The cover of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.

Carson McCullers on the LLCER Reading List

Posted by Speakeasy News > Monday 26 July 2021 > Pedagogy

One new book has been added to the programme limitatif for LLCER anglais: Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940). McCullers is often associated with Southern Gothic, along with authors like Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner and Harper Lee.

The author was born Lula Carson Smith in Georgia in 1917. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was her first novel, published when she was just 23. It was a runaway success and remains her most enduring work, although she continued to publish novels, plays and short stories.

The novel is set in a down-at-heel town somewhere in the Deep South, which is never named, and focuses on four disparate characters who gravitate towards a deaf-mute man called John Singer. Buff Bannon runs a cafe and when Jake Blount first appears in the town, he goes on a drinking binge there. Blount gets a job in a fairground and appears to be a left-wing agitator. Benedict Copeland is a rare African-American doctor. He is a great admirer of Karl Marx and wants to apply his theories to the African-American community. But his own children don’t match up to the ambitions of service and education he had for them. His daughter Portia is a servant in the Kelly family home, where Singer boards. One of the Kelly’s daughters, Mick, has an extraordinary love of classical music for someone who has no access to an instrument. She listens to other families’ radios hidden in their gardens.

Singer himself seems the pinnacle of kindness and respectfulness. He fills his loneliness with other people’s stories. He is bereft since his one true friend, another deaf-mute, Spiros Antonapoulos, was committed to an insane asylum.

The novel has definite thematic links with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, also on the LLCER curriculum. Particularly the situation of African Americans and the brutality meted out to them by the criminal justice system, but also the stifling social-economic situation for all of the poorer classes, black and white. It’s not just the hot Southern weather that is stifling, it’s the whole atmosphere of the town. But McCullers focusses less on plot than on portraying the inner lives and thoughts of the five main characters, showing astonishing insight for such a young author.

Southern Gothic
Carson McCullers is often associated with Southern Gothic, a dark form of an already dark genre considered typical of 20th century writers from, and writing set in, the American South. William Faulkner is considered the father of the genre, and other writers generally put in this category include Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, Tennessee Williams and  Harper Lee.

Southern Gothic generally features characters who are in sometimes described as grotesques or freaks: people who don’t quite fit into society because of some sort of quirk or infirmity. Each of the main characters in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter could be seen in this light. Singer is isolated because of his inability to speak, although that is also something which attracts the others to him. Dr Copland is limited by being a black man in the Depression-era South, and like Jake Blount, holds political opinions which would be considered downright seditious. Blount wants to help his fellow humans but seems incapable of connecting with them, instead losing himself in alcohol and violence. Biff Brannon has been isolated in a loveless marriage and after his wife’s death seems to be exploring his gender identity in ways that are unlikely to be accepted in the conservative South. Mick is limited by being poor and a girl, although she isn’t a very feminine one. Like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, she has a boy’s name and prefers boys’ clothes. She clearly has an immense talent for music, able to remember large parts of a symphony heard only once, but is denied the means to express it because of her family’s poverty.

There is a simmering violence in the legacy of slavery and frustration of ambitions that all the characters feel, and it breaks out at various moments in the novel, in fights, an accidental shooting, the punishment Dr Copland’s son suffers in prison, and in Singer’s ultimate fate.


Carson McCullers in 1959.

McCullers herself, while identifying as a Southern writer, was bothered by the term “gothic” that she felt was associated with the supernatural. In an article entitled "The Russian Realists and Southern Literature," McCullers wrote that Southern fiction of her generation was in fact rooted in realism. She felt that her fellow Southern writers had much in common with the 19th century Russian realists in that they wrote about regions with "peasant" classes.

Certainly her novel focusses entirely on the working classes and has a very strong sense of place. As you read, it is hard not to feel oppressive heat and hear the sound of a lazily turning ceiling fan and rocking chairs on front porches, where the people of the town are taking the evening cool.