The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Critical Review by Rose Feld

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
This section contains 1,035 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Rose Feld

SOURCE: "A Remarkable First Novel of Lonely Lives," in The New York Times Book Review, June 16, 1940, p. 6.

In the following review, Feld provides brief character descriptions and a plot synopsis of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

No matter what the age of its author, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter would be a remarkable book. When one reads that Carson McCullers is a girl of 22 it becomes more than that. Maturity does not cover the quality of her work. It is something beyond that, something more akin to the vocation of pain to which a great poet is born. Reading her, one feels this girl is wrapped in knowledge which has roots beyond the span of her life and her experience. How else can she so surely plumb the hearts of characters as strange and, under the force of her creative shaping, as real as she presents—two deaf mutes, a ranting, rebellious drunkard, a Negro torn from his faith and lost in his frustrated dream of equality, a restaurant owner bewildered by his emotions, a girl of 13 caught between the world of people and the world of shadows.

From the opening page, brilliant in its establishment of mood, character and suspense, the book takes hold of the reader. "In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together," Miss McCullers begins, and at once this unique novel swings into action. One of these mutes was the fat, greasy, ungainly Greek, Spiros Antonapoulos, who worked in his cousin's fruit store and made candy for him; the other was John Singer, who was employed as an engraver in a jewelry store. They lived together in two rooms, bound to each other by the physical handicap which made them alien in a world of normal people.

With a touch reminiscent of Faulkner but peculiarly her own, Miss McCullers describes their strange relationship, the fat Greek, greedy for food, petulant, mentally irresponsible, dominating the slender, gentle Singer. When the public habits of Antonapoulos become such that he is a menace to public decency, his cousin has him put away in an institution for the insane and John Singer is left alone, lost and stranded among people who talk.

Exiled from the home he and the Greek had made for each other, Singer takes a room in the Kellys' boarding house and arranges to have all his meals in Biff Brannon's New York Café. The few things he needs to get over to people he writes in careful script on cards he carries with him. Accustomed to living in a world of silence, he neither expects nor wants companionship of those who live in a world of sound. Deepest in his heart is the yearning for the departed Antonapoulos.

With stinging subtlety, Miss McCullers builds up the growing importance of Singer in the lives of the people who come to know him. So excellent is her portrayal, so fine her balance of the imagined against the real, that there are times when the reader himself is bemused by the silence and the smile of the mute. In developing Singer as the fountainhead of understanding and wisdom, she plunges into the heart of human desolation, into the pain of the ineffectuality of words as a bridge between people. Sitting silently in Biff Brannon's restaurant, lost in his dreams of the two rooms where Antonapoulos had cooked, smiling vaguely as he plans his vacation visit to the incarcerated Greek, Singer becomes a symbol of godliness. Saying nothing, it is assumed he knows everything. His smile is gentle, built of his own loneliness and because he cannot defend himself against the spate of words forced upon him, he listens with eyes fixed sympathetically upon moving lips.

To Biff Brannon, lost in a world of emotional fears, Jake Blount is a crazy drunkard who uses his education to rant against the inequality between the rich and the poor. To Singer, Blount is a strange, unkempt creature who talks continuously of things Singer doesn't fully understand. But Singer listens or seems to and his smile is gentle. For Biff himself, Singer has the fascination of the unknowable.

To his daughter, Portia, cook at the poverty-stricken Kelly boarding house, Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland is a man who has strayed from the fold of the true church and will suffer for it in spite of his aid to the sick. To Singer he is the colored physician who talks passionately about the subjugation of his race. To her family Mick Kelly is a good kid who takes care of her younger brothers and goes off by herself when she is free of them. To Singer she is the little girl who comes to his room to talk about her dreams of music, who pours herself out to the man who sits and smiles and nods as he reads her lips. To all of them, through no fault or virtue of his own, except that of simplicity and kindliness, Singer becomes the one creature in their lives who can give them peace and understanding.

With powerful strokes Miss McCullers paints the details of the lives of these people and those they touch. She is squeamish neither of word nor incident and her canvas is alive with the realities of their existence, more often savage and violent than tender. Her imagination is rich and fearless; she has an astounding perception of humanity which goes with equal certainty into the daily life of a drunken social rebel like Jake Blount and into the dreams of the music-hungry, lonely Mick Kelly. The effect is strangely that of a Van Gogh painting peopled by Faulkner figures. That it is the degenerate Spiros Antonapoulos, greedy for sweets and vicious in an infantile way, who actually dominates the lives of the characters through his influence on John Singer, serves to heighten the terrific force of her story.

Carson McCullers is a full-fledged novelist whatever her age. She writes with a sweep and certainty that are overwhelming. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a first novel. One anticipates the second with something like fear. So high is the standard she has set. It doesn't seem possible that she can reach it again.

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This section contains 1,035 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Rose Feld