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my heart is a lonely hunter
June 21, 2008, 2:39 pm
Filed under: diary, the arts | Tags: , , ,

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“They are all very busy people. In fact they are so busy that it will be hard for you to picture them. I do not mean that they work at their jobs all day and night but that they have much business in their minds always that does not let them rest…the New York Café owner is different. He watches. The others all have something they hate. And they all have something they love more than eating or sleeping or wine or friendly company. That is why they are always so busy.”

I must admit that I am a sucker for books with nice-sounding titles. Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one such book; the metaphor is so apt and the lyrical quality of the title made it necessary for me to read it. Its title hints at what the book’s themes are, and these themes appeal to me greatly because I can relate greatly with what McCullers had to say.

The loneliness of existence and the human need for connection stands at the heart of the novel. The four characters that found themselves strangely and deeply attracted to John Singer felt intense isolation because they cannot find anyone who they can relate to and pour their concerns and troubles out to. They seek understanding and connection but cannot find it anywhere.

The tragedy is that Singer is nothing but an ordinary deaf-mute who barely understands the other characters. He is physically incapable of listening and talking to them (which itself is a strong symbol and indicator of Singer’s final inability to fully comprehend them) and he also does not actually understand them. Mick, Biff, Jake and Coupland all thought that Singer was someone special who could clearly understand what were in their minds and they confided in him. The reality is much more different. There is a touch of dramatic irony in the way McCullers describe Singer’s inner thoughts which suggest that he really does not understand fully the other characters and juxtaposes it with the actual thoughts of the characters through shifts in narrative perspectives. Singer became whatever the 4 characters wanted him to be, and he becomes a symbol of their own inner desires and hopes and fears.

Perhaps McCullers trying to say that real connection between humans is not possible. We live in hermetically sealed minds, and we are our own best friends and soul mates. Try as we might to find someone special who is our other half (as Plato will put it), we can never find someone like that. Our search for a soul mate is ultimately vain and delusional. When we think we found someone, we actually really do not. It is nothing but an illusion which we can break if we dig deeper and break the facade of connection.

I think there is some truth to this. My experience suggests so. I don’t think I have found anyone that I can relate totally with. Conversations lapse into banality, or we talk at cross-purposes. Either I do not care for what my conversation partner talk about and I maintain the conversation for the sack of social grace, or I care more about something at a different level from the other person and I feel terribly shortchanged by the participation of the other person.

I found Mick’s metaphor of the rooms we have in our heart particularly apt. Mick separates things into those that reside in the “outer” and “inner” rooms of her heart. Most daily, banal concerns fall into the former while music and Singer fell into the latter. Most people I meet and know interact with me in my outside room, and conversation falls into the subjects that reside within my outside room. There are precious few that I can open my inside room to and even with them the connection is not entirely complete.

The tragedy and irony in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is deepened by Singer’s own sense of loneliness created by his separation from his friend Antonapoulos, and Singer’s deluded belief in Antonapoulos’s love for him as a best friend. Antonapoulos doesn’t really care for Singer at all unless he brings him food, and while Singer’s devotion to and care for Antonapoulos is deeply admirable, it is sadly misplaced and unrequited.

Isn’t this something that most of us experience and feel? Parents care more for their children than their children care for them. Many parents think their children love them greatly but reality suggests otherwise. Many enter into lop-sided relationships in which one party loves the other more.

Antonapoulos reminds me of Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. Both are objects of delusional love and both fell greatly short of the standard that their deluded lovers place them at. This makes me question by own attraction to this girl in my school. Is it pure infatuation, sexual attraction, or true connection? Do we feel equally attracted to each other or it is just unrequited love on my part? I have been tussling with questions like these for months now and they have bothered me greatly. I still don’t know the answers. I might never know the answers. Or when I know the answers it might already be too late.

The saddest part of the book is when Singer killed himself. Having lost his only avenue of expression for his innermost feelings, he is left with nothing to live for in life. McCuller’s point about how humans vainly search for soul mates and understanding is hammered home by Singer’s suicide: the novel’s supposed symbol of understanding and sagely wisdom ironically kills himself because he lacks the very thing that he supposedly offers to others. The inability of the 4 other characters to fathom exactly why Singer killed himself due to their ignorance of Singer’s love for Antonapoulos compounds the idea that we can probably never hope to understand someone else.

McCullers also writes about the human need to find purpose in life, and a need to give expression to these purposes and fulfill them. Coupland harbours nobel ambitions to advance the plight of the Negroes while Jake had dreams of socialist revolutions. Mick wants to compose musical pieces.

However the hard rocks of reality dash most dreams to bits. Coupland’s health deteriorated to the extent that he can never physically hope to fulfill his mighty aims. Jake was drunk all the time. We harbour huge dreams that we can never fulfill. The question is whether it is better to live in pursuit of dreams that we can never fulfill or live a life free of delusion and devoid of any purpose. Maybe there is a middle ground where we can pursue possible dreams. But than, how do we recognise what we can do and what we cannot?

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is written in a style that is easily accessible without any artistic pretensions. The writing is akin to Harper Lee’s in To Kill a Mockingbird. Simpler language seems to suggest a more didactic tone (c.f. Dickens) but McCullers completely avoids that. The overall mood of the novel is still ambivalent although melancholic as a whole. The reader is left to make up his own mind.

The humanity of the book shines through. McCullers writes about things that stand at the heart of our existence which anyone can relate to. It is amazing how someone at the age of 23 can possess the maturity and powers of observation to pen such a book.

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1 Comment so far
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wow. you are so philosophical.

i read this book and i was bored out of my mind.

but you make me want to read it again and analyze everything.

Comment by john smith




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