Review of The
Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/24/07
Not long ago I was blown away by the 1943 novel, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, which tells the tale of the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, during the first twenty years of the 20th Century, via the life of a young girl named Francie Nolan. That book was the debut novel of a woman named Betty Smith, who was nearing fifty when she wrote it. A few years earlier, in 1940, the debut novel, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, of another woman, made an equally big impact, yet its author, Carson McCullers, was less than half the age of Smith. This book follows the lives of a handful of people in a small Southern mill town near the end of the Great Depression, over the course of a year or so, yet, despite having many wonderful moments and insights, the age of its author shows through, as well as the datedness of quite a bit of its text and approach. Neither of these problems dog Smith’s book, and these are among the things that deny The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter its place alongside A Tree Grows In Brooklyn as a great novel. That said, there are arguments that can be made for The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter as an excellent, or near-great, novel.
Let me outline the plot of the book first, then go into greater detail on the book’s themes, virtues, and flaws:
The three-part book, subdivided into many chapters, opens with a description of two deaf-mutes who share an apartment in the town. They are a large Greek, Spiros Antonapoulus, a candymaker who works in his cousin’s shop, who also has mental problems, and John Singer, a silver jewelry engraver, of unknown origin, who is the smarter partner, and looks after his friend. They have been through trials and tribulations for a decade, but mostly they keep to themselves and are rarely noticed in town. When Spiros gets sick it takes a while for him to recover, and when he does he’s even more mentally unstable and violent than he had been before- a fact which cost him and Singer the friendship of other deaf-mutes. Eventually Spiros’s cousin (with the Americanized name Charles Parker) commits him to an asylum, which break’s Singer’s heart. Although it is never directly stated in the novel, for its time and setting, there are manifest homoerotic undercurrents that seem to populate the two deaf-mute characters’ relationship- furtive glances, notice of body parts, etc. With his friend gone, Singer moves into the Kelly family’s boardinghouse.
We then are introduced to Biff Brannon, owner of the New York Café, where Singer eats all his daily meals. We also meet the ever-drunken Jake Blount, a socialist activist drifter, who pals up to Singer, then has a fit in the alleyway outside after Singer leaves him. Cops arrest Jake, but Singer, on his return, offers to sober him up for the night, at his apartment. We then meet teenaged tomboy Mick Kelly, (often mistaken as the de facto McCullers persona- all the characters are, of course!) a music-lover, of the boardinghouse clan, and her younger brothers Bubber and Ralph. Jake gets a job at a local carnival and his pro-union ideas get him into arguments. The last of the four main characters we meet, who will eventually become fascinated and friends with the mute Singer, is the town’s lone black doctor, Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, whose daughter Portia works for the Kellys. He has dreams of a Civil Rights movement a generation before the real thing, and likes Singer because one night Singer lit his cigaret for him, the lone white courtesy ever extended to him in his life. Copeland, Biff, Jake, and Mick, all soon begin spending friendly evenings with Singer, although never together, always alone with Singer- in whom they imbue a near infinite compassion and understanding, although he, in actuality, understands and cares little for their problems- for they all dislike and/or distrust each other for reasons plain and obscure.
Part Two starts off detailing Mick’s affections for the local Jewish boy, Harry Minowitz, two years older, but smaller than her. Harry hates Hitler and the Nazis, and by extension all Germans, but Mick does not, as she is moved when she first hears a Beethoven piece. Biff’s wife, Alice, falls ill, and dies after surgery. He is not greatly saddened for their marriage was stale. Her funeral is attended by her divorced sister Lucile Wilson and her daughter Baby. Dr. Copeland’s son, Willie, gets in a fight at a bar, and is jailed for manslaughter, and the doctor discovers that he has consumption. Yet, he remains aloof from his family. Jake, meanwhile, tries to explain Karl Marx to Singer. Bubber Kelly accidentally shoots Baby Wilson with a BB gun, and is ostracized as a baby-killer by his peers, then runs away. Dr. Copeland throws a Christmas party where he explains the virtues of Karl Marx, but worries that they will not heed his words. Singer then visits Spiros at the asylum, after months of writing to him, even though Spiros is illiterate. When Baby recovers from the shooting, Biff finds himself wishing he had been a father- to Baby and Mick Kelly, whom he also finds sexually attractive, as she indulges her love of music, and takes up songwriting. She then plots with Harry to assassinate Hitler. The two get into a wrestling match, then stop, and feel great sexual attraction that neither acts upon. Dr. Copeland learns from Portia that Willie was abused by prison guards, who locked him in a cold room, where his feet froze to gangrene, and had to be cut off. Dr. Coplend tries to see a white judge he knows, to protest the treatment, but a sheriff beats and jails him. Mick and Harry, however, go swimming, then have sex, in one of the most briefly and coyly written sex passages ever. Harry worries over their ‘act’ and decides to leave town, look for work, but says he’ll write. Jake meets a man he had previously challenged over religion, named Simms, and teases the man’s beliefs. He then learns from Singer, about poor Willie, and goes over to Portia’s home. Willie refuses a white man’s help, thinking only worse can come of it, and Dr. Copeland, also recovering there, and he argue over Marxism, and part in anger. Mick then takes a job at Woolworth’s five and ten store, with Singer’s approval, which she seeks. Singer goes to visit Spiros, who has died, without his knowledge. The next day Singer suicides with a gunshot to his chest. This, more than any prior revelations, suggests that there was more than just friendship between the two deaf-mutes, for Singer, to this point, seems the most well-balanced and mature character in the book.
Part Three is set on a single day, a few days after Singer’s suicide, which leaves the others puzzled, for they do not know why it happened, nor that Singer was even visiting Spiros, whom they barely recall, as his excursions from town mystified them, adding to his mythic stature in the town. Dr. Copeland’s consumption worsens, and he is sent off to the family farm to be taken care of. He feels he is a failure in life, and is a beaten man. Jake, meanwhile, is angered over the suicide, that he would spend a year confiding in a man now dead. He wants to make up with Dr. Copeland, but, as the doctor has left town, he is frustrated again, and decides to also leave town, on a train- he will drink himself and his small nobilities into oblivion, all the while plotting an Socialist future that will never come. Mick sees better things ahead, despite her lost love, stunted artistry, probable wage slavery doom, budding alcoholism, forced- or accepted- ‘normality’, and the death of Singer, yet she resents her job at Woolworth’s, but hopes to save up for a piano to pursue a musical career. Biff Brannon, meanwhile, keeps on keeping on, in his own reality-proof fantasy world, at the New York Café, concerned only with work and his customers, and, after a night shift, has a small vision, before preparing for the morning patrons and sun.
Overall the novel is a good one, a very good one, and compared to
today’s fiction, quite deep and complex. The evidence of this can be seen if
you look at ‘reviews’ posted by mainly young people and teenagers on such
review sites as Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Inevitably, the book
is criticized because no forced climax is reached- it is too slice of life for
the modern semi-literate reader. In fact, one reader, whose comment I read,
actively condemned the book for not following what he described as a typical
novel’s formula. O, the agony and the irony!
As for the writing, save for the last few pages of Biff’s epiphany, there is not too much conscious, nor even unconscious, poetry in McCullers’ prose. And it is not really poetic, even in the prose poetic sense. Not that this is bad, for the prose is very straightforward and unadorned, although not ‘spare’- an overused adjective that few really grasp. Other overused terms that are inappropriate for this book is that it is populated by character ‘grotesques’, along the lines of William Faulkner’s characters, or those of Flannery O’Connor, and to describe the book as ‘Southern Gothic’. It certainly is not. The former term is apropos when the characters are not fully sketched out, or are, but are depicted as shallow or not quite real. The characters in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, are properly grotesques, but not McCullers’ characters. They are too well sketched and shaded. And, although the book is set in the South, in a town and state unnamed, the term Gothic implies wooden characters, dark mysteries, and easily seen plot twists, as well as foreshadows of surrealism. This book is not that, and has far more in common with a book like A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, than it does with Faulkner, Eudora Welty, or O’Connor. Both A Tree Grows In Brooklyn and The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter are realist social novels more akin to works by Upton Sinclair or John Steinbeck. Even Joseph Conrad’s books have more truck with this novel. Lastly, this story is definitely not a ‘tragedy’, for that requires a great or sympathetic character whose demise or fall is avoidable and/or not predictable. All of the characters within this tale are not great, and all but, perhaps, Mick, are unsympathetic, yet we can see their denouements coming as surely as one can see Othello’s far grander fall.
And it is this point of view, rather than the straightforward prose, that is the novel’s greatest strength, for all of its ‘protagonists’ are underdogs, and are left with various ways to cope with their socially assigned life failures. Singer, the mute (and possible Jew and homosexual) chooses death. Black Dr. Copeland cannot escape death in these times. Jake faces failure, violence, and addiction. Biff chooses delusion, while Mick seems the eternal optimist, yet, in a sense, is as deluded as Biff. So, it is not a surprise that these oddball characters do not live out a predictable narrative trope. Where one might expect crescendos and climaxes, one gets, instead, the obscure and the over-meditated little moments, although none of the characters has the requisite ‘soul’ to poesize it to its greatest nature. Much is muted in these characters’ lives. Some from without, but much from within.
Yet, despite the book’s title, loneliness is not the overwhelming emotional tenor of the tale, as most critics assume- frustration and unfairness are, especially of a sexual nature, for without them most loneliness is impossible. There are the obvious examples of this- the treatment of Dr. Copeland and Willie, for their race, and the ill treatment of Spiros, in the asylum, but there is also Mick’s and Harry’s inability to overcome their insecurities and biases and find true love, Biff’s inability to really feel anything deeply, and after his wife’s death ends his loveless marriage, his budding transvestism and possibly pedophilic attraction to Mick, as well his desire for fathering children, but not acting on his sexual attraction to his dead wife’s sister nor Mick, and the inability for any of the others to see that the idealized Singer is in great despair and pain, having lost his best friend, and probable lover, for they are too fascinated with him as if he were some odd and/or exotic zoo specimen, rather than a real human being. Even Mick’s attraction (possibly sexual) to Singer borders more on the mystic than on the genuine. None of the characters’, in fact, are able to relate to each other or themselves. Dr. Copeland looks down upon his children, and the other Negroes, as not being human enough to claim their place in life. Jake despises almost everyone but Singer.
Singer, in fact, becomes an almost Messianic figure of salvation and hope to the other four protagonists, even as he makes a saint out of the ignorant and nasty Spiros. He becomes what keeps the other four characters going (stitching their purpose like a Singer sewing machine?), just as Spiros is what keeps him going. Spiros is, despite the others’ lack of knowledge, the lynchpin for them all, and the story, yet he is an utter idiot. His very deaf-mute status allows them to imbue all sorts of things into the rather simple man- one who cannot even emotionally cope with the inevitable death of a friend (or lover), as do the rest of the townsfolk, who see him as one of them- the Jews think he’s a Jew, a Turk thinks he’s a Turk, etc. Yet he’s no hero, and neither are any of the other characters. Some critics have pointed to heroism as a theme of the book, but this is defining something by its minimal possible meaning. Merely showing up to life and not complaining is not heroic. The basic problem with each character is that they internalize too much, even the drunken Jake, who can be bawdy, but is ill at ease with true expression. This is most obvious in the characters’ sexual frustrations and ambiguities. Were Singer and Spiros lovers? His apotheosizing of him, and frustrations and pent up energies seem to indicate so. Mick and Harry also have a brief union, only to quickly repel each other. Then there’s Mick’s odd attraction to Singer- is it sexual? Certainly she is an object of sexual desire by Biff, whose possible pedophilia goes hand in hand with his latent transvestism, yet whose sense of ethics allows him to merely act coldly toward the girl (so not to tempt himself, although she naïvely believes he is angry at her over a long ago incident of shoplifting). Yet, his stifled desire for her seems predicated on the fact that she is untouchable, as a child, even though, without knowing she has lost her virginity to Harry, he later turns warms to her, as she starts acting more womanly than child-like, thereby meaning he has lost sexual interest in her. This lack of basic emotional communication and connection is at the heart of the novel. In fact, of all the major characters, only Harry Minowitz and Biff Brannon seem to care the slightest about what’s going on in the outer world- the stormclouds of World War Two. Yes, the doctor and Jake are Socialists, but their motivations are based more in their own self-satisfactions within a group, rather than true inquiry.
Yet, despite all these good qualities, the novel is not without flaws. The most obvious one is that, despite McCullers’ open-minded and liberal sensibilities regarding race, hers is still a viewpoint immured in its time, less of a blacks are equals tone than a pity the poor blacks tone. This is made especially clear with Dr. Copeland, who is portrayed, in some ways, as an intellectual superman of his race, part of the old ‘Talented Tenth’, who is frustrated at how many blacks, especially his children, accept their roles as subservient shufflers and falsely smiling yes-men. Yet, even he is not immune to McCullers’ backhanded putdowns, as, early on, this doctor, is shown reading the works of the philosopher Spinoza, yet not really able to fully understand it- as if a man who can understand human biology would really struggle with such. The fact that McCullers portrays the majority of her black characters this way shows a passive racism. Now, this would not be a major flaw in the book were one of the main foci NOT race relations, but it is, and this dates the book in ways A Tree Grows In Brooklyn does not suffer from. Many critics, in fact, have lauded McCullers for her pre-Civil Rights Era racial sensitivity, and foreshadowing of the evils of McCarthyism and anti-Civil Rights demagogues, but when one gets beyond Dr. Copeland himself, the eternal exception to her rule, one sees that McCullers’ view of blacks is sadly mired in its day- a sort of old style racial noblesse oblige. Another flaw is excess description, at times. Because her writing is not that poetic, such excess does not serve as a ‘breather’ from the narrative, and often does not serve the narrative in any substantive way, merely acting as filler. Here’s an example: ‘This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings.’ Is the second sentence really necessary to qualify the first? Compare that with this passage, from the last few pages of the book, and the difference is stark: ‘Then suddenly he felt a quickening in him. His heart turned and he leaned his back against the counter for support. For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who- one word- love. His soul expanded. But for a moment only.’
Yet, despite the fact that the book does not follow many conventional narrative tropes, it does follow a standard tripartite structure, and uses a standard third person omniscient voice. McCullers, herself, said that the book’s structure was that of a fugue- where voices act antiphonally: ‘This book is planned according to a definite and balanced design. The form is contrapuntal throughout. Like a voice in a fugue each one of the main characters is an entirety in himself--but his personality takes on a new richness when contrasted and woven in with the other characters in the book.’ In part one the characters, settings, and major themes are laid out. In part two each character’s inner lives and failings are revealed, and the climax- Singer’s suicide- occurs at the end of this section. And in part three the likely fates of the characters are limned.
This fatality is one of the ways this book most differs, negatively, from A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. That novel, laced with as much oppression and despair, ends on an up note (not the reason it’s better) that is hopeful. Francie Nolan has a chance, a good chance, to surmount her past, even though, in many ways, her success was far less likely and less predictable than Mick’s, who seems doomed. Both books are slices of life, portraits of bygone Americas in different places and times, but Betty Smith’s Brooklyn seems far more vivid and real than Carson McCullers’ South because it is more tightly drawn, less dated- thus more realistic, and more poetically mnemonically rendered. The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter also is a bit too long and too unfocused, losing its narrative thrust by going off tangent to things not vital to the main characters’ tales, and were some of its excesses trimmed, it could pack more punch in just seventy-five to eighty percent of its length (356 pages). Still, this is, in a sense, nitpicking, and shows how far American literature has fallen because compared to what is routinely published nowadays this novel, despite its flaws, is a near-great book, every bit deserving of its niche in the canon.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Monsters & Critics website.]
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