Carson McCullers is one of those authors that really should be a household name, but few people seem to have her books on their shelves at home. The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter was her debut novel, published in 1940 when she was just (get this) 23 years old. As reviewers noted at the time, there is a startling gap between her youth and her ‘astonishing perception of humanity’ in this remarkably insightful novel.

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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(The reviewer’s heart is a lonely one too, but it warms up a bit when you make a purchase through an affiliate link on this page.)

She originally called her story The Mute, but her publishers made her change it to “something more poetic”. The title that went to print is drawn from a poem called The Lonely Hunter by Fiona MacLeod (aka William Sharp): “Deep in the heart of Summer / sweet is life to me still / but my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill”.

The opening line is a corker: “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” In fact, the whole first chapter will knock your socks off. As the first sentence suggests, it focuses on two close friends, John Singer and Spiros Antonapolous. They are both deaf, and communicate primarily via sign language; their disability isolates them from the rest of their community in the small mill town where they live, but they are satisfied with each other’s company.

Unfortunately, Spiros’s mental health declines rapidly. Singer is happy to continue caring for him (reviewers have likened their relationship to that of George and Lennie in Of Mice And Men), but his only living relative elects to have him institutionalised, rather than risk any liability or take any responsibility. This is devastating to Singer, who loses the only person with whom he can communicate with ease.

He moves out of the apartment they shared, finding it too painful to live among the memories of his friend, and takes up residence at a nearby boarding house. He eats at the same diner three times a day, and gradually begins to attract interest from miscellaneous lost souls, all of whom are looking for connection.

These are the “satellite characters” that we follow over the course of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. The introduction to my edition (by Kasia Boddy) offers a really helpful description of them, explaining how each of them represents a different kind of loneliness or alienation, alongside Singer himself.

Thirteen-year-old Mick Kelly confesses [to Singer] her growing passion for music; fifty-one-year-old Dr Benedict Copeland talks about his frustrations at raising the consciousness of the town’s black people (starting with his own family); Jake Blount, a twenty-nine-year-old itinerant labour agitator and drunk, reveals his plans for revolution; only Biff Brannon, the forty-four-year-old cafe owner, recognises that Singer is a ‘home-made God’ for them all… [Singer is] a blank canvas on to which just about anything can be projected.

Introduction (The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter)

McCullers said that she sought to write a novel about “a character to whom other characters reveal their innermost secrets”, and by any measure, she succeeded. By virtue of the fact that he cannot hear or speak, Singer becomes a de-facto therapist for the town, specifically these four characters who have difficulty connecting with others for their own reasons. The image of a priest also popped into my head a lot as I was reading The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter – not that I know much about them, but something in the anonymity of hearing sealed confessions… you get my drift.

There are many pleasant surprises in The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, but there’s one in particular I want to highlight. I’m amazed by the progressive politics threaded throughout the story. If you can set aside some of the archaic language (yes, there’s a few n-words that are very of-the-time, and Singer is frequently described as a ‘deaf-mute’), McCullers is streets ahead of many writers of our time, let alone her own. She writes intricate inner worlds for the kinds of characters so often reduced to tropes and stereotypes – people of colour, people with disabilities – and gives them agency. Not only that, she allows them to explicitly advocate for themselves politically, be it through Blount’s socialism or Dr Copeland’s racial activism or Mick’s proto-feminism.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this kind of pinko-leftie philosophy would lead to widespread criticism and controversy (books are being banned for less today!), but The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter rocketed to the top of the best-seller list almost immediately. McCullers’ prodigious talent superseded any qualms the reading public had about her politics; she “gave voice to those who are rejected, forgotten, mistreated [and] oppressed”, in such a way that readers forgot about their prejudice. In fact, I think there’s an argument to be made that many readers over the decades have projected themselves onto the characters of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, in much the same way that the characters project themselves onto Singer – a kind of meta-genius that’s almost infuriating, and downright baffling when you take into account McCullers’ tender years and limited world experience at the time of writing.

Yes, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is an annoyingly good book. You’ll be annoyed that a woman so young and sheltered can be so wise and insightful, you’ll be annoyed that she can articulate that insight so beautifully, and you’ll be annoyed most of all that her name isn’t held aloft alongside Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s when it comes to the best literary writers of the 20th century.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter:

  • “McCullers’ book clearly contains some wonderful character descriptions, but I gave up early hunting for the story….” – D.Beyer
  • “Didn’t know this was an Oprah selection before I started it. If I had i never would’ve read it. It was true to her lousy taste.” – Kindle Customer
  • “OK so it is well written and has interesting characters, it is also depressing and boring.” – Monica K
  • “I found this book to be about as enriching as reading Karl Marx and as uplifting as reading the national enquirer.” – Darlene Riley
  • “Just look at how popular used copies are. People are desperate to get rid of this nonsense.” – Marc
  • “In the grand list of books that you will have enjoyed having read, this one ranks slightly above “Tom and Jane Go to Camp”.

    Now, I’m not going to say that this book was trite, boring, lacking in substance or otherwise devoid of anything resembling redeeming merit, because it does have its purpose. That purpose being to sit on your shelf and make it appear as though you are some kind of eruditic masochist.

    If, like me, you were forced to read this book as some sophomore hazing ritual, you will no doubt remember that this book contains very little in the way of plot and character development. The characters don’t so much grow as fester.

    I would not recommend this book to anybody, even those that I hate. People who have suicidal tendencies are warned to stay away as the most cheery portion of this book is slightly happier than a crushed puppy.

    In closing, let me just summarize: this book is bad.” – Rolf M. Buchner