The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Study Guide

Carson McCullers

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The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Part 1, Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

As Blount falls asleep the setting shifts to the home of Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, the African American physician. He sits alone in his home, but then Portia stops by to see him. Dr. Copeland asks his daughter how she has been, and she shares the details of the life she proudly lives with Highboy and Willie, a life the doctor does not necessarily approve of. Portia has brought her father dinner: collard greens, side meat for flavoring, and hoecake. As she cooks he watches her and broods on how different his children are from what he would like them to be. For example, Portia will not accept his advice to practice some sort of birth control; she is offended because she feels the number of children a woman gives birth to should "depend entirely upon God."

Portia asks her father to "quit this here quarreling with each other," explaining that she can feel his sullenness toward her and it exhausts her. Then she tells him the story of Mr. B.F. Mason, a scam artist who got a lot of people in town to give him money by claiming he was an agent of the government pension fund and would turn their 25 cents a week into 50 dollars every month at age 45. This opens the door for Dr. Copeland to again express his distress with the African Americans and their ignorance. He feels despair because even his own four children—Portia, Hamilton, Karl Marx, and William—will not heed his words to have "real true qualities and backbone."

Portia and her father once again argue, with Portia defending her lifestyle and beliefs and the doctor expressing contempt. Portia finally gets tough and tells him how afraid of him his own children are: "I the only one of us that would come in this here house and sit with you." Dr. Copeland weeps, and Portia relents and apologizes, returning to her cooking. This time as the doctor watches her, he sees his wife, Daisy, in her. He thinks back through his marriage with her, a gently stubborn woman who "would go on her own way." He also thinks about his own behavior as he tried to form his children into what he wanted them to be and often felt "a black, terrible Negro feeling" when things did not go his way. He realizes he alienated his children just as he did his wife so "now there was nothing at all to say."

As they eat dinner Dr. Copeland asks Portia about her job at the Kellys. Once again, however, he does not like her response to his questions and criticizes her. Nevertheless, they manage not to quarrel, and Dr. Copeland perks up when Portia talks about Singer, a man he has seen and has some admiration for—in direct contrast to the drunken Blount who treated him with such insolence. He tells Portia about a five-year-old deaf-mute patient he has, and Portia suggests that he talk to Singer about what he might do to help the boy more.

When Highboy and Willie come by to pick Portia up, her father suggests that they drop in for a while. Portia is cautious, explaining that he hurt Willie's feelings last time, but decides she will suggest it to the men. Sadly, when the three return for a visit, the doctor is unable to prevent himself from harassing his son, saying bitterly, "All I get is blank misunderstanding and idleness and indifference." The three quickly move toward the door, but Portia tries once again to make peace between them, and Dr. Copeland apologizes. He still feels uneasy after they leave, but when he thinks of Singer and of possibly talking to him, he feels at peace.

Analysis

Although Dr. Copeland despises Blount, the character explored so fully in the last chapter, he is not very different from him. Dr. Copeland is alienated and lonely. His beliefs about how African Americans should act—like Blount's beliefs about how workers should act—take up nearly all the room in his consciousness. Because people do not accept his ideas, not even his own family, he tends to descend into seething rage. He is so sure he is right that he cannot curb his tongue, even to try to have a relationship with his children. While Blount escapes from his despair by drinking, Dr. Copeland escapes into books. His spoken syntax indicates a high level of education and a persistent engagement with the written word.

Portia comes across as the wiser of the two in this chapter, despite Dr. Copeland's elevated status and education. She knows the life she lives with Highboy and Willie is much more balanced than her father's. Theirs is a life of heart and feelings and pride in who they are rather than despair at the way things are for African Americans. She also sees how her father's willfulness has destroyed his relationships with his children: "A person can't pick up they children and just squeeze them to which-a-way they wants them to be. Whether it hurt them or not. Whether it right or wrong." With words like these Portia is accusing her father of wrong thinking. He believes he knows what is best not only for his own children, but for the whole African American population, and she views him as mistaken, based on personal experience. Beyond that, however, what Portia is getting at is the total lack of respect her father has for individuality. It is important to note, however, that Dr. Copeland is not wrong to care deeply about the fate of African Americans in the 1930s Deep South.

Thinking about Singer and the possibility of spending time with him fills the doctor with peace, and this shows Singer's strength in the very area in which the doctor is so weak. People like Singer because he respects individuality. Rather than judging people, he listens. If the doctor could learn to listen without impinging his opinions on others, perhaps he could form meaningful relationships and be less alienated and angry. He certainly has not been able to achieve this to date, however; he became impossible for his own wife to live with, and now his children also prefer to keep a great distance between themselves and their father.

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