Carson McCullers’ tale of life in the deprived Deep South, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, published in 1940, is deserving of praise for many reasons. The stylish building of a world, the language that paints a picture so simply and yet so beautifully, and the almost incarnate characters. Yet one feature of this novel is the main character: John Singer, a deaf man who is also mute. McCullers courageous use of a character unable to verbally express emotion, or even thoughts, is perhaps the best feature of this debut novel.
Singer begins the novel with only one friend – another deaf/mute named Spiros Antonapoulous, with whom he lives. However, Antonapoulous becomes mentally ill, and Singer desperately tries to keep hold of his friend, to no avail. The Greek is taken away to a mental asylum, despite Singer’s efforts to keep Antonapoulous with him. Through this, Singer is quickly shown to be a kind man, desperate to have human contact of some kind that he can communicate with. He is also shown to be a tragic character, losing his only friend early on in the novel, and staying in the same apartment, haunted by memories of his Greek friend. Singer holds these memories close, often mentioning minute details such as clothing or jewellery in his recounting. As such, John Singer is introduced to us in sadness and tragedy.
The loss of Antonapoulous forces Singer to associate with a world he doesn’t understand and does not wish to understand. He views the ordinary townsfolk as cruel people, uncaring of the plight of others, as tormentors to be feared. Previously, he had simply gone to work, then gone home. Now, forced to associate, he goes to a diner, and sits on his own. Singer obviously is isolated from everybody in the world. He cannot communicate with other people, he cannot relate to other people, and he does not wish to. Why would he, when he has never known kindness from any stranger and has had to do everything for himself?
Despite the isolation of Singer, he draws people in. People begin to talk to John Singer, although John Singer can’t talk back. People come to him, and ask him questions constantly, trying to burrow into the past of the deaf/mute man, but Singer can provide no answer. Eventually, Singer is known by 4 people, and these 4 people can claim to know John Singer, the mysterious deaf/mute who walks through town. Anybody who sees Singer in the town speculates about him, his character and his origins, each coming up with their own story of who the unknown man is such a close community of an economically depressed town in the Deep South.
The thing is, nobody actually knows John Singer, the man wracked by despair over the loss of his friend, seeking solace in a society that he can never truly embrace. Nobody knows about Antonapoulous throughout the whole book, Singer tells nobody, and he has to suffer in silence. Through John Singer, McCullers challenges the idea of knowing a person. We project our own identities onto people, as the “friends” of Singer do: Dr Copeland imagines Singer as a man he can relate to and share his struggles with, after the failure of his family. Mick Kelly uses Singer as an outlet for her adolescent frustration, in the end falling in love with a man who has never said a word to her. Jake Blount also uses Singer as an outlet for his frustration: an alcoholic Communist, Blount is reviled by the community and relies on Singer’s support. Finally, there is Biff Brannon, who uses Singer as an outlet for his grief for the loss of his wife.
There are parallels between John Singer and Jesus Christ, which may sound slightly over-dramatic, but they are valid. Singer, like Christ, is different from everyone he meets, unable to really be part of the crowd, although Singer is burdened by his differences, while Christ was blessed with his. Our human hero also connects instantly to those who speak to him and manages to communicate back, in some form. Christ also had the ability to connect and communicate with the people. John has identities projected on to him by others, and is to every man what every man (or woman, or girl) wants from him, again, much like the Christian Messiah. The difference is that Singer is not perfect, and is not persecuted by society, but is persecuted by himself, in a constant conflict with himself.
Eventually, Singer builds a relative hapiness for himself among people in the town. However, all is not well: Antonapoulous in the mental asylum remains sick, and eventually dies. Singer, at this news, gives up the ghost, and shoots himself. The deaf/mute sacrifices his own life, giving it up as unworthy of living. Despite his winning of new companions, Singer cannot reconcile his new life with the loss of his old friend, and thus chooses to end himself. His suicide seems to purge all the sins and worries of the twonsfolk, who are absolved of their ills and evils after the life and death of John Singer.
To conclude, John Singer is one of the most complex characters in 20th century literature – this deaf/mute who sweeps into a town on a wave of misery and seems to take it all on his own back, leaving the world carrying all the sins of a small mill town in the depressed Deep South. His selflessness and grace of nature bring happiness to those who associate with him, yet he himself can’t find peace in his soul – John Singer is a paradox, a walking defiance of normality and nature.
By Gabriel Rutherford