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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter


by Carson McCullers

John Singer

Character Analysis

Center of the Universe

Singer is the true centerpiece of this novel – the entire story pretty much revolves around this guy. He helps us understand the other characters and it's through Singer that most of the novel's major themes are explored. So yeah, he's a pretty big deal.

Singer is first introduced to us as being mute (he doesn't talk), which is significant – it's the most obvious distinguishing feature of his character. Singer's deafness (by birth) and muteness (interestingly, by choice) set the story in motion, but they're more than just a plot device.

People are drawn to Singer precisely because he is silent. We might even say – and we're about to get deep here – that he acts as a blank slate upon which each of the other characters can project whatever they want:

The rich thought that he was rich and the poor considered him a poor man like themselves. And as there was no way to disprove these rumors they grew marvelous and very real. Each man described the mute as he wished him to be. (2.7.101)

The people who seek out Singer are looking for a cure to their loneliness; they desperately want to understand what's going on around them and within them. In this way, Singer is ironically turned into a false messiah by his followers – that's a lot of pressure for a guy who's not in such a great place himself.

What About Singer?

Speaking of which, what do we really know about Singer himself? Because of his use as a projection screen for other characters, we end up getting multiple versions of the guy. And in the end, he's so passive and withdrawn that it's hard to say what or who is the "real" Singer. All we know for sure is that he loves his friend, Antonapoulos, and that he's as lost as everyone else. But before you feel too bad for him: a lot of this is his own doing. Singer actually refuses to communicate – to the characters, and therefore, to the readers.

Because we as readers don't know much about Singer, we're also easily sucked into the he-is-what-we-want-him-to-be trap. Be honest: did you ever find yourself saying, "oh, these other characters don't get this guy, but I totally do." Hmm… do you really?

The Odd Couple

It's Singer's relationship with Antonapoulos that gives us the greatest amount of insight into his character. In fact, the only time we see any life in Singer is when he's with his best friend. The problem is, he totally idealizes this guy. Singer may be a blank slate upon which everyone else writes, but he himself is busy writing on his own blank slate: Antonapoulos. And guess what? Singer sees Antonapoulos as other characters see Singer: peaceful and wise.

He saw Antonapoulos sitting in a large chair before him. He sat tranquil and unmoving. [...] He watched the things that were said to him. And in his wisdom he understood.

This was the Antonapoulos who now was always in his thoughts. This was the friend to whom he wanted to tell things that had come about. (2.7.18-19)

Singer may come across to others as peaceful and wise, but he's actually tormented, a bit neurotic, and unhealthily obsessed with a man who doesn't seem deserving of Singer's devotion. Singer is just as flawed and prone to misconceptions as those around him. In fact, he may be even more confused and adrift than many others in town.

Silence is Deadly

For all this hype about being the centerpiece of the novel, we only get to hear Singer "speak" once in the whole novel:

I do not mean that they work at their jobs all day and night but that they have much business in their minds always that does not let them rest. They come up to my room and talk to me until I do not understand how a person can open and shut his or her mouth so much without being weary. (2.7.67)

This letter to Antonapoulos reveals how little Singer understands about his visitors (and himself). He wonders how these people don't get weary from talking so much, but it's probably in this talking that they feel less weary. Singer doesn't quite understand the value of human interaction and he seems to think that he doesn't need this communication: in fact, he exists most fully in his head with Antonapoulos. But as we know, that doesn't quite work out for him.

In the end, it might be his lack of communication with the outside world that leads to his suicide. When Antonapoulos dies, he loses the one person with whom he could communicate. Just after that, he comes across three other mutes, and is given the opportunity to create new connections, and maybe start over with his life. But he is unable to communicate even with them. It's a pretty crushing moment.

Starting Over

While Singer doesn't get the chance to start over (or he doesn't seize the opportunity, at least), he provides this chance to the other characters. We are left with a sliver of hope – no matter how tiny, miniscule, almost nonexistent it is) – that Biff, Mick, Jake, and Copeland might come to accept their fate and enjoy what they've got.