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.
This book is not structured like a traditional novel, which would use a more systematic method to follow the ways in which the events in the main characters’ lives affect each other’s, and so by traditional standards it appears to be chaotic, even uncontrolled. The story lines of the five main characters are developed side-by-side with each other, so that readers would have difficulty picking one that is more important than the others. The shape of the novel is in fact based in musical theory, with the three parts organized as a fugue would be. The first section opens with Singer’s story alone, like a musical solo, and then weaves in the other voices in balanced increments, playing off of each other and creating distinct harmonies, ending with Singer again-since words are not exchanged in Singer’s sections, the story is told completely in narrative, giving these outside chapters a hushed, thoughtful feeling. The second section, fifteen chapters in total, is much busier, still concentrating on one character per chapter but complicating their lives with struggles and misery, giving the full rich tone of an entire orchestra, still following various individual strands but doing so with greater fury. This section ends with the climactic event of the novel, John Singer’s suicide. The third section is a coda that does not develop any new ideas but returns to each of the four remaining characters to confirm that they did in fact end up living the destinies that they seemed to be headed for earlier. This section is divided into quarters in a new way, dividing one day, August 21, 1939, into morning, afternoon, evening, and night, echoing Singer’s isolation at the end as Biff Brannon shouts to his assistant and receives no response. Basing the design on a musical form reflects both the musical training that Carson McCullers had (and that Mick in the novel would like to have) and the irony that runs throughout of the music that plays on the radio in the room of the deaf man.