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Critical Essay by Joseph R. Millichap
SOURCE: "The Realistic Structure of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1, January, 1971, pp. 11-17.
In the following essay, Millichap discusses the structure and genre of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
Carson McCullers produced before her death in 1967 a small but impressive body of fiction: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1940; Reflections in a Golden Eye, 1941; The Member of the Wedding, 1946; The Ballad of the Sad Café, 1951; Clock Without Hands, 1961; and twelve short stories published between 1936 and 1967. Her career was marked by successes, both popular and critical, and by controversy. The controversial aspects of her work become apparent in even a cursory examination of the criticism concerned with it. Conflicting opinions regarding the interpretation of individual works, the value of her overall achievement, and her place in American literary history abound. Some commentators compare her favorably with Faulkner, others judge her a failure; some find in her work a stark realism, others a Gothic romanticism. This latter critical dichotomy has created an unresolved problem in the analysis of her fiction. The present article demonstrates through structural analysis the psychological and social realism of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, her most typical and successful novel.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is the focus of the debate over the realistic versus the romantic, or Gothic, aspects of Carson McCullers' work. Most critics have interpreted the novel as an allegory, a Gothic romance, or a fable (or some combination of these types) and insisted on the absence of any social interest. Chester Eisinger's remarks are typical: "A peripheral matter in this novel [Heart] is the way in which Mrs. McCullers treats social problems." Ihab Hassan deems the novel a failure because its form does not connect social man and individual man. Yet one of the most influential studies of the genre, Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel characterizes Mrs. McCullers' first novel as "… the last of the 'proletarian novels,' a true Depression book."
These critical differences can only be resolved through a careful analysis of the novel's structure, though Heart certainly presents many structural difficulties. First, its third person omniscient point of view is complicated by its assimilation into the viewpoints of four major characters (Biff, Mick, Blount, and Copeland), who in turn become the central intelligences of individual chapters. The other chapters, dealing with Singer and Antonapoulos, remain very definitely third person. This arrangement raises a question: Who is the protagonist of the novel? No single character appears capable of claiming that distinction. Singer stands at the center of the grouping of characters, but he remains almost as enigmatic to the reader as to his fellow lonely hearts. Mick is the most fully developed individual, yet she had little insight into her own or others' problems. Biff has the clearest vision and the last word, but in his observer's role he functions only as a minor element of plot structure. The action of the novel, in fact, is not centered on any one individual; it involves the social group, both the central characters and the whole mill-city society.
The structure of the novel is tripartite. Part One introduces style, character, setting, plot, and theme through the depiction of the Singer-Antonapoulos relationship, its disintegration, and Singer's subsequent involvements with the other characters. Part One also establishes the fundamental tension between the personal and the social worlds, as the central human relationship is mirrored in the social lives of all the other characters. And finally Part One of Heart serves as an introduction to what Mrs. McCullers called "the general web of the book." Part Two contains the major plot development; it completes the web. Part Two comprises fifteen chapters: five centered around Mick, three around Copeland, two each around Blount and Biff, with three summary or "legendary" chapters. This part covers exactly one year from July, 1938 to July, 1939; during this interval the characters are seen to evolve through an elaborate though coherently structured series of events, which are carefully interconnected to form the plot. Here the author achieves a more complex picture of the mill-city and its inhabitants which stresses social problems and their foundation in the individual personality. The greater scope of the section allows Mrs. McCullers to consider those particular social ills which plague her characters: Blount provides a connection with economic exploitation, Copeland with racial prejudice, Mick with the alienation of youth. The threads of each character's development are woven into a tapestry depicting Southern society at the end of the Depression. Flashbacks are used to provide a sense of movement in time. These movements are almost always used to underline the character's connections with social difficulties, for example Jakes' background in the poverty of Gastonia, N.C., another mill-city. The central position of Singer never allows the personal sources of these problems to escape consideration.
Part Three demonstrates the reactions of the characters to the death of Singer and stresses through irony their inability to solve both personal and social problems. This part of the novel consists of four chapters, one each for Copeland, Blount, Mick, and Biff. The chapters also represent the four parts (Morning, Afternoon, Evening, Night) of one day, August 21, 1939. Part Two is patterned after the natural cycle of the year; in Part Three the smaller cycle of the day lends meaning to the action by emphasizing the end of summer, the decline of both men's fortunes and of the year. The microcosmic social world of the mill-city erupts in the unbridled hatred of a race riot, while the larger world, the macrocosm, teeters perilously on the brink of total war. In the conclusion of this section, humans plumb the nadir of their conditions. Mrs. McCullers had created a confused, brutal world, shown a momentary order in it, destroyed that order, yet in the very destruction, in the very moment of despair, shows us the foundation of a possible order in the tragic revelations of defeat. The four chapters are arranged to demonstrate this meaning; they move from the character with the least understanding and hope to the one with the most. Perhaps the personal and social disorder of the future can be avoided by an implementation of the knowledge produced by tragedy. The formal device which lends force to this apocalyptic vision is the reversal of the order of Chapters Two through Five of Part One: as the characters formed their connections with Singer, so are they disengaged.
The development is almost linear, with a few flashbacks used to fill in the historical bases of social problems and the corresponding connections of past with present in the lives of the characters. Although structurally simple, this method allows much complexity of development of themes and characters. The novel resembles classics of American realism like Winesburg, Ohio and The Grapes of Wrath in this basic structure.
The pattern of character relationships is much more complicated. The simple image of a circle or wheel (used in both the text of the novel and Mrs. Cullers' "Outline") seems to represent the relationship of the major characters to Singer. Shortly after Christmas they all visit him simultaneously, creating a scene which dramatizes the central pattern of the novel, a scene in which the characters move in a mime of their customary actions. Copeland stands in the doorway; Mick listens to music on the radio; Blount opens a bottle of beer; Biff smiles and observes. But there is no communication, and Singer is bewildered by their sudden silence. They regard each other suspiciously, exchange a few hostile questions, then generalize about the weather, and finally leave hurriedly. The few things they do say are directed at Singer rather than to each other. "Their thoughts seemed to converge in his as the spokes of a wheel lead to the center hub." But the mute realizes, at least unconsciously in a later dream, that the pattern resembles a pyramid:
Out of the blackness of sleep a dream formed. There were dull yellow lanterns lighting up a dark flight of stone steps. Antonapoulos kneeled at the top of these steps. He was naked and he fumbled with something that he held above his head and gazed at it as though in prayer. He himself knelt halfway down the steps. He was naked and cold and he could not take his eyes from Antonapoulos and the thing he held above him. Behind him on the ground he felt the one with the mustache and the girl and the black man and the last one. They knelt naked and he felt their eyes on him. And behind him there were uncounted crowds of kneeling people in the darkness. His own hands were huge windmills and he stared fascinated at the unknown thing that Antonapoulos held. The yellow lanterns swayed to and fro in the darkness and all else was motionless. Then suddenly there was a ferment. In the upheaval the steps collapsed and he felt himself falling downward. He awoke with a jerk. The early light whitened the window. He felt afraid.
Singer plays John the Baptist to Antonapoulos's Christ. Yet Antonapoulos looks upward also, at some unknown object which he holds above his head and regards with a prayerful attitude. This object is the cross which the Greek wears around his neck on a red ribbon. Later Singer is reminded of the dream when he sees the cross, the one thing that Antonapoulos treats with a veneration like that which he receives from Singer. The presence of the cross at the apex of this pyramid of stupid devotion indicates that religion has little relevance for modern society, a favorite theme in Proletarian fiction. The dream reveals the final emptiness inherent in the total situation, and the dream's collapse prefigures the destructive failure of everyone's dreams at the conclusion of the novel.
The most apt figure might be a three-dimensional rendering of the pyramidal image as a solar system in which there are a number of complementary orbits. Antonapoulos and his cross are at the exact center of the system. Singer is in orbit around him; the others revolve about Singer, and even they have their satellites in the minor characters who relate to them. The narrative relates the creation of this complex system and its disintegration. In a final sense the pattern of the action becomes cyclical: the characters move from disillusionment to hope to disillusionment, and, perhaps, to hope again. No matter what image is employed, it must be combined with the linear progression of time in the novel to demonstrate the connection of the personal and social worlds. In the timeless world of the heart the characters are involved in a complicated pattern; in the changing social world they are a part of inexorable historical movements. The whole novel exists as a complex figure of their combination.
Style functions organically with structure. A "legendary" style adds a timeless quality to Chapter One, helping to establish the archetypal nature of the events narrated. This style reoccurs in each of the key chapters concerned with Singer and Antonapoulos. The other chapters (2-5 of Part One; 1-6, 8-14 of Part Two; 1-4 of Part Three) employ styles related to the central personality of the chapter. Chapter Two of Part One for example, is centered about Biff Brannon, although other characters are introduced in it. The narration changes as the section opens; the "legendary" style ends, and a flat, objective, factual style begins, a style analogous to the character of Biff Brannon, the observer. Mrs. McCullers planned a different style for each of the main characters.
There are five different styles of writing—one for each of the main characters who is treated subjectively and an objective, legendary style for the mute. The object of each of these methods of writing is to come as close as possible to the inner psychic rhythms of the character from whose point of view it is written.
The legendary style of Chapter One, which has much of the "once-upon-a-time" quality of fable or romance, depicts human isolation and its causes on a generic level. Though succeeding chapters supply realistic details and anchor the story in an actual place and time, this opening section creates an aura of the timeless world of the imagination, the soul, the interior self. The world of the mutes remains separate from the town which surrounds them, for it is in actuality the changeless realm of the human heart. In telling the story of Singer and Antonapoulos, Mrs. McCullers essentially concerns herself with love, the universal search of the human heart for fulfillment. But soon a social background emerges from the shadows of the unconscious mind. At this point the reader becomes aware of the city, the social milieu in which Singer's search must be conducted.
The town was in the middle of the deep South. The summers were long and the months of winter cold were very few. Nearly always the sky was a glassy, brilliant azure and the sun burned down riotously bright. Then the light, chill rains of November would come, and perhaps later there would be frost and some short months of cold. The winters were changeable, but the summers always were burning hot. The town was a fairly large one. On the main street there were several blocks of two and three-story shops and business offices. But the largest buildings in the town were factories, which employed a large percentage of the population. These cotton mills were big and flourishing and most of the workers in the town were very poor. Often in the faces along the streets there was the desperate look of hunger and of loneliness.
In her outline of the novel, Mrs. McCullers locates the city on the ChattahoocheeRiver in western Georgia, in effect identifying it as her home town, Columbus. The city is a symbolic type of the culture produced by industrialization—a world of decay, deprivation, and loneliness. Blount's place of employment, the Sunny Dixie Show (the irony of the name is obvious), becomes the major example of setting used symbolically. A tawdry place of entertainment and escape appropriate to this world, the show is a combination of an urban wasteland and a mechanical nightmare.
The motionless wooden horses were fantastic in the later afternoon sun. They pranced up statically, pierced by their dull gilt bars. The horse nearest Jake had a splintery wooden crack in its dingy rump and the eyes walled blind and frantic, shreds of paint peeled from the sockets. The motionless merry-go-round seemed to Jake like something in a liquor dream.
The flying-jinny, or merry-go-round, symbolizes the meaningless and oppressive round of mechanical activities associated with modern urban civilization.
The city in the novel is not specifically identified; it might be any Southern mill-city and becomes representative of the industrialized and urbanized South, or America, or the whole modern world. It is still a realistic picture of a specific place, however, and a knowledge of the South and its history adds to the appreciation of the narrative. The description of the city emphasizes its social problems, and the choice of characters allows the narrative to develop them at some length. Jake Blount, for example, observes the results of economic exploitation in the section of mill houses.
On either side there were rows of dilapidated two room houses. In the cramped back yards were rotted privies and lines of torn, smoky rags hung out to dry. For two miles there was not one sight of comfort or space or cleanliness. Even the earth itself seemed filthy and abandoned. Now and then there were signs that a vegetable row had been attempted but only a few withered collards had survived. And a few fruitless, smutty fig tress. Little younguns swarmed in this filth, the smaller of them stark naked. The sight of this poverty was so cruel and hopeless that Jake snarled and clenched his fists.
Here is the ruined garden of the new industrial world, an environment in which man finds the expression of his essential human nature extremely difficult. Cut off from a sense of community, each individual enters a dangerous inner world of dreams where he is existentially alone.
Each character isolates himself in this way; the repetition of the pattern emphasizes its generic nature. Singer presents the pattern because his communication difficulties constitute the most obvious symbols of modern alienation. The other major characters serve to connect the pattern to the society of the mill-city and to the larger world outside.
Even the minor characters demonstrate the same purpose. Harry Minowitz, for example, represents the novel's pervasive social concerns. Harry's Jewish background amplifies both the religious and social themes of the novel. His presence also raises the issue of Fascism, bringing the macrocosm of the world situation of 1939 into focus with the microcosm of the mill-city. Mrs. McCullers once commented that Heart is "an ironic parable of fascism," a statement which has caused critics much puzzlement. The novelist undoubtedly uses both terms in a very broad sense, meaning by the second any social system which bases its order on hatred, aggression, and human exploitation. These are the bases of the social structure in Nazi Germany and in the mill-city, and thus the "parable" is ironic. Facism in this sense can be present in any social organization because its seeds—hate, greed, and fear—are constants of the human situation. Harry himself demonstrates these characteristics. His adolescent fear of isolation made him sympathetic with Fascism.
'I used to be a Fascist. I used to think I was. It was this way. You know all the pictures of the people our age in Europe marching and singing songs and keeping step together. I used to think that was wonderful. All of them pledged to each other and with one leader. All of them with the same ideals and marching in step together.'
Harry's reaction to Fascist anti-semitism creates a personal chaos. His very hatred of Hitler causes him to desire to live within a militaristic society which would fight Nazism. His own physical desires lead him into the sexual exploitation of the younger Mick. Of course, all of the characters and events of the novel are part of this presentation of man's world, but Harry provides the key to the equating of mill-city with a world on the eve of war. In Harry's Jewishness Mrs. McCullers universalizes her picture of human failure through the interpenetration of all these worlds.
Careful analysis of its structure demonstrates how all elements of the novel—character, plot, style, setting, and symbol—are integrated in the larger purpose of presenting the failure of communication, the isolation, and the violence prevalent in modern society. The novel's characters demonstrate the roots of these general conditions in the nature of the individual personality. Each person is freakishly incomplete, selfish, uncommunicative (Mrs. McCullers' originaltitle, "The Mute", might have been intended as a plural form), immature, sexually frustrated, and essentially alienated from their society. The symbolization of these difficulties on a personal level often approaches the Gothic—for example, the freak as Everyman. However, a concurrent emphasis is placed on the accurate social depiction of these characters. No communication can exist when each person creates only a self-centered and self-deluded view of the world around him. But a society composed of such individual parts will drive man further into himself. Bound in the prison of his isolation and tortured by the pains and shocks of life, man attempts to escape from this condition into an imagined world of perfect fulfillment. This search for personal realization must necessarily be social because he must communicate with and love other human beings. Man's social world is imperfect because of personal failings, and his personal existence is painful because of the tension between self and an imperfect society.
In Carson McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, this paradoxical condition is explored through the symbols provided by a particular society—a small mill-city in the American South immediately before World War II. A knowledge of its social setting is helpful in understanding the novel's psychology, but the book also explains particular historical situations and events as manifestations of universal human conditions. The novel's analogues in Southern fiction are readily apparent: the alienated characters of Wolfe, the disintegrating families of Faulkner, the corrupt social and political order of Warren. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter stands as an impressive achievement, particularly for a young writer. It provides a critical perspective for viewing Mrs. McCullers' other works, and perhaps for the whole expanse of modern Southern fiction.
This section contains 3,422 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)