“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” is a 1940 novel by the American author Carson McCullers. The novel was well received after its publication and was ranked by the Modern Library as number seventeen on the list of 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. The novel centers around a deaf-mute man named John Singer and his relationship with four individuals who befriend him and come to him for advice and council in their lives.
Biff Brannon, a bar owner who loses his wife suddenly, Mick Kelly, a teenage girl who is just starting high school and lives with her family in poverty, Jake Blount, an alcoholic socialist and Dr. Copeland, a black doctor who wishes to call attention to the injustices that the black community face every day. Meanwhile, John is dealing with his own private pain as a dear friend who is also a deaf-mute is committed to an asylum.
The novel charts the course of these characters lives until John eventually commits suicide when he discovers that his friend has passed away. The film was adapted into a movie in 1968 and a stage production in 2005.
The story begins with two friends, Spiros Antonapoulos and John Singer who are both deaf-mute and live together in a small apartment. Aside from each other, the two have no other friends. They live in the deep south in a small town which is set up around a series of cotton mills. Though the cotton mills employ most of the towns residents, the two men do not work there. Spiros works for his cousin selling fruit and John works as an engraver at a jewelry store. Each day, the two men walk to work together and then meet after work to talk in sign language about their day.
Much time passes like this until, after ten years of living together, Spiros suddenly becomes ill. John cares for him and Spiros recovers physically, but the illness changes him mentally. He begins acting out in illegal ways such as stealing from shops and urinating in public. John has to bail Spiros out of jail a few times with the money that had been in his savings. Spiros’ cousin arranges for him to be taken to an asylum. John is heartbroken but there is nothing he can do. He packs Spiros’ things and takes him to the train station. In the weeks after his friend’s departure, John struggles with being alone. He finally decides to move out of the apartment that they shared and move into a house in town.
The second chapter is told from the perspective of a new character. Biff Brannon is the owner of a local cafe in town. At the beginning of the chapter, it is after midnight and only a few customers are left in the cafe, drinking. John is there and Brannon’s wife warns him to get rid of the man whom has been spending his nights drinking at the cafe. Also there are a local drunk, Jake Blount and a local girl named Mick Kelly. Kelly tells the men that John has been staying her family’s boarding house. Blount begins speaking to John and the two talk for a while before John leaves.
When Biff awakens, he is told by a young man named Willie that works in the bar that John went outside and starting beating his head and fists against a brick wall. Blount started yelling at John until he fell over. The police were then called. When the police arrive, they carry Blount back inside. John uses a piece of paper to tell them that Blount can come home with him.
The next chapter is told in Mick’s perspective. Mick is told by her father that John has a guest staying with him. She takes her little brothers out for the day and thinks about how she wants to be an inventor when she grows up. Mick has been trying to maker herself a violin to play due to her family’s poverty. She is dismayed by the poor quality of her self-made instrument which is constructed with strings from various instruments.
Meanwhile, the next chapter, in Blount’s point of view, starts with him waking up in John’s room. John pours Blount some water as he gets dressed. He takes out a business card that says he is a deaf-mute but that he can read lips. Blount is shocked. Being so drunk the night before, he hadn’t realized that John was deaf-mute. John writes down that he can stay in his room until he finds somewhere else to live.
Blount manages to get a job as a mechanic that day and when he is returning to the boarding house he speaks to a group of mill workers who tell him about a strike. They say that the mill responds to strikes by bringing in more workers from out of town. Blount is furious about this and returns home to tell John. Blount has been studying books by Marx and Veblen and gets more angry the more he reads. The Kelly family has a black servant named Portia. In chapter five, Portia gets a visit from her father who is a doctor in another town. Portia’s father, Dr. Copeland is an educated man and a proponent of science and he and Portia are somewhat estranged due to her love of religion. Dr. Copeland is also the father of Willie, the young man who works in Brannon’s bar. Portia tells her father that Willie has been arrested.
Dr. Copeland mentions John whom he knows from a kind gesture John once showed him. John begins being visited by Dr. Copeland, Mick Kelly, Biff Brannon and Blount and becoming friends with them until suddenly he leaves for two weeks without telling anyone where he is going. He goes to visit Spiros in the asylum and to tell him about his new friends. Spiros is unresponsive and John returns home and does not talk about the visit.
Mick starts high school that year and decides to throw a party at her house to gain some new friends. Her older sisters loan her some nice clothes to wear and Mick nervously invites people from school. She speaks to a Jewish boy named Harry Minowitz about Mozart and Minowitz asks if, since Mozart was German, he was a fascist or a Nazi. Mick tells him that Mozart is long dead but Minowitz gets angry and tells her that he would kill a fascist if he saw one walking down the street.
At a certain point, several neighborhood kids crash the party and it becomes raucous. At first, Mick tries to regain control but then she realizes that the party is more fun this way and joins in. After everyone leaves, Mick engages in her nightly ritual of walking to the rich neighborhood after dark and sitting outside the houses to listen to the radios playing inside. Mick likes to listen to the classical music that she cannot listen to at home because the family is too poor to afford a radio.
That night, Mick accidentally falls asleep outside one house and must run back home when she wakes and realizes what time it is. Brannon’s wife dies suddenly. He visits John the next day and then visits his sister. Brannon and his sister, Lucile talk about her abusive ex-husband and he encourages her to move elsewhere and leave the town behind. After the funeral, Brannon re-opens the cafe and the locals stream in to have a wake for his wife. During the wake, Brannon notices that John invites Mick to sit with himself and Blount. Brannon thinks this is odd as Mick is so young and the two men are drinking beer.
Dr. Copeland soon finds out that he has tuberculosis of the lungs. He visits John often and tells him that he feels his mission in life is to educate black people to help them raise their position in life. Copeland feels that he has an unquenchable rage for the way black people are treated in society and a rage at his family for not rebelling against white people more and for accepting their fate. He once hit his wife with a hot poker for not sharing this rage and she left with the children for a long time. The only thing that makes him feels slightly better is speaking to John. Through talking to John, Blount begins to realize that he also wants to educate people about striking and Marxism. He tries to set up meetings with people but no one shows up.
One day, Mick is talking to her younger brother, Bubber and a friend on the street. The friend, Spareribs shows the children his father’s hunting rifle which is loaded with BB s As a joke, Bubber aims the rifle at Brannon’s niece, Baby but he accidentally pulls the trigger and she falls to the ground, her head bloody. Baby is taken away in an ambulance and ends up having a fractured skull. Bubber hides in a tree fort and Mick finds him hours later and tells him that Baby is dead in order to scare him into never touching a gun again. She intends to come back in an hour and tell him that she was lying. Meanwhile, Lucile tells the Kellys that she is not going to sue them but that she wants for them to pay Baby’s hospital bills. When Mick returns to tells Bubber the truth, he is gone.
When they find Bubber he is walking on the road attempting to run away to Atlanta as it is the only city that he has ever heard of. Bubber cries and screams in distress and only John is able to calm him. From the day forward, Bubber changes into a serious, removed boy and the family begins using his real name, George. He is distant from Mick afterward.
Every year, Dr. Copeland holds a Christmas party for the black people in the town where he awards charitable gifts to people. This year, he also invites John as he feels that he is like no other white man that he has ever met.
At the party, Dr. Copeland gives a speech in which he eschews talking about Jesus Christ to talk about Karl Marx and his dream of equality of work and dividing all wealth equally. He says that it is important that poor people of all races unite and educate themselves. The guests applaud the speech which warms Dr. Copeland’s heart. Dr. Copeland does not know how much more time he has to live but he hopes that his speech will stay with the people at the party after he is gone. John begins taking walks again and thinking about Spiros. He misses speaking in sign language to the man and these days his hands often feel restless. That Christmas, he mails Spiros a box of gifts. He also gives gifts to the people in his house. He buys a radio for everyone and puts it in his room so that they can listen to it.
Mick is the most dedicated of the radio listeners, often listening even when John isn’t home. John writes to Spiros about the four people that come to visit him. One day, all four people, Dr. Copeland, Brannon, Mick and Blount, visit John at the same time by coincidence. The conversation is very strained and awkward which surprises John since normally all four have a lot to talk about with him.
Soon, John visits Spiros again and finds his friend has received his Christmas presents. He is wearing the silk pajamas and the turquoise ring but he still does not respond to anything that John says. John also sent Spiros a moving picture machine and when he sets it up, Spiros finally shows some life. He stays late to watch the moving pictures with his friend. When he leaves, he thinks that he would rather be in the asylum if it meant he could stay with Spiros. Brannon begins wondering more about John and where the man goes to when he leaves town on a train for the day. He notices for the first time that when Blount and John walk around together, Blount always seems to walk behind John just as John used to do with Spiros. Mick has to quit taking her piano lessons so that her family can use that money to pay Baby’s hospital bills. She begins writing her own compositions in a notebook.
One evening, Mick is talking to Harry Minowitz about Hitler. Harry wants to kill Hitler but he sadly admits to her that he didn’t always feel that way and that he used to despise his Jewish faith. Mick tries to cheer Harry up by play wrestling with him but afterward she realizes that wrestling with Harry made her feel strange.
Dr. Copeland and Portia discover that Willie has suffered a terrible punishment in prison and, as a result, has had to have his feet amputated. Copeland goes to the courthouse to try to convince the judge to help Willie, but he is harassed by the white deputy sheriff and eventually beaten for talking back to a white man. The next morning Portia has to bail him out of jail. Mick and Harry go skinny dipping together and eventually have sex for the first time. Harry immediately regrets the act and worries that his mother will be able to sense that he is no longer a virgin. He tells Mick that he is going to leave town but that he will write to her in a few months.
That night, Harry’s mother calls Mick and asks her if she knows where Harry is. Mick tells her that she doesn’t. Willie is finally allowed to come home and rest. When Blount hears about what happened to Willie he suddenly becomes angry and rushes over to Portia’s house to talk to Willie. Blount wishes to testify in court about the injustice that Willie has faced, despite everyone telling him that this will only make things worse for Willie. Blount speaks to Dr. Copeland about it. Both men wish to find justice for Willie in some way. Copeland wants to organize a march on Washington but Blount thinks that this is a bad idea because most of the marchers will not even know what they are marching for.
Blount wants to teach people about capitalism and its injustices. Dr. Copeland and Blount get into an argument and Blount runs from the room, crying. Months after he left, Harry writes to Mick and tells her that he has found a job in Birmingham. Mick’s mother becomes ill and the family struggles even more to break even with less income. Mick’s sister hears about a job opening at Woolworth’s department store and asks Mick if she would like to take it. Mick agrees, although she knows that she will have to quit school to do so. She talks it over with John first and then decides to take the job. John decides to visit Spiros again but when he arrives at the asylum he is told that his friend has died. John falls into a state of shock and wanders around town for several hours before catching his train home. When he goes home he shoots himself in the chest.
The entirety of part three takes place on the day of August 21st, 1939. Portia decides to send Dr. Copeland to live with his father so that he can recover. Copeland is unhappy about the move as it was not his decision. He thinks about John’s death and feels angry and sad as he thinks about the plight of black people in the town. He feels alone and defeated as he rides away in a wagon. Blount gets into a fight at a carnival where a local man is killed. He runs home, packs his things and visits Brannon before heading to the train station and leaving town.
Mick wonders how she will ever achieve her dreams now that she is working every day. She determines that she still wants to set aside money to buy a piano for herself. She thinks about John and how she cannot believe that he is dead. Brannon arranges flowers in the window of the cafe as he thinks about the strange attraction that he has felt for Mick and how it has faded after John’s death. He thinks of John’s death like a riddle that he must solve. He looks at himself in the mirror and gets ready to greet another day.
John Singer – a deaf-mute man who begins the story living with a closer friend in an apartment. John is a simple man. Throughout the novel, he works everyday as an engraver in a jewelry shop. John does not receive much character development throughout the novel. Instead, he is the catalyst for the development of the other characters who make decisions only after speaking to him. The four other major characters in the novel, Mick, Brannon, Blount and Dr. Copeland come to depend on his council, despite the fact that John cannot speak to them.
John’s personal development is mostly concerned with his relationship and love for Spiros. John cares for Spiros greatly and never gets over his devastation when his friend is committed to the asylum after his illness, even going so far as to feel that he wishes that he was in the asylum with Spiros so that they could be together.
John keeps his sadness over the loss of his friend quiet and suffers silently, never unloading his emotions on his friends the way that they always unload their feelings on him. In the end, John commits suicide after he discovers that Spiros has passed away in the asylum. His death affects the lives of his friends throughout the rest of the novel.
Mick Kelly – the middle child of the Kelly family. Mick is a teenage girl who wishes to be an inventor and a musician. Throughout the novel she suffers the trials of adolescence as well as problems concerning her family’s poverty. Mick spends most of her time striving toward her dreams of becoming a musician and trying to afford various instruments. She shares a sexual relationship with Harry but does not seem to be too deeply affected when he leaves town. Mick appreciates John’s advice but often feels that she is annoying him. In the end of the novel, she takes a job at Woolworth’s department store and promises herself that she will save money to afford a piano.
Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland – an older doctor who works tirelessly to educate the people of the black community so that they might elevate their place in society. Copeland disavows religion and suffers from bouts of uncontrollable rage at the injustices that blacks face in society every day. He is something of an early proponent for the Civil Rights movement, suggesting such things as marches on Washington and protests in order to call attention to the injustices. Copeland is beaten in an attempt to save his son from prison and, although he is successful, he is sent away to live with his father at the end of the novel, feeling defeated and sad.
Biff Brannon – the owner of the New York Cafe, the main restaurant and bar in town. Brannon is another of the townspeople that seeks John’s Council regularly. Brannon’s story is marked by the death of his wife early on and his strange crush on Mick. Though he never acts on this crush, Bannon thinks about Mick often and wishes to see her and give her presents. Brannon is normally a quiet man who spends much of his time in his restaurant, pondering the goings on in the town.
Jake Blount – an alcoholic who is taken in by John despite getting into a fistfight with the man upon first meeting him. Blount is a socialist who wishes to educate the people of the town about the evils of capitalism. He attempts to do so at various times, but fails to successfully arrange any type of meeting due to his own lack of ambition. Blount fights with Copeland over their different drives to educate the people. In the end of the novel, he is forced to leave town after becoming involved in a fight in which a man is killed
Carson McCullers Biography
Carson McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith on February 19th, 1917 in Columbus, Georgia. The daughter of a jeweler she began writing at the age of fifteen when her father gifted her a typewriter.
After graduating high school, Carson left home for New York City to study piano at Juilliard School of Music. However, she soon fell ill with rheumatic fever and had to return home to recover at which point she decided not to return to Juilliard. She soon returned to New York but began pursuing a writing career instead. She worked several jobs while attending night classes at Columbia University.
In 1936, Carson published her first work. “Wunderkind” is an autobiographical story about a music prodigy that was published in Story magazine. In September of 1937, when Carson was only 20 years old she married another aspiring writer, Reeves McCullers and the couple moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. Three years later, Carson completed and published her first novel, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” The novel was successful and Carson began to make a name for herself as a writer. Carson published her second novel, “Reflections in a Golden Eye” in 1941 and went on to publish six more novels in her lifetime.
In 1941, Carson divorced her husband and moved back to New York City to live with another man. Carson was bisexual and also pursued relationships with women. In 1945, Carson remarried Reeves McCullers. Three years later, she attempted to commit suicide. Reeves, who was similarly depressed, tried to convince her to commit suicide with him. But Carson left him and he later killed himself by overdosing on sleeping pills in their hotel in Paris.
After suffering from rheumatic fever at the age of 15, Carson continued to suffer from affect effects in the form of strokes for the rest of her life. She also suffered from other illnesses and was a chronic alcoholic. By the time she was 31 years old, she was completely paralyzed on the left side of her body. On September 29th, 1967 she died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 50. She was buried in Nyack, New York where she died.