Romania fell to the Germans, but the United States did not join World War II until Pearl Harbor was bombed in December of 1941. Today: Having been elevated to the status of world power as an outcome of World War II, the United States is almost certain to be involved in any major worldwide conflict.

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