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Carson McCullers spends relatively little time in her first novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, setting the scene, yet her details are so vivid and her characterization so consistent that it becomes easy to imagine this town in the sweltering heat and "black sultry nights" (p. 13) of summer. One of the most vivid places is Biff Brannon's New York Café. "Outside the street lights had already been turned off, so that the light from the café made a sharp, yellow rectangle on the sidewalk. The street was deserted, but inside the café there were half a dozen customers drinking beer or Santa Lucia wine or whiskey." At several points throughout the book, Carson takes us back to the New York Café to keep us grounded where we are: in the Depression-era south, where society hunkers down over cups of coffee or beer to forget the hard truths of their lives.

Another very strong sense of place in the novel is Doctor Mady Copeland's house, which, because he is a doctor, serves as a place of gathering and also a place of extreme isolation and solitude. "Often at night the sharp jangle of the doorbell would rouse him from his silence, and in the front room he would find a patient with a broken bone or a razor wound." (p. 71) Despite his "grand electric lights," Doctor Copeland spends hours sitting in the dark—which clearly becomes a metaphor for the situation of his race. Even when there is light, they are still in the dark.

Lastly, there is the Kelly boarding house where Singer lives, with the bustle and noise that Mick Kelly is constantly trying to escape, "Mick did not want to go back into the rooms where the family stayed. And she did not want to talk to any of the boarders. No place was left but the street—and there the sun was too burning hot. She wandered aimlessly up and down the hall...." (p. 51) Even when it's quiet, the Kelly house overflows with so much energy that only the deaf-mute can hear himself think. In all these settings, Carson paints a picture of destitution, aimlessness, loneliness and hunger that serves, in the end, to transcend time and place. It is one of her gifts as a writer, and this book one of her greatest achievements.

Freakishness | Imprisonment | Violence  

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