Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 04 Nov 2017

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers' first novel, published when she was just twenty three, is a jewel of a book that showcases the author’s seemingly effortless prose style and her capacity for creating truly memorable, three-dimensional characters.

Published in 1940 and situated in deep-south America, it’s inevitable that the setting and themes of the book will be seen, to some extent, as autobiographical and there would be some truth in that assumption. The town she creates for her novel has clear echoes of her own home town, Columbus:

"The town was a fairly large one. On the main street there were several blocks of two- and three-story shops and business offices. But the largest buildings in the town were the factories, which employed a large percentage of the population. These cotton mills were big and flourishing and most of the workers in the town were very poor. Often in the faces along the streets there was the desperate look of hunger and of loneliness."

In this town disappointed people live out disappointing lives. We see the world through the eyes of four characters who find themselves drawn unaccountably to confide in the deaf-mute, John Singer who takes on for them a sort of mystical significance.

Teen girl, Mick Kelly, almost certainly a cipher for McCullers herself, is a puzzled and frustrated adolescent  "a gangling, towheaded youngster, a girl of about twelve."  Mick is beginning to find herself and to wrangle with her desires and her emotions. She craves escape from her small town life through the music she desperately wants to listen to and create for herself. Jake Blount is an unpredictable and frequently dissolute drunk with a desire to reveal to everyone the truth of capitalist exploitation – a would-be union organiser who finds it impossible to master his aggression and his anger. Black doctor, Benedict Copeland shares many of Blount’s political ideals but has such a different temperament that the two men could never come together. Copeland preaches Marxism and black liberation but is slowly dying of TB and remains cold and distant from his family. Finally, Biff Brannon owns the local café and is the most consistently thoughtful of those who seek out Singer’s time and wisdom.

Slowly the ‘legend’ of John Singer and his capacity to listen grows:

"During the moonlit January nights Singer continued to walk about the streets of the town each evening when he was not engaged. The rumors about him grew bolder. An old Negro woman told hundreds of people that he knew the ways of spirits come back from the dead. A certain piece-worker claimed that he had worked with the mute at another mill somewhere else in the state -- and the tales he told were unique. The rich thought that he was rich and the poor considered him a poor man like themselves. And as there was no way to disprove these rumors they grew marvelous and very real. Each man described the mute as he wished him to be."

But Singer himself is just as emotionally trapped as his four visitors - but has no way of sharing it. His best friend, constant companion and emotional centre, another deaf mute called Spiros Antonapoulous, has been committed to a mental asylum and is lost to him. And when Spiros dies, Singer cannot bear the loss and commits suicide.

Bitter and distressed by this tragedy, Singer’s regular visitors have to come to terms with the loss of their home-made God.

McCullers’ achievement is not only the creation of a true, authentic work of imaginative fiction but her astonishing maturity. For a young writer to be able to convincingly evoke not just the frustrations and disappointments of middle aged men but to show a genuine understanding and empathy for the issues of black oppression and the battle for civil rights is remarkable.

But above all else I was completely enraptured by the quality of her prose writing – reading writing of this quality is simply a privilege.


Terry Potter

November 2017