The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

1940. Houghton Mifflin. Paperback. 359 pages.

(Cover Image is from a different edition).

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

John Singer is a deaf and mute man who lives in a Southern town whose only friend, another deaf and mute man, is sent away by relatives to an institution after some trouble.

Singer moves to a boarding house and while he quietly goes about his life, longing for his friend’s company, he attracts the attention of several lost souls. There is the communist drifter; the black doctor whose ideas for the advancement of his people are rejected; the teenage girl whose passion for music is threatened by her family’s poverty; and the recently widowed cafe owner.


The Heart is a Lonely Hunter deserves more than the review I’m about to write. But some time has passed since I finished it, and I figure I better just get down what I can. McCullers’ book is quite remarkable for its clear-eyed view of the times in which she wrote. She was apparently only twenty-three when she wrote the novel, and yet is able to brilliantly capture a diverse array of characters.

That said, I liked some characters’ sections less than others.  Jake Blount, the communist and Dr. Benedict Copeland were interesting but they were also men ruled by their ideas, rendered angry and antisocial because of their commitment to their ideas. I was glad that McCullers showed Dr. Copeland’s interactions with his daughter and his other adult children, because that helped balance out the passages that consisted of Dr. Copeland’s ruminations.

But John Singer and the teenage girl, Mick, are characters to stick in my memory. The start of the book, which was solely the story of John Singer and his friend, was magnificent, almost like a fable somehow. Or it was kind of like the first ten minutes of Pixar’s “Up”, by which I mean, it’s the emotional origin of the character John Singer, the necessary foundation for the book. For although we will see John Singer interact with other characters, who John Singer is, really, all leads back the portrait of the relationship that we saw at the beginning of the book.

I loved that John Singer is not the deaf equivalent to the “magical Negro.” Although the others come to him with their problems, he doesn’t bestow upon them miraculous wisdom or become a mysterious conduit of self-understanding and personal growth. Even the widowed cafe owner perceives that the other individuals are projecting onto Singer the kind of listener they want, without knowing who Singer is at all. For Singer is quite private about his own sorrows and is bewildered by but relatively patient with his visitors. He is really a tragic figure of loneliness, even more so than all the other characters, especially in his visits to his friend in the institution.

Mick is such a splendid portrait of a teenage girl in all her complexity. She’s devoted most of all to music and savors every scrap of classical music she runs across. She tries on roles, such as being a party hostess for her classmates, and stumbles into sexuality with a boy from her neighborhood. She looks after her brothers, and in such capacity, witnesses a terrible accident with a gun, an accident that will indirectly seal her own fate.

McCullers’ writing captures these characters and also does well in evoking the shabby places where they reside – dilapidated carnivals, institutions, and rented rooms. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Excerpts of other reviews:

A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook – “McCullers has lent a voice for those who are forgotten, oppressed, rejected, and exploited. In narrating the struggles and enunciating their profound loneliness she has not only communicated their feelings but also gives them dignity.”

Fat Books & Thin Women – “This is one of those rare novels that, first, demands reading; and, second, is able to give us at one time the feel for a specific time in a specific place, and the feel of our country as a whole.”

Sycorax Pine – “It is tremendously easy to become immersed in this novel of infinite detail and flowering cynicism, just as it is very easy to become confused and offended by its politics (in my case, more by its less examined assumptions than by its explicit rhetoric).”


Filed under Book Review

4 responses to “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

  1. This is one of those books I think I SHOULD read but the plot summary just doesn’t interest me at all. If the writing is so lovely, though, maybe I should go for it.

    • You know, if I had known what the plot was before I started reading it, it might not have sounded interesting to me either. I’d heard Carson McCullers was a great author and wanted to try one of her books. I knew it was going to be either going to be this book or her book The Member of the Wedding. I am a fan of Southern authors Eudora Welty and William Faulkner. While McCullers’ writing is nothing like either of those writers (and Faulkner and Welty are quite different from each other), the fact that I have liked Southern authors’ writing from the first half of the 20th century encouraged me to try McCullers.

  2. Thanks for the link, Christy! It’s been so long since I read THIALH now that I only faintly remembered it, so it was great to revisit it through your review. I’m subscribed now and look forward to reading a lot more of your blog….

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