The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (Book Review)

Written by Michelle Watson

March 26, 2024

You’ll love it if
you’re intrigued by an angsty, chaotic version of To Kill a Mockingbird

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

By Carson McCullers

Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

The allure of a gorgeous title…

This book has been on my radar for a while simply due to the title. That title. I didn’t realize the phrase comes from a poem by William Sharp (Fiona MacLeod): “Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still, But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.” That’s something right there.

This book is something, too. But, in many ways, it’s a mess. This is one of those beautifully written, literary books that gives you a lot to think about, that stirs your emotions—but that also feels like a bucket of odds and ends that the author shakes, and it’s noisy and interesting, but we’re not sure exactly what it all means.

The book is not what I’d call entertaining. Not in the same way that To Kill a Mockingbird is entertaining, apart from everything else it brings to the table.

I’m perplexed by the paradox of this book. On the one hand, there are strong themes that you don’t have to be an English major to sniff out. But there’s a striking lack of coherence. Again, like a bucket filled with objects that clearly symbolize certain things, but they’re just crashing around in the bucket, and what does it mean at the end of the day?

As the title suggests, this book explores the theme of loneliness. John Singer is a deaf mute living in an ordinary mill town in Georgia. He’s the hub of the story. He attracts the other four main characters to him. These people pay separate but regular visits to Singer because they like to talk with him—or TO him. They believe he understands them. They’re lonely and desperate to offload their thoughts, feelings, dreams, and convictions on another human being and be understood. But, we know, through the narrator, that Singer doesn’t actually understand them. They just think he does. And they rely on him to listen. They imagine him to be who they want him to be.

Each of the four supporting characters represents different parts of American society. Mick represents the poor whites (she’s also young and coming of age). Dr. Copeland represents the “Negro race” as he puts it. Biff represents the establishment—capitalist, white working man. Blount represents the communist malcontent. The book is described as a parable because each of these characters is representative of larger ideas and societal problems.

Mick stands out as, by far, the most sympathetic and sweet, followed closely by Biff, who is thoughtful, fair, and observant. I love when Mick describes her “inside room.” It’s the inner space where she can dream and be creative. She dreams of learning music and composing songs, and she even tries her hand at writing some songs. But she doesn’t share this dream with anyone. It’s her own “inside” secret that she cherishes. The second-to-last chapter when she describes how, after a long day’s work at the mercantile, she cannot manage to get into the inside room anymore—that’s heartbreaking.

Portia’s good-faith attempts to make peace with her father are exquisitely written. Blount and Copeland’s rage-fest where they’re agreeing but disagreeing—it was perfectly rendered. There’s so much here, but it felt very meandering, like you’re not sure exactly where the story is.

I did not love this book. It was a slog. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot that will stay with me.


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