Carson McCullers’ first novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Topics: Novels

Carson McCullers’ first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, introduces the troubled lives of five principal characters in an unknown Deep South mill town in late 1930s. The writer described five characters as somehow freakish people with multiple identities: Singer is a deaf-mute Jew; Mick Kelly is a typical tomboy from a lower middleclass family; Jake Blount is an illiterate white; the black physician doctor Benedict Mady Copeland suffers from pulmonary tuberculosis when he was young; the boss of the town cafe Biff Brannon is weak and feminine.

These people don’t have communication and their stories are paralleled before Singer moved into Mick’s house. They are like five imprisoned souls in a panopticon, exposed under the control of both normalizing and repressive power, striving for expression and spiritual integration in modern society.

Every human relation is to some degree a power relation. Power “reaches into the very grain of individuals, touches their bodies and inserts itself into their actions and attitudes, their discourses, learning processes and everyday lives” (Foucault, Power/Knowledge 39).

There is an invisible panopticon in the mill town in South like Bentham’s panopticon. As an annular building at the periphery, it is divided into cells that have two windows, “one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other” (Foucault, Discipline & Punish 201). At the center, it has a tower where a supervisor is placed to shut all the prisoners up in the cells.

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The cells are like cages or small theatres where “everyone is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible”(Foucault, Discipline & Punish 201).

The major effect of the panopticon is the loss of privacy and the threat of tyrannical social control. “Each individual, in his place, is securely confined to a cell from which he is seen from the front by the supervisor; but the side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions ”(Foucault, Discipline & Punish 201). That is to say, he doesn’t see that he is seen. Constantly observed by an inspector, he is nothing but the object of information. He loses the privacy and fails to be a subject in communication. The division of cells implies a lateral invisibility which serves as a guarantee of order.

If the inmates are convicts, there is no danger of a plot, an attempt at collective escape, the planning of new crimes for the future, bad reciprocal influences; if they are patients, there is no danger of contagion; if they are madmen there is no risk of their committing violence upon one another; if they are schoolchildren, there is no copying, no noise, no chatter, no waste of time; if they are workers, there are no disorders, no theft, no coalitions, none of those distractions that slow down the rate of work, make it less perfect or cause accidents. (Foucault, Discipline & Punish 201-202)

Under the guardianship, the compact mass is confronted with the tyrannical threat of control and deprived of any potential opportunity to struggle.

In the novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, there is also an invisible prison. Everyone is under the watch and control of the tyrannical society. Being individualized and isolated from the outside world, no one can find the real relief and understanding. Failing to get rid of the chains that the society bound them, every character is powerless and has no capacity to achieve their goals. Singer, a deaf mute who takes another mute Antonapoulos as his own salvation, can do nothing when Antonapoulos is sent away. Though he visits Antonapoulos several times, he knows little about Antonapoulos’s situation. At last, he chooses to kill himself after knowing the death of Antonapoulos. Mick, a girl who shows great enthusiasm for music, can’t afford the music instrument or a radio because of the poor family conditions. She finally gives up her dream in the inside room and assumes responsibility for the family. Biff Brannon, the owner of the New York Cafe, has puzzling and contradictory impulses such as his contradictory relationship with his wife Alice and his strange affection for Mick. He shows no love for Alice, but always memorize her after her death. His odd behaviors leave us to assume that he is impotent and unable to resolve his inner conflicts. Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, a well-educated black man, devotes all his life to improving the status of the black. However, his family members and his compatriots can’t understand him. Nothing is completed when he has to move to the countryside for his later life. Jake Blount, aware of the lies that the capitalists tell to the common people, spares no effort to uncover the truth of the unfair social system. However, no one appreciates his madness and behaviour and he finally leaves this town.

The five main characters’ struggles in the story echoes the thesis title. The strangled, wasted and slavish South mill town serves as the invisible panoption where although all of them have been imprisoned psychologically, they still strike to live a more meaningful life even if the hope is slim and the effort ends in vain.

Friendship between John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulo highlights the unequal power relation between the lover and the beloved. In the novel, Singer dreams that he sees Antonapoulos at the top of a flight of stairs, kneeling and holding something up in his hand. He is kneeling behind Antonapoulos, while Mick, Biff, Jake, and Dr. Copeland are all kneeling behind him.(Carson ?) This dream indicated important power relationships in the novel as a whole.

Antonapoulos is a lazy, selfish and rude boor who takes surprising actions and shows little interest in the world around him. Singer, a tall man with quick, intelligent expression and always immaculate and very soberly dressed, however, is satisfied with his companion and attributes great qualities to him. Singer performs actively, but Antonapoulos responses passively, which indicates the idea of the lack of reciprocity. The relationship between Singer and Antonapoulos is uneven. “At home Singer was always talking to Antonapoulos”, but “Antonapoulos sat back lazily and looked at Singer. It was seldom that he ever moved his hands to speak at all— and then it was to say that he wanted to eat or to sleep or to drink”(McCullers 4). When Antonapoulos recovered from the illness and changed into irritable ,“Singer lived in continual turmoil and worry. But Antonapoulos was always bland, and no matter what happened the gentle, flaccid smile was still on his face”(McCullers 8). After knowing the news that Antonapoulous has to be sent to the asylum, Singer kept talking with his hands, but Antonapoulous just watched him drowsily. On the day of leaving, Singer “watched him from the window and his hands began desperately to talk for the last time with his friend”, but his friend Antonapoulos was “so busy checking over the various items in his lunch box that for a while he paid no attention”(McCullers 10). All these details depict a Singer depending a lot on his friend Antonapoulos and trying to create an active relationship, while Antonapoulos cares little about Singer and performs passively when staying with Singer. After Antonapoulos leaving for the asylum, Singer pays several visits to him with fine presents but every time ends up with Antonapoulos’s calm and quiet response. In the end, Singer brings out a pistol from his pocket and puts a bullet in his chest after Antonapoulos’ death.

Obviously, Antonapoulos’ existence is Singer’s only redemption. However, Singer is not so important in Antonapoulo’s heart. Such kind of uneven power relationship causes a gigantic gap and clash, leaving a deep impression on readers.

Normalizing and repressive power in Mick’s relationship with her family and people around her play a significant tune in the novel. Normalizing: (But in the inside room with music and Mister Singer was not all. Many things happened in the outside room. She fell down the stairs and broke off one of her front teeth. Miss Minner gave her two bad cards in English. She lost a quarter in a vacant lot, and although she and George hunted for three days they never found it. Then Mick and Harry became close and had sex during a bicycle journey, which made she feel very old. It was like something was heavy inside her. She was a grown person now, whether she wanted to be or not. Mick’s outside world influenced Mick, because of which, she could not stay in the inside room. She had to be around somebody all the time and doing something every minute. She followed Mister Singer everywhere. At the night-time, a queer afraidness came to her. During the day she was busy in the outside room. But at night she was by herself in the dark and figuring was not enough. She wanted somebody. Everyone sensed Mick’s change because she walked around and didn’t say a word. She’s not even greedy like she used to be.“It was as though in some way she was waiting—but what she waited for she did not know. During the day she either worked hard at music or messed with kids. And waited ”(McCullers 315). This period signals a thing that will change everything.

Hazel came home and introduced Mick a job at a ten-cent-store. All of Mick’s family members refused to corner Mick into taking the job. The way they took the attitude touched her. She felt excited that they were all talking about her in an kindly way. Of a sudden she loved all of the family and a tightness came in her throat. At the thought that ten dollars a week would buy about fried chickens or five pairs of shoes or five dresses or installments on a radio and piano, she felt hot and reckless. “I want to take the job. I can hold it down. I know I can”(McCullers 317).

The excitement of the hour before had died down and she was sick to the stomach. She was going to work in a ten-cent store and she did not want to work there. It was like she had been trapped into something. The job wouldn’t be just for the summer—but for a long time, as long as she could see ahead. Once they were used to the money coming in it would be impossible to do without again. Though she got Mister Singer’s nodding yes, she kept asking herself, “WHAT good …… What the hell good was it. All the plans she had made, and the music. When all that came of it was this trap—the store, then home to sleep, and back at the store again”(McCullers 350).

repressive power: poverty and her music dream (When she was by herself in this inside room the music she had heard that night after the party would come back to her. During the day sometimes, or when she had just waked up in the morning, a new part of the symphony would suddenly come to her. Then she would have to go into the inside room and listen to it many times and try to join it into the parts of the symphony she remembered. In the inside room, along with music, there was Mister Singer. For some reason it was like they had a secret together. Or like they waited to tell each other things that had never been said before. He was the only person in the inside room.“The inside room was a very private place. She could be in the middle of a house full of people and still feel like she was locked up by herself”(McCullers 163). To Mick, the inside room plays an important role in her life. She enjoys staying in this room by herself creating her dream music and storing up everything about Mister Singer so that later she could live it over and remember. Thus the inside room functions as her source of happiness and hope.)

Mick with people in her inside room: Experiencing the stages of separation, conflict and intermixture, inner room finally remains intact and she will continue to follow her slim music dream although the outer room has occupied her spiritual world. Thus the struggling power relationship of Mick’s Inside Room and Outside Room flows through the whole novel and depicts us a girl’s growing up story.

With Mick it was like there was two places—the inside room and the outside room. “School and the family and the things that happened every day were in the outside room. Mister Singer was in both rooms. Foreign countries and plans and music were in the inside room. The songs……And the symphony ” (McCullers 163).

There were these two things she could never believe. That Mister Singer had killed himself and was dead. (her music dream also dies) And that she was grown and had to work at Woolworth’s. But now no music was in her mind. It was like she was shut out from the inside room.

Sometimes a quick little tune would come and go—but she never went into the inside room with music like she used to do. It was like she was too tense. Or maybe because it was like the store took all her energy and time……But now she was always tired. At home she just ate supper and slept and then ate breakfast and went off to the store again…… And she wanted to stay in the inside room but she didn’t know how. It was like the inside room was locked

somewhere away from her. (McCullers 353)

At this time, the outside room has won over the inside room. Mick had nothing left but the slim hope of music that encouraged her to continue her life.

During the power relationship between the outside room and inside room, mutual existence, struggling and one-side victory are indispensable elements which show the growth of Mick.

The power relationship between Biff and his wife Alice is worth studying. In marriage, the couple’s relationship is complex and contradictory. It is clear that Biff and Alice don’t feel great love for one another after being married for fifteen years. They often quarrel with each other and make sarcastic comments. At the beginning of the novel, Biff and Alice has a big quarrel because of drunk Jake. Biff likes freaks and reckons that Alice, Misses Brannon, certainly ought to being as she’s one herself. “For the first fifteen years of their married life they had called each other just plain Biff and Alice. Then in one of their quarrels they had begun calling each other Mister and Misses, and since then they had never made it up enough to change it”(McCullers 14).Such kind of cold and alienated addressing way shows that they have a fighting power relationship. Biff feels sorry he has talked to Alice because being around her always makes him tough and small and common as she is. He thinks the trouble with her is that Alice doesn’t have any real kindness or curiosity. Their values have nothing in common. Biff is as distanced, observant, and quiet. However, Alice doesn’t ever see or notice anything important that goes on. She never watches and thinks and tries to figure anything out. She doesn’t know what it is to store up a whole lot of details and then come up something real. Thus this is the biggest difference between them. Besides, Biff is not satisfactory with the fact that there’s no distinctive point about her on which he could fasten his attention. When he is away from her there’s no one feature that stands out in his mind and he remembers her as a complete, unbroken figure.

But their fighting relationship changes with the illness and death of Alice. While Alice was sick and not well, Biff had an uneasiness in him and many worries on his mind. Though they did not often talk, Biff would stand watching her for a long time. When Alice died, Biff had been presented. He sat by her bed in stunned reflection and continued to look into her face. “He noted each detail about her as though he had watched her every day for twenty-one years. Then gradually as he sat there his thoughts turned to a picture that had long been stored inside him” (McCullers 122). Biff now clearly remembered one thing about Alice—

her feet—stumpy, very soft and white with purify toes. He even thought of the night they were married when he took off her shoes and stockings and kissed her feet, the choicest part of a woman in Japanese mind. And this was different from Biff’s impression on Alice before her death that there was no distinctive point about her. In the following days, Biff always thought of her when he saw some old things or heard old tunes. While he was reading newspaper, he remembered that Alice had wanted him to haul out the papers so she could turn the room into a ladies’ toilet.

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Carson McCullers’ first novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. (2019, Nov 17). Retrieved from

Carson McCullers’ first novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
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