Misery Loves Company: Oprah's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
April 30, 2004
We're back in America for our new Book Club selection! Published when Carson McCullers was only 23, this novel is as profound and astute as it is plainspoken. Don't let its simplicity deceive you! The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter gives voice to a unique era of the American experience…and powerfully illuminates the frailty of the human heart.
By now you've met Carson McCullers's unusual cast of characters. Like spokes on a wheel, they all revolve around Singer, the mysterious and lonely mute. At the heart of the novel is each character's torment over a great passion they can never attain. Mick's "inner room" and her dream of music; Jake's drive for a communist utopia; Doctor Copeland's "duty" to uplift his race; Biff's pursuit for the meaning of life. But in their pursuit of some external dream, each of McCullers' characters has isolated him or herself from the richness and love in their own lives.
Like Mick, they chant a mantra "I want… I want… I want…" without knowing how to complete the sentence. (p. 52)
Desperate for something to satisfy the yearning in their own lives, they see their salvation reflected in Singer's kind and silent eyes. Trapped in his own hushed heartbreak, Singer is the oddly perfect vessel for Jake's drunken ramblings, Mick's schoolgirl crush, Biff's attraction to freaks, and Doctor Copeland's intellectual inquiries.
As much as these characters feel like outsiders in their own families or in the town at large, Singer is an even greater misfit. Yet in their loneliness, they endow Singer with the wisdom, peace, and answers they seek. "Mick Kelly and Jake Blount and Doctor Copeland would come and talk in the silent room—for they felt that the mute would always understand whatever they wanted to say to him. And maybe even more than that." (p. 94)
Ironically, the gentle man they think is so at peace might truly be the most tormented. He has lost his best friend, and the anchor of his life. Broken hearted, restless, and alone he wanders the streets with his hands stuffed deeply into his pockets—as if his heartache has broken his hands as well. Eventually, "His agitation gave way gradually to exhaustion and there was a look about him of deep calm. In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise." (p. 13) His silence is misconstrued as wisdom, his patience as acceptance, and his kindness as friendship. Unwilling to express himself, Singer leaves himself open to become whatever anyone needs him to be.
Of all the characters, Portia—who is guided by her heart, and not her head—may be one who comes closest to being at peace and finding love. She tries to explain to her father and to Mick on separate occasions that she has found peace by accepting her life, going to church and loving Highboy. Her life is simple and good. She drives her point home when she tells Mick, "You haven't never loved God nor nair a person. … Your heart going to beat hard enough to kill you because you don't love and don't have peace." (p. 51) Mick laughs it off but alone she wonders, "What would Portia say if she knew that always there had been one person after another? And every time it was like some part of her would bust in a hundred pieces."
As we move through this novel, we will journey deep into the human heart—and deep into the fabric of the Depression era American South. On many levels, we will share a journey into and out of spiritual, moral, and social isolation. It is a journey that is heartrending and tender…powerful and perceptive. One that I shall relish taking with you!