The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

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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.

First, there is Mick, a tomboy entering adolescence and struggling to find herself in her large and impoverished family. She’s a musician, trying to teach herself the piano and memorizing the classical music she overhears on the radio as she wanders the streets at night. Then we have Mr. Biff Brannon, a middle-aged café owner and bartender estranged from his wife Alice and hopelessly seeking some connection to people in the small town. Jake Blount is an outsider to the town, arriving drunk and eventually settling down as a carnival worker to pay off his drinking debts. Doctor Copeland is the black doctor of the town, estranged from his own grown children because of their lack of interest in his ideals for the future of his race.

Yet, these initial definitions and descriptions fail to fully encapsulate these individuals: each of them struggles with a personal ideology of life and the meaning of life that they are unable to express to themselves, let alone those around them. Further, their loneliness and concerns are amplified in the novel by the ways in which they relate to one another.

Mr. Brannon wants to connect with people, especially to take care of the children of the town (as evidenced by his concern for Mick:  should he really be selling her cigarettes?). He would have loved to be a father, and instead he must settle for taking care of his young niece, Baby. Jake Blount and Doctor Copeland embrace Marxism and strive to impart the significance of a socialist way of life to those with whom they associate. But although these two men share similar ideas, each time they meet, they argue, unable to properly listen to the other in order to determine that they are saying the same things. John Singer himself lives in Mick’s parent’s boarding house, and as each of these “lonely hunters” tromp their way to Singer’s room, Mick comes to even better appreciate the kindness that Singer imparts as she tries to share with him her deep passion for music. Each of the characters also comes to a certain crisis of faith as they try to reconcile God to the world in which they live, some like Doctor Copeland rejecting God all together.


John Singer himself is the most complicated of the “lonely hunters,” for the reader doesn’t completely comprehend what he understands throughout the novel. As a deaf-mute, he’s obviously separate from others in the town, and yet, he seems so integral to the comfort of the “lonely hunters” who seek him out. The clue to understanding him came late in the novel, when his dream (Antonopoulous at the top of the stairs, Singer next, and the four “lonely hunters” below him) clarifies how he sees himself. In that dream, one can finally see that Singer idealized his relationship with the insane Antonopoulous just as the four others idealized their relationship with Singer. Singer was just as lonely as those who sought his friendship.

My heart nearly broke when I read his un-mailed letter to Antonopoulous, and I must admit that I was quite emotional as he made committed suicide after Antonopoulous’s death.  It wasn’t only his deafness that drove him to that step: he had met other deaf men at a bar outside of Antonopoulous asylum, but Singer, like the ”lonely hunters” who sought him out, was unable to communicate with those others. He only had Antonopoulous, and without his Greek friend, he could not cope with his loneliness any longer.

*end spoilers*

McCullers originally intended to name the novel The Mute, but (thank goodness) the title was changed. The title comes from a poem.

Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.
Green is that hill and lonely, set far in a shadowy place;
White is the hunter’s quarry, a lost-loved human face:
by William Sharp writing as Fiona MacLeod

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is not a happy novel. It’s quite depressing to read, and it ends without hope for the central characters, as their loneliness is never truly lost. The characters never found their “hunter’s quarry.” The cycle of life for Blount, the aging Doctor Copeland, Mr. Brannon, and Mick will continue to provide loneliness.

Yet, there is something so beautiful in Carson McCuller’s exploration of loneliness in a small society. She was recently married and only 23 years old when she wrote and published her debut novel. The fact that she was so young adds to my amazement at the depth of emotion she was able to portray among so many very different personalities in a fictional novel: each character was searching for something a little bit different to lessen the pain of loneliness. How realistic each character was, and how griping their combined story became!

Having read the novel once, I am not able to fully comprehend the ways in which the characters all wove together, yet I loved the effect. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is not, as I’m sure you have been able to ascertain, a plot-driven novel, but rather a subtle and complex look at human psychology: the hopes, dreams, and loneliness that comes from isolation (for whatever reason) in a small town. It’s a masterpiece for its strong writing as well as its complexities of character. Highly recommended.

Reviewed on February 16, 2012

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I wish I had been at your book club meeting! I just read this myself, and I couldn’t help wishing I had a big group to talk it over with. I didn’t connect with it as immediately as I did with her Ballad of the Sad Cafe, but by the end she had completely won me over.

    *spoilers* I was heartbroken by Singer’s storyline as well, even though it felt inevitable. But what was up with Mick and her ‘date’? I couldn’t quite understand what that was about, and I was surprised to see the lack of resolution at the end of the novel. Unless I missed it? I hope she wasn’t pregnant. Anyway, I would have liked to see a bit more of an ending; it felt a bit abrupt to me, but conclusions have always been the hardest thing for me to write, so I can’t blame McCullers too much. Definitely a book that I’ll need to reread to get more out of.

    • *spoilers*

      Eva » I think Mick’s date was her moment of coming of age. Just like Bubber/George suddenly “grew up” when he shot Baby, Mick “grew up” when she finally thought she found connection with someone else. I’m pretty sure she was NOT pregnant: it seemed to me she was confused when Harry wanted her to send her an “ok” like she didn’t put the connection together that he wanted to make sure she was not pregnant. Anyway, I think the date showed how naive she was: here she is trying to be a grown up, but she’s still half way in between girl and woman. She’s been searching for that connection with SOMEONE for so long and at least she realized that hanging out with Singer wasn’t going to help her…and yet the result of her sexual experience is that she can no longer find her “inner room” at all! She’s even more isolated with herself!

      I really liked the endings. It seemed to wrap up the hopelessness so well. For me, I felt *of course* Harry didn’t reappear. It was Mick’s disappointment. Her life had no hope left in it: it would be the same old thing the rest of her life. Same with the other people: Blount starting over again, Doctor Copeland slowly dying, Mr. Brannon always staying up with the bar, even thought it’s a waste of his money. I guess I just knew it was going to be depressing in the end, so I was satisfied. And bawling, of course.

      That said, one of the gentlemen at book club totally disagreed that Mick’s life was hopeless, and he though Copeland and the others had changed as well. He anticipates Mick’ll go to NY and be a famous musician. Not sure how that would work out though give how isolated she was in her small town lol.

      • I can see that Rebecca re: Mick’s date being her coming-of-age, but it’s such a sad one. I don’t know…I’m still not positive I buy how the date went. The aftermath of it, with Harry running away/horrified, seemed about right, but somehow my mental image of Mick until then just didn’t jibe with her almost accidentally having sex. I felt disconnected from the book for awhile after that scene. It’s not that it was so bleak/depressing, since I love lots of books that are quite sad. Anyway, by the end McCullers had brought me back, and I do have to remember that this was her debut and written when she was very young.

        I love the book club member that imagines Mick’s life as being a successful NY musician. He sounds like a sweetie! lol

        • Eva » you make a good point. It doesn’t really seem like Mick to be so naive. It worked for me, because I felt she was so disconnected from everyone, that even her experience with Harry just ended up disconnected, not even special for her!

          And yes, it is fun to talk about these books with the older readers who just think the best of everyone in the books they read. This particular older gentleman loves Pride and Prejudice; his favorite book he mentions at least once each month lol.

  • I read this one a few years ago, right before I started blogging. I had heard so much about how it was Southern classic, and went in with really high expectations. In the end, I have to say that I did not really see the appeal to this novel. I found myself largely unmoved by it, and did not find beauty in the writing that I had expected to find. I don’t know if I just was in the wrong mental/emotional place to read this one or what, but my response to it was actually very similar to the way I feel about To Kill a Mockingbird. I think both books are quite alike, and in both cases I’ve never been able to muster much enthusiasm for them!

    • Steph » Interesting that you make a connection between this and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD! I must admit, TKaM is my favorite novel of all time, but I didn’t see these two related at all — one a girl growing up and finding the peace from friendship and life, abandoning judgement of others and coming to terms with her life. The other about very lonely people that end up very lonely. In what ways did you find them similar? (You aren’t the only one, though, to make that connection, because I saw TKaM as a recommended read on LibraryThing for this novel, which likewise caused me to scratch my head in wonder.)

      Anyway, this particular book is not one for everyone, so I can totally understand not appreciating it when you read it! I think if I’d read it at a wrong point in my life, it would not have been appreciated by me either.

  • I can understand why some people don’t connect with this novel (it is, after all, a novel all about the failure to truly connect), but I adored it. I loved it for so many of the reasons you mentioned. It is depressing, but it’s done in such a beautiful way. The different characters are all lonely, but for such different reasons. It broke my ehart, but I really did love it. I agree with your comment to Eva about Mick too. That’s how I interpretted her story. She was searching for connection and was mistaken to think she would find it in an empty sexual encounter, which left her feeling even more alone.

  • People seem to have very strong reactions to this one direction or another. I was at one point real keen on trying it, but had several of my friends tell me how awful and tedious it was, and it kind of put me off. Maybe I ought to give it a shot anyway.

  • I read this book with the an online book club a few years ago now. I didn’t love it, but I could definitely see why it was a favourite for people.

  • This is a classic I’ve long been drawn to, but that I’ve never read. I think I should read it soon. Maybe I will suggest it for book club, since it sounds like having a group to discuss the book with was really worth it.

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