Carson McCuller’s The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is bleak, suggesting that no matter how strong the desire for a love that is recognized by both individuals in a relationship, there exists an inherent isolation of the human heart and soul, the “lonely hunter”. A strong desire for love coupled with an incapacity for loving. One of life’s underlying paradoxes that leads to suffering and oppression of the spirit. Each character in the novel is suffering beautifully and in need of uplifting. We feel this powerfully and poignantly in reading the story. Our own hearts cannot help but become engaged, cry out in argument, in sympathy. McCullers compels us with a diverse and interesting cast of characters set in a small town who come together but remain desperately isolated from each other. Two stylistic devices McCullers uses to heighten this sense of isolation are short, concise descriptions of even how even the weather burdens the lives of these people and unbiased, detailed physical descriptions of characters in their most isolated moments.
“The sun wore Mick early…It was too hot even to drink coffee for breakfast” (33), “The rain continued, gray and bitter and cold” (160), “It was true that it like to never quit raining” (160): these are only a few of the examples of the vivid, unelaborated setting descriptions sprinkled throughout the novel that serve to deepen the sense of oppression in this small community. No matter whether the sun is out or it’s raining, it is described as being a hardship, a form of oppression.
Major events in the novel like deaths and arrests are told in summary detail. McCullers spends the most detail on the scenes that depict characters in their most isolated moments. “She hummed one of the tunes, and after a while in the hot, empty house by herself she felt the tears come in her eyes. Her throat got tight and rough and she couldn’t sing any more. Quickly she wrote the fellow’s name at the very top of the list—MOTSART” (39). This is one of many of the scenes where we see Mick struggle to get the music always running in her head down on paper or to hear it more clearly as she wanders in the dark streets alone at night. She is alone in this struggle, never gets the piano she desperately desires, and in the end, quits writing music at all. Just as Doctor Copeland is alone and suffering, he “sat in his dark kitchen alone…The red glow from the chinks of the stove shone on his face—in this light his heavy lips looked almost purple against his black skin, and his gray hair, tight against his skull like a cap of lamb’s wool, took on a bluish color too. He sat motionless in this position for a long time” (70). Biff Brannon who we are told hasn’t enjoyed music on years, whose wife dies and it seems to barely shake him, on one evening is describedthus, “At last he put away his mandolin and rocked slowly in the darkness. Death. Sometimes he could almost feel it in the room with him…What did he understand? Nothing. Where are we headed? Nowhere” (237). Each character, though they see each other daily and live in a small town lives primarily in isolation from the rest. McCullers adds irony to this in the presence of Singer, the town mute. Mick, Jake Blount, and Dr. Copeland all go to see the mute privately to “talk” to him about what’s bothering them. All believe with equal strength that Singer gets them, that he understands. The reader knows, from what he says to his friend Antonapolous when visiting him that he doesn’t really understand them at all, but they just keep talking. This false connection only serves to make the isolation of these characters more profound, more hopeless and pathetic.
In looking at McCullers extremely minimalist, uncommented on descriptions of the physical, I am reminded that physical descriptions can be so powerful, so connected to the big picture in a story. I also see how the way that something is described, like that the sun was shining and how it’s presented are part of tone. It’s not so much whether it rains or shines, but how it rains or shines. Knowing what your own attitude toward a story is and being consistent in that will make the writer stronger. The tone of a first draft can shift easily during a piece, particularly if you don’t have an outline going in to it. So, it seems that tone should be one of the first questions to ask in revision.