Carson McCullers attended my high school, so I have always felt an odd connection with her and her work. I thoroughly enjoyed her novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter mostly because I spent the whole time imagining where in town the stories might have taken place.
After analyzing the novel for my English class, I found some seriously secular themes that were not really present in any of the SparkNotes or other book reviews that I read. So, here you go. My analysis of McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
John Singer, in Carson McCullers’s novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is a character of great irony, whose existence and impact on others reveals the need that people have to place their faith in any kind of god. Four different characters who are all separate from each other view Mr. Singer as a perfect person who understands them completely. They draw upon him for their own personal strength; but when Spiros Antonapoulus dies, who is the source of Singer’s own strength, Singer takes his own life. In the aftermath of his suicide, his four followers cope in their own way, their means revealing the depth and level of perseverance of their character. Singer and his followers combine to illustrate the willingness of man to place his faith in anything at all, for the sake of his own sanity.
John Singer is a deaf-mute who befriends Spiros Antonapoulus, another deaf-mute. They become extremely close friends over the next ten years until Antonapoulus is committed to an insane asylum. Singer is devastated and he moves into a local boarding house owned by the Kelly family. This is where Mick Kelly, a teenage girl, is introduced to the fabulous Mr. Singer.
Mick is an awkward girl who has fallen in love with classical music. She stays after school to play the piano in the gym and she dreams of a career in music someday: “The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen… Now that it was over there was only her heart beating like a rabbit and this terrible hurt” (McCullers 119). When Singer buys a radio for everyone in the house, Mick believes that this is a sign that he understands her and appreciates her dream. In reality though, he is deaf, so he physically cannot. Mick writes down every one of Singer’s opinions every time after they spend time together. She “want[s] to follow him everywhere” because she feels that he is an invaluable entity in her life because she is surrounded by so many people who do not understand her or her ambitions (McCullers 306).
Biff Brannon is the owner of the local New York Café, where Singer eats all of his meals. His wife dies suddenly of cancer and he is left alone with his restaurant. He feels a strange, almost pedophilic affinity for Mick Kelly, but he maintains his appropriate distance. It is almost as if he envies the admiration that Mick has for Singer so he watches the mute closely and feels connected with him through their contact with Mick and also the many hours they spend together in the restaurant.
Another one of Singer’s followers is Jake Blount, an outsider in town who is always drunkenly preaching the blessings of Communism. One night Jake is arrested for his drunkenness and Singer volunteers to bring him to his apartment until he is well. The two begin a close relationship in which they play chess together. Blount says to Singer at one point: “‘you’re the only one in this town who catches what I mean’” (McCullers 23). When they play chess together, Blount talks to Singer, rather than with him, and he wrongly perceives the mute’s silence as quiet introspection and agreement.
Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland is a black man who dreams of starting a civil rights movement in this southern mill town, but the local community does not understand his motivation. One evening at a gathering at the Kelly house, Singer lights a cigarette for Dr. Copeland, who is moved by this seemingly insignificant gesture, as it had been the only time that a white person had ever been nice or courteous to him. He immediately assumes that Singer is a great supporter of his vision, and so Copeland begins to spend lots of time with him and develops great admiration for Singer and his sympathetic ear. He sees his relationship with Singer as an incredibly important connection for his civil rights cause, since his family does not support him: “‘the most fatal thing a man can do is try to stand alone’”(McCullers 302). Copeland sees Singer as the support from the white race that he needs to further his cause in the town.
The irony of all these relationships is that their values are purely the products of the characters’ imaginations. The four see Singer as the man that they need him to be: “the Jews think he’s a Jew, a Turk thinks he’s a Turk, etc.” (Schneider). In reality, he is none of these things. Singer is “what keeps the other four characters going” and they view him almost as a god (Schneider). Another irony is that Singer gets his own strength from another source: the violent, crude, illiterate Antonapoulus. Singer writes letters to him in the asylum even though he cannot read them and no one can read them to him. It is a situation that is parallel to the one between Singer and the other four. When Antonapoulus dies, Singer loses the force that had driven his life, so naturally his death follows.
The fact that the lives of so many people rest on such an unstable character as Antonapoulus speaks for McCullers’s opinion on man’s psychological need for a source of faith, regardless of the rational evidence supporting it. Each of the four characters are emotionally deficient in some way. They see Singer as the all-understanding god that they had been looking for. But Singer is none of the things his friends wish him to be, and his drawing of faith from an imperfect source makes him just like his friends, who are unable “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” (Schneider). Everyone else simply uses Singer for the reassurance he gives them instead of paying attention to him. It seems that if they had taken more notice in Singer’s human struggles, then he would not have felt so alone in his internal isolation and therefore felt the need to take his life when Antonapoulus dies.
When Singer kills himself, three of his four friends begin descents toward their demises, mirroring Singer’s own reaction to the death of his godlike figure. Mick is the one character who, instead of letting Singer’s death crush her, continues her pursuit of her musical dream, which might be a comment by McCullers about the persistence of the progressive youth generation in the face of adversity in comparison to the more traditional generations of the past. This is also McCullers’s way of posing an ultimatum to her readers: either face the source of suffering alone as people are meant to do, or rely on the crutch of a faith that in reality will not solve any earthly problems. Either way, one will ultimately be haunted by the everyday troubles that plague mankind.