"The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter"

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

This story is hauntingly sad from the beginning, but I'm glad I read it. The young girl, Mick; the cafe owner, Biff; the doctor, Dr. Copeland; the maid, Portia; the drunk, Jake; and the mute, Mr. Singer were all vibrantly written and all unique. I'm glad I met them and heard their stories, and I'll remember them for a long time, but I confess I wished throughout the book that I could do or say something that would cheer them up.

The human condition of course is at times sad for everyone. Yes, there is love, friendship and family, but even with these we live separate from other human beings. No one else can live my life. No one else can die my death. This human aloneness is written deeply into each of the character's lives. They have their individual secrets, and as has been said, nothing keeps us so lonely as our secrets. It's disappointing though that only that part of the human condition is acknowledged and there is no room for a less weighty viewpoint.

The book is set in the south in the 1920's when racism was rampant. The ugliness of it is hard to read. Anyone who has ever felt helpless will be able to relate at least a little to what the Negro characters in the story have to face, though to be so completely powerless is probably unimaginable to anyone but the enslaved. The injustice of it left me feeling...I don't know...ill? awful? angry? Maybe all of those.

The character I find most intriguing is the mute, John Singer. Some aspects of his life are beyond me, but I like the way he becomes the central figure as the story develops. He becomes a confidant for the others when they need someone to talk to, someone to accept what they say whether or not it makes any sense. I expect that's what we all want...to be accepted as we are and not judged or condemned or forced to meet some arbitrary standard of normal. The relief that Mick, Dr. Copeland, Biff and Jake, who probably all fall outside of most definitions of normal, feel when they unburden themselves to him is palpable. Singer listens; he only listens and never talks. He can't understand a lot of what they say, but he is polite, affirming and still. It's a sad but true commentary on human nature than not one of them ever questions if he has the same need or who meets that need for him.

Dr. Copeland and Jake are both consumed with, and by, the messages they feel destined to spread. Dr. Copeland lives to better the condition of the Negro and Jake to better the condition of the working man. In many ways their quests are the same, but they never quite succeed in getting past their personalities to the point where they can reach a philosophical agreement.

What is missing from this book altogether is joy. The characters don't find joy or even humour in any situation and can't seem to grab any happiness from the small joys of day to day life. Yes their lives are hard. Racism, poverty, illness and loneliness try hard to take the joy out of life. But to never find humour in anything is not, I think, realistic. I believe it may have been the author's view of the world when she wrote the book; anyone who has struggled with depression has looked at life that way. It's also true though, that we have all known people who live terribly hard lives but still find things to laugh at, even if it's just themselves. It's human nature to laugh when you can't cry anymore - at wakes and funeral receptions there is always laughter. It may come across as inappropriate sometimes, but it's  really a safety valve for the grieving. I've been to countries where the poorest of the poor live in a box with 4 walls and a roof and own nothing else. They eat the food that falls from the trees. They have poor health and no support systems, but they still find a simple joy in flowers, sunsets, babies and a visitor in the doorway. Hope really does spring eternal. That is a very real part of our human nature but there's not much of it in this book.

I probably won't read it again, at least not for a very long time. I am glad I read it, but I don't think it's good for me. Surely hopelessness doesn't do anyone any good, even if it is in a book and the people are fictional. I'm not one who likes to read fluffy fiction or who has to have a happy ending, but I do like to have a little bit of happy in there somewhere.

I'm trying to find something positive to say about the book to end this post. The only thing I can think of is a metaphor used by one of the characters when his mouth was dry. He said "it felt like the whole Russian army had marched through my mouth in their sock feet". That was the one moment in the whole book that made me smile.


Anonymous said...

Loving your blog.

Can't wait for you to write about "the angel's game".... no pressure... but i hope you can clear up some things for me.

If we beleived in such foolishness, you would have been kick ass english prof in your past life

Amanda R

Anonymous said...

I love your blog Dianne.

I can't wait for you to post something about "the angel's game." Hopefully, it will clear things up for me. No pressure.

If we believed in such foolishnes, you would have been a kick ass English prof in your past life.

Amanda R

Anonymous said...

sorry about the double posts... and the spelling errors. you may have to edit my posts first.

Dianne said...

It's ridiculous how happy I am to get my first comments on this blog. That they are positive and come from you makes it even better. I am loving this. Writing about books is pure joy.

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