The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published in 1940 and is the first novel by Carson McCullers, who was 23 at the time. I feel like a complete slacker now! I really enjoyed this book. It is not a fast read – in some ways the pace of the book reflects the pace of life among the characters of the book. This is not a plot-driven book; it is more of a slice of life among people living fairly isolated and solitary lives.
The location is a small Southern town in the 1930s, so some of the loneliness conveyed in the book is because of the limitations for interaction with the wider world. But more than that, each of the main characters has something they are going through that gives them a unique experience and view of life. The main character is John Singer, a man who is deaf and mute. Singer’s roommate, Spiros Antonapoulos, is also deaf and mute but is mentally ill, which leads to his placement in an asylum. Singer interacts with the other characters in the book – people are drawn to him. There is a sensitivity there that helps people work through their lonely lives and, even though he is deaf and mute, the characters in the book talk with him, confide in him and believe he helps them make sense of the issues they are dealing with. He moves into the Kelly’s boarding house and takes meals at Biff’s cafe in town – both locations provide opportunities for engagement with others.
Mick is in an adolescent girl (a tomboy) who is trying to figure out who she is and where she wants to go in life. She imagines all kids of options, though her poverty places many of them out of reach. Singer becomes a lifeline as she sorts through her thoughts. She is going through many changes and trying to figure out who she is and where she fits. Biff, who has lost his wife, Dr. Copeland, a Black physician, and Jake Blount, an often-drunk and loud labor organizer round out the main cast of characters. All of them bring their troubles to Singer and find ways to move forward but for Singer, there is no one to talk with (literally and figuratively) and he bears his pain and loneliness … well, alone.
Most of the characters are misfits, in that they are not in the mainstream of society. And, yet, I could see myself in this book. Some of these characters would appear to be “normal” or “boring” on the outside but the book highlights their inner thoughts and fears and sadness. We all are alone from time to time, even if we are surrounded by people. The book takes on racism and poverty and other big issues but does so in a way that personalizes their impact. Some reviewers of this book try to identify who the characters “represent” in the larger world or tie them to a profound way of thinking. For me, I take the characters at face value – they are people who are lonely, sad and frustrated. It’s a lovely and quiet book that I think does something more profound than looking outward to find comparisons, it looks inward to touch the characters’ souls.