The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Study Guide

Carson McCullers

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The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Context


Racism in the South

Despite slavery in the United States ending with the Civil War (1861–65), more than 60 years later, as the nation struggled through the Great Depression (1929–39, a period of economic turmoil and high unemployment), racism was alive and well in the Southern states. Membership in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a white-supremacy organization, had reached more than 100,000 by the mid-1920s. Racial segregation was the rule and Jim Crow laws, which had been put in place during Reconstruction, were uncontested until the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. Lynchings, the public killings of African Americans by mobs, were horrifyingly commonplace.

Economically, African Americans suffered more than others during the Depression. They were unemployed in larger numbers as white workers took the jobs they had previously refused to do, pushing African Americans out of the labor force. Government leaders at every level turned a blind eye to the blatant discrimination occurring across all areas of Southern society, fearing they would lose their own positions of power. Not until 1941, with the establishment of the Fair Employment Practices Committee, was economic inequality addressed in any significant way.

This climate is reflected in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Most of the African Americans in the novel are poor, struggling to make a living and put food in their mouths. Dr. Copeland, the African American physician in the town, constantly seethes over the injustice done to those he cares for. When his son, Willie, is tortured in jail and loses his legs as a result, the violent injustice strikes home in a new way. McCullers is accurate in her portrayal of such events—and she was one of the first writers to exhibit both honesty and sympathy regarding racial conditions in the South. As one critic puts it: "McCullers was barely out of her teens, yet she invested her black characters with considerable dignity ... and in Dr. Copeland she created a man equal or superior to any of the whites he so despises."


In the novel the character Dr. Copeland is an avowed Marxist, even naming one of his sons Karl Marx. He constantly tries to get other African Americans to embrace Marxist principles. Dr. Copeland wants to lift African Americans up out of their oppressed condition through radical politics.

Karl Marx (1818–83) was a German philosopher and economist. Marx, with Friedrich Engels, produced The Communist Manifesto (1848), the most important document in the socialist movement. They called for an end to capitalism, an economic system controlled by private enterprise. Marxists believed that under capitalism, workers were dominated and kept down by the wealthy. They called for an end to class struggles, which they said could only be accomplished by the equal distribution of wealth. Marxists called for revolution, for they believed huge upheaval was the only way to bring about the change needed to make the world just and equal for all.

Dr. Copeland expresses these sentiments throughout the novel. He will settle for nothing less than complete equality for African Americans, and he urges rebellion.

Southern Gothic Literature

The specific genre in which McCullers writes is known as Southern Gothic. It is a subgenre of the Gothic in which Southern values are examined in a dark and ironic light. Southern Gothic is characterized by the inclusion of characters who are different from the mainstream population—like the deaf-mute John Singer in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter—and who are often viewed as both innocent and somehow able to rescue others or redeem them from immoral behavior. Southern Gothic writers, including William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Tennessee Williams, do not shy away from presenting even the harshest side of reality, including violence and cruelty.

The part of reality McCullers is particularly adept at portraying is the loneliness and isolation of humans, especially those on the fringes of proper Southern society, who desire more than anything to feel like they fit into the world. As she describes it, "Love, and especially love of a person who is incapable of returning or receiving it, is at the heart of my selection of grotesque figures to write about—people whose physical incapacity is a symbol of their spiritual incapacity to love or receive love—their spiritual isolation."

Musical Structure: Fugue

McCullers was a great lover of music, and she structured The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter to reflect the structure of a type of music known as a three-part fugue. A fugue starts out as a single voice, then other voices join in, one at a time, but they must all blend together and express the same theme.

McCullers set up her novel in three parts, which are subdivided into chapters. She talked about this extremely deliberate choice as a reflection of a key idea: "Like a voice in a fugue, each one of the main characters is an entity in himself—but his personality takes on a new richness when contrasted and woven in with the other characters in the book." Each of the characters has his or her own voice, but they all come to depend on one another as they look for the feeling of connection they long for.

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