The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Study Guide

Carson McCullers

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Course Hero, "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter Study Guide," July 14, 2017, accessed July 16, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Heart-Is-a-Lonely-Hunter/.

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

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Summary

The novel moves forward to October, and this chapter is centered on Biff Brannon. As it opens he is feeling "troubled and sad" about Mick and his feelings for her. He is also worried about some strange changes in Alice, who is moving slowly, looking unwell, and making errors, such as giving the wrong change back to customers. However, they are not talking about it.

On October 8 Alice is taken to the hospital, and within two hours she dies from a giant brain tumor. Biff is there when she dies, but the image that floods his mind is not of her but of children playing at the beach.

Biff works with Alice's sister, Lucile, to make the funeral arrangements. He does the things he should, such as sewing mourning bands on his clothes, picking out the casket and lining material, buying black ribbon, and visiting Alice's preacher. He also packs up her clothes and personal possessions to give to Lucile.

Biff, Lucile, and Lucile's four-year-old daughter Baby travel to the funeral together. As he and Lucile chat while waiting for the car to pick them up, readers learn how obsessed she is with her daughter. She believes Baby will be famous one day as a dancer or movie star and spends most of her time doing her hair, dressing her in fancy clothes, and driving her to various lessons. Baby loves to perform and to be the center of attention.

Biff keeps the restaurant closed the day after the funeral but then opens it in the evening. Soon his regular customers come in and "everything was the same as it had always been before." Mick is there playing with the slot machine, and Biff feels drawn to her. He thinks about how much she has grown and how she seems poised on the edge of womanhood. He better defines his feelings for her: "The part of him that sometimes almost wished he was a mother and that Mick and Baby were his kids."

Then Biff concentrates on organizing his newspapers, which have been left unfiled for two weeks, and on reading the current one. Suddenly, however, his attention is caught by a tune playing on the radio that is linked in his mind to a specific evening he spent with Alice during their engagement. For the first time in a long time, he remembers how he once felt about her. However, he doesn't want to go there in his mind and has Mick turn the radio off. He watches as Mick and Blount join Singer at his table, talking and talking to him. Biff thinks about joining them but realizes something funny: no one really knows how much Singer understands or what he thinks about those who seem to depend on him. The chapter ends with his thought: "There was something wrong."

Analysis

Alice's sudden death is a shock, yet Biff reacts in a calm, methodical way. He doesn't seem to actually be in shock; he just does what he is supposed to do without much emotion. However, when a song he hears takes him back to the beginning of their relationship, it is clear he did once love her, years ago. It also seems possible that the image he has at her death—of children playing at the beach—reveals one source of some of his disappointment: they were childless. This is confirmed when he stares at Mick playing the slots and admits to himself that he almost wishes he were her mother. Although it is odd he would think of himself as a mother rather than as a father, this might be tied to the deep love he had for his own mother, whose ring he still wears.

Biff's calmness after Alice's death is perhaps most a product of his failure to synthesize information as a mere observer. He reads newspapers voraciously and catalogues and files them, but he does so without reflecting positively or negatively on what is within them, unlike Harry, Doctor Coleman, or Blount.

Of all the characters, Biff is the one who comes closest to understanding what people get from talking to Singer: it's not anything he gives them, but what they give themselves by expressing their ideas without fear of rejection. He doesn't actually reach this conclusion, but he asks the question, "The reason—was it in them or in him?" It's not clear why the idea worries him so much, leaving him feeling something is wrong, unless it is because he knows that this need to speak without receiving any feedback reveals just how isolated everyone is. Biff is something of an exception to this, a person who can listen to people without judging them and who does not need to talk to Singer. In fact, when he stopped by the mute's room after Alice's death, "Biff did not talk."

Of the many deep thoughts Biff has in this chapter, one presents a bit of foreshadowing. As he sews the mourning bands on his clothes he wonders why "in cases of real love the one who is left behind does not more often follow the beloved by suicide." Readers should remember this, as it will be significant.

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