I nearly didn’t read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers because it is set during my least favourite time for story-telling; the late 1930’s. Books set during the Depression obviously reflect the hardships of the time, and their characters often endure sad, joyless struggles. However, on the strength of reading The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers years ago, I sighed a big sigh, and got on with it.
Cue an eye roll over my melodramatics, because I was clearly experiencing a ‘First World Modern-Age Problem’.
The characters in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter lived through tragedies in their day to day lives, yet they mostly kept getting up each morning and living another day in their poverty stricken, lonely, unsatisfying lives. (The ‘mostly’ in my last sentence is significant. Not all of the characters in this story were able to sustain the will to live throughout their trials).
Carson McCullers was 23 years old when she wrote her first book, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Stop and think about this age for a moment. She was 23 years old.
What I want to know is, how did a 23 year old know that we all need someone to hear us? How did she know, at an age when most of us these days are still living as ‘kidults’ in our parent’s homes, that a middle aged man might not love his wife anymore, is bored with the ongoing pettiness and irritations of his marriage, and wouldn’t be devastated by his wife’s death? How did she know that this same middle-aged man might be fascinated by a very young teenage girl up until the time the girl becomes a young woman – bearing in mind that The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published 15 years before Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita? And how did she know that a father might feel dissatisfied by his children’s lack of interest in the fight for his strongest beliefs, when 23 year olds these days are usually just starting out in their first job and are madly spending their disposable income on having a good time? How did Carson McCullers know at the age of 23, that a person can die of loneliness?
And don’t even get me started on how well Carson McCullers wrote at the age of 23. Her characters are alive, their language is distinctive and they behave in the only way they possibly could. They are all inevitable, as was their story.
The characters in this novel are all loosely joined by their connection to a deaf-mute man named John Singer. Singer shares a room with his dearest friend, another deaf-mute man. They live in a small town in Georgia in the American South until his room mate, who is showing signs of mental illness, is sent away to an asylum. Singer desperately misses his friend.
Soon after, the other characters individually gravitate to Singer for companionship. The only thing the other characters have in common is the desire to be heard and understood by someone, and in Singer, they believe they have found this. What Singer thinks about the confidences of the other characters is barely touched on, although when he visits his friend in the asylum, he comments on how strange the things that other characters tell him are. The friend who is the receptacle for Singer’s outpourings is the only character in the whole story who doesn’t seem to feel the need to be heard by anyone.
The times are harsh. Most of the characters live from hand-to-mouth and for the black people, who endure the lowest wages, servitude to white people, segregation and atrocities which devastate them, times are worst of all.
Each of the characters endure life-changing events during the telling of the story.
Biff is a middle-aged man whose wife dies early in the book. Although she and Biff shared the workload of their family business, they were never soulmates. They were unhappily married and her death had very little impact on Biff emotionally. Biff desperately wanted children and often told Singer that he enjoyed imagining that another character, Mick, was his daughter.
Mick is a strong character, a young girl who grows up during the course of the novel. She is a tomboy who ultimately takes on the responsibility of helping her family financially, even though she knows this will bring on the end of her childhood and of her dreams of becoming a musician. Mick tells Singer ( a deaf-mute) about the music she loves, and of her dreams to compose music.
Another character, Doctor Copeland, has been alienated from his family for years after physically abusing his wife. Dr Copeland is disappointed by his sons and by his black community, who will not fight for rights for their race under his leadership. Experience has taught those who he wants to lead that it is safer for them to slide under the radar, because tragedies have and will befall them when they have stuck their necks out.
The last major character is Mr Blount, an alcoholic blow-in to town. Blount is a ‘Red’ who believes in equality, although he believes that if black men were gelded, the divide between rich and poor would be minimised as a source of workers for the rich would be eliminated. Some animals are clearly more equal than other animals.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a remarkable book, and not just because a 23 year old wrote it.