The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
by Carson McCullers
Biff is the novel's ultimate observer – we dare say even more than Singer. In fact, he acts as a quasi-narrator at times. Behind the counter at the New York Café, Biff watches the people of the town and thinks lots of deep thoughts:
He stood behind the cash register, and his face contracted and hardened as he tried to recall the things that happened during the night. He had the feeling that he wanted to explain something to himself. He recalled the incidents in tedious detail and was still puzzled. (1.2.130)
The New York Café is a key setting in the novel, and Biff acts as the one man chorus – he's pretty much the peanut gallery of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
Biff's main purpose in the story is to draw out the novel's themes and question the other characters. But this guy is pretty confused by everything, so he rarely explains things to us: he asks lots of questions, but he doesn't always have the answers (kind of like Shmoop sometimes!). It's like there's a constant "why" reverberating around inside of Biff's head.
Biff and Singer (Dibs on Country-Folk Duo Name)
It makes sense that Biff is drawn to Singer. (We feel like a broken record saying that, but it's really true for all the characters. Check out Singer's "Character Analysis" for more on why that is.)
As we have seen, Biff enjoys a good puzzle, and Singer is definitely that. Because Biff approaches Singer as a puzzle, he has a very different sort of relationship with the guy than anyone else. Mick, Copeland, and Jake tend to use Singer as a diary slash best friend, whereas Biff uses him more a sounding-board for his ideas. (Of course, the word "uses" is pretty important in both cases). In fact, Biff spends more time thinking about Singer and the puzzle he poses than interacting directly with him:
Of all times he had wondered about the mute to neglect such an angle. See everything in the landscape except the three waltzing elephants. But did it matter after all? (2.8.63)
Biff is a lot like a
hard-boiled noir detective here, puzzling out mysteries with really
colorful language. (The super dark hair and perpetual five o'clock
shadow help, too.)
Gender on the Brain
Because Biff thinks more about ideas and the people around him, we don't get as much information about him as a character. In fact, Biff is the hardest character to pin down in the novel – he's a deep thinker and an acute observer but his thoughts are hugely fragmented and personal information is carefully guarded, even from himself.
Part of this fragmentation revolves around his sexuality and gender identity, both of which are highly confused. His impotence (1.2.142), his vaguely inappropriate feelings for Mick (2.8.68), his assumption of feminine habits and roles (2.8.50-51), his fixation on his mother (2.8.7), and his occasional desire to be a mother himself, all point to a very confused sense of self. To top it off, Biff quickly throws up walls whenever thoughts about sexuality or gender get too uncomfortable:
Lingeringly Biff turned the ring [his mother's wedding ring] on his little finger. Anyway he knew what it was not. Not. Any more. A sharp line cut into his forehead. His hand in his pocket moved nervously toward his genitals. He began whistling a song and got up from the table. (1.2.126)
Who knows what song he was whistling – "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," perhaps? In any case, in addition to avoidance, Biff sometimes tries the justify-your-feelings strategy:
By nature all people are of both sexes. So that marriage and the bed is not all by any means. [...] And he even proved it in himself – the part of him that sometimes almost wishes he was a mother and that Mick and Baby were his kids. (2.2.91)
Biff undergoes a steadily increasing confusion in gender identity after his wife's death. Other characters recognize the effeminacy in Biff, too, but he doesn't seem to mind these outside observations as much as he does his own internal musings; in fact, he actually thanks Lucile when she tells him that he'd be a good mother.
It's All Behind Him
Another fixation for Biff is the idea of kids and parenthood. When his wife dies, he seems most torn apart by the loss of the children he never had the chance to have. This sadness turns into a pretty vivid picture:
The cold green ocean and a hot gold strip of sand. The little children playing on the edge of the silky line of foam. [...] Children were here whom he knew, Mick and his niece, Baby, and there were also strange young faces no one had ever seen before. Biff bowed his head. (2.2.6)
But notice that this image is just that: imaginary. These aren't dreams for the future: they're pictures of what he'll never have. In his role as observer, Biff is sort of cast out of normal time and vaguely removed from all the action. In fact, Biff doesn't tend to think much about the future: not until the very end, that is.
Might that be why our author places his ending last, to emphasize this change in him? Or does his observer status make him suitable for a kind of overview finale? Or maybe his detachment from most of the drama makes his story the most hopeful? What other reasons might there be for us to hear Biff's story as the last of the novel? That's up to you to decide.Timeline