The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
by Carson McCullers
Symbol of the Times
Jake Blount leaned across the table and the words came out as though a dam inside him had broken. Biff could not understand him any more. Blount's tongue was so heavy with drink and he talked at such a violent pace that the sounds were all shaken up together. (1.2.85)
Jake is a wanderer and a tramp, like many of the out-of-work people in the 1930s. But this isn't exactly Henry Fonda delivering an inspiring lecture in the movie version of The Grapes of Wrath. Jake's definitely a figure of the Depression, but he has the added twist of being an alcoholic who may or may not be mentally disturbed. Nearly all the major characters note that Jake might be insane, and Jake himself seems to agree with them at times:
He was used to dreams, the grotesque nightmares of drink that let him down into a madman's region of disorder, but always the morning light scattered the effects of these wild dreams and he forgot them.
This blank, stealthy dream was of a different nature. He awoke and could remember nothing. But there was a sense of menace that lingered in him long after. (2.12.3-4)
Perhaps Jake's madness is itself a comment on the state of the country, or even the world, which was dealing with some madness of its own, namely in the realm of seriously radical politics (think Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Franco). His menacing dream hints at the threat closing in on the world at large. What might that threat be? Well, we'd say it's the approach of World War II, which starts less than a month after the novel ends.
Do Not Disturb
Jake can be a disturbing character, thanks to our brilliant author. McCullers uses very realistic details to depict Jake, and he often seems like he's about to go completely out of control. Emotional instability, alcoholism, and madness dominate Jake's very realist narrative:
"You patsy-faced, shrunk-gutted, ricket-ridden little rats! I could reach out and choke your stringy necks – one each hand." […]
The two men looked at each other, cowed, and tried to walk on. But Jake would not let them pass. He kept step with them, walking backward, a furious sneer on his face. (2.12.31, 33).
Singer and the Gang
Jake's emotional and physical restlessness seems to spill over into his everyday life and actions. So it makes sense that he seeks out Singer: this is a relationship that represents Jake's quest for a sort of peace that's born out of understanding. Sound familiar? That's because everyone thinks of Singer this way.
In order to calm down, Jake desperately needs someone to acknowledge him and his beliefs. Singer at least grants Jake that illusion of understanding; just like everyone else, Jake is convinced that Singer gets him. And even if that's not the case, Jake is still getting from Singer exactly what he needs: a quiet listener who lets Jake rant and rave free from judgment.
This carries over to Jake's relationships with everyone else, too. As we see during his argument with Copeland, Jake really wants an audience more than an actual friend:
"And the Negro," said Doctor Copeland. "To understand what is happening to us you have to –"
Jake interrupted him savagely. "Who owns the South? Corporations in the North own three fourths of all the South" (2.13.88-89).
Ultimately Jake doesn't need to be "gotten" so much as pacified. In a way, he wishes to impose himself on other people rather than have any sort of reciprocal relationship. He's so convinced that he's right in his thinking that he can't seem to handle even having a debate with Copeland – he quickly gets frustrated and discouraged. He's like a child who hasn't yet learned to play nice with his friends.
Overall, Jake is definitely a character of extremes (physical, mental, and emotional), and he helps to emphasize the precarious, or unstable, nature of life for all the characters in the novel.Timeline