“To thine own self be true” a father councils his son, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We’ve been hearing that advice ever since. The problem is that people don’t always know where to find their own self. In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, McCullers gives a few hints as to how that self can be found.
In this novel, several characters are hunting for something, and they believe they find that something in the heart of Mr. Singer, a man who can neither hear what they’re saying, nor respond easily to their written word. As disparate as these characters are, they each find what they are looking for in his compassionate eyes, which they believe reflect the windows to his soul. In the same way that these characters look to Mr. Singer for their ideals, Mr. Singer places a fellow on a pedestal, and this fellow is far less attentive and compassionate than anyone in the novel. It’s up to you to discover why these characters look to Mr. Singer for guidance, and why he depends on his mentally disabled friend for companionship.
This is a challenging novel, published in 1940, when McCullers was a young woman. This novel covers every sociologically important event of that time: racism, poverty, sexism, homosexuality, ableism, ethnocentricity, egocentricity, socialism, communism, pretty much the works. Yet the novel holds together tightly, and is also an interesting portal into America in the late 1930s, a time when children had far greater freedom and responsibilities than we can imagine today. Consider the scene where the young girl, Mick, climbs a rickety ladder onto the roof of a tall house under construction to smoke her early morning cigarette, dizzily contending with the heights and wobbling back down the ladder to resume taking care of the infant and toddler waiting for her down below. Children in the western world don’t have permission to go to the park by themselves, let alone to wander through construction sites, much less with their infant siblings in tow, unless they are very poor. Money is an issue in Mick’s family, which is why Mr. Singer boards in their home.Despite the frequently callous treatment that many characters dish out to one another, there is still a core of decency in each one, and that decency is often acted on. Not only can this novel teach compassion, it may also be therapeutic for you if you spend time considering what it is that the heart is truly hunting.