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The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Study Guide

Carson McCullers

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The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Plot Summary

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Part 1

The novel opens in the unnamed town in the Deep South where it is almost entirely set, with a detailed description of two friends who are both deaf-mutes. Their names are John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulos. Readers learn what the two men look like, how they make a living, what the home they share is like, and how a typical day in their lives unfolds from morning until evening. However, their lives change when Antonapoulos becomes mentally ill; his odd behavior is described as he develops more and more terrible habits. Then the sad day comes when Antonapoulos's cousin commits him to an insane asylum and Singer must tell him goodbye.

Singer suffers terribly over the loss of his best friend. He moves from their home to a boarding house and eats all of his meals at a diner called the New York Café. He spends his nonworking waking hours sorrowfully wandering alone through the town. These choices lead Singer to befriend several characters who often talk with him and ask him questions. Because Singer never responds, each character projects his or her own needs onto Singer, making him into a false confidante and supporter.

Chapter 2 introduces another major character, Biff Brannon, who owns the New York Café and runs it with his wife, Alice. They are arguing late one night about a man named Jake Blount who has been drunk at the café since he arrived in town 12 days ago. When Biff leaves Alice and goes back down to the diner, readers meet a fourth very important character, an adolescent girl named Mick Kelly, who has come to the diner to buy cigarettes. Singer and Blount are also both in the diner at the time, and Mick reveals that Singer is living in her family's boarding house. Shortly thereafter the final major character, an African American physician named Dr. Copeland, comes into the diner.

Blount continues to drink and becomes more intoxicated than ever, eventually leaving the diner and bashing his head against walls, creating such a scene that the police come. They bring him back into the diner, and after Biff feeds Blount and calms him down, Singer offers to take Blount to his room at the Kelly house.

Chapter 3 opens at the Kelly boarding house, where Mick is just waking up. It's a Sunday and, as usual, she will spend her day taking care of her little brothers George (nicknamed "Bubber") and Ralph. She takes them down the block to the construction site of a big new house where she likes to sit on the roof and think while the boys play. Readers learn how much she loves music.

When Mick and the boys get back to the boarding house, the rest of her siblings are described: her two older sisters, Etta and Hazel, and her older brother, Bill. Mick spends some time with Bill in his room, trying to get him interested in the violin she is trying to make, and then goes into the kitchen to talk to Portia, the African American housekeeper and cook. Readers learn Portia is Dr. Copeland's daughter. Mick spends a lonely afternoon in the big, crowded house, seated on the steps away from everyone and hoping to hear music from a boarder's radio.

Chapter 4 opens late that afternoon when Blount awakens in Singer's room. He has no idea where he is and little memory of the past few days. Singer feeds him and offers him a mattress on the floor until he can find another place to stay, but Blount refuses and leaves. He buys a paper and finds an advertisement for a mechanic, so he decides to apply for the job. On the way he stops at the New York Café to see Biff and to find out how much money he owes him after his long drinking binge. Then he makes his way to the Sunny Dixie Show and applies to the owner, a man named Patterson, for the job. Blount is hired and will start the next day. As readers follow Blount's wanderings around town the rest of the day, they learn he is angry about the way laborers are kept down by their rich employers. He tries to agitate people he meets with his views, but none are impressed. So he buys a basket of fruit and returns to Singer's room with this gift. He talks a lot to the deaf-mute as they share the fruit and glasses of wine. Blount then falls asleep on a mattress on the floor.

In Chapter 5 readers learn about Dr. Copeland, including what his home is like, what his Marxist beliefs mean to him, how he feels about his family, and how he has acted at various points in his life. This is all revealed in the context of a visit from his daughter, Portia, through their dialogue and his thoughts and observations of her. Dr. Copeland's relationships with his four children are strained because the children do not share his views about oppression or his unhappiness with the lot of African Americans. Dr. Copeland's wife, his children's mother, was not like him either. When Portia's husband and brother come to walk her home, they come in for a brief visit with Dr. Copeland, but as usual it ends up being contentious.

Chapter 6 moves forward in time to midsummer. Singer's room has become a regular stopping place for Mick, Dr. Copeland, and Blount, who all like to visit and talk with him. However, in July Singer abruptly leaves without warning. He goes to spend his two-week summer vacation with Antonapoulos. When Singer returns to the Kelly boarding house, his regular visitors continue to drop by.

Part 2

The first chapter of this part centers on Mick, during the summer after her first year in high school. Her typical summer day is taken up with caring for her younger siblings, but night she is free to do as she wishes. What Mick wants to do is find great music, so she wanders the town and locates homes with open windows whose owners play the musical radio shows she loves. She hides below their windows in their yards and listens.

The main story in this chapter is of Mick's party that summer, "the first party she had ever given." She invites 13- to 15-year-olds and plans for the party to be a sophisticated affair. People are to dress nicely, and Mick's older sisters lend her their fanciest clothes to wear. Mick decorates the house, checks on the refreshments, and dresses carefully. The party is initially a big success, and Mick and one of the boys there, Harry Minowitz, seem to connect in a new and exciting way as they take a "prom" around the block together. However, when Mick and Harry get back, the party has begun to unravel because the younger kids on the block have invaded the house. All the guests lose their poise and begin to act quite wild. Eventually all the decorations are torn down, everyone is outside, and Mick declares the party over. The night ends with Mick listening to a Beethoven symphony outside one of the houses she haunts and falling asleep with the music running through her head.

Time moves forward to October as Chapter 2 opens. This chapter centers on Biff Brannon. His wife, Alice, has begun to feel poorly and to act strangely. On October 8 she dies as the result of a massive brain tumor, and Biff spends the next day arranging the funeral.

Readers learn about Lucile, Biff Brannon's sister-in-law, and Baby, the daughter she is raising alone and idolizes. She believes Baby is going to be something of a child star and thinks of little else. Lucile, Baby, and Biff ride to the funeral together.

Biff closes the restaurant the next day, then opens back up for business in the evening. The usual customers arrive, including Mick, Singer, and Blount. Things have definitely changed, however, and Biff feels "something wrong" in the air.

Chapter 3 returns the focus to the Copeland family. Dr. Copeland is working nonstop to help during an influenza epidemic that winter and sees nothing of his children until one night when a distraught Portia shows up at the door to tell him Willie has gotten into trouble. He has slit another man's throat with a razor during a fight over a girl and is in jail. Willie's trial takes place three weeks later, and he is convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to nine months in prison.

The other drama in this chapter occurs when the father of Dr. Copeland's dead wife—whom his children call Grandpapa—visits and the family gets together. Copeland responds angrily to the gathering, which features religion, and he feels everyone there acts exactly as he wishes African Americans would not.

Following both of these difficult times, in Chapter 4 Dr. Copeland visits Singer. He always feels calmer and less lonely after talking to him. On one of Dr. Copeland's visits, just as he is leaving, Blount nearly runs into him while rushing in to see Singer, and this creates a transition to the next chapter. As Blount talks on and on to Singer during one long day, readers learn more about his character, both the history of his life and the form his life now takes. Blount continues to work at the Sunny Dixie Show and trying to interest others in his radical ideas. He always he returns to Singer's room because Singer does not laugh at him like others do.

In Chapter 5 readers learn Mick has started taking music lessons and practices the piano in the gym every day after school. She is maturing and is growing tired of always having to be around little kids. The main drama in this chapter is intense, however. It happens one afternoon in December when Bubber is messing around with his friend Sparerib's loaded rifle. When Baby appears in the street, dressed in one of her fancy performance costumes, Ralph takes aim at her because she won't let him touch her. He accidentally shoots her, fracturing her skull. Although Baby will recover, her mother demands that the Kelly family pay for all of Baby's medical care, including the cost to be in a private room with a private nurse and other expenses she deems appropriate. Bubber tries to run away after the incident, but he is easy to find. However, he is changed forever, and the family even begins calling him George, his real name, rather than the nickname he had always gone by.

Chapter 6 takes place at Dr. Copeland's annual Christmas party. Part of the tradition is the doctor's judging essays submitted for a five-dollar prize; this year he is disgusted with the entries but finally decides to award the prize to Lancy Davis, a troubled youngster. Another tradition is to give a gift to everyone who comes; the gifts are donated by the guests themselves and redistributed. Perhaps the most important part of the party to the doctor, however, is the speech he gives. This year he talks to the guests about Karl Marx and riles them up with his ideas about what their "mission in life" should be: to always act with strength and dignity and pride and to be sure the next generation is well educated.

Chapter 7 opens with a description of how exceptionally cold the winter is and how everyone reacts by acting a little strangely. Even Singer changes; he spends his evenings walking all over the town. He is haunted by memories of his friendship with Antonapoulos. He feels alone and alienated, even though so many people seek out his company. His four main companions remain the same, however: Mick Kelly, Dr. Copeland, Biff Brannon, and Jake Blount.

Finally Singer decides to go see Antonapoulus to give him his special Christmas present: a private movie projector. When Singer arrives at the insane asylum, however, his friend is not in his room. Singer learns he is ill and has been moved to the infirmary. During the one long day he is able to visit, Singer talks desperately to his friend with his hands, almost without stopping. Antonapoulos listens passively but does enjoy the movies.

Chapter 8 takes place four months after Alice's death and focuses on Biff Brannon. It becomes clear their marriage had not been happy. He has developed a new routine and redecorated the rooms where he lives. He is focused on having beauty around him and enjoys bestowing feminine touches. He is also interested in Mick Kelly in a way that is "not quite right." He has hired Harry Minowitz to work for him.

Chapter 9 opens with Mick fretting over the new level of poverty in her family since they must pay for Baby's medical bills and have lost ownership of the boarding house. She can no longer take music lessons because even her lunch money—which she used to pay for the lessons—has been cut off, leaving her sad and hungry. Nevertheless, Mick remains mostly content by penning as best she can the music she hears in her head, playing the piano every day in the gym, and visiting Singer in the evenings.

Then one winter afternoon Mick and Harry, who lives across the street, begin talking in a serious way about their beliefs and dreams. Their talk turns into playful physical jostling, and Mick begins having a different kind of feeling toward him, a feeling of arousal.

In Chapter 10 readers learn terrible news about Willie. Dr. Copeland and Portia have not heard from him in prison and have been rightfully worried. It turns out that Willie has been brutally tortured by the guards and as a result has lost parts of both legs in a double amputation. Everyone is devastated by this news, but Dr. Copeland takes it especially hard, and when he tries to seek justice for his son, he is thrown into jail overnight.

Chapter 11 is set a month later. During that month, Mick and Harry have begun hanging out with each other daily. They make a plan one afternoon to go swimming the next day at a good place Mick knows about in the country. They ride bikes for more than 15 miles to reach this creek. They have a wonderful time, but then the mood shifts and before long they have sex, both for the first time. They are devastated by what they have done, and Harry decides he must move away so his mother doesn't find out. He makes Mick promise she will write him a note once she knows for sure she is not pregnant, saying simply "O.K." When she gets home, Mick is surprised no one notices anything different about her except that she is sunburned.

In Chapter 12 the attention shifts to Blount, who is not doing well physically or mentally. He has met a fanatical preacher named Simms who is trying to convert him. He drinks too much and is becoming increasingly irrational and hostile. When he learns what has happened to Willie, he asks Singer to take him to the Copeland home.

That visit occurs in Chapter 13. Blount wants Willie to give him the names of the guards so he can exact revenge, but all of the African Americans who are gathered at the Copeland house strongly urge him to stay out of the matter. Dr. Copeland is very sick and in bed, but Blount goes into his room. The two men have a debate for hours about their different viewpoints. Their conversation eventually turns into a violent argument, with Blount wanting to use Willie as a sort of sideshow to rile people up against the system and Dr. Copeland calling him a "white fiend."

With Chapter 14 the story returns to Mick, who is filled with fear and keeps herself busy doing something all the time, just so she can push her anxious thoughts aside. She visits Singer once a week and follows him around like a shadow. The Kelly family finances are in worse shape than ever because one of Mick's older sisters has gotten too sick to work, and so her income is lost. As summer rolls around, the family learns of a job opening at Woolworths that pays ten dollars a week. Mick interviews for the job and gets it. She is not likely to return to school in the fall.

In the final chapter of Part 2, Singer goes to see Antonapoulos again. During the long train ride he thinks about the town he is leaving behind, and the reader learns Singer really does not understand the personalities and feelings of any of the people who have come to depend on him. The one person he has ever understood and loved is Antonapoulos, and he cannot wait to see his friend again. But when Singer arrives at the asylum he learns his friend has died. Singer is devastated and wanders around the town as he waits to take the train home. He meets three mutes, and although at first he feels excited to be able to sign with them, he quickly realizes he has nothing to say. Singer becomes totally listless, and when he gets home he kills himself.

Part 3

The final part of the novel has just four chapters, detailing events of the morning, afternoon, evening, and night of August 21, 1939. In the morning Dr. Copeland is being moved against his will to the country home of his dead wife's father because he is too sick to care for himself any longer. He angrily argues about it with Portia but eventually resigns himself to the fact.

In the afternoon Blount is preparing to leave town. There has been a terrible brawl at the Sunny Dixie Show, and two African Americans have died. Instead of breaking up the fight, Blount had joined in it. He decides he wants to see Dr. Copeland but finds the house empty, so he goes to the Kelly house to ask Portia what has happened. She chides him for the fight he had with her father, to which she credits his rapid decline, and tells him he should never try to see Dr. Copeland. Then Blount goes to the New York Café, and Biff gives him a hot meal. Biff reads in the newspaper that arrests have been made and the riot was thought to be caused by labor agitators. Since Blount has been distributing pamphlets he has made all over town that espouse his militant views about labor, he knows he will soon be in the crosshairs of the investigation. Blount falls asleep at the table and has a nightmare. He wakes up panicked and eager to be on his way. Biff kindly gives him 40 dollars and wishes him well.

In the evening, Mick gets off work and stops by the New York Café. Readers learn Mick is the one who found Singer after he shot himself and that the music that has always hummed inside her mind is gone. At night the story turns to Biff, who is alone with his thoughts and the news stories on the radio in the empty café. He has loved Mick for a year, but those feelings have now left him. He feels himself suspended in time and has a brief moment of terror before gathering himself and preparing to face a new day.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Singer's friend Antonapoulos goes to an insane asylum.

Rising Action

2 Singer moves to the Kelly boarding house.

3 Blount comes to town; Biff and Singer help him sober up.

4 Mick and Blount become regular visitors to Singer's room.

5 Dr. Copeland meets Singer and begins visiting, too.

6 Biff starts questioning Singer's godlike stature.

7 Blount unravels mentally; Copeland suffers physically.

8 Singer learns Antonapoulos is dead.


9 Singer commits suicide.

Falling Action

10 Copeland's health is so poor he must move to the country.

11 Blount leaves town after taking part in a violent fight.


12 Biff, Blount, and Mick all express hope for the future.

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