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The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Study Guide

Carson McCullers

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The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter | Themes



All five of the main characters in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter feel isolated at times. Loneliness and alienation are common feelings for each of them. These feelings are not limited to those times when the characters find themselves alone with their thoughts. They occur even in busy places such as on the town's streets, in the crowded boardinghouse, at the Sunny Dixie Show, and in the New York Café.

John Singer, Mick Kelly, and Jake Blount all take to wandering the streets in search of some reassurance that they are not truly alone, but they don't often find relief. Because no one truly understands them, their feelings of alienation only escalate. Dr. Copeland never stops feeling alienated. He does not feel connected when he is working among the people whose lives he is trying to save on both a medical, social, and mental levels—but who won't listen to him. He does not feel connected when he is with his own children, who are so different from him in every way. Biff Brannon probably feels isolated the least often in the novel, but he too knows how it feels to be alone, even within what should be the closest of all relationships: a marriage.

Minor characters also feel isolated. Mr. Kelly longs for just one of his children to give him the time of day. After the horrible accident in which Baby is shot, George feels he must lock himself away from the rest of the world. Harry Minowitz is as much of an outsider among his peers as Mick is.

McCullers's big point here is that everyone faces isolation and must learn to be make peace with his or her own unique personality. In fact, read in this light, Singer's suicide is unavoidable, as he is unhappy the moment his friend leaves town. McCullers prizes individuality and believes this is the secret to escaping any suffering arising from the inevitable feelings of loneliness and alienation everyone experiences. The four other main characters of the novel all do this in some way or another.

  • Mick Kelly has her "inside world."
  • Jake Blount has hope in a new place.
  • Dr. Copeland holds fast to his beliefs.
  • Biff Brannon continues to observe human nature.

Difficulties of Love

"Love hurts" is a good way to simply express this complex theme in the novel. Characters have trouble with relationships based on love, whether the relationships are with family members, friends, or romantic partners.

Family relationships in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter can best be described as strained. In the Kelly family, no one seems to have time for meaningful relationships with anyone else. The two older sisters, Hazel and Etta, do seem to have a bond, but it is based on superficial things. The parents love their children, but they are also oddly absent from their kids' daily lives. Only Mick is a steady presence for the young boys, George and Ralph, and her love for both is fierce. She also has a poignant, loving realization about her father's need to spend time with her. Biff has an unhappy marriage and an unnaturally strong love for his dead mother. Dr. Copeland has pushed his family away and is never able to stop criticizing them and just show that he loves them. In turn, they cannot open themselves up to him, fearing more pain.

The friendship that best shows this strained kind of love is between Singer and Antonapoulos. Singer's love for his friend is pure, yet it is unhealthy. He does not get love back; his love blinds him as to just how narcissistic and nasty Antonapoulos really is.

As far as romantic love goes, there are no good models for it in the book. Biff and Alice Brannon are unhappy and don't even have intimate relations anymore, and Biff has inappropriate feelings for Mick throughout most of the novel. Alice's sister Lucile keeps going back to a man who beats her. When Mick has sex with Harry, the only result is that they both feel miserable.

This theme is related to the theme of isolation. McCullers would say that love is always problematic and that people must not just "settle" to avoid loneliness; it's better to be alone than to be trapped in an unhealthy relationship of any type.

Failure of Communication

This theme pervades the novel. People think they are communicating well—and mostly feel satisfied with their communications—when in fact their ideas are not being heard or understood by others. Singer, to whom everyone loves to talk, cannot hear and chooses not to speak. He can read lips and appears to be empathetic with everyone's point of view, yet he admits several times that he doesn't understand at all what people are talking about. In a case of situational irony, Singer is in the same situation with Antonapoulos; he loves to talk with his hands to his friend, who usually "listens" passively, but there is no guarantee Antonapoulos understands him at all. Singer also likes to write to Antonapoulos, who cannot read, so this is another example of failed communication.

Yet no one is dissatisfied when the people they express ideas to do not respond. People are fulfilled simply by being able to "get it out." They feel understood, but perhaps they are only interested in understanding themselves.

Similarly, those who believe they have big messages that others must hear and accept—specifically, Blount and Dr. Copeland—talk a lot at people (rather than conversing with them). Both are very emotional about the fact that no one seems to listen to them. No one understands the importance of their ideas.

McCullers thus suggests that the problem with the way most people communicate is that it is a one-way street. People need to speak; they need to express their ideas. But true communication involves the exchange of ideas, not just the expressing of them. If people would care more about true conversation, perhaps their problems with isolation and relationships would greatly diminish. The conditions of the characters' lives in this novel, however, suggest that true communication is impossible within southern society in the 1930s, with racial violence and economic stratification pushing people ever further apart.


Feeling oppressed is a big problem for many people in the novel and often accounts for some of their mental instability. Blount rages against the oppression of workers in the capitalist system. Copeland rails against the oppression of the African American race. Both men are so filled with disgust about oppression that it literally drives them to illness.

Once Singer loses Antonapoulos, he feels oppressed by not being able to speak with his hands. He has to force his hands to be still. When he is liberated on his visits to see his friend in the asylum, his hands go wild.

Mick feels oppressed by her family's poverty. At the end, when she takes the job at Woolworths because her family needs the money, she loses her ability to go into her "inside room"—which is how she stays mentally balanced. She feels stuck.

Biff has been in an oppressive marriage, and this accounts for his confusion about love and his inability to perform sexually. When he is free from the marriage he says he will never again marry and seems deeply confused about his proper role in any sort of intimate relationship.

The underlying message here, as in the other themes, is that people must be allowed to assert their individuality. When the proper development of people's unique gifts and talents is allowed, everyone benefits. As the novel's environment suggests, however, people's unique gifts and talents cannot be developed in a society that does not value racial difference, the contributions of women to a productive and creative world, or equal access to economic means.

Questions for Themes

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