The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: Summary, Characters, Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson examines Carson McCullers' 1940 debut novel, 'The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.' It provides a summary of McCullers' complex plot, and explores the major characters and themes, as well as the novel's iconic status in the genre of Southern Literature.

Carson McCullers
Carson McCullers

Lesson Overview: The Lonely Hearts Club

Carson McCullers was just 23 when she published her debut novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. An important novel in American literature, it is a lamentation of the loneliness, isolation, and hopelessness that characterized so many American lives in the war-ravaged twentieth century.

McCullers' novel tells the story of four seemingly incompatible people living in rural 1930s Georgia, joined together by their mutual friendship with John Singer, in whom they find a desperately-needed confidant and touchstone.

Mick Kelly is the youngest of the cast of characters, a tomboy with a passion for music, who dreams of a better life outside the confines of the boardinghouse her parents own, and where John Singer lives.

In addition to Mick, there are Biff Brannon, the owner of the New York Café, where John eats most of his meals and Jake Blount, a violent alcoholic who believes only socialism can lift the nation from the throes of The Great Depression and the economic injustices of capitalism.

Finally, there is Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, an African-American physician seeking to make a better life for himself, his family, and his people, in a Southern community ravaged by racial discrimination.

Each character struggles to find self-fulfillment and human connection in a society antagonistic to them. McCullers' novel centers on the plight of the powerless and forgotten, whether through gender, class, sexual or racial oppression. McCullers rejected the label of 'Southern Gothic' and aligned herself with the 19th century Russian Realists, who were concerned with the 'peasant classes.'

Key Themes: The Snare of Self and Society

To Hear and To Be Heard: It is no coincidence that the four are drawn to John Singer, trusting him with all their secrets and finding solace in his company. John is both deaf and mute, communicating primarily through writing and improvised signs.

Their desperation to confide in John, a man who can neither wholly understand them or return their efforts in kind, reflects a major concern of postmodernism, an aesthetic movement which doubts that authentic communication is possible, that humans can ever really understand anyone else or be understood in return.

Hope and Despair: Another theme is the frustrated yearning for a better life. Mick Kelly is the fourth child of six from an impoverished family, and longs for something more. She seeks out neighbors' open windows in the hopes of hearing classical music pour from their radios, and tries unsuccessfully to construct the violin her family can't afford to buy.

When her younger brother gets into trouble, Mick is forced to quit school and take a job at a local department store. Slowly, her dreams begin to fade, and the life of labor, compromise, and disappointment, which shows on the haggard faces of her parents, seems to descend upon her own.

Jake Blount also dreams of a better life, but his voracious socialism makes him a laughingstock and outcast from the community. Unable to hold any job for long, due to his alcoholism and aggression, Jake lives an impoverished and itinerant life, frustrated by the apathy of those around him, who disregard and ridicule his beliefs.

Likewise, Dr. Copeland envisions a more just world. Appalled by the racism scarring the Deep South in which he was born and raised, he seeks to make a better life for his family and community. But his hopes are quickly dashed when his son, Willie, is convicted of attempted manslaughter after a fight. In prison, Willie endures cruel and unjust treatment, and when his father tries to appeal to the judge for help, he is brutally beaten by a racist sheriff.

Even Biff Brannon, the most seemingly well-adjusted of the cast of characters, is not immune to the frustrations of regret and disappointment. When Biff's wife, Alice, dies early in the novel, his reaction seems callous, until it becomes apparent that a once deeply loving marriage had turned in later years to bitterness and animosity.

Individuality, Connection, and Isolation: While the four find in John Singer a confidant, John himself remains isolated not only by his disability and the silence that surrounds him, but also in his loneliness. For more than a decade, John had lived with Spiros Antonapoulos, a fellow deaf-mute who at the beginning of the novel falls ill and is sent to an insane asylum in Chicago.

The loss of Spiros prompts John to move into the boardinghouse, but he continues to write to his friend and miss him profoundly. When John learns that Spiros has died, he shoots himself in the heart. The implication, of course, is that John and Spiros were lovers in a time and place where same-sex relationships were not only condemned, but could incite violence or even murder.

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