Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers


I suspect if I’d read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter twenty-five years ago I’d have become the bore in the corner telling everyone how they just have to read this book. Perhaps I’ll make up for lost time now. There are very few books I’ve finished and immediately wanted to start reading all over again. Tess of the D’Urbervilles was the first. The Tin Drum was second. One Hundred Years of Solitude next. That may be about it. And now The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Carson McCullers was twenty-three when she wrote this book. I don’t know how she did it. At twenty-three I had come nowhere close to understanding myself, let alone the rest of humanity. At twenty-three McCullers created a living world of living people, lonely and sad human beings, disconnected, wanting, longing, failing, falling prey to a world for which they were ill-equipped. Human beings who failed and were failed.

The novel focuses on five central characters, essentially archetypes who represent humanity and its problems. In Dr Copeland we have the embodiment of the civil rights movement and the struggle against racism; in Mick, a thirteen-year-old girl, we see the travails of young (especially poor) women growing up in a male-dominated world; in Jake we have the communist conscience, the struggle of the worker against the system; Singer, the deaf-mute, is the eternal outsider, searching for companionship; and Biff, keeping his cafe open throughout the night even though it is uneconomic to do so, because he can think of nothing else to do and because nobody else is doing it, is slowly ageing, watching his life disappear into sameness and disappointment. If this sounds contrived, writing by numbers, a character for every ‘issue’, then don’t be fooled. This may be the basic structure of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but it is far from rigid, and the episodic plot, in which each of the characters interact in turn, falling in and out of the action, feels beautifully organic. It is a masterclass in marshalling your resources.

In particular, a significant strength of the novel is the way that McCullers uses voice to develop character. The narrative is presented in third person but takes the perspective of each of the major characters in turn. Thus, we see the development of the five principals from each other’s perspective. For example, when we begin to discern the otherworldliness of Singer, it is Biff who tells us that Jake and Mick have both turned him into a ‘sort of home-made God’ because his muteness allows them to project their idealised visions of goodness onto him. Or, of Doctor Copeland, we learn from his daughter, Portia, that he ‘done lost God and turned his back to religion’ and all his troubles stem from that loss. Explaining her approach, McCullers wrote:

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.


This explanation also reveals another of the great strengths of the novel, the way it melds realism and mythicism. Ihab Hassan sees this as a problem with the text, suggesting that McCullers fails to successfully integrate ‘social man’ and ‘individual man’, that is, outer reality (history) and inner reality (psychology). I cannot agree. The structure of the novel is controlled perfectly and there is a clear progression from the characters and their internal preoccupations to the dangers of the wider world (the novel is set in 1939, in the lead-up to the Second World War, and culminates in a race riot). The key to this structural cohesion is the character of Singer, the mute. He is both real and unreal, occupying an important place in the lives of the other characters but existing, himself, in a kind of alternative reality where he and his mute friend, Antonapoulos, consigned early in the novel to an asylum, can continue to live in harmony. The ‘home-made God’, as Biff describes him, is much treasured by the other characters, though he himself is completely unaware of this. And in the novel’s final part, after Singer’s death, their reactions to that death help to solidify their beliefs. Each of them acts, makes a statement in the real world, sees their interaction with that real world develop. Thus, a strong element of realism in the novel is manifested through the subtle use of McCullers’ ‘legendary style’.

Oliver Evans, writing in 1962, notes that ‘[i]t is impossible to understand Mrs. McCullers' work unless one realizes that she conceives of fiction chiefly as parable. The reader who concerns himself exclusively with the realistic level of her stories will never fully appreciate them.’ Evans goes on to suggest that narrative is always secondary to allegory in McCullers’ work, describing her as a ‘didactic writer’ whose goal is to teach truths about human nature rather than to entertain. Again, I disagree. There are moments when the novel does slip into didacticism, such as when the Jewish boy, Harry Minowitz lectures Mick on Nazi Germany or some of Jake’s more laboured political pronouncements, but to describe the overall allegorical tone as didactic does McCullers a disservice. Evans is correct, however, to stress that a literal reading of McCullers in realist vein is unlikely to be rewarding.

Such an approach – and this is where I think Hassan’s analysis falls down, underestimates the depth of the central theme. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a novel about human love. It is about our aspirations and our needs, the concomitants of fruitful, fulfilled lives, the potential for happiness, the danger of despair. It is, therefore, intensely personal: the novel explores these individuals’ lives, what it is that makes them who they are. Yet it does so against a realist backdrop in which Dr Copeland suffers vicious racism; in which, surrounded by friends, Singer fails to find friendship; in which Jake rails helplessly at the downtrodden workers who cannot or will not help themselves; where Mick finds her dreams tempered by harsh economic reality; and where Biff, that lonely seeker of companionship, continues his fruitless quest. People close to these characters die; others are abused horribly. The world turns and history proceeds in violence. And these people, these poor symbols of humanity, are inextricably bound to it. Alienation and isolation afflict them. Through it all, their preoccupation is to find love.

All of this may sound as though the novel presents a hopeless world, but far from it. There is much despair for the characters here, but their plight shows a path for us. Connection, communication, this is the key. Thus, the tragedy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is demonstrated by each of the characters’ desperate search for communication, human empathy. They all want somebody to know. But ultimately each is incapable of knowing anyone else. Each is sloughed in their own travails and, when opportunties arise, they fail to take them. Thus, Dr Copeland and Jake come close to agreement on the need for action against the increasing racist tendency, but end up repelling one another and parting acrimoniously. Earlier, Copeland even manages to alienate his own family, from whom he is already largely estranged but who, through his daughter, Portia, attempt a reconciliation with him; it fails because Copeland proves quite incapable of hiding his disappointment at his children’s meek acceptance of racism. Meanwhile, Singer remains oblivious of the wellspring of goodwill that surrounds him. Mick’s attempts to help her young brother backfire. On the only occasion when all five main characters are present together, in Singer’s room, there is only an awkward silence. They all want to communicate, to express themselves, to share the human experience with others, but they lack the wherewithal to achieve it. How may they - we - attain fulfillment?

McCullers’ remedy, one suspects, is religious, and there are strong religious resonances throughout The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. However, whether one takes a religious or secular view, the predicament remains as she describes it – the disconnection of the individual from society, the difficulty of achieving community.

In this vein, many critics have argued that Singer is a Christ-figure. Jan Whitt, for example, suggest that the remaining characters ‘seek to work out their own salvation’ through communicating with the mute Singer who becomes, as a result, a ‘paralyzed Christ figure, so restricted by the expectations of others that he is fictionalized by them.’ There is certainly a strong argument for Singer-as-Christ. People are drawn to him, they see in him whatever it is that they aspire to in the name of goodness. They see him as a conduit to fulfillment. And this is the great irony of the novel. It is the mute man who can show the others how to communicate, how to achieve their aspirations. But, of course, they fail. They sit in silence, mistrusting one another, resentful that they cannot be alone with Singer. And this, it seems to me, is a powerful message: communication with one’s saviour, whoever or whatever that may be, should not come at the expense of your fellow humanity. For a so-called religious novel that seems to me a radical call to humanist faith.

Therefore, it seems too simplistic to consider this to be a religious novel. It is certainly spiritual, in as much as it presents a quest for understanding, but too much remains unresolved for it to seriously be claimed by those of a religious persuasion to be a religious novel. In this, it appears to mirror McCullers’ own relationship with religion. Much like Herman Melville, she was drawn to religion and aspired to belief, but found such belief troublesome. Writing about The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, McCullers described its themes as a ‘unifying principle or God.’ Note that this is a principle or God, not of God. A search for godness is not the same thing as a search for God. And godness, in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, will ultimately be found in humanity.

Christ – goodness – is in each of us and all of us, humanity as a collective, and it is our failing that we cannot see it. We fail to reach out to one another and, in so doing, we fail ourselves and we fail each other. This is what The Heart is a Lonely Hunter reminds us.

Now, you just have to read this book...

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