The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is about the deaf-mute, silverware engraver, Mr. John Singer who, after losing his only friend to an institution, finds himself in the company of four lonely strangers: an adolescent girl who dreams of becoming a successful pianist, a jack of all trades who hates the capitalist system, a colored doctor who believes that his race must uplift themselves, and a cafe owner who doesn’t say much, but has longings of his own.
Set in 1930s Georgia, less than a century after the emancipation proclamation and in the beginning of WWII, the story touches on themes that depict the southern landscape at that time such as poverty and injustice and just the general desolation of the place.
The problem in the story is that each character struggles to deal with the loneliness brought about by their pursuit of their dreams. And in John Singer, the strangers thought they found a friend who believes in them, not knowing that the deaf-mute, who can’t relate to them, has longings of his own.
I like this novel because it’s easy to read—-McCullers has no grand ideas, but the way she describes the secrets and desires of her characters are just too precious without being sentimental.
I imagine the writer following each character onto his own darkness and just letting him do all the moving and thinking. There’s freedom in the writing here—-the author poured everything she got on the page. Her youth was her advantage.
But what drives the imagination is the understanding, and that’s what impressed me most about McCullers. She understands loneliness. She knows lonely people in their most unguarded moments that there’s no other way for her to tell their stories, their longings, but with compassion and honesty. One would think she was describing her very own family or friend. Or her lonely twenty-something self.
Mick Kelly, the aspiring musician, is my favorite, she who goes into the night with only music in her head. And if I were her, I’d follow John Singer too. Dreamers feel safer with people who don’t criticize or judge quickly.
She has this sad scene with her father, Mr. Kelly, who summons her one night for no reason. She was only twelve years old and was in a hurry to go to her secret place, but because her father was lonely too, she stayed with him for a while, just letting him cry in the comfort of her presence.
My god, I thought. How does one get to be so lonely? How can one suffer so much from isolation?
Jake Blount, the jack of all trades, turns to alcohol to deal with his loneliness. Biff Brannon, the cafe owner, opens his restaurant until the late hours of the morning. Dr. Copeland treats his patients all day and night. John Singer walks all around town.
But Mick, who is not too young but not too old, what can she do, aside from smoking and dreaming?
McCullers doesn’t blame anyone for her characters’ sufferings. She knows not to judge her race when Willie, Dr. Copeland’s son, gets into trouble. She simply told things as they are, but with one exception: she gave each character ideals and passions that we would normally not see among the loners in us.
If McCullers had any message, it’s that the world is too real and too common for our dreams and loves. There are not enough dreamers and lovers to accompany us in the dark.