First, let me just put it out there that Carson McCullers’s writing trajectory is probably every writer’s dream—having a debut novel published at 23. (Not that I’m envious or anything—and if you feel you would be, maybe check out this post).
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, it’s time to discuss what this debut novel actually was: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
I’ll be honest with you a second time and say that my first impression of this book was that it was a baffling read that had no need to be dusted off ever again.
Where was the plot? I asked myself as my bewildered eyes went through each page in desperation for familiar elements of American literature I’d found in other novels from the same time period (1940). Where were the overarching themes and motifs?
This frustration almost made me give up on McCullers’s novel, which is something I’ve almost never experienced with any other novels so far posted on this blog.
In the year-and-a-half since then, though, I’ve read another novel by McCullers, Clock Without Hands, and the Ray Bradbury novel Dandelion Wine. This latter book gave me a much better understanding of McCullers’s ideas of small-town loneliness and social connection that are so present in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
So, now that I have a healthier respect for this novel, let’s look at why you should, too.
If you’re looking for action, you won’t find it in this book—but nor will you find an overwhelming preoccupation with “deep” concepts or an attempt to bean you over the head with an overall message in case you missed it. Instead, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter shows it story and lets the reader be the judge of what’s going on and if it matters.
In Depression-era Georgia, John Singer, who can neither hear nor speak, arrives in a town that seems to be struggling with itself—its identity, its future, and where it stands in the world. These worries neatly correspond to the anxieties of the inhabitants Singer finds in the town.
McCullers focuses on four quite different townspeople, and I’ll leave it up to you to discover three of these fascinating narratives.
But I do want to touch upon one of them—the youngest—an adolescent girl named Mick Kelly. She seems to grow up both leisurely slow and too fast over the course of the novel. Her interests (music and the outdoors) and the way she spends her time (especially her budding relationships) clash with her family’s goals for her, which has to be relatable to every teenager and every parent no matter what the time period.
More than that, though, Mick’s story will give you an idea of just how terrifying it can be to build a sense of self in such an isolating world. Her narrative best relates to one of the bleakest titles I’ve come across in literature—The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Of course, this title ties in well with Singer’s own issues, struggling to communicate with those who take hearing and speech for granted.
Although it took me a while to realize, and it might for you as well, I’m confident that eventually you’ll find something in this book that’s seventy-nine years old that speaks so well to the present, modern condition. Our lonely selves flock to social media sites the way McCullers’s characters seek clustering comfort in a café. But in the end we often feel, like Singer does, that no one really knows us.
The pace of the novel’s world feels out of control to its characters, and I’m sure that if they were transplanted to 2019, people like John and Mick would panic at how relentless we’ve set the tempo of busy, busy, busy.
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