The Heart is a Lonely Hunter Review; By Carson McCullers

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There’s a lot of good and bad stories that could only be told via novelisation. It’s often believed that reading doesn’t just make a person smarter but also more empathetic, more nuanced, open to new ideas- essentially meaning that reading literally makes you a better person.

I know a lot of you might be surprised by this, but Millenials and the younger generation tend to read a lot more than their older equivalent. In fact more people read today than ever before. The books in question are probably your typical Young Adult fiction which essentially acts as a gateway to classic literature.

It’s the same as it was fifty or seventy years ago in which a young kid would get into literature by reading adventure stories such as Treasure Island or mystery/detective novels such as Sherlock Holmes. These books would act as a gateway to engage readers with exciting plots full of action. Then as they gradually get older they’ll read novels that rely heavier on the drama aspect of things such as Gatsby or the Sun Also Rises. By that point you could easily transition into a story that features no action but pure drama.

I think it’s vital to build yourself up to possess an interest in Drama such as the Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I don’t think people who are typically used to reading adventure or sci-fi novels would find the story at all interesting. But that being said I think the novel in question is best suited for young women looking for a coming of age story, people interested in American politics in regards to Racism and those who ascribe to the Communist manifesto.

The story follows five different characters in a small town in the Southern States of America. The main protagonist and overall influencer of the novel is John Singer (simply referred to as Mr. Singer or Singer) a deaf-mute. At the beginning of the novel we’re briefed on the very close friendship Singer has with another deaf-mute named Antanopolous.

They’d lived together for ten years and everything was going swell up until Antanopolous gets very sick for about a week and then afterword he starts to commit petty crimes for some reason. A lot of people interpret him to be mentally disabled (that’s how they also portrayed him in the movie adaptation) and although that is very likely, I myself interpreted him to have some kind of mental break down or something along those lines after getting sick.

Anyway, it isn’t long before Antanopolous gets taken away to a mental hospital leaving Singer alone. Severely lonely and heartbroken, he leaves his home and moves into a small bedroom rented by the Kelly family on the other side of town. Here he lives for the rest of the story. He eats at the New York Cafe and overtime he befriends four different people.

The first being an alcoholic drifter named Jake Blout, a twenty-nine year old who looks like he’s forty-five. He hangs about the cafe for about a week, drinking the place dry and never paying the bill. The reason that he hadn’t been kicked out is because the owner, Biff Brannon, has a soft spot for freaks and weirdos like him.

One night Jake goes on one of his crazy rants, yelling at all the customers and then he sits down beside the mute and reveals his soul. He then leaves and proceeds to fight a brick wall, rendering him unconscious. Singer takes care of him and the two of them become friends, or at least Jake considers him to be a friend.

After a while Jake gets a job remarkably easily. I mean he didn’t even have a CV or any references, he just showed up and the guy literally handed him a job. The guy literally asked “Hey, can you do stuff?” and Jakes said “Yeah” to which the employer said “You’re hired” it’s stuff like this that I personally find hard to believe. It’s the same issue I had with a Farewell to Arms, in which the protagonist has absolutely no problem with money even though he’s an unemployed deserter.

Blout is one of the more interesting characters in the book. Being an alcoholic drifter and a fervent Communist who struggles to explain his thoughts to people, the inability to communicate clearly is what makes people think he’s crazy.

That and because he is literally crazy. He left home at like twelve to go work in a factory, got super religious and even drove a nail into his hand to seem more Christ like. So a shitty home life, mixed with severe poverty and the godawful things he sees on the road has driven him to alcoholism. The inability to communicate his thoughts and dire loneliness has drove him to madness.

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There’s two Communists in the book, Jake and Dr. Copeland. The latter character is a black doctor- the only doctor for the black community. Unlike most of the black people in town he’s very well educated and well read, so there exists a kind of intellectual gap between him and the poorly educated community. He’s an ardent supporter of his people, hence why he pressured his children into pursuing careers in medicine and law.

That latter part was ultimately detrimental to the relationship he has with his children, since now only his daughter (Portia) will speak to him. I talked previously on the blog about how crucial it is for a parent to instil a sense of discipline, respect and work ethic in a child during their development- because if you don’t the kid is practically doomed to be a waster. But there’s a flip side to this; you can’t put too much pressure on a child.

See if from day one you keep pressuring your child relentlessly to work hard so that they could pursue a career you deem suitable (i.e. doctor or lawyer) then that’ll cause a lot more damage. May result in the child being overtly anxious or resentful to the parent, especially if they’re not very suitable for the career path. All this pressure will either amount to the child pursuing the career in a perpetual state of misery or breaking away from the family and becoming what the parents feared; a waster.

It’s very complicated and I’m not exactly an authority on the matter but it’s just some observations I made among the people I have met in my short lifespan. Life is all about balance and so you ought to raise your kids with that kind of mind set. Think of it this way; if you don’t sharpen and clean your sword, then it will rust and be practically useless. However if you sharpen and clean your sword too much, then it will become blunt and thus is unsuitable for use.

You need to know when to sharpen your sword and when not to sharpen your sword. Use that mentality for everything you do and you’ll have a well rounded life.

So Dr. Copeland is kind of feared/admired in the community because he’s the only doctor they have access to but every time he comes around for check ups he keeps moaning on about the Communist manifesto and how the black community ought to rise up from this severe poverty and liberate themselves. The Doctor’s biggest fear is that his community will either misunderstand his message or refuse to listen.

Copeland also befriends Singer, claiming him to be one of the only white men he’s ever met that truly understands his purpose and struggles.

For the most part the characters in the novel are compelling. Although Biff Brannon is a little weird in that unlike everyone else, he doesn’t really have a major problem or even idolises Singer the way they do. His wife dies early on and he gets over it remarkably quickly. He has this weird affection for this pre-teen girl called Mick (real name Margaret Kelly, she belongs to the family that rented the room to Singer) it’s very strange. It ranges from some weird motherly affection to borderline paedophilia.

Mick on the other hand is one of the characters that takes the book down a peg. You have these three other compelling dramas about living with a disability alongside depression, severe alcoholism and race relations. Then you have Mick with her stupid kid drama and dreary family dynamics and oH MY GOD IS IT BORING.

I’m not gonna lie, every time I turn the page to find a chapter about Mick I literally I cried out “Oh for fuck sake“. Honest to fuck I was so grateful that her final chapter was only three pages long. Not only was her story boring and mostly irrelevant, but she’s also a shitty person.

I can abide by a shitty adult because there’s usually a reason behind their terrible personality which makes them compelling- kind of like Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones. But a kid being an ass-hole isn’t compelling. That just means your empathy receptors haven’t developed and you literally can’t tell the difference between right and wrong.

Like the other characters in the book she befriends Singer, but all she really talks to him about is her love of music. Talking to a deaf man about music is about as insensitive as discussing the complexities of a double rainbow to a blind man.

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So basically the novel is about this deaf-mute who can lip read, hanging around a town and going on some very lonesome walks. All the while these random weirdos keep popping up to talk to him. Blout goes on these crazy rants about how shitty capitalism is and how the proletariat are so ignorant they’re incapable of acknowledging their oppression, Dr. Copeland talks about his struggles with Racism and educating his community, Mick talks about herself and music and Biff occasionally pops in to talk about the weather and his dead wife.

All the while reading this I was thinking to myself about lip reading. Because lip reading isn’t perfect, people can talk in such a volatile way that it’s difficult to interpret what they’re saying. So I imagined Singer watching these weirdos pour out their souls to him, all the while he’s thinking “I have no idea what you’re talking about” and then nodding politely.

To my surprise that was exactly what McCullens had meant. Singer would tolerate these people because he was severely lonely. He’d nod politely to their ramblings but he’d never talk about himself. He only ever really talked to his friend Antanopolous in small intervals during his occasional visits to the hospital. But soon he discovers that his friend had died, he gets depressed and then commits suicide.

The fallout from this death is ultimately minimal to what a reader would expect. Dr. Copeland is taken away from the town to a farm so that he can recover from the severe bronchitis he suffered from throughout the novel, Jake gets in a severe fight while trying to disperse a crowd of young black and white men from fighting- the result ends with a few men dying and Jake fleeing town, Mick transitions from being a tom boy to becoming more effeminate but it’s unclear if she became a better person- she’s ultimately traumatised because she was the one to discover Singer’s body and she’s more alone than ever. The only one that seems remotely content is Biff, who ceased to be affectionate/love Mick as she got older (again, ewww) but he too is very lonely at the end as he tends to his Cafe, alone.

There’s a movie adaptation of the novel which is both a good movie on its own and somewhat a bastardisation of the source material. The film shines in portraying Singer and his friend and creating a mostly heartfelt storyline. But it fails to do justice to most of the other characters. Namely Jake and Dr. Copeland, the former being stripped of his Communist agenda and severe personality faults while the latter is turned into a Racist.

There’s a mind set a lot of people have that believe that black people and other minorities can’t be racist. A lot of academics argue that Racism as a whole requires a systemic power influenced by a majority of the population. So seeing as how Whites are and have always been a majority in America, only whites have the influence to be deemed Racist. According to this mindset, a Black person can be considered to possess racial prejudice but they cannot be deemed racist.

It’s an interesting argument. I myself don’t buy it, because I’m an egalitarian and therefore believe that all individuals possess the same virtues and can suffer from the same vices. Anyone can be Racist in my view, to say otherwise is to forfeit a state of equality.

Making Dr. Copeland racist against White people goes against everything he stands for in the book. He’s an ardent Communist, he literally has a sit down with a young black man to explain why his hatred against white people (although justifiably motivated) is ultimately futile in the pursuit of freedom, equality and happiness. But Copeland’s story is ultimately tragic in the book and in the end he becomes somewhat more racist towards white people due to the awful injustices he faces.

In the movie he faces similar injustices but through his friendship with Singer he’s able to overcome his intense hatred. Jake on the other hand get’s drunk once in the movie and after fighting a brick wall he cleans up his act and gets a job. Then after a fight breaks out at work he ditches town.

The film doesn’t really portray his waster tendencies that well. Hell, they changed his backstory to say that he was a war veteran and not just some drifter going from town to town working during the great depression. He’s robbed of his communist beliefs and so his ramblings are about a pursuit of something to believe in- when in actuality he already has something he believes in. In fact he believes in two things; Jesus Christ and the futility of Capitalism.

I understand that the movie was made in the sixties at the peak of the Cold War so you really couldn’t make a movie with sympathetic Communist characters, but come on. It’s better to burn a book than to rewrite it.

The movie robs us of the best scene in the book, which is the confrontation between Jake and Dr. Copeland. Now they’re on the same page as far as the Communist agenda, but they can’t agree how to implement it. Copeland seeks to march on Washington while Jake wants to hand out pamphlets and yell from a street corner. They get in a bitter argument and both men leave feeling infuriated and dissatisfied.

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The film however does have a great cast and some really heart breaking scenes, although the editing is shaky at best, pacing is off and it’s clearly apparent how cheap it is since a good portion of the shots were out of focus- meaning they relied on one take for practically all the scenes. Like the book, the Mick scenes really drag down the film- she’s just a boring character. Other than that it’s a pretty good, albeit forgettable movie.

McCuller is often compared with other Southern writers, but it’s important to realise that her main influences were the Lost Generation writers- particularly Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. These Modernist writers were most notable for their use of irony on regards to storytelling and theme, like how in the Sun Also Rises the protagonist is a war veteran whose injury in combat made him impotent. The thought that war made men is mocked with the very fact that war took away the very thing that literally made him a man.

So taking this into consideration you can see that the novel is practically dripping with irony. You have a deaf-mute called Singer as the protagonist and all the characters profess their deepest thoughts to a man who literally can’t hear them. Like the Mute, every character has issues with communicating. That’s why Jake and Dr. Copeland, two Commies who should get along, end up hating each other over an inability to understand each other. They’re talking at each other, not to each other.

You’ll see throughout the novel that everyone tends to ascribe certain qualities to Mr. Singer. The rich think that he’s rich while the poor think him to be poor. Copeland believes him to be a Jew- hence why he can understand the struggles of the Black community. While Jake believes him to be Scotch-Irish, because he’s Scotch-Irish. Everyone believes that Singer has this vast array of qualities to him when in actuality he does not. He is merely a blank page which others write upon.

The irony here being that Singer acts as a medium for these lonely weirdos to vent. A silent vessel they can dump all their problems on, while Singer uses Antanopolous in the same way. But once he loses this friend, he loses the will to live. I suppose the great lesson in this novel, if there was a lesson, is that you ought not to put all your eggs in one basket. You ought to live for yourself and not for others.

Outside of this the novel is quite good for the most part. Each character has a unique voice and worldview, Carson does a great job of putting different perspectives- like how one thing can happen to two people and they can have two totally different accounts of it. I’m surprised that a twenty-three year old could write so well. As far as dealing with the black experience I think she did quite a good job considering she was born and raised in a white, upper middle class family in Georgia. The depth of her empathy shows no bounds.

I was trying to figure out why a book of such quality isn’t as infamous as other novels and why I had never heard of Carson McCullers before. Probably due to my own ignorance of course, but I had an idea of who people like Hemingway and Fitzgerald were.

I considered whether the Communist content described in the novel may have alienated a great many Americans, but that doesn’t take into account the success of writers like Arthur Miller who was literally blacklisted during the Red Scare. Then of course I considered maybe it was because she was a woman, but again that doesn’t explain the success of Harper Lee or Toni Morrisson.

I eventually came to the conclusion upon why this novel isn’t so famous, why it’s Wikipedia page is so bare. It’s simple; the novel is forgettable. That’s not an indictment upon the writing, the writing for the most art is good albeit a little unfocused. I suppose it’s kind of like those really compelling dramas that you watch on TV that get really high reviews, but after a while you forget about them- they’re like the Mayfly in that their total lifespan and relevance is tragically brief.

Despite the overall quality of the story there’s nothing here that makes it stick out from the rest of Literature. It’s no Huckleberry Finn, no To Kill a Mockingbird– it’s just a forgettable story. But like I said, I think the target demographic for the novel would be people interested in a nuanced coming of age story, individuals interested in Race and Communism. But outside that I couldn’t really recommend the book, unless you were stuck on a train for about a week.

 

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