The first novel by Georgia writer Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is commonly treated as a coming-of-age story by readers and critics alike. Many of the characters in the novel are grotesques, a term in southern literature for those who are known for their exaggerated attributes, unusual characteristics, or obsessive-compulsive thought processes or behaviors. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a compelling portrait of isolated characters and of their longing for self-expression, human connection, and spiritual integration.
Born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, McCullers was in her early twenties when she wrote The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Like many southern writers, including William Faulkner, McCullers was conflicted about her birthplace. She dreamed of the snow, excitement, and diversity of New York, and much of that longing is reflected in her first novel. McCullers is best known for her novels The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), The Member of the Wedding (1946), and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1951).
Critics disagree about whether Mick Kelly, an adolescent girl, or John Singer, a deaf mute, is the protagonist of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. McCullers said Singer is the hub of a wheel around which the other characters move like spokes. No matter which protagonist the reader selects, however, there is little doubt that Mick represents McCullers herself or that she serves as a lens for the reader. Like McCullers, Mick is androgynous, often wearing what is considered boy’s clothing; is dissatisfied with life in a small southern town; is a musician; lives in a place replete with factories, mills, and churches; develops a series of crushes and intense relationships; is determined to learn about Jewish, Catholic, and other religious and cultural perspectives in the predominantly Protestant South; is left out of many activities enjoyed by her peers; and is fearful that she will spend the rest of her life trapped in a job she despises.
In the novel, Singer becomes an ironic and ineffectual Christ figure. Mick, Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, and Jake Blount make Singer the savior they need him to be. Copeland believes Singer is a Jew. Blount insists he’s Irish. Mick finds in Singer the nurturing and tenderness she desires and compares him to what she believes God might be.
In McCullers’s fictional world, human communication is inadequate and unsatisfying, and the isolation of her characters represents a universal longing for human connection. Mick, Blount, Biff Brannon, Copeland, and Singer himself seek those who will listen to them and understand their needs. Although her characters often fail to find solace, McCullers’s world is not bleak and empty, nor are her characters fated. McCullers celebrates the power of human communication as the only avenue to love, to God, and to one’s dreams, even as she acknowledges the near impossibility of attaining it.
In April 2004 the novel was chosen by the talk-show host Oprah Winfrey to be featured in her book club, spiking sales and public awareness of the classic in the twenty-first century.
Film and Stage Adaptations
In 1968 The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter became the third of McCullers’s novels to be adapted to the screen, following A Member of the Wedding (1952) and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967). Filmed on location in Selma, Alabama, and directed by first-time director Robert Ellis Miller, the movie is a relatively faithful adaptation of the novel and was well received by critics both for its sensitivity in dealing with the themes of loneliness and alienation and for its moving performances.
Alan Arkin starred as John Singer, and his speechless performance earned him the New York Film Critics Award as best actor of 1968, as well as an Academy Award nomination. Twenty-one-year-old Tennessee native Sondra Locke, in her film debut, also gave an Oscar-nominated performance as the fifteen-year-old Mick Kelly. Others in the cast included Stacy Keach, in his film debut, as Jake Blount; Percy Rodriguez as Dr. Copeland; Cicely Tyson as Copeland’s daughter Portia; and comic actor Chuck McCann as Spiros Antonapoulos, Singer’s simpleminded fellow mute.
In spring 2005 the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta presented the first stage adaptaton of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, to mixed reviews. Written by Alabama native Rebecca Gilman and directed by Doug Hughes, the play was commissioned and produced by the Acting Company of New York City. Although staged on a stark, minimalist set, the Atlanta production made sophisticated use of sound and light to convey the late-1930s working-class, mill-town setting and places even more emphasis on time and place than does the film.