The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Study Guide

Carson McCullers

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The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Part 2, Chapter 10 | Summary

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Summary

Many weeks have passed since Dr. Copeland's Christmas party, and he and Portia have still not heard from Willie. This takes a toll on Portia, who begins drinking and becomes listless. Dr. Copeland is busy battling a pneumonia epidemic that strikes in the cold February weather. At the end of February, the bad news they had dreaded arrives. Portia learns from Buster Johnson, who was at the same prison as Willie and who has been sent home badly injured, that Willie is also maimed. Both men have been tortured by guards to the point that gangrene set in, and Willie's feet have been amputated.

Dr. Copeland can hardly bear to hear these horrible words. "Crippled?" he asks. "William?" But he is not filled with his usual black anger; instead he is filled with despair. He follows Portia when she goes to work at the Kellys' and sits by himself as the news is told. The only person he speaks to is Singer. "You know of this?" he keeps asking him. Finally he sets out to visit patients, but he is robotic in his actions. Sometime in the afternoon he decides he will try to seek justice for Willie and goes to the courthouse. He is treated rudely there, and when he refuses to leave a sheriff hits him and Copeland is dragged to jail. Finally, his rage rises up and he fights fiercely, sobbing and laughing like a crazy person. He is not released from jail until the following morning, and the stay makes him quite ill.

Analysis

The terrible ordeal endured by Buster and Willie and the horrible treatment Dr. Copeland receives are hard for modern readers to accept. Yet such violence against African Americans was common in the South at the time. McCullers's unblinking portrayal of it is unusual during her time—and important.

Dr. Copeland cannot overcome the racism that is latent within Southern society, even when his outrage is on behalf of his son. Furthermore, it is symbolic that Willie's feet get cut off. African Americans are deprived of the very means by which they might move up in society, or leave poor conditions, and they are therefore, in comparison to white people, disabled to the point of helplessness.

Copeland's love for his son is evident in his response to the news. His grief is for his son, not for the whole race, which is why his anger deserts him and is replaced by despair. It is interesting that he does not see the source of his "sodden heaviness of peace" this way, however. He sees it as "the bottom of utmost humiliation." He views what happens to his son as proof that one who does not walk through life according to one's true purpose deserves to suffer. Shockingly, Dr. Copeland seems to believe his son has brought this on himself by acting incorrectly. Then, when the doctor is beaten and abused at the courthouse, he sees himself as representative of truly unjust actions since he has lived with dignity and is able to respond with rage, filled with "glorious strength."

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