I will caution first-time readers of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter against giving up on this great novel if frustrated by its pace early on. Once this novel hits its groove, and it inevitably does, it is a difficult book to put down. Carson McCullers’s classic debut tracks the lives of five denizens of a Southern mill town in the late 1930s over the course of a year. As each character develops, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter connects with the reader in a powerful way, articulating perfectly some of the gloomier elements of the human condition.
The primary theme in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the state of isolation inherent in the human experience. McCullers demonstrates this notion through the enigmatic John Singer, a lip-reading deaf-mute who, after the loss of his great friend Spiros Antonopoulos to insanity, magnetizes a community with his willingness to “listen”. Before Singer encounters town misfits Biff Brannon, Jake Blount, Mick Kelly and Doctor Benedict Mady Copeland, each is vaguely aware of his/her discontentedness. However, the characters soon find themselves at ease with Singer and regularly divulge their most personal thoughts to the wordless man. Singer, whose name is deeply ironic, consequently becomes a sounding board for a community’s lonely musings, revealing to both the characters and the reader the inherent isolation in their lives.
While Mick Kelly is undoubtedly the novel’s heroine, it was the observant café proprietor Biff Brannon who intrigued me most of all. Brannon operates the New York Café, the town’s lone all-night diner. As such, Brannon attracts its most eccentric dwellers and relishes the notion that he can help and comfort them. For me, Brannon embodied the characteristics of the “Catcher in the Rye”, exhaustively fretting over the town’s innocent and downtrodden, or in his words: “the freaks”. While Brannon’s behavior can appear at times imprudent, the novel ends for Brannon with a rare glimmer of hope.
McCullers employs one of my favorite literary devices in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter with her incorporation of a “grotesque” character. Perfected by Flannery O’Connor in pieces like “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, the use of the “grotesque” adds a dimension to the writing that subtle exaggeration does not achieve. When McCullers offers her offbeat protagonists an earpiece for their cogitations she does not simply provide them with a normal character who is willing to listen. Instead, she accentuates her characters’ need to communicate by providing them with a deaf man whom they not only respond to, but treat as a demigod. In doing so, the reader is much more attuned to the characters’ desperate need to connect.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a novel that stays with the reader long after its powerful denouement. The authenticity and diversity of the characters make it difficult not to find at least one character to relate with. I am glad to see that McCullers was a productive writer after her acclaimed debut and I look forward to reading more from this wonderful author.