Before she began writing The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, young Carson McCullers meticulously outlined the entire novel and each of the main characters. Like spokes on a wheel, they all revolve around Singer. Then, in one shocking instant, their lives threaten to unravel. Did Carson intend for them to appear permanently caught in the wheel, destined to make the same mistakes again? Or did she plant a glimmer of hope in each of their stories?
Biff Brannon A silent observer of the night owls that frequent his café, Biff is searching for someone to love and to answer his riddles. Does he hold the answers the others have been seeking or will his own dark secrets keep him in the background forever?Mick Kelly's Journey
The essential traits of Mick Kelly are great creative energy and courage. She is defeated by society before she can even fully begin her life, but still there is something in her and in those like her that cannot and will not be destroyed.
"Mick did roam around the house during the afternoon because she could not get settled. Some days were just like that." (p. 51) Mick is perhaps the most outstanding character in the book. Because of her age and temperament, her relation with the mute is more accentuated than any other person's. Her story is that of the violent struggle of a gifted child to get what she needs from an unyielding environment. At the beginning she is a crude child on the threshold of a period of awakening and development—her energies and the possibilities before her without limits. She begins to go forward boldly in the face of all her obstacles, but things are beyond her control. Her tragedy does not come in any way from herself. She is robbed of her freedom and energy by an unprincipled and wasteful society.
"The hot afternoon passed slowly and Mick still sat on the steps by herself. This fellow Motsart's music was in her mind again. She wished there was some place she could go to hum it out loud." (p. 53) To Mick, music is the symbol of beauty and freedom. She has had no musical background and her chances for educating herself are very small. Her love for music is instinctive and intensely creative. She is always making up tunes for herself and she plans to compose great symphonies and operas. Her plans are always definite in a certain way, and she is thoroughly egotistical. The crudely childish side of her nature comes in side by side with her maturity.
"What the hell good was it. All the plans she had made, and the music. When all that came of it was this trap." (p. 350) After the death of Singer, Mick feels very alone and defenseless. The pressing economic conditions of her family are like a weight that never lifts from her heart. Since none of her siblings are responsible or able to provide for themselves, it becomes critical for her family that Mick find work, but the work is so oppressive that it causes her to fear she will lose track of her relationship with herself, which she finds through music, and her creative instincts.
Doctor Copeland | Jake | BiffDoctor Benedict Mady Copeland's Journey "He would tell them in simple words, always the same way, and with the years it came to be a sort of angry poem which he had always known by heart." (p. 74) Doctor Copeland embodies the bitter spectacle of the educated African-American in the South. Like Jake Blount, the doctor is warped by his long years of effort to do his part to change certain existing conditions. Though he has practiced medicine among the black community for decades, he has always felt that his primary work is teaching his people. His ideas are laboriously thought out and inflexible—they do not bend to fit his time and place.
"Hamilton, Karl Marx, William, and Portia would be afraid of him and look at their mother—and sometimes when he realized this the black feeling would conquer him and he knew not what he did." (p. 82) Parallel to Doctor Copeland's ambition for his race is his love for his family. But because of his inflexibility, his relationships with his four children are a complete and utter failure. His temperament is partly responsibly for this as well. All of his life, Doctor Copeland has gone against the grain of his own racial nature. At home, when he felt his children escaping from his influence, he was subject to wild and sudden outbreaks of rage. This lack of control split him from his wife and family.
"[Singer] had talked to him as no other white man and had trusted him. Always he would return to in his thoughts to this white man who was not insolent or scornful but who was just." (p. 333) To Doctor Copeland, Singer seems to be the embodiment of the control and asceticism of a certain type of white man. All his life, Dr. Copeland has suffered because of the slights and humiliations from the white race. Singer's politeness and consideration make the doctor feel pitiably grateful. He is always careful to keep his "dignity" with the mute, but Singer's friendship becomes of great importance to him.
"Sometimes he thought that he had talked so much in the years before to his children and they had understood so little that now there was nothing at all to say." (p. 83) Doctor Copeland realizes his own shortcomings in many senses. He knows, fully and bitterly, that his life's work has been a failure. Although he is respected to the point of awe by most of the people of color in town, his teachings have been too foreign to their natures to have any palpable effect—even with his own children. This ineffectuality weighs heavily on the doctor, and in the end even his relationship with Singer can't fix it.
Mick | Jake | BiffJake Blount's Journey "[Blount] had a good mind, all right, but he went from one thing to another without any reason behind it at all. He was like a man thrown off by something." (p. 17) Jake's struggle with social conditions is direct and conscious. The spirit of revolution is strong in him. His deepest motive is to do all that he can to change the predatory, unnatural social conditions existing in his world. It is his tragedy that his energies can find no channel in which to flow. He is fettered by abstractions and conflicting ideas—and in practical applications he can do no more than throw himself against windmills. He feels that the present social tradition is soon to collapse completely, but his dreams of the civilization of the future are alternatively full of hope and distrust.
"'You see, we just can't settle down after knowing, but we got to act. And some of us go nuts. There's too much to do and you don't know where to start. It makes you crazy. Even me.'" (p. 155) Jake's attitude toward his fellow man vacillates continually between hate and the most unselfish love. His attitudes toward the principles of Communism are much the same as his attitudes toward man. Deep inside he is an earnest Communist, but he feels that in concrete applications Communist societies have degenerated into something less than successful. Jake's inner and outer motives are so contradictory at times that it is hardly an exaggeration to speak of the man as being deranged. The burden he has taken on himself is too much for him most of the time.
"If he wished to talk Singer was always attentive. If he sat morosely through the day the mute understood his feelings and was not surprised. It seemed to him that only Singer could help him now. (p. 287) If Jake cannot act, and in most situations he can't, he talks. Singer is an excellent repository for conversation, and he also attracts Jake because of his stability and calm. Talking to Singer and spending the evening with him becomes a seductive habit for Jake. In the end, with Singer gone, Jake feels he has lost certain inner ballasts. He also holds onto a vague feeling that he has been tricked and that the conclusions and visions he has told the mute are forever lost. After getting trapped up in the violence that seems bred by the town itself, Jake leaves the town much as he came to it—a stranger.
Mick | Doctor Copeland | BiffBiff Brannon's Journey "The New York Café owner is different—he is not just like the others. He has a very black beard so that he has to shave twice daily, and he owns one of these electric razors. He watches." (p. 215) Of the four people who revolve around Singer, Biff is the most disengaged. It is typical of him that he is always the observer. In contrast to the driving enthusiasms of Mick, Jake and Doctor Copeland, Biff is nearly always coldly reflective. He has a passion for detail. His problem is getting at the main outlines of a situation from all the cluttered details in his mind, and he goes about this with his own painstaking patience.
"By nature all people are of both sexes. So that marriage and the bed is not all by any means. The proof? ... Old men's voices grow high and reedy ... and old women sometimes grow fat and their voices get rough and deep and they grow dark little mustaches." (p. 132) Biff is strongly influenced by his own specific sexual experiences. At forty-four years old he is prematurely impotent—the cause both psychic as well as physical. He has been married to his wife for many years and from the beginning their marriage has been a mistake. They have endured together out of economic necessity and habit. As a compensation for his own dilemma, Biff comes to his own curious conclusions about marital relations. He believes that human beings are fundamentally ambi-sexual and he indulges some of his more feminine instincts as a result.
"That was all he wanted for himself—to give to her. Biff's mouth hardened. He had done nothing wrong but in him he felt a strange guilt. Why? The dark guilt in all men, unreckoned and without a name." (p. 233) One person in the novel has a great emotional hold over Biff: Mick Kelly. Mick brings up in Biff nostalgic feelings of youth and heroism. She is at the age where she possesses both the qualities of a girl and of a boy and he feels intrigued by her and protective of her. Because he has no emotional connection to his wife, his connection to Mick takes on larger proportions than it might otherwise—though Biff never means for it to seem inappropriate.
"He was thinking that in nearly every person there was some special physical part kept always guarded. ... Funny to spot it in other people, though." (p. 29) In spite of certain quirks of his nature, Biff is the most balanced person in the novel. He has a faculty for seeing the things that happen around him with objectivity and without instinctively connecting them with himself. He sees, hears and remembers everything. In the last few pages, it is Biff who threads through the details of the story—especially as it relates to Singer—and arrives at the most salient points. In his reflections Biff himself thinks of the word "parable" in connection to what has happened. He brings the book to a close with a final, objective roundness.