Published in 1940, Carson McCullers’s first novel, THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, provides a fascinating character study of misfits in a Southern town during the 1930s, making it a standout in the Southern Gothic genre. These people include John Singer, a deaf-mute; Mick Kelly, a tomboyish and intelligent girl with aspirations to become a famous musician; Jake Blount, a tormented drifter who wants to be a labor agitator; Biff Brannon, who runs a local diner; and Dr. Benedict Copeland, a Black doctor who wants more for his race.
The story meanders without a unifying plot, portraying these people’s lives and their intersections, notably the special relationship they have with the deaf-mute Singer. They connect with him in a deep way because he is a good listener, making them feel like he understands their dreams and torments in a uniquely empathetic way. All of them are smart and see things differently than most people, which creates a source of suffering. Mick wants to be an artist in a town where nobody seems to appreciate it, Jake wants to fight capitalist exploitation in a town where everybody more or less accepts it, and Copeland wants the Blacks in town to better themselves and gain opportunity and rights, though they don’t fight for it the way he thinks they should. These people are not complacent about mistreatment and oppression, but they live in a complacent world.
McCullers wrote HEART at 23, and it’s quite a literary achievement, beautifully written and capturing human nature, particularly the nature of those who don’t fit in, perfectly. Strangely, though there is hardly a plot, the writing and characters suck you in and keep you turning pages. The book rocketed to become a bestseller in 1940 and was adapted to film in 1968.
A deep dive for readers who enjoy Southern Gothic or are looking for interesting character-driven literary fiction.