Coming of Age in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

The term “coming of age” is identified with many concepts of growing up: loss of innocence, solidification of an identity that adulthood is based upon, and conforming to society to one degree or another. These concepts are tied to various “rites of passage”, including a first sexual experience, a first truly serious event, a first job, etc. The passage into adulthood is traced in Carson McCullers’s novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, through the siblings Mick and George “Bubber” Kelly. Mick’s journey from childhood to adulthood is traced as she undergoes staggered events that will shape her identity as an adult. Bubber, on the other hand, is still a child until an accident with his BB gun sparks his movement into adulthood within hours. Both characters speak to every person’s desire for the freedom to create their own identity, a desire that is universal in the book and to the audience.

The most obvious examples of Mick and Bubber’s “sparking” into adulthood are directly tied to their losses of innocence, each because of a direct encounter with the idea of death. Mick experiences multiple rites of adulthood throughout the book, but none is more traumatic than finding the body of John Singer, whom she had idolized as a dearest companion. In her final chapter, it is narrated, “She was the one who found him…it was not until the next day that they knew. She went in to play the radio. The blood was all over his neck…”(351-2). This experience is Mick’s first encounter with true loss, not only of her greatest friend but also her childhood, which is put to an end by this head on encounter with her own mortality. Bubber’s life is changed when he purposefully shoots another child with his BB gun. Though this could be brushed off as just a child’s accident, Bubber is significantly different after this sole event, with the narrator saying, “But after that night there was not much of a chance for her to tease him any more- her or anybody else. After he shot Baby the kid was not ever like little Bubber again. He always kept his mouth shut and he didn’t fool around with anybody” (180). The innocence of Bubber and his childhood is entirely erased because of his near experience of being a murderer. Each sibling is confronted with death in life-altering ways, effectively ending their period of innocence and pushing them forth into their adult identities.

The aforementioned moments in the narrative harden these character’s hearts significantly, likely affecting them throughout their adulthood. For Mick, Singer’s death comes at the same time she was forced to give up her dreams in order to help support her family, saying, “There were these two things she could never believe. That Mister Singer was dead. And that she was grown and had to work at Woolworth’s” (351). Mick has no choice but to be cheated of her innocence, and the audience might only be able to assume that this disbelief in reality will make her a bitter and spiteful adult. Bubber’s identity is solidified by the fact that he will always be seen as an “almost murderer”. After the shooting, “…nobody called him Bubber anymore. The big kids in the neighborhood started calling him Baby-Killer Kelly. But he didn’t speak much to any person and nothing seemed to bother him” (180). This excerpt speaks to Bubber’s shame over the incident and his public identity, as he is now seen as a psychopath by everybody. Just as Mick will never be known for her musical talent or her world travelling, Bubber will never be seen as anything but a shooter. These identities are created by how each character sees themselves as well as how the public sees them, something which greatly influences their adulthood.

Another aspect of coming to age is the idea of conforming to the expectations of a certain society. It is painfully common for many Americans to look down on the South as full of working-class, uneducated individuals, and both Mick and Bubber are forced into becoming examples of that stereotype. Mick is forced to work a dead-end job for most likely her entire youth, if not her adult life. The narrative says, “It was like she was mad all the time. Not how a kid gets mad quick so that soon it is all over- but in another way. Only there was nothing to be mad at…It was like she was cheated” (354). Because of this reality of her future, Mick is evidence of conforming to society’s expectations of a poor, less-educated young woman like herself. Bubber too is cheated of a fair shot at life because of a mistake he made as a child. Society looks at him as uncivilized and he could be considered “white trash”; his change in personality and reputation in wake of the accident is proof that he’s changed just enough to match society’s expectations of him. Both characters embody the universal hardships in the journey of growing up while also providing commentary on what identities are based on in the American South.

Coming of age is not the main theme of this book, but it is important to the story overall because it is a universal theme experience by every person in one-way or another. This theme helps the audience reflect upon what contributes to the creation of an adult, enabling the reader to feel the nostalgia of innocence and thus relate to the characters. These characters grapple with the question of how to formulate an identity when they feel like they don’t belong to anything, something all of the main characters of McCullers’s book deal with. Every character in the book wants freedom more than anything else and to take control over his or her own lives and surroundings, a desire that rests deep down within every single person. Carson McCullers uses children in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in order to show the reader how universal our experiences are and how that is the reason why we are so desperate to connect with each other.

The Heart: A Lonely Hunter

Man’s search for spiritual fulfillment in their lifelong escape from emotional isolation has been a common theme in literature of all cultures. In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, a feminist American writer, this spiritual search is reflected in the lives of four isolated, lonely people in the deep south of the 1940s through their search for self-expression and spiritual integration with something greater than themselves. With confusion towards God and animosity toward country, it is small wonder that McCullers creates a fictional world of characters that long for a “spiritual” home. McCullers’s deep understanding of true loneliness and the transience of life offer readers a greater scope into humanity, showing a paradoxical truth that man’s heart is trapped in a perennial chase for a pursuit greater than themselves, and that man fulfills this spiritual longing by seeking consolation from nonexistent illusions built from imagination. This human tendency of appeasing loneliness by filling the emptiness of ordinary, quotidian life through imagination is depicted in the characters Jake Blount and Mick Kelley, all visitors of the deaf-mute John Singer, in whom they find spiritual consolation by sharing their greatest, innermost thoughts. The imagination of each visitor renders them to deify John Singer as an all-knowing man who has the ability to understand their deepest struggles and pursuits. However, the power Singer possesses is in truth only mirror-like, a reflection of his visitors, who imagine divine characteristics in him to fill the empty voids in their own beings. The heart’s pursuit to escape loneliness with a lifelong “hunt” of spiritual fulfillment proves to be utterly unattainable through the final disillusionment of John Singer and his visitors, Copeland, Blount, and Mick Kelley.

Reflecting the macrocosm black civil rights movement in the 20th century, Doctor Copeland, a black man suppressed by the racist society of the Deep South, longs deeply for self-expression and is one of the first to deify Singer as a Christ-like figure. Jan Whitt suggests, “McCullers points out the emptiness of self-reliance in her characterization of the confident Copeland, who cries to his audience, ‘we will save ourselves…by dignity’ (3). However, contrary to her ideas, under Copeland’s façade of conviction and energy, he secretly strangles with self-expression and finds his lonely heart wandering without aim in hope to connect with other people. Copeland’s innermost fragility is revealed to readers as his daughter asks, “you have grand lights…it don’t seem natural why you all the time sit in the dark”, and Copeland replies dejectedly, “the dark suits me” (McCullers 61). Copeland’s ideals to bring racial pride to his people, who are often times portrayed as timorous or unmotivated throughout the novel, brings Copeland continuous despair, which leads him to long for identification with the members of other oppressed races, such as believing that the deaf-mute, Singer, is a Jew and thus shares similar racial struggles. Copeland’s innermost fears cast him in the shadows of failed self-expression, and as a result he would express all his repressed thoughts to Singer, for he felt that the mute would always understand whatever he wanted to say to him. As a deaf man, Singer most likely does not truly interpret Copeland’s struggles, but because of his seemingly compassion, he is nevertheless entrusted with the black man’s idealistic deification. As described by McCullers, “Copeland held his head in his heads…from his throat came the strange sound like a kind of singing moan. He remembered [Singer’s] face when he smiled behind the yellow match flame on that rainy night—and peace was in him” (77). Though Singer’s profundity is perhaps only an imagined illusion, Singer’s placid complexion offers Copeland paramount empathy throughout Copeland’s racial battles with the southern society. However, the novel paradoxically exonerates readers from any real engagement of racial change since all Copeland’s efforts come to nothing concrete. Indeed, the idealism in Copeland’s racial struggles and his spiritual dependence on Singer may not have brought a noticeable impact to southern society, but Copeland’s character in itself fully stands to articulate McCullers’s viewpoint that man has an innate tendency to romanticize and deify others in attempt to appease their isolating loneliness and to console themselves in times of failure.

While Copeland advocates for black civil rights, Blount represents the battered anima of the lower class. Similarly, however, just as Copeland’s political struggles bring him to seek spiritual restoration from Singer, Blount’s deep inquisitions about life and God also cause him to seek solace in Singer’s camaraderie. One literary critic comments on Blount’s confusion towards God, revealing the spiritual distortion of soul which further deepens Blount’s ambiguity in religion, his loss of faith in an existence greater than himself: “[he] threw himself into the arms of fundamentalist Christianity—with its wailing soloists, damnation sermons…the Jesus he met demanded crucifixion, annihilation of self” (Murray 5). In essence, as a wanderer from town to town, Blount searches for spiritual belonging through religion but is ultimately deceived, finding no spiritual identification with the Christ for which he had so desperately sought for. Demoralized about religion, he willingly confides his view on life to the deaf-mute Singer, with an idealized hope that somehow, Singer’s silent countenance will allow him to comprehend his deepest philosophies. Blount’s agonized spending of words indeed portrays the poverty of his soul and Singer’s presence seems to teach him to express his repressed emotions: “[his] words came out as though a dam inside him had broken” (McCullers 20). Unable to respond, no ordinary remark escapes Singer’s lips and thus he disillusions no one. Blount’s deification of Singer as an omniscient figure encourages him to speak his whole mind, portraying the fact that communication is the only access to love, conscience, nature, God, and to the dream. McCullers writes in The Mortgaged Heart, “there is a deep need in man to express himself by creating some unifying principle or God” (9). All people seek for Christ, the author believes, no matter how they define him, no matter what they create him to be. Blount chooses a flesh-and-blood hero to take the place of the prophet, drawing parallels between Singer and Christ. Just as Jesus healed the diseased and the moribund, Singer’s tranquil fellowship has a therapeutic affect on his visitors, mending Blount’s spiritual emptiness. Blount’s failure in finding God and the greater truth during his nomadic lifestyle causes him to instead deify Singer as the ultimate “God”, an idealized figure rendered by his imagination which is merely a reflection of his own idealistic traits.

Divergent to both Copeland and Blount’s quests, which mirrors the greater struggles of class and race, Mick Kelley’s driving desires are more focused on personal fulfillment and is representative of the young, female ambience in the 1940s and their pursuit for spiritual integration. Alleviating loneliness through musical and artistic endeavors, when she listens to Beethoven’s compositions, Mick feels “like she could knock down all the walls of the house and then march through the street big as a giant” (McCullers 214). Music echoes the sound of man’s soul, and similar to the way Blount finds temporary spiritual belonging through occasional self-expression, Mick finds spiritual belonging through the sound of music. However, she must find pleasure in Beethoven’s symphonies alone, as no one else displays an appreciation for music, causing her eternal, isolating loneliness. Through Mick’s search for identification with other human beings, she too idolizes Singer as a ‘home-made God’ to find internal consolation. One critic writes that the selflessness of Singer “encompasses his fellows, making them long for the solace of his quiet spirit…the room in which he sits communicates acceptance. They come face to face with the mute and meet themselves” (Witt 8). Though Singer cannot hear, Mick ironically imagines him as the only person who possesses the ability to understand musical ambience and its transcendence of the soul’s battling cries. Portraying the frailty of language and the ultimate failure of self-expression, it is up to Singer, incompetent in both speaking and hearing, to teach Mick the art of communicating with others to appease spiritual isolation. It is not through the clamor of the cities, but through the individual’s search for spiritual connections that we can finally escape this perennial loneliness. Through Mick’s artistic deification of Singer, she further accentuates the element of idealism and articulates the author’s own view on delusional deification, as Mick eventually comes closer than any other character in recognizing that her views on Singer are merely an illusion. Music notes fall taciturn as Mick matures and the jarring reality of society looms, “everybody…knew there wasn’t any real God…When she thought of what she used to imagine was God she could only see Singer with a long, white sheet around him. God was silent…” (McCullers 101-2). In retrospect, Mick Kelley, though young and inexperienced in comparison to Copeland and Blount, is the only character to analyze her lionization of Singer. Mick finally realizes her desire to create Singer as a heroic figure who can save and unscramble the puzzle of existence, and her rational revelation depicts that illusionary deification is only a temporary spiritual fulfillment. Therefore, Singer’s wide range of visitors symbolizes various social, sexual, and racial positions, suggesting that the causes of failure in their individual quests cannot be restricted to any given position, since all experience discouragement and disillusionment.

However, what Copeland, Blount, and Mick cannot understand is that the purveyor of peace and sanity, is not peace itself. Although Singer cushions the painful loneliness of the other characters, he is indeed the loneliest “hunter” of them all. The man with “gentle eyes as grave as a sorcerer’s” (McCullers 67), he makes the same mistake as his visitors as he deifies and lionizes his companion Antonapoulos, a psychologically incompetent man who does not replicate his feelings or understands them. One critic describes the relationship between Antonapoulos and Singer as “a human relationship of love and sexuality at furthest remove from so-called normal relationships…it is an unconsummated and, indeed, sexually unacknowledged relationship between two deaf-mute male homosexuals of completely incompatible personalities” (Whitt 9). Singer’s devotion towards Antonapoulos is absolute, spiritual, and beyond question, for in Singer’s every waking thought they were eternally united. Unlike the way Copeland, Blount, and Mick Kelley finds consolation by voicing their thoughts out loud, Singer’s inability to speak causes him even greater illusions as he depends on imagination to fill the empty voids within him, bringing him to invest all his spiritual being on his companion, who he deifies as being distinct from the other deaf-mutes. Singer too needs others and must suffer in loneliness without a confessor.

There exists a fundamental difference between Singer and the others. Whereas Singer’s whole being is invested in his imaginary construction of a perfect Antonapoulos, whose happiness is Singer’s only source of satisfaction, the others are not truly concerned with Singer’s happiness. Their relationship to him resembles that of “the patient and the psychiatrist, a site for projection and transfer” (Murray 5). Spiritual isolation damns Singer: his song is never heard. McCullers represents her regret that selfless love is a rarity and is apt to be evanescent when Antonopoulos’s death reaches Singer and he, feeling completely isolated and disillusioned, chooses to commit suicide. This causes a sense of betrayal that infects the spirits of Copeland, Blount, and Mick. An aging Copeland travels full circle and once again needs to speak: “the words in his heart grew big and they would not be silent…there was no one to hear them” (McCullers 287). Blount stumbles through a darkened town in search of a dead messiah, and remembers “all the innermost thoughts that he had told to Singer, and with his death it seemed to him that they were all lost” (McCullers 291). Grown up, working as a clerk in Woolworth’s, Mick too faces the end of her dreams. Singer’s death does not only symbolize one individual’s lost hope, but single-handedly murders the ‘empty’ dreams of all his visitors, showing that deification on an individual only provides temporary spiritual fulfillment, but true escape from this perennial loneliness lies within a form of love to be reached which lies beyond the social and personal.

Readers identify with the characters John Singer and his visitors, Copeland, Blount, and Mick Kelley not because of their gender, race, or religion, but because as one they portray that the heart’s quest to escape perpetual loneliness by ‘hunting’ for spiritual fulfillment is utterly unattainable. The author’s viewpoint on this puzzling truth fully articulated through Brannon the shopkeeper’s final conclusion, suggests that the solution to escape isolating loneliness is perhaps beyond our reach: “the question flowed through [Brannon] unnoticed, like the blood in his veins… in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle…of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time; of those who labored and those who were loved” (McCullers 301). The disillusionment of Singer’s visitors all intermix to create an impression of man’s search of limitlessness, a bond with the universe, in which the individual’s perception of the boundaries between self and others might be temporarily effaced when their imaginations give them abilities to deify traits of divinity in others, leaving them with a sudden sense of being at one with the world.

Works Cited

McCullers, Carson. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. North Carolina: Houghton Mifflin, 1940. Print.

Murray, Jennifer. “Approaching Community in Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” Notes on Contemporary Literature, vol. 16, no. 1 (2004): 4-7. Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. Web. 17 Mar. 2012. .

Whitt, Jan. “The Loneliest Hunter.” Southern Literary Journal 24.2 (Spring 1992): 26-35. Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Linda Pavlovski. Vol. 155. Detroit: Gale, 2005. Literature Resource Center. Web. 5 Mar. 2012. .