The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Study Guide

Carson McCullers

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The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Part 1, Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

The novel is mostly set in the 1930s in an unnamed, fairly large factory town in the Deep South. The opening chapter takes place there and introduces two friends, both deaf-mutes, named Spiros Antonapoulos and John Singer. They live together but could not be more different. Antonapoulos is very fat and sloppy; Singer is tall and trim and very neat. Antonapoulos is lazy, rarely uses his hands to sign, and only cares about eating, drinking alcohol, and sleeping. Singer signs to his friend constantly, is highly intelligent, and is always industrious.

The two men live a life of routine. They walk to work together in the mornings. Antonapoulos works at his cousin's fruit store in town, and Singer works nearby as an engraver for a jeweler. After work they walk home and Antonapoulos cooks them dinner. Sometimes they play chess. Once a week they go to the library and to the movies. On payday, the friends go to a photo shop so Antonapoulos can get his picture taken. This routine continues pleasantly enough for 10 years, until Singer is 32 years old.

But one day Antonapoulos gets very sick with horrible stomach problems. Singer carefully nurses him for a week, following the doctor's orders to adhere to a strict diet and eliminate alcohol. Rather than being grateful, Antonapoulos resents his friend, but he does recover in a week. However, his mind is not right. He is very irritable and refuses to stay home in the evenings. Antonapoulos does not invite Singer to join him, but Singer follows him wherever he goes. Antonapoulos mostly enjoys going to restaurants, but he begins stealing things wherever he goes. Singer pays for what he takes. Antonapoulos takes on other odd behaviors as well, like urinating in public and being violently aggressive toward strangers, which often lands him in jail. Singer always bails him out and makes sure he keeps his court dates. However, he must go into debt to do so. Antonapoulos's cousin, Charles Parker, lets him keep working but eventually arranges to have him committed to an insane asylum 200 miles away. Stunned, Singer writes to Parker: "You cannot do this. Antonapoulos must stay with me." But Parker replies, "None of your business."

Singer has one week to tell Antonapoulos everything he wants to say to him. He packs their best possessions for him to take. When he signs desperately to his friend as he watches him pull away in a bus, Singer's heart is breaking; Antonapoulos seems disinterested, with a "very bland and remote" smile.

In the weeks and months that follow, Singer is depressed. He tries to remember his life before Antonapoulos, and readers learn he was an orphan placed in an institution for deaf-mutes, where he learned by age nine to read print, sign with his hands, read lips, and even speak. However, Singer does not like speaking with his mouth and has not uttered a word since age 22, when he came to the southern town from Chicago and met Antonapoulos.

As spring arrives, Singer begins to come out of his funk and starts restlessly walking around town in the evenings. He moves out of the two rooms he had shared with Antonapoulos and into a room "in a shambling boardinghouse not far from the center of the town." He eats all of his meals at a restaurant called the New York Café, having the same basic breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily.

Finally, as the warm summer arrives, Singer begins to relax and to feel a "deep calm" settle on him. But his nightly wanderings continue.

Analysis

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the friendship between Antonapoulos and Singer is that there is a friendship at all. The only thing the two men actually have in common is that they are mutes, but even this is only true because Singer gives up speaking when he meets Antonapoulos. It is puzzling why he loves this obese, rude, selfish man so much, but Singer is totally committed to their relationship. This is an important theme in the novel—the mystery of love and the difficulty in having a truly reciprocal, equitable relationship, whether between friends (Antonapoulos and Singer), lovers (Mick and Harry Minowitz), family members (Dr. Copeland and his children, the Kelly family in general), or spouses (Biff Brannon and his wife). Yet without relationships people are lonely, as the final sentence in the chapter points out, referring to Singer's nightly walks: "He wandered through the streets of the town, always silent and alone."

Other important aspects of this chapter should be noted because they will occur repeatedly. Several characters in the novel will spend time wandering alone—as Singer does at the end of the chapter, Mick does on long summer evenings, and Jake Blount often does. The fact that the characters feel lost and out of touch with reality in a busy, fairly large town indicates the alienation the individuals are experiencing. Several characters will also show signs of mental instability throughout the novel, which sometimes leads to anger or violent outbursts. Blount is especially unstable and violent, but even Dr. Copeland reveals a tendency to become violent. Furthermore, weather shows up throughout the book. Even though the south has mild winters, people in the novel tend to have their worst problems when it is cold. Spring seems to bring hopeful change but then the oppressive heat of summer stops positive progress. Finally, the idea of vanity will show up over and over in the book. People who are vain, like Antonapoulos (who loves to have his picture taken and wants Singer to draw him as a sort of Greek god) or who give in to momentary vanity are not portrayed well in the story. For example, Antonapoulos comes across as a selfish man who does not care about his best friend. Conversely, Singer, who does not display any vanity, appears to be a dedicated friend and a generally loyal and good person. He is a simple and reliable man, eating the same meals each day. Similarly, less important characters such as Mick's older sisters and Baby Wilson are negatively portrayed as flat, one-dimensional people who are vain.

The unreliability of communication is also important to pick up on here. Singer talks constantly to Antonapoulos and seems fulfilled by this even though his friend often shows little interest and rarely responds. The narrator says, "Singer never knew just how much his friend understood of all the things he told him. But it did not matter." This raises a series of questions: Why doesn't it matter? Are Singer's conversations with Antonapoulos truly communication, or does Singer just need to tell his story, which would imply that humans do not care if others understand them or not. And if the latter is true, do relationships even really matter? These questions emerge throughout the book, as Singer becomes the confidant for many characters who, like Singer felt with Antonapoulos, do not seem much to care if he understands what they say.

An important feature of the book that this chapter introduces is the use of the third-person omniscient perspective. This first chapter is mostly expository and, as the third-person omniscient perspective suggests, objective, yet McCullers draws readers into empathy for Singer. His compassion and heartbreak are palpable by the end of this opening chapter. McCullers will extend this ability to make her main characters understandable—and to garner readers' sympathy toward them—with the unique structure of the novel that allows insight into each one's perspective in turn.

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