"Everybody in the past few years knew there wasn't any real God. When [Mick] thought of what she used to imagine was God she could only see Mister Singer with a long, white sheet around him. God was silent—maybe that was why she was reminded. She said the words again, just as she would speak them to Mister Singer: 'Lord forgiveth me, for I knoweth not what I do.'" — from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Though Mick is an adolescent whose ideas about God and religion are not fully formed, she voices a feeling that even the adult characters in the novel seem struck with again and again. She says that Singer is "a wise man, and he [understands] the strong true purpose." (p. 135) In many ways, Singer becomes a unlikely confessor for all the lonely hearts in the novel—someone they can trust with their darkest secrets in a way they would have trusted the Priest if they were churchgoers.
Not only does Mick hit upon a truth about the way Singer makes she and the others feel, she also voices an interesting truth about her time and place. She says on page 119 that "Everybody ... knew there wasn't any real God." We aren't told who this "everybody" is, but that makes it easy to surmise that "everybody" could truly be everyone Mick Kelly knows. She and her town are living through a period of the worst poverty in American history...and are looking for an attainable "savoir."
Though only Blount is down and out, living hand to mouth—mostly by his own doing—none of the characters we meet in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter are doing particularly well. In addition to what we learn of their personal isolation, we are also privy to the destitution of the Great Depression as seen through their eyes. In every nook and cranny of the town, people are suffering. The Kelly family is forced to open their home to boarders, with 14 people under one roof. Doctor Copeland doesn't charge his patients. Jake's friends steal to buy themselves "Saturday suppers." (p. 156) Everyone is in dire straights—and it both brings them together and tears them apart.
The circumstances in this book grow out of a very specific time and place. Each character is both a product of it and reacting to it. Often in what is considered the darkest hour, people reach out for the light. In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Singer is that light for an entire town, the hope of something good. Through his interactions with Doctor Copeland, Mick, Blount and Biff, he grows into something of a legend, a beacon: "The rumors about him grew bolder. ... Each man described the mute as he wished him to be." (p. 223)
In this dark hour—when racial tensions tear at the fabric of the South, destitute poverty is rampant, illness is incurable, education and culture a distant afterthought, a world of people look for the presence of God. Because of his silence and gravity, Singer comes closer than anyone to giving that feeling of hope. What will it cost him, and everyone? Read on.