The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers is a novel about communication and belonging. It takes place in Georgia before the onset of World War II. Tensions between blacks and whites thread the novel, along with greater tensions as Hitler consolidates power overseas.
The focus of the novel is a character named, Singer, who is deaf and mute. Singer has a deep friendship with another man who is also deaf and mute, Spiros Antonapoulos. During the years of their friendship, the two passed largely unnoticed in the town. It’s when Antonapoulos is sent to an asylum that Singer begins to change. He paces the town at all hours. He takes all of his meals at the New York Cafe. Through a change in behavior he is now accessible to the townspeople, even though he cannot speak nor hear.
The perspective of the novel widens to include four characters, all of whom project themselves onto Singer. Each of the four characters meet with Singer on a weekly basis and empty themselves of thoughts and emotions. They talk and talk, but never engage with Singer. Singer becomes a receptacle for them and while they believe their friendship is deep, Singer finds it puzzling, because he does not understand them as intimately as they think.
Another layer to this theme is that Singer has a similar relationship with Antonapoulos, who clearly suffers from some cognitive impairment. Is Singer’s relationship with Antonapoulos any different from the other four character’s relationship with Singer? How can Singer be blind to this possibility? Ultimately, how well does the reader know Singer? Even though the novel is about him, it’s rarely from his perspective. Just like the other characters, the reader projects onto Singer and establishes a relationship that is largely one-sided.
Carson McCullers explores what it means to be isolated through physical impairment, race, family, poverty, and political beliefs. It’s an interesting technique and one that largely works. Among the four characters who are friends with Singer, none of them are able to identify with the other. They are all outcast or isolated in someway, yet are unable to find solace in one another.