The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
by Carson McCullers
Coming of Age, Modernism, Realism, Southern Gothic
Coming of Age
We usually think of coming of age as something that happens to a kid. And we definitely get that here, as Mick goes from girl-with-a-dream to matured-too-quickly responsible adult. But, this is a transitional novel for all of our characters: be it into adulthood, into old age, or into a mid-life crisis. After all, no one is ever really done growing up, don't you think?
Let's talk Modernism. "Modernist Literature" is a hefty phrase that pretty much refers to literature written between 1899 and 1945, and involving experimentation with the traditional novel format. Modernist literature plays all kinds of games with time and order, perspective, and point of view. There was a lot of play with form, it was more common to see a fragmented plot than, say, a clear beginning, middle, and end. Many critics see these radical experiments as a response to the violence of the World Wars.
Now let's get down to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter business. Modernist elements come into play in this novel through the style, tone, and themes of the novel. In terms of style, we have some stream-of-consciousness elements and a huge emphasis on intimate, internal portraits of each main character. The tone is highly detached and borders on cynical and even depressing at times. And that's pretty fitting – never let it be said that modernist literature is happy. (Virginia Woolf and James Joyce are nodding in agreement there).
As for themes, this novel deals with everything ranging from sex and the body to world politics. In true modernist fashion, this book has a philosophical streak and focuses largely on the place of the individual – and especially the individual mind – in the crazy, mixed-up, and often horribly depressing modern world.
Realism and Modernism often go hand in hand: both genres tend to take a harsh view of modern life and focus on characters' inner anguish. (Oh, and both are total downers.) Realism abounds in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, in stories like Willie's torture or the concluding riot at the Sunny Dixie show where we get a good number of graphic details with limited emotional input. It's the literary equivalent of the shaky, hand-held camera technique often used for depicting violence on TV and film.
There's also a strong sense of numbness in the world of this story as people suffer daily from violence and poverty. This novel doesn't flinch from the unpleasant facts of life; in fact, it makes a point of presenting these facts to the reader. Carson McCullers sure isn't grandstanding or making a point – she's just telling it how it is.
Southern gothic cool hybrid genre that requires some breaking down. So, let's start with the gothic. When we hear gothic, we tend to think of books like Frankenstein and authors like Edgar Allan Poe. Gothic is all about creepy, often English, houses with excessive amounts of weirdo servants, high murder rates, faulty lighting, and bizarre weather phenomena that result in way too many dark and stormy nights.
If you're wondering how all of this applies to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, well, it doesn't. But, in addition to all the supernatural elements, gothic literature (which was wildly popular in the nineteenth century) also emphasized things like the past, romance, mystery, drama, high emotion, and general weirdness.
Southern gothic took these elements and ran with them. Sprinted with them really. In terms of tone and style, Southern gothic mixes up elements of romance, Realism, and Modernism: it's a stylistic free-for-all. (See above for how those apply to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.) And then of course, there's the whole "Southern" part of the deal. This novel is deeply rooted in the South – it's practically a character study of the region itself.