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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 2, Chapter 3 | Summary



In this chapter Dr. Copeland is the focus. He has been coming to see Mr. Singer, whom he views as "a wise man," more and more frequently and has even taken the deaf-mute on his rounds with him.

The weather is cold, and there is an outbreak of the flu virus. Dr. Copeland is working long hours and his own health is suffering. One night he feels feverish and puts himself to bed, but Portia interrupts his sleep. She is distraught: Willie has been arrested for slitting a man's throat during a fight over a girl. Willie is in jail, and Portia thinks they should get white people to write letters about his good character. Dr. Copeland dismisses this as a foolish idea but does want to go the jail to see Willie and find out how he can help him. However, the trip to the jail is fruitless and three weeks later Willie is convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to "nine months of hard the northern part of the state."

As usual, the doctor tries to escape his demons by focusing on what he perceives as the "strong true purpose" of his work: educating the people he cares for and lifting them from their oppression. He pushes himself hard, despite his worsening tuberculosis.

One night Portia comes to borrow some plates and cups from him. She has been drinking and has a favor she wants to ask of him. Grandpapa, his wife's father, and Portia's brother Hamilton are coming from their farm for a visit. Karl Marx, Portia's brother, whom she calls Buddy, will also be there and she wants her father to join the reunion. After thinking about it he responds to the invitation: "Thank you. I will come."

After Portia leaves, Dr. Copeland reflects on his life. Readers learn about his own father and mother and his youth. They learn that early in his marriage and career as a doctor "the hopeless suffering of his people made in him a madness, a wild and evil feeling of destruction." He drank liquor and gave in to violence. When he struck Daisy with a poker during one of these fits, she took the kids and left him. He succeeded in fighting off that evil side, but he never got his sons back.

When Dr. Copeland arrives at Portia's the next evening, his sons will not look him in the eyes. He is uncomfortable when the focus of the evening turns to religion, with Grandpapa asking Portia to read from the Bible and then interpreting the words. He believes when Jesus comes back he will turn all "colored peoples...white as cotton." When he goes on to say he feels blessed to have seen an angel, "a little white girl angel...with yellow hair and a white robe," Dr. Copeland feels like he will explode with anger. For once he holds his tongue, but he will not eat and sits "in rigid silence" until he leaves the house without saying goodbye.

After a sleepless night the doctor visits Singer and soon feels peaceful. However, upon leaving the deaf-mute's room he literally runs into Blount. He remembers him from the night at the New York Café but is more taken by the "strange, fixed, and withdrawn look of madness" he sees in Blount's eyes.


By now readers have a good understanding of Dr. Copeland's character and see that he is not going to change. He is a hard worker who pushes himself too hard and who expects too much of the people around him. Some of the revelations are a bit shocking, however. Who would have guessed that such a tightly controlled man would be violent toward his wife? And why does he seem to be hiding his tuberculosis from the rest of the world?

What this chapter might provide, however, is a feeling of empathy for why he is the way he is as more details about his life are revealed. The third-person omniscient perspective reveals information about his life without judgment. Dr. Copeland identifies the pathetic part of who he has become: "an old man in an empty house." He acknowledges his loneliness, but his own children are so alien to him and so deaf to his ideas that he cannot hope for better relationships with them. Having people in his own family think that the best blessing God could bestow is to make them white on their way to heaven is simply too much for him to swallow. This perspective anticipates the Black Is Beautiful movement of the 1960s and the rejection of organized Christian religion by some in the Civil Rights movement as an instrument of white supremacy. It is certainly indisputable that such a vision of becoming white upon death among African Americans denigrates blackness, and Dr. Copeland is not wrong to be outraged. It is unfortunate, however, that his outrage prevents him from connecting with his family on other levels, particularly because Portia has shown that she is interested in reconciling. Yet, as we have learned, he is a stubborn, self-righteous man, and he will just keep pursuing his mission and seeking peace in the visits he makes to Singer's room.

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