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.
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