THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER by Carson McCullers (First published, 1940)
This has to be one of the best titles of all time and is widely regarded as one the great American novels.
It is certainly a remarkable achievement especially considering it is the debut work of a writer who was just 23 years old when it was first published.
Full of worldly wisdom and compassion for life’s underdogs, it suggests that Carson McCullers was writing from her own bitter experiences.
Images of the author show a serious, forlorn woman so it comes as no surprise to learn that she suffered from periods of depression and alcoholism. These conditions can also be found in the owners of the lonely hearts in this story.
The main character is a deaf mute John Singer of whom we learn relatively little other than his best friend (also deaf and dumb) has gone off the rails and is confined to an asylum. To others, Singer’s silence conveys “peace, wisdom, patience and sorrow” and he is even regarded as a “home-made God”. They seek him out as they might a spiritual leader, knowing that he will ‘listen’ (by lip-reading) and never judge or contradict.
The people drawn to him are Mick Kelly, a tomboy who dreams of becoming a classical pianist; Jake Blount, a bolshie boozer who has read one too many books; Biff Brannon, a soon to be widower who owns a diner and Dr. Copeland, a politically committed black physician.
All have good reasons to be frustrated, disillusioned and otherwise stuck in their lives and draw comfort from their one way conversations with Singer. At one point Blount asks “When a person knows and can’t make others understand, what does he do?”, a question that you feel Singer has more right to pose.
McCullers empathy for these misfits is eloquently evoked in the first half of the novel but the lack of a discernible plot means that the story drifts and lacks momentum.
Perhaps this is inevitable given that these lost souls are doomed to seek but never find a real sense of closure in their troubled lives. One might justifiably conclude that the author shares Dr. Copeland’s bleak perspective on the human condition: “Our mission is to walk with strength and dignity through the days of our humiliation”.