Monday, October 14, 2013

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I was interested to read this book after seeing the movie starring one of my favorite actors, Alan Arkin.   The movie really hit a chord with me and the book is always there you go.

Well... I don't know if the book is actually better.  At least as far as the message or storyline goes.  It is very different, however.

In the movie, Alan Arkin plays a deaf mute and gives a powerful performance without uttering a single word.   His character, John Singer, is living with a fellow deaf mute in a Southern town.  His friend is not quite right in the head and eventually his only living relative, an uncle, is tired of getting him out of trouble and has him institutionalized.  Singer promises his friend he will move near the asylum so they can still visit each other.

Singer moves to the same town where his friend is and rents a room from a family who is letting it to make extra money, since the father is injured and can't work.  The room belongs to a young girl, Mick, who initially resents Singers intrusion on their family.

The movie shows Singer reaching out to different people.  He buys Mick a record of classical music that she likes and lets her come to his room to listen to it anytime she likes.  He helps another man who is down and out and befriends him when no one else will.  They promise to meet and play chess.
He helps a black doctor (this takes place during segregation times) with deaf patients and to reconcile with his daughter who has a lot of anger against him.

All these people appreciate Singer's help but are too self-absorbed to realize that he is reaching out to them.  That he wants to develop relationships, friendships with them.  They aren't unfriendly to Singer, just too busy to make time for him.

Singer's loneliness is strident throughout the movie.  His only recourse is his deaf friend.  They have nothing in common except their deafness.  Singer is intelligent and works professionally.  His friend is a simpleton.

(Spoiler Alert!)

When his deaf friend becomes sick and dies, Singer sinks into grief and despair.  He goes to his room and shoots himself.

At the cemetery the Doctor and Mick stand at the grave site.  At last they fully understand their neglect.  The movie ends with Mick kneeling on Singer's grave telling him, "I loved you...I loved you."

Carson McCullers' story goes in different direction.

Singer and his deaf friend, Spiros Antonapoulos, do live together, but it is apparent that not only is Antonapoulos simple, he is spiraling into insanity.  His run-ins with the law reach a point where his uncle has him put in an insane asylum.

Singer doesn't move to live near his friend but he does move to another side of town and rents a room in a boarding house.  This boarding house belongs to Mick's family.

While Singer interacts with the transient, the Doctor, Mick and a man who runs a diner, his  relationship with them is the opposite of what it is in the movie.  McCullers creates characters filled with a consuming longing to be understood.  They each need an audience to express their views, their hopes, their visions.  They find this audience in Singer.

In McCuller's story, it is Singer who is the self-contained one.  He is kind and listens to everyone.  We are never told his opinion.  Everyone imagines that he is commiserating, sympathizing, understanding.  Basically, he is a blank page that each person fills with what they want Singer to be.

All Singer cares about is Antonapoulos.  There is only one time in the whole novel where we hear Singer's voice.  It is in a letter he writes to Antonapoulos.  In this letter he describes to his friend each person and what they want and care about.  He writes with compassion but also with a detachment that reveals that his friendship with each of these people is passive.  He welcomes them and listens to them but with a distracted air.  All he really cares about is his friend.  After writing the letter he throws it away as he does all the letters he writes to Antonapoulos (are you tired of pronouncing that name yet?).

The desire that drives each character in the book to reach out to Singer is the same yearning that he feels for his friend.  He counts down the days to see him.  Takes time off work to visit him.  When there he spends hours signing all his thoughts and ideas.

And Antonapoulos doesn't care.  He only shows interest if Singer brings him sweets. Otherwise he scarcely pays attention to him.  Singer's desire for friendship with Antonapoulos is as unrequited as the other main characters' need for him is.  It's confounding why Singer would pour all his energy into someone who is neither his intellectual equal or even mentally competent.

The only person who has any redeeming characters is the Doctor's daughter Portia.  In the movie she is angry and rebellious against her dad.  In the book she is the one who loyally cares for her dad, visits him regularly and comforts him.

But he can't really be comforted, he feels the injustice against black people too acutely.  He is a great believer in Karl Marx.  If only Marxism could become the prevalent philosophy in American government.  Then equality and justice would finally come to the black man and woman.  He spends his life trying to persuade his local community to unite and march with him on Washington.

No one will listen to him.  No one but Singer.  Each weekend finds the Doctor making his way to Singer's room where he spends hours unloading his heart.

When the Doctor isn't there, the transient, Jake Blount, is.  He also wants a Marxist takeover.  He wants it for the common worker.  Everything the Doctor believes will change the circumstances of black people, Blount believes will help the common worker.  The workers at the places where he receives temporary work laugh at him.  Singer is the only one who doesn't.

And yet, the Doctor and Jake have nothing to say to each other.  Once they ended up in Singer's room at the same time.  They both sat in awkward silence for an interminable hour and finally left, each resentful that the other had stolen "their time" with Singer.

Mick develops an adolescent crush on Singer and follows him around in the evenings.  She finds excuses to sit with him in his room or to show up at the diner when he's having dinner.

The final main character is Biff Brannon, the diner owner.  He plays the part of observer.  He watches all the other players.  In the end he keeps his conclusions to himself.

 McCullers enjoys sprinkling her novel with unnecessary vulgarisms. For instance, two people will have a conversation on the street and she'll mention a boy walking by, stopping to relief himself on the sidewalk, then moving on.  Call me obtuse, but I didn't see how that little detail added to the scene or was in any way a crucial part of it.  These insertions seem forced and affected.  I wonder about her motivation for including them.

In the Gospel Matthew 12:24 Jesus says, "Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks."  I think this is true of McCullers' book.  She sees people as self absorbed islands that long to be heard but are not and neither do they listen to anyone else.

Reading her biography, one draws the conclusion that this was indeed how she viewed life:  as something hopeless where love can never be achieved.  Her husband committed suicide as did a close female friend. McCullers was sickly, suffering from strokes throughout her life and finally succumbing to a massive one at the age of fifty. 

The movie version resonated the most with me.  I could sympathize with Singer's loneliness, his reaching out to people, but taken for granted until it's too late.  I wanted to crawl into the scene, grasp Singer's hands and say, "I will be your friend!"

I could identify with the desires of the characters in the novel.  Who doesn't want to be heard?  But I haven't found people to be as self-absorbed as McCullers apparently believed them to be.  I'm sure there are lonely people around us that we ignore, but I also believe in an omnipresent God who draws us to Himself.  Even when the world abandons us we are never abandoned by God.

Of course, after death there's the matter of being eternally separated with Him if we spent our lives rejecting him, but that's a subject for another time.  

That is the key to this novel.  Each person was seeking something that can only be found in a relationship with God.

Carson McCullers did not see life that way.  I hope she is not experiencing eternity through a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It's hard to believe that Carson McCullers wrote this book when she was barely twenty-four.  The writing is strong and direct.  Each person is clearly outlined and convincingly painted.  The dialogue is believable. The storyline cleanly constructed. The scenes flow fluidly from one place to another.  I would like to write like her.  Except I would include hope as well as despair.

$8.51 on Kindle


  1. Great and thought provoking commentary Sharon. I like the fact that you try to pinpoint an author's views and then compare then to your own. Though we do not always see the world the same way, I think that your thoughtful approach is one of the things that reading is about.

    Though I do not live in a world of such isolation, I do know that some people do and find that portraits such as this, that show life's dark side, can be valuable and moving, even if they illustrate some of life's ugliness.

    I actually think that there are several examples of movies that are better then books. Though I never read the book, folks often to "The Wizard of Oz" as a prime example.

    1. Brian: I agree that sometimes movies are better than the written stories. I know that what I found most moving in the movie was Arkin's performance. It is what motivated me to read the book. I think the reason I enjoyed the book is because I could imagine Arkin playing Singer. I'm not sure I would have like the book as much if I had not first seen the movie.

      I have read "The Wizard of Oz". It is simply a very different story. Much more dark and violent. The movie is great. The book is interesting but it is not entertaining nor would I read it to children.

  2. Very interesting book and review just as interesting.

    Like the new look of the blog.

    1. Thanks, Zohar. Yes, every now and then I like to "redecorate" to keep my blog fresh looking. :)


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.