So truthfully does this novel capture the American experience of it's time, it has earned an enduring place, along with greats like The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, on the prestigious Modern Library's top 20 novels of the 20th-Century.
Carson McCullers' stunning debut may be the smallest novel in the history of American Literature to make such a big splash. It enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top of the bestseller lists in 1940 and was the first in a string of works by McCullers to give voice to the rejected, forgotten, mistreated and oppressed. Never have the margins of society been so brilliantly illuminated.
This simple, straightforward book set in a small town in the South has an extraordinary cast of characters—a rag-tag bunch of misfits you'd never expect to talk to each other, let alone strike up friendships. At the novel's core is one of the most unique characters ever written: deaf-mute John Singer. Not only does Singer suffer from an often-misunderstood affliction, his demeanor and place in the social fabric of this intimate Georgia town speak of humanity itself. He is pensive, compassionate and genuinely caring, while at the same time confronted by the kind of tragedy even his gentle spirit cannot endure.
More Than a Lonely Hearts Club
Singer is not the only character isolated by a personal burden. Each of McCullers' characters grapples with something—adolescence, rage, insecurity, depression, prejudice or poverty—and every Georgian we meet is afflicted by their very time and place. We find ourselves moved by this unlikely circle of Depression Era townsfolk because in this journey to the heart of our country, the heart of the century, the heart of society, McCullers brings us face-to-face with our moral isolation. She reminds us that no matter how many people we are surrounded by, we are ultimately, tragically, unequivocally alone in our heart of hearts. Though this message is not unique in the fiction of America, never is it captured so realistically or felt so tenderly before The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
Carnival of Love and Loss
Each of the main characters has a front row seat on an emotional rollercoaster of love and loss. There are drunken brawls in the middle of the night where men's fists seem to move in slow motion, drugged by the Georgia heat. There are heavy hangovers to be slept off, liaisons, wacky mishaps, deaths both accidental and intentional, marital spats and racial tensions. We meet the lovelorn, the war torn, the evangelical, the righteous. Each character, in his-or-her-own way, searches for answers about life from the one man in town who can't articulate them. Talking to Singer is as good as talking to your own ghost or your own God. Behind her words, you can feel McCullers living the kaleidoscopic movements of this town. You can feel her fall in love with her eclectic band of misfits, fashioned after people she knew as sure as she knew her own blood. For all their lonely hearts, you can't help but fall for them too.