Carson McCullers’ first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
, explores what Nathaniel Hawthorne called "the labyrinth of the human heart." Just as the spokes of a wheel revolve around a hub, the lives of Mick Kelly, Jake Blount, Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, and Biff Brannon revolve around the deaf-mute John Singer.
The teenager, Mick, is the only character in the book who grows or changes; the sections that relate to her are a Bildungsroman
that traces a young girl’s movement from the instinctive emotionalism of childhood, through the advent of preadolescence and awakening sexuality, to the final thrust of maturity that brings disillusionment in love. Mick’s first disappointing sexual experience with Harry West left her feeling very old, "a grown person now, whether she wanted to be or not." She gravitates toward Singer, who serves as her god until his suicide brings an end to her dreams. She knows that she will never become a famous musician and instead goes to work ten hours a day in a ten-cent store to contribute to the family income. Her childhood is over.
In her outline of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
—published first in Oliver Evans’ biography The Ballad of Carson McCullers
(1965) and later in McCullers’ The Mortgaged Heart
(1971)—McCullers states that the theme of her novel is "man’s revolt against his own inner isolation and his urge to express himself as fully as is possible." The escape from isolation is through the expression of love, but love is seldom reciprocal, and it is doomed to failure—for women as well as for men. As Biff Brannon points out, "By nature all people are of both sexes.
So marriage and the bed is not all by any means."
The novel begins with a delineation of Singer’s love for another deaf-mute, the grossly fat and retarded Spiros Antonapoulos, and the opening lines of the novel focus on their relationship: "In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together." Singer loves, indeed worships, Antonapoulos, and although he "never knew just how much his friend understood of all the things he told him, . . . it did not matter." What matters in Singer’s life, and in that of the other major characters in the novel, is having a person to love, an all-too-human god to endow with qualities of compassion and understanding, though these traits exist only in the mind of the lover.
Singer finds himself isolated and alone when Antonapoulos is committed to the state institution. He visits Biff Brannon’s New York Café and meets Mick Kelly, Jake Blount, and Dr. Copeland, who believe that he is able to assuage their loneliness. They tell him their hearts’ desires, but when Antonapoulos dies, Singer has no reason to live and commits suicide. The other characters are likewise deprived of their beloved, and the altar of human "godliness" crumbles. The heart that is a lonely hunter is wrenched with pain.