Capital ‘L’ literature puzzles me as I often feel that it’s a giant waste of time while I’m in the middle, but then I get to the end and reflect on it, and I realize that having read the book was worthwhile. This sentiment couldn’t be more true than my feeling on finishing “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” On a surface perspective, I read 350 pages in which nothing really happened and the characters went nowhere. But on a deeper inspection, the pages roil with meaning and even though the characters ultimately don’t have much of an arc, I walked away from this book feeling haunted by the themes and quiet depression of the landscape and the people.
McCullers focuses on five main characters living in a Georgia mill town during the Great Depression. They’re all outcasts of some kind, struggling to find their way in the world and out of their current situations against a backdrop of Jim Crow, impoverished conditions, and a general intolerance for anyone not fitting the mold of the upper class white. The main character, John Singer, is a deaf-mute whose companion is carted off to an insane asylum, leaving him alone and lost in a world where everyone wants to talk to him, but no one wants to listen. Mick Kelly is a pre-teen who loves music and wants to become a composer, but is stuck just above the poverty line with a family who can’t make ends meet. Jake Blount is a hobo, moving from town to town searching for people who will listen to and embrace his Communist ideologies. Dr. Copeland has a mission to save his people from the degradation of the Jim Crow laws, only to find that he’s on a crusade by himself. And lastly there’s Biff Branson, the town observer, who waxes philosophical and nostalgic, but never really gets anywhere.
One of the greatest surprises for me in this novel from 1940 was the not-so-subtle homosexual undertones surrounding Biff, and the relationship between John Singer and his companion Antanopolis. At first I thought perhaps I was reading it with a 21st Century lens, but the longer I stayed in the pages, the more I’m convinced that McCullers did it on purpose to not only include the un-included in a time period she herself lived through, but to address the fact that their potentially ambiguous sexuality was one of the things that made them outsiders, however subtly. I was happy to see these characters, and the undertones nuanced the world in a way that would have otherwise been lacking.
At its core, this story is about the loneliness of being on the outside of belonging; of being surrounded by people on every side, but knowing they aren’t ‘your’ people, even if they look like you. Knowing that you’re not understood. That no one wants to understand you, and you are truly on your own. It’s a depressing book, if a poignant one, but one that truly withstands the test of time while still being of its time.
This isn’t a page turner, and there were definitely sections that seemed to go on too long, or places where I felt McCullers lost me in the density. But when I got to the end and let it sit, I realized that in some way, I had enjoyed my time in her pages and took away some quiet contemplation from her characters.