Friday, July 27, 2012

Carson McCullers: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, novel

Carson McCullers' novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is a remarkable work in itself.  That it was published when McCullers was only twenty-three just makes it even more unique.  I may have read some short stories by McCullers in the past, but this is the first novel I've read by her.  I will definitely search out others by her.

The central figure is John Singer, an ironic name for he is a deaf mute.  He communicates mostly by short notes and nods and gestures.  He knows sign language, but the only person in that small town "in the middle of the deep South" who could understand him was his roommate, Spiros Antonapoulos, who also was a deaf mute.  Since Antonapoulos seldom responded at any length, it is hard to know just how much he really understood.  Singer worked as an engraver in the local jewelry shop, a perfect job for him since he did not have to communicate with the customers.

At the start of the novel, Antonapoulos's behavior became very erratic and bizarre, and he was committed to the state mental institution.  Spiros accepted that so calmly and placidly, as he accepted everything else that happened to him, that I wondered if he understood what was happening, or even cared.   He had food to eat, shelter, and a staff that cared for him: he was content.  Seemingly Singer was far more disturbed than Spiros.

Regardless of how little Antonapoulos communicated with him, Singer had felt that someone understood him, and now that person was gone.  Singer had lost his only friend and confidant.  He was now more alone than he had been since he met Spiros.  Their room was now empty, and Singer couldn't spend the lonely hours after work there.  He spent more time now at the New York Cafe where he had his three meals a day, and he spent the evening hours walking about the town.

Then something unexpected happened.  Because he now spent more time out of his room, he became more accessible to others, especially those who felt alone and who felt that nobody in that town really understood them.  It was gradual, but Singer began to be sought out by others who believed that he and only he really grasped what they were saying.

I think Walt Whitman expressed it best in the following excerpt from "A Noiseless Patient Spider"

"And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul."

Singer would listen to them with a smile on his face, nod quietly at times, and occasionally write a brief note.  He never contradicted them nor did he ever argue with them.  He listened and accepted everything.  Even though he actually understood very little of what they were saying, he could read lips to some extent, he was, therefore, the perfect listener.  They would come up to him at the Cafe, or  they would walk along with him for a few blocks as he walked the town in the evening.  And even stranger yet, some would even visit him in his room, three in particular.

One was Jake Blount, a footloose wanderer who alternated between drunken sprees and attempts to unionize the workers in this small town.  The time was just prior to World War II, and union organizers were viewed with antagonism and hostility, and worse, suspected of being communists.  His concern was for the working man and only John Singer would listen to him without anger or fear.

Another was Dr. Benedict Copeland, the only black doctor in town and possibly in the county, and perhaps even in the state.  Many of the white residents of that town refused to believe that a black man could become a doctor.  Dr. Copeland's dream was to erase the barriers raised by segregation that made "his people" second class citizens and poverty-stricken because of poor schooling and low-paying menial jobs.  He someday hoped to be able to lead a thousand or more blacks on a march to Washington, DC, to demand the government end segregation.

The third person was Mick Kelly, a young girl of about twelve years of age whose parents owned the rooming house that John Singer lived in.  She thought of little else except music.  She had music in her but she didn't know how to get it out and had just started music lessons.  She didn't know what her future would but she knew music would be there.

I see those three, Blount, Copeland, and Mick, as searching for someone who could understand and accept them and their dreams.  They believed, erroneously, that John Singer was that person.  If they gained strength and hope from talking to him because they thought that he and he alone understood them, they were mistaken.  He did not understand them, but was really more of a mirror in that he reflected back their hopes and dreams.  Ironically, he was in the same position as they were for he also had been searching, reaching out for understanding to Spiros, who understood Singer no more than Singer understood his listeners.  Singer's dream,  in which he saw himself on a staircase  looking up at Spiros and behind him lower on the staircase were his listeners, looking up at him, is symbolic of their relationship.  As they reached out  for Singer, Singer reached out to Spiros.

Two other characters, though not confidants of Singer, played important roles.  Portia, the black housekeeper and cook at the Kelly rooming house, was a link between the white and black communities, for she was the daughter of  Dr. Copeland.  The second was Biff  Brannon, the owner of the New York Cafe.  He was the silent observer who watched and probably understood more about the relationship  between Singer and the others than did anyone else.  Brannon functions much like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. 

This world, however, is not static.  Change is everywhere and inevitable.  And change comes to this small town in the middle of the deep South.  Some die.  Henry James once said, when questioned as to why death in his works was always offstage,  that death is not unique or unusual for it comes to all.  What is unique are the repercussions of that death, the effects of that death on others.  The ending is just that:  the outcome of those deaths on others.

I'll repeat what I said at the beginning:  this is a remarkable novel  by a remarkable author.  I shall have to read more by her.  

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