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The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Study Guide

Carson McCullers

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The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Part 1, Chapter 3 | Summary



Chapter 3 opens early on Sunday morning at the Kelly house. Mick goes out to the front porch, hoping Singer will be there reading the paper. But she soon finds out that he came in very late and has someone in the room with him. So she gets her baby brother, Ralph, ready for the day. When her seven-year-old brother, Bubber, gets home from Sunday school she takes them both out, pulling them in a wagon. She takes them to the construction site of a big house down the block to play while she sits on the roof and thinks and smokes. She dreams of a future when she is famous—perhaps as an inventor—and remembers great classical music she has heard on the radio.

Ralph's crying interrupts her thoughts and she must climb down from the roof and tend to the boys. But first she goes into the house and writes words in chalk on the wall, proudly signing her graffiti: "M.K." Once she calms Ralph down, she pulls the boys home slowly, "not in any hurry" to get there. As they near the house, the narrator describes its big size and its shabbiness. Fifteen people live there, including the seven Kellys, seven boarders paying five dollars each week for lodging and meals, and Singer, who does not eat his meals there. The house is full of boarders and their visitors waiting for Sunday dinner.

Mick goes into the room she shares with her older sisters, Hazel and Etta. They are rude to her, and she returns it. She thinks about how Etta believes she has a chance to go to Hollywood and be in the movies; she spends her days primping because she isn't "naturally pretty like Hazel." Hazel, the oldest girl at 18, is "good-looking but thick in the head." Mick struts around the room as she thinks these thoughts, trying to claim her right to the space, and then she reaches under the bed and takes out her hatbox of special belongings, saying she'd rather go be with her big brother, Bill. His room is "the nicest room of anybody in the family," and he only shares it with Bubber. Bill says Mick is welcome to be in there with him, but he doesn't pay any attention to her. He is reading Popular Mechanics and seems annoyed when she keeps interrupting him with questions about the makeshift violin she is trying to create out of an old ukulele. He hurts her feelings with his matter-of-fact assessment of her efforts as a waste of time, and she cries as she rushes from his room. Her mom runs into her, but she is distracted by dinner preparations and doesn't have time to do more than tell Mick she must eat in the kitchen instead of the dining room because there are so many extra people.

Mick calms down slowly, although she grieves the special bond she used to have with Bill before he grew up and is glad it is dinnertime because she is suddenly hungry. Bubber and Portia, the African American cook and housekeeper, are already eating, but Portia gets up to serve Mick's plate. Portia talks about her Grandpapa's house and farm in the country, proud that he and her uncle own the property and are very successful farmers who have room to comfortably house their whole family. Portia goes on to talk about her own father, the African American doctor introduced in the last chapter. She contrasts him with her gentle and kind grandpa ("Mister Kind hisself"), saying her father is "full of books and worrying" and had done enough "wild, crazy things" that her mom had left him, taking their four kids back to the farm to raise them away from his strange notions. Then Portia gets on the topic of religion and chides Mick for her lack of belief in God, saying, "You don't love and don't have peace." Mick stomps out of the room, but Portia's words follow her. She is restless and, not wanting to be around her family or the boarders, she finally ends up at the top of the stairs near the room of a boarder who often plays good radio music. Mick stays on the stairs all afternoon, playing music she has heard in her mind and longing for a place of her own "where she could go and be by herself and study about this music."


McCullers paints a clear picture of Mick as an alienated, lonesome child who wishes for things in life others around her simply cannot appreciate. Mick's character is revealed to readers through juxtaposition with her other siblings, who are different degrees of vain. Her sisters Hazel and Etta are older than her but do not care for the young boys in the family. Her brother Bill ignores her and treats her poorly even though she idolizes him. Furthermore, it hurts her when Portia says she favors Portia's father. She hears the truth of Portia's claim that she has no inner peace, yet she doesn't know how she is supposed to find it, trapped in near poverty in a small town, in a crowded rooming house, unable even to learn more about the music she loves so much.

But Mick is also very tough, and readers get the feeling she is going to do something with her life. Although she herself is a preadolescent, it is striking that she is tasked with caring for her younger siblings, suggesting a degree of maturity that is rare in a child like her. She is also clearly an inspired and creative person with a high degree of intelligence. Bill fails to see the ingenuity of her project of turning a ukulele into a violin, but such a task shows her determination. Likewise, when she puts graffiti on the walls of the house under construction, it is symbolic of her drive to make a mark on the world. The graffiti is a mix of famous personages, with an important name, Mozart, misspelled as "Motsart," although she does not realize it, and proudly signs her initials because she does not want to be anonymous. The town that she lives in does not provide adequate stimulation for someone as precocious as her. When she draws the pictures Bill has in his room, she fills them with people in disastrous situations because she is angry; she lives in such a crowded world yet has no one to talk to. Only Singer makes her feel comfortable, and she has the sense to know he is a good person for her to hang around.

Portia, as the maid of the family, has unique insight on Mick. She connects Mick's restlessness to a lack of faith in God, much like her father's, and it is true that both Mick and Dr. Copeland find some peace in interacting with Singer. Unlike Dr. Copeland, who hopes to lift up his race, Mick above all wishes to break the confines of her home. Her motivation may be selfish, but the constraints on her freedom and artistic life are significant.

Mick is a very complex character, especially for such a young woman, and she is so well developed because she is modeled after the author. There are more chapters dedicated to Mick's perspective than to any of the other major characters, which has suggested to many readers and critics that she may be the protagonist of the novel. Setting that controversial claim aside, it is important to note the biographical roots of Mick as a character. McCullers felt alienated in the Georgia town where she grew up and escaped into music, just like Mick. McCullers beautifully rounds out Mick's character because she knows her so well. Getting to know this young woman is both a wrenching and a hopeful experience.

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