The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
When she was only twenty-three, Carson McCullers’s first novel created a literary sensation. She was very special, one of America’s superlative writers who conjures up a vision of existence as terrible as it is real, who takes us on shattering voyages into the depths of the spiritual isolation that underlies the human condition. This novel is the work of a supreme artist, Carson McCullers’s enduring masterpiece. The heroine is the strange young girl, Mick Kelly. The setting is a small Southern town, the cosmos universal and eternal. The characters are the damned, the voiceless, the rejected. Some fight their loneliness with violence and depravity, some with sex or drink, and some— like Mick— with a quiet, intensely personal search for beauty.
This is a novel of misunderstanding.
A certain kind of hopelessness seeps through the pages here. McCullers makes clear the poverty of the town, the lack of prospects for its inhabitants, and the effects racism and capitalism has on both of these things. As the novel is set in the South in the 1930s, there’s a lot of oppression to explore, and a lot of it heartbreaking and furious.
Our protagonist, John Singer, is deaf-mute. He communicates by writing messages, and is able to lip read. His silence gives him a calm, understanding aura, which encourages people to gravitate towards him. We meet four characters in particular who take comfort in having Singer as a friend, and who proceed in making him into exactly who they want him to be. As he listens, yet rarely responds, the characters feel he understands and agrees with them.
It’s a very important note on how we see people as we want to see them, and shape them in our minds into exactly what we need at that moment in time. Whether it’s someone to understand, someone to admire, even someone to hate, we create perceptions of people which don’t necessarily reflect the whole of the person we’re perceiving. It’s everyone misunderstanding everything, all at once.
McCullers shows us how this behaviour drastically impacts the relationships in the novel. Although there is very little plot, everything revolves around the four characters and their relationships with John Singer. It’s a brutal look at how we love and behave, and it’s done masterfully.
Not only do the characters misunderstand Singer, but they frequently misunderstand each other. This can be in the form of two men, one black and one white, who have read and respect Marxist theory, they cannot see the other’s agenda, nor their aspirations on mobilising change. It can be in the form of a young girl who believes an older restaurant proprietor hates her, but really he holds a deep unexplainable love for it. Or it’s in the form of a daughter who cannot see her father just really wanted her to open her eyes.
This novel has crumpled my heart, has taught me moral messages, has made me examine my own behaviour in life, and has, ultimately, left me awe-struck. Another great American novel.