In 1940, a novel was published that would skyrocket on the best-seller's list and eventually find itself on many "best of" lists including TIME Magazine's TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. Who would have expected that a story that could grip a nation like that would come from the pen of a 23 year old woman living in Charlotte, NC. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the debut novel of Carson McCullers who would go on to create other works that gave a voice to the outcasts and misfits in the American south.
John Singer is a deaf/mute living in a small Georgia mill town in the 1930s. He used to live with a friend and fellow deaf/mute named Spiros Antonapoulos until he was institutionalized. Singer then rents a room from the Kelly family which brings him into contact with new acquaintances. There's young Mick Kelly, a tomboy on the verge of womanhood who craves music and the luxury of a piano. Jake Blount, an alcoholic and labor agitator. Biff Brannon who owns a local diner and has a front row seat to the lives of the various townspeople. And Dr. Benedict Copeland, an African American physician whose idealism puts him at odds with his family. Each person comes to see Singer as a confidant who listens to and understands their deepest problems. But will they realize that Singer has problems of his own and a desire to be understood as well?
My Review (Caution - Spoilers):
I have to say that I find it incredible that a story with this much depth and realism came from someone so young. It certainly shows what an observant and understanding person McCullers must have been. The way she captures the brutal reality of the Depression era south is at once beautiful and sad.
Loneliness is definitely the main theme here (though prejudice, racism, and poverty also play their part). There is something in the life of each character that puts a barrier between them and the outside world. Singer has a physical disability, Mick lives in poverty, Jake is drowning in alcohol, Biff works all of the time, and Dr. Copeland is a black man in a white man's world. None of them have anyone to whom they can really bare their soul. But each of Singer's acquaintances believes him to be the one person in the world they can talk to. He is the one person who "listens" to what they have to say without judgement, advice, or ridicule. Nothing but pure understanding. But even they do not see the man inside, and they don't realize that he is crying out for the same understanding and finding none.
This is not a "fun" novel by any stretch of the imagination. It has the brutality and grotesqueness of a Flannery O'Connor story without the grace and redemption. None of the characters are able to break out of their loneliness and realize their dreams. And Singer's suicide is one big punch in the gut that is certainly capable of bringing one to tears. Like the other characters, I had grown emotionally attached to him and found his death to be shattering.
I would not say that this is a book for everyone, nor would I say that it is one I "enjoyed". But it is certainly a classic of American literature and deserves the high praise it has received. If you enjoy novels in the Southern Gothic tradition, or even just sad books, I suggest you give this one a try.
The book was made into a 1968 film starring Alan Arkin, Sondra Locke, and Cicely Tyson. It is a good adaptation, though perhaps it has a somewhat happier ending for some of the characters. Worth watching, with or without reading the book.