The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter - Book Review
Original title: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
Author: Carson McCullers
Edition language: Romanian
Publisher: Polirom, 2013 (first published 1940)
Paperback, 312 pages
Carson McCullers's debut novel, “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter”, was first published in 1940 when the author was only 23 years old. It's hard to believe that McCullers was so young when she wrote this book. For me, the novel read like something a very experienced author would write, so I'm not surprised it became such a timeless classic.
Centered around five main characters, the action of the novel is set in an unnamed small town from Southern America, during the late 1930s.
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John Singer is a deaf-mute who is unable to communicate with most of the world for obvious reasons. Thus he becomes isolated and lonely, even though the other four main characters all gravitate towards him and he becomes almost a Christ-like figure (without any exaggeration) in their eyes, with each one of them seeing in him only what they want and need. They all confide in him - well all, except Biff Brannon - and think, ironically enough, he's the only human being who can listen to them and understand their struggles. Sadly, Singer is just as alone as they are. And the saddest part is that not one of them sees it.
Biff Brannon is the owner of the New York Cafe, a restaurant-bar, where he spends all his days quietly observing his customers. He is quite a distant character and a bit bizarre. Even so, he is, just like the others, lonely and isolated, and has no one who could truly understand him. Now as I’m thinking about him, I'm not sure he even understands himself.
Mick Kelly is a lonely thirteen-year-old tomboyish girl, who's ambitious, intelligent and very passionate about classical music, unlike any other child from her poor neighborhood. Her family is large and poverty-stricken and each day they struggle to make ends meet. A thing I found to be very emotional is how at some point in the novel she suddenly realizes, much like a revelation, the isolation and loneliness of her own father, a not so subtle sign that she's growing up. She also is the only main character who’s not completely self-absorbed (although some could argue that Singer too isn’t self-absorbed, I dare to disagree).
Out of the five characters, she's probably my favorite. From what I've read about the book and Carson's life, Mick's character is somewhat autobiographical of McCullers herself.
Benedict Mady Copeland is one of the noblest characters of the novel. A highly educated black man, something that was not very common among the black community of that time - Jim Crow laws (the segregation laws in the South) were in full force back then, leaving the black communities not only at disadvantage, but also terribly marginalized and mistreated, especially in the rural areas -, he is a doctor who dedicated his entire life to the service of the most impoverished African-Americans, while at the same time trying very hard to further the education of the black community and to uplift it.
But even so, Dr. Copeland is a man who feels alienated from all the people in his life, except Singer. His race separates him from the white people in town, his education and position as a doctor differentiate him from the less educated African-Americans in his community, his beliefs and personality separate him from the rest of his family, with this last thing causing him a great deal of pain.
Jake Blount is a wanderer, an alcoholic, a Marxist, a character of extremes. He has no home, no family, and no one knows where he came from. He is the only character out of the five who's prone to genuine mental instability and violent outbursts. He's an outcast with radicals views who dreams of an uprising of the workers against those whom he thinks are enslaving the people. His intentions are good, but his unpleasant personality and unpredictable behavior drive everyone away. He is isolated. He is lonely. And just like the other main characters all he wants is someone to listen, someone to understand.
“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” is essentially a book about the isolation and loneliness of the human condition. But it’s also a book about broken dreams and unfulfilled desires, racism and race relations, the perils of poverty and everything that comes as a consequence of that.
All throughout the novel, I felt helplessly heartbroken. And at times awfully frustrated with the inability of the characters to communicate properly. What terrible creatures human beings are. To want so badly to belong somewhere and be understood, but to not be able to get your messages across. For me, the greatest lesson of this book is that you first have to listen, if you want to be heard. The heart, indeed, is a lonely hunter.