Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers is a tale involving five main characters that struggle against the isolation and despair brought on by circumstances in their lives. The story takes place during the late 1930's in an unnamed deep Southern town. McCullers begins the story by introducing the deaf-mute John Singer; he used to live with his friend Spiros Antonapoulos who was also a deaf-mute. Singer doted on his friend a great deal even though it was apparent that Antonapoulos never showed any appreciation towards it. Later Antonapoulos became mentally ill and was taken away to an insane asylum despite Singer's protestations. Due to this, Singer had to move out of the home he once shared with his friend and become a boarder at the house of the Kelly's.
Biff Brannon and Jake Blount are next introduced in the story. Biff runs a popular local restaurant named the New York Cafe. One day he saw that a drunken patron by the name of Jake Blount had shown up. Blount was found spouting out Socialist ideals and could switch from sounding very intellectual to sounding like the rambling drunk that he was. In his drunken stupor Jake went over to where Singer was eating and began talking affectionately to him as though they were once good friends; after Singer left Jake became upset and left also. Later on the police returned Jake to the cafe after stopping him from banging his head and fists against a wall; Singer then offers to take Jake home for the night and allow him to stay until he can find a place of his own.
McCullers next introduces the character Mick Kelly; she was said to be a young teenage girl who was the fourth child in a family of six children. Her family was very poor so they had to turn their home into a boarding house. Mick is constantly absorbed in her dreams to someday become a famous musician. She longs to learn to play the piano and wishes she could own a radio even though she realizes that her family is too poor to afford these things. She starts befriending Singer and later comes to confide her innermost secrets and ambitions to him.
The final main character to be introduced is Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, a black doctor who is often deeply immersed in thoughts over the plight of his people. He yearns to arouse blacks towards action in improving their situation but is frustrated by what he perceives to be a lack of ambition on their part. He is upset over the way they have come to accept their situation and do not take advantage of receiving higher education and of ambitiously pursuing better job opportunities.
He has alienated most of his family members because he had shown his disappointment over the way his children turned out
. He is also a fervent Socialist but unlike Blount he is more concerned with the situation of black people more than he is with the situation of the general working-class. He starts befriending Singer after the latter had shown a gesture of kindness towards Copeland
One of the main themes that the book tries to express is in regard to man's struggle against isolation. Throughout the rest of the story the five main characters try to fight the feelings of isolation and disappointment they harbor within them. For Blount and Copeland, who hold radical social views, feelings of frustration and isolation arise whenever they are unsuccessful in convincing others of their ideals
. For Mick, these feelings arise whenever she is unable to express her musical aspirations to her family because they are too busy coping with poverty and whenever she is unsuccessful at trying to display her love of music
Biff's feelings of isolation become apparent especially after his wife dies; he does not often publicly display it however because he often likes to observe others' feelings and actions. Finally, Singer's feelings of loneliness become apparent whenever he recalls the times he spent with his friend Antonapoulos. Even though he begins to display some affection towards the other main characters he still holds Antonapoulos to be his best friend; he makes frequent visits to see his friend in the asylum.
Blount, Copeland, Mick and Biff come to rely on Singer as someone who they assume is listening to their problems. This is seen as the method through which these characters try to fight their isolation. Since Singer is unable to communicate, they are unaware of what he really thinks of their situations but they assume that he would agree with them nonetheless. Singer meanwhile is dumbfounded and yet intrigued by why these people have come to rely on him for easing their anxieties. Singer himself does not realize that he uses Antonapoulos as a source of comfort whenever he confides in the latter about the events occurring in his life.
Another major theme within the story, which is apparent through the characters' interactions with each other, is that man can often begin projecting desirable qualities onto someone that he comes to rely upon for comfort. These qualities may not actually exist within that object but that does not seem to matter, as long as solace is being derived from it. This theme becomes evident in the way the other four main characters begin projecting certain qualities onto Singer, who they have come to rely on for advice, comfort, and companionship. Blount and Copeland believe Singer understands and agrees with the ideals they are calling for. Mick believes Singer shares her love of music and can guide her in making tough decisions in her life. Finally, Biff believes Singer is a quiet and keen observer of events like him.
What these characters never come to realize is that Singer actually possesses none of those qualities they attribute to him. In reality, he does not understand why these people keep coming to him for help with their personal matters. However, since he is unable to communicate to them how he really feels, the other characters can continue relying on him simply because he listens to them. These characters only crave Singer's companionship more than they would his opinions were he able to actually communicate them. Likewise, Singer uses Antonapoulos the same way the other characters use him, by projecting only good qualities upon the latter. In reality, however, it seems apparent that Antonapoulos does not really care for his relationship with Singer.
The story's climax occurs when Singer commits suicide after he discovers that his friend Antonapoulos had died. After his suicide, some of the other characters' lives change dramatically. Dr. Copeland is sent to his father-in-law's farm after his health worsens, Blount decides to leave town, and Mick begins working at Woolworth's after quitting school. Only Biff's life remains the same after the suicide. Of all the characters, only Mick display's some level of optimism over her future by indicating that she would try to save up money for a piano. This indicates that she has come to terms with no longer having Singer to rely on for comfort.
The author incorporated many experiences from her own life into this book, which was the first one she had published. She was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia on February 19, 1917. Her experience with living in the South during the 1930's helped provide the story's setting. The character Mick Kelly was modeled after McCullers herself; many of the author's childhood experiences were incorporated into this character's own experiences. Like Mick she once had a passion for music, which she expressed by becoming an avid pianist during her teenage years. Unlike Mick, however, McCullers eventually decided to pursue her career in writing. This book was originally published in 1940 when McCullers was only twenty-three years old.
McCullers wrote this story in order to analyze the lives of social outcasts and to learn how they try to break out of their unfavorable positions in life. She wished to show that despite being misfits in society, either due to their unpopular opinions on important issues or unusual circumstances in life, they were still complex individuals who also wished to love and be loved by others. Even if the individual they sought out for companionship never reciprocated in the relationship, they still yearned for it. Due to her own experiences with loneliness and frustration throughout her life, she has been able to provide some much needed insight into the lives of social outcasts. She is once quoted as saying (as cited in www.brainyquote.com) "I live with the people I create and it has always made my essential loneliness less keen."
Critics have often labeled Carson McCullers' writing style as belonging to the Southern gothic style. This style is supposed to be a sub-genre of the gothic writing style and is characterized by the use of supernatural or unusual events that help move the plot along. Unlike general gothic literature, however, the Southern…