“It was funny, too,how lonesome a person could be in a crowded house.” Mick.
It’s always the books about the human spirit that endure. There is no need to worry about setting or plot as the things people dealt with then are the same things we deal with now. It’s like when James Baldwin said “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”
Carson McCuller wrote “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” at the age of 23. It was an immediate hit and was the first of many of her works to focus on loneliness and isolation. She herself was not in good health and would die at the age of 50 after living a life of strokes and health complications. It’s hard not to think that these personal, life experiences weren’t the catalyst for many of her novels.
This book checks off many of my personal-taste preferences: vignette chapters from each character’s perspective, the setting of a small town in the rural south and a focus on characters and not necessarily plot. While this might not move the needle for other readers, there is plenty to love about the temporary world McCuller builds in small-town Georgia.
The book centers on five main characters with John Singer, a deaf mute, the cogwheel everything rotates around. Each character is lonely and isolated but for completely different reasons. Where the magic happens is how McCuller carries each character through three steps: the cause of their loneliness, the identity they develop to cope, and the delusions they use to prop themselves up. What is particularly delightful is that this isn’t a linear process and the interplay between all combinations is explored.
John Singer is lonely because of his inability to communicate to the world through the loss of speech. But more significant, he loses his only friend Antonapoulos early on to an insane asylum. Unfortunately, we easily learn that Antonapoulos is really no friend at all, and John’s complete fixation on his friend makes no sense. To deal with his loneliness, John deludes himself into thinking Antonapoulos is a confidant, and builds his whole identity around providing for his friend.
What makes John an interesting character is that he becomes the delusion other characters cling to. Since he only listens to other characters, people are able to project whatever they want onto this blank slate.
Doctor Benedict Mady Copeland is an African-American Doctor. He built his entire identity on being a beacon of light for his community and is extremely well read in the works of Marx and Spinoza. He believes that he will be the one to shed the archaic religious belief of his people and lead them into a new age of prosperity. The problem is that his entire family he raised believes different – they did not follow in his footsteps and hold menial jobs while still clinging to religious belief. This barrier between him and his family/community is the root of his loneliness.
When Doctor Copeland meets John, though, he thinks of John as the best white person he has ever met, someone who understands the black man’s plight. Now, John does treat everyone with respect, but John at no point communicates anything to say that he agrees with all of Doctor Copeland’s views (a strong believer in communism). Doctor Copeland might have the saddest ending of all characters, as his health deteriorates and he has to move out to the country with the very same family he despises for being so uneducated, officially ending any thought he might succeed in bringing change to his community.
Mick Kelley is a young kid who lives in the same boarding house as John Singer. She’s lonely because she just isn’t into what other kids are, has very little familial support, and seems to be more driven than others in her sphere. Many nights, she goes away to a wealthy part of town to hide in their front yards to listen to their radios through the windows. She loves music and envisions herself as a composer, writing down symphonies in a book. She even tries to build a stringed instrument herself, even though she knows it will never be functional (a combo of identify and delusion to escape from being lonely).
She, too, loves John, and spends many hours following him and wondering about him. At one point, she finds out John has seen snow, and she becomes even more intrigued. John becomes to her someone who has escaped it all (much like she wants to do through her music) and has traveled and seen the world. He becomes a symbol of everything she hopes to achieve, even though John himself is trapped in his own world he has created for himself.
This process continue for a couple more characters: Biff Bannon – owner of a restaurant characters frequent and Jake Blount – a slightly psychotic revolutionist. These two characters plus the three aforementioned one mix and mingle their experiences throughout the book as McCuller explores their isolation and how the have built themselves to cope.
The best scene in the book is where everyone visits John at the same time. Hitherto, John has only interacted with everyone on a 1:1 basis, but finally here is every character, so lonely and yearning for connection, with everyone else who wants the same thing. No one talks. Everyone walls up and gets frustrated that the can’t have John to themselves. How close they were to sharing in their experiences and connecting with each other. It makes me wonder if life isn’t very similar to this, as I go to overcrowded coffee shops and other public spaces full of people not talking to one another.
“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” is an exquisite read, and I would definitely suggest giving it a go if you like strong characterizations over needing action.