Well, I finished up The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter at just the right time. Bookman asked some questions on my last post about what constitutes “literary,” and this is the perfect book to help me explain further.
Over the years, many people have of course objected to the term “literary” because it connotes higher quality, a connotation that I agree is unfair. While it does seem to me that overall writing standards tend to be higher in the literary sphere than the genre sphere, any individual work of genre fiction—thriller, romance, fantasy, whatever—can absolutely be a fantastic book, a better book than lots of literary novels. So I try to avoid those implications.
What I find to be a much more helpful way of distinguishing a literary work from a non-literary one is to determine whether the book contains themes. A theme, in the literary analysis sense, is an issue that the author is exploring in the text, the larger idea that is going on beneath the surface of the story. A theme is what the book is really about. So an author might write a book about a man escaping from prison, but use that plot to explore themes such as the possibility of redemption and the true nature of humankind. The themes, rather than the plot, are the essence of that story.
Most top bestsellers do not have themes of this kind. John and I used the word “themes” frequently in Why We Read What We Read—but most times we meant “underlying assumptions or values,” because those authors did not deliberately explore any issues in their books; the novels are not “about” anything other than their plots. Again, this is not a value judgment. The two types of books just have different intents.
I enjoy both types, though the lit geek in me especially loves working with themes, so I was excited to spot them as I began reading The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. This is an old book, published in 1940, but also an Oprah pick and thus #14 on the bestseller list in 2004.
Heart takes place in a Georgia mill town during the Depression. The book jacket says the main character is Mick Kelly, a 14-year-old tomboy who yearns to be a musician (a character modeled after the author, apparently—no wonder Oprah chose this book!). But I believe the central character is John Singer, a deaf-mute who befriends Mick and the three other important characters in the novel: Benedict Mady Copeland, a black medical doctor desperate to increase the opportunities for his people; Jake Blount, an alcoholic, socialist, and part-time crazy; and Biff, a soft-hearted restaurant owner (and less prominent character overall) with a dead wife and a thing for the arresting young Mick.
This book isn’t big on plot. Stuff happens, the kind of stuff you’d expect in a small town, most of which isn’t important. But what the novel is really about (here comes the theme part) is enduring loneliness and the often futile struggle to connect to others. Each of these characters is passionate about his or her cause, and each finds comfort in pouring out his or her feelings to Mister Singer, the benevolent, lip-reading mute. Each believes that Singer understands him or her like no other. Singer becomes the one white man Doctor Copeland has ever trusted; Jake Blount is convinced that Singer is one of the few who knows—that is, who understands that capitalism is inherently poisonous and unfair.
I have always enjoyed benevolent mutes, ever since I got to know Nick Andros in Stephen King’s The Stand. But the folks here take it a step further. Each person who comes in contact with Singer “described the mute as he wished him to be” (268). Doctor Copeland, wanting to see in his friend a history of oppression similar to his own, believes Singer to be Jewish, while Blount is convinced otherwise. Mick thinks Singer understands music even though she knows he has always been deaf. For each character, speaking with Singer is like speaking with God or the universe: he is a presence that is compassionate, wise, ever-understanding—and silent.
Singer’s friendship is also so significant because the characters have difficulties relating to others. Mick’s hard-working family understands little about her musical aims. Blount doesn’t have much luck convincing others of the merits of socialism (the stench of liquor surely doesn’t help). Doctor Copeland is respected but also isolated in the black community, believing “Our mission is to walk with strength and dignity through the days of our humiliation. Our pride must be strong, for we know the value of the human mind and soul. We must teach our children. We must sacrifice so that they may earn the dignity of study and wisdom” (233). Few others, even his own children, understand or agree with Copeland’s vision. And though one of his sons is named Karl Marx, Copeland can’t even see eye-to-eye with Blount on how best to counter social injustice.
Singer cannot be, of course, all that others see in him. He doesn’t understand these people as they think he does. He likes them, but finds them repetitive. And while they are obsessed with him, he is in turn obsessed with another deaf-mute, his best friend Antonapolous, who has been sent away to an asylum by his cousin. Though Antonapolous appears to be quite self-centered and have few merits, Singer thinks that he is “wise and good” and the only person who understands him (244). “The only thing I can imagine is when I will be with you again,” he writes to Antonapoulous. “I am not meant to be alone and without you who understand” (259-60).
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter became a classic because of its realistic presentation of southern small-town life in the ’30s, and its somewhat landmark focus on the misfits of society. But I like it best for its themes, its unsentimental exploration of life’s hopes and sorrows. It’s often a bit weird reading an unearthed older book, because whatever was original about it at one time usually isn’t any longer. And I think that was the case here. (You know how many books are about misfits these days. It seems like every other one.) But neither John Singer nor any of his motley followers is meant to be pitied, which is a vast improvement over many contemporary offerings. While I didn’t find the book entirely riveting, I appreciated its aims and characters a great deal. Its commentary on how we seek love and connection—and often miss the mark—is both thoughtfully rendered and all too true.