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Critical Essay by Frank Durham
SOURCE: "God and No God in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. LVI, No. 4, Autumn, 1957, pp. 494-99.
In the following essay, Durham discusses the plot of The Heart of a Lonely Hunter, praising the allegorical aspects of the novel and its rebellion against religion and tradition.
That The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is to be interpreted on more than one level of meaning is undeniable. Carson McCullers herself has called her first novel a "parable in modern form"; and, while reviewers do not take very seriously her statement as to the meaning of this parable, practically every one realizes the importance of symbolism in the book. One critic even went so far as to write that "Carson McCullers is ultimately the artist functioning at the very loftiest symbolic level …"
If, then, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is symbolic, what exactly is the symbolic intent? Mrs. McCullers has called it "the story of Fascism," presenting "the spiritual rather than the political side of that phenomenon," but this interpretation is not shared by many of her readers. Most see the theme as that of human loneliness and the individual's attempts to break through the barriers separating him from other human souls. This is certainly the major theme of the novel and of the corpus of Mrs. McCullers's work. But in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter there is, it seems to me, an ironic religious allegory employed to reinforce the author's concept of the discreteness of human beings, not just from each other, but from God Himself. I call it an allegory because I find an almost continuous presentation of this religious thesis throughout, developing and growing through the narrative, as well as in "accidental" (in the Spenserian sense) symbols which serve to highlight this thesis. The anonymous reviewer in Time suggested, without full development, something of this religious allegory when he said, "The book is … a study in the relationship of human Christs and semi-Christs to a suffering world…." And the sacrilege of the irony implicit in Mrs. McCullers's idea seemingly frightened another reviewer into asking tentatively if she is symbolizing something larger than is apparent.
The religious pattern in the novel involves a kind of pyramidal relationship of six people, though the quartet who form the base are unaware of either the existence or the importance of the one at the apex. These characters, going from apex to base, are Antonapoulas, the spoiled, self-centered Greek mute; John Singer, also a mute and rather an ascetic; Mick Kelly, the twelve-year-old girl who hears music in what she calls her "inside room"; Jake Blount, a half-mad anarchist; the Negro Dr. Copeland, who struggles for his race; and Biff Brannon, the impotent and frustrated cafe proprietor. The last four find their God-image in Singer, who, unknown to them, finds his in the Greek.
The figure of Singer is central. Yet in the opening sections of the novel, before Singer meets his four "visitors," the reader sees him in a position of dependence upon Antonapoulas, with whom he shares a small apartment. When the two walk, "The one who steered the way was an obese and dreamy Greek." Alone together, they find happiness; but it is Singer who does the "talking" in sign-language, with the Greek signaling only an occasional "'Holy Jesus,' or 'God,' or 'Darling Mary,'" and stuffing himself with food and drink. "Singer never knew just how much his friend understood of all the things he told him. But it did not matter." He must tell them. His whole existence is wrapped up in the hedonistic, childish, whimsical Greek, and when the latter is to be sent away to a lunatic asylum, Singer is in a frenzy. His hands are busy telling Antonapoulas all he must say, "all the thoughts that had ever been in his mind and heart, but there was not time." The Greek listens drowsily, leaving Singer ignorant of the success or failure of his attempt at communication.
Once the Greek is gone, Singer is desolate, changing his lodgings, walking restlessly. Now he keeps his hands hidden in his pockets; his means of intimate communication is never used with his "visitors." Finally exhaustion sets in, "and there was a look about him of deep calm. In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise." Throughout the rest of the book, unknown to the others, he lives only for his visits to the asylum, where he is greeted indifferently by Antonapoulas, who evinces interest only in his friend's expensive gifts. Only in the presence of the Greek does Singer reveal his hands and bare the secrets of his heart. Just before the final visit Mrs. McCullers tells what Antonapoulas has meant to Singer:
Behind each waking moment there had always been his friend. And this submerged communion with Antonapoulas had grown and changed as though they were together in the flesh. Sometimes he thought of Antonapoulas with awe and self-abasement, sometimes with pride—always with love unchecked by criticism, freed of will. When he dreamed at night the face of his friend was always before him, massive and wise and gentle. And in his waking thoughts they were eternally united.
It does not appear to me that Mrs. McCullers is trying to suggest an unnatural sexual relationship. Rather it is that Singer endows the Greek with Godlike qualities of understanding and finds solace through the confessional and through the serving of his God. Once the Greek's nod to a nurse "seemed one of benediction rather than a simple nod of thanks"; and Singer's dream of the Greek definitely attributes to him Godlike qualities. This dream passage is filled with both phrases and imagery of a religious nature. In the dream, yellow lanterns illumine dimly
a dark flight of stone steps. Antonapoulas kneeled at the top of these steps. He was naked and he fumbled with something that he held above his head and gazed at as though in prayer. He himself [Singer] knelt half-way down the steps. He was naked and cold and he could not take his eyes from Antonapoulas and the thing he held above him.
Behind Singer and on the ground kneel the four others, and "he felt their eyes on him. And behind them there were uncounted crowds of kneeling people in the darkness." Singer's hands are windmills, and he is fascinated by "the unknown thing that Antonapoulas held." Suddenly there is an upheaval of crashing steps, and Singer falls downward. Here, really, the religious allegory is presented microcosmically.
This religious theme is made more evident in the relationships Singer has with Mick, Jake, Dr. Copeland, and Biff. At first sight of the mute, each is drawn inexplicably to him. All seem to share Biff's feeling about him.
The fellow was downright uncanny. People felt themselves watching him even before they knew that there was anything different about him. His eyes made a person think he heard things nobody else had ever heard, that he knew things no one had ever guessed before. He did not seem quite human.
And to Singer's room in the Kellys' boarding house goes each of the four to talk to him, to unburden innermost thoughts and hatreds and aspirations. His brooding serenity and his silent nod send each away with a feeling of assurance, of blessing, even.
When Jake, the anarchist, goes off with Singer after their first meeting and Biff has been pondering the strange attraction of the mute, it is surely not mere coincidence that Biff overhears his wife preparing as her Sunday School lesson the passage in which Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to be fishers of men: "And when they had found Him, they said unto Him, 'All men seek for Thee.'"
To Mick, Singer "was like some kind of a great teacher, only because he was mute he could not teach." She sees him, too, as "what she used to imagine God was," and she rehearses a group of words "just as she would speak them to Mister Singer: 'Lord forgiveth me, for I knoweth not what I do.'"
And with the others it is the same, though Biff maintains a little detachment and occasionally wonders just how much of what they say Singer really understands.
Aside from these four relationships, Mrs. McCullers underlines Singer as the God-image repeatedly. She more than once refers to his "Jewish face," but never states definitely that he is Semitic. In fact, she has the Jews calling him a Jew, the merchants declaring him wealthy, the textile workers thinking him a C.I.O. organizer, and a lone Turk vowing that Singer is a fellow countryman. Each sees in Singer what he wants to see. Later a Negro woman declares that Singer knows "the way of spirits come back from the dead." Also he is repeatedly giving water and wine and food to his visitors. Often as they talk he sits and moves chessmen on a board. And, if one may go slightly Freudian, this Father-God image is heightened by the fact that Singer works in a jewelry store. Mrs. McCullers's father was a jeweler.
The irony of this allegory and these symbols is, of course, that man makes God in the image of his desire. For Mrs. McCullers's Antonapoulas—God and Singer—God can neither understand their suppliants nor really communicate with them. In an unmailed letter to the Greek (for Antonapoulas cannot read) Singer reveals his bewilderment as to what his visitors seek and find in him. Of Jake Blount he says, "He thinks he and I have a secret together but I do not know what it is"; of Mick, "She likes music. I wish I knew what it is she hears. She knows I am deaf but she thinks I know about music"; of Dr. Copeland, "This black man frightens me sometimes. His eyes are hot and bright…. He has many books. However, he does not own any mystery books." Singer's only reading is mystery books. Biff he passes off with the comment: "he is not just like the others. He has a very black beard so that he has to shave twice daily…. He watches." Unlike the others, Biff seems to him to have nothing he hates or loves excessively. But Biff does have something; and Singer is not quite sure what it is the others hate and love. Later he admits to himself that "He had agreed with each of them in turn, though what it was they wanted him to sanction he did not know." We have seen that Antonapoulas did not understand Singer, as Singer was sure that he did. The muteness, then, engenders mystery, but behind the mystery lies misunderstanding—or nothing.
So Singer, on whom the other four leaned, was even more dependent than they. For when the Greek died, Singer shot himself, leaving his personal affairs in a terrible mess. When God is dead, life is over for Singer. But when their God dies, Mick and Jake and Biff and the Doctor are only changed, left baseless for a while. For each, life goes on—a different life, but life. Mick, her music a bitter memory, clerks at Woolworth's; Jake goes blundering off to preach his diatribes against capitalism elsewhere; Biff phlegmatically watches the customers in his New York Cafe and yearns for children to mother; old, sick, and broken, the Doctor alone seems defeated, and he is carried off to the country leaving the struggle for his people unfinished. But even he has the fortitude to wait for death. Without God, then, life goes on, but something—a touch of glory, a feeling of communion with an all-encompassing understanding—has gone from it.
Perhaps there is also a larger symbolic framework to this allegory of the personal relationship between the individual and his self-created God. Antonapoulas is Greek; Singer has a "Jewish face." Like the gods of classical antiquity, of paganism, Antonapoulas is whimsical, selfish, scandalous, sensual, and at the same time capable of seeming wise, of bringing consolation and reassurance to his devotee. Singer, like the Christian deity, is ascetic, reflective, withdrawn, and yet intimate. For a while the two share the same dwelling, with the Greek as the dominating spirit. Then the Greek is thrown into the discard, discredited as it were by the label of lunacy; and Singer, alone but always aware of his own dependence on the past, assumes the mantle of divinity. Then, perhaps Mrs. McCullers is saying, with the destruction of the pagan past the Christian myth derived from it collapses.
At any rate, here is the religious allegory which seems to underlie and to reinforce the theme of loneliness in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. It is not an intricately perfected allegory, and often its symbolism is fuzzy. But it does seem apparent that the author has written an iconoclastic religious novel, ambitious, sensitive, vivid, and underlaid with the rebellion against tradition not unexpected in a precocious young woman of twenty-two.
This section contains 2,167 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)