At my classics book club last night, one of the women had not had a chance to read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (published 1940), but she came to hear the discussion about it nonetheless. She was not familiar with the book, and as we discussed it, she commented on how strange it all sounded.
“It sounds like it’s about a bunch of misfits that no one listens to,” she said.
We all concurred. And yet, such a summary does not do justice to the complexities that 23-year-old Carson McCullers captured in her debut novel, a small snapshot of life in a small Southern town in the Great Depression era.
“Snapshot” is the wrong word, however. McCullers herself was a musician (passing up her acceptance to Julliard for lack of money) and she dubbed her novel a “fugue.”
“Like a voice in a fugue, each one of the main characters is an entity in himself – but his personality takes on a new richness when contrasted and woven in with the other characters in the book.” (Quoted on the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt study guide)
Such is the set up of the book: four lonely people in a small town turn to the only man who seems to care about them, the deaf and mute John Singer. Ironically, this deaf-mute is the only one who “listens” to their concerns and stories. He can read lips, and he is able to speak (he was trained as a child) yet simply chooses not to respond in the conversations he has with the “lonely hunters” who visit him. He responds simply with a smile and a nod. Each chapter focuses on one of the “lonely hunters,” alternating among all of them, including the deaf-mute, who, despite his appearance as a confessor and friend for the others, is in actually the loneliest of them all.