The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
by Carson McCullers
"One Day You're in, the Next Day, You're out"
Mick isn't going on Project Runway anytime soon, but she definitely divides up her life according to what's in and what's out – in and out of her own mind, that is. Unlike most kids her age, or most people in general, Mick Kelly has a very firm grasp of the "extended metaphor" concept. In fact, she uses one continually throughout the entire book:
She sat down on the steps and laid her head on her knees. She went into the inside room. With her it was like there was two places – the inside room and the outside room. [...] When she was by herself in this inside room the music she heard that night after the party would come back to her. [...] The inside room was a very private place. She could be in the middle of a house full of people and still feel like she was locked up by herself. (2.5.20)
Mick really hits upon some profound ideas here: that people are divided into different parts, that no one can ever fully know another person, that it's extremely difficult to communicate your inner self to another person. This is basically the novel in a nutshell, and Mick lives out this identity crisis with her very own room-metaphor.
Let's take a look at that infamous inside room. Mick's interior room is filled with music, foreign lands, and a passionate desperation for life, beauty, and culture. Not too shabby. And to top it off, she's got some love in there, too – a deep love for Signer, who comes to represent all the things she wants in life. Singer is quiet and calm and seems cultured and civilized (is he, though?) – and bonus, he's the owner of a radio, which to Mick is a mark of status and culture.
When she walked out in the rich parts of town every house had a radio. All the windows were open and she could hear the music very marvelous. [...] That was the realest part of the summer – her listening to this music on the radio and studying about it. (2.1.23)
To top it off, Singer has seen snow. That's right, snow: that white stuff that falls in winter. If you live north of the Mason-Dixon line, this might sounds crazy to you, but in all her years, Mick had never had a glimpse of the good stuff. To her, it represents travel and worldliness; and because Mick desperately wants to be cosmopolitan herself, she latches onto those perceived qualities in Singer. She even dreams of ice-skating with him in Switzerland after she's become a famous composer. So now that interior room includes the whole famous and fabulous notion, too. These are pretty steep dreams.
In the Eyes of Others
Now onto the outside room. From an outsider's perspective Mick is just a teen from a poor family and a tomboy with some attitude problems. She's also carrying around a lot of responsibility, like worrying about her family's financial issues and taking care of her younger siblings. This girl definitely isn't eating with a silver spoon.
No one really seems to get Mick Kelly, although they sure think they do. Portia, for example, nails Mick's teen angst but misses the mark on the cause of it:
"But you haven't never loved God nor even nair person. You hard and tough as cowhide. But just the same I knows you. This afternoon you going to roam all over the place without never being satisfied. You going to traipse all around like you haves to find something lost. [...] And then some day you going to bust loose and be ruined." (1.3.120)
Portia's not the only one who sees Mick in a particular light. In a not-so-surprising turn of events, Biff also interprets Mick from his own view-point: that is, he sees Mick as he wants her to be, not as she actually is. (Sound familiar? It should. Hint: check out Singer's "Character Analysis.") But when Mick starts maturing by the end of the novel and disrupts the careful Lolita fantasy that Biff has stitched together, the entire thing unravels.
For a year this love had blossomed strangely. He had questioned it a hundred times and found no answer. And now, as a summer flower shatters in September, it was finished. There was no one. (3.3.10)
So does Mick herself have anything to do with how people perceive her (i.e. angsty and desirable), or are their opinions and assumptions outside of her control? We'll leave that up to you to decide. But we'll also leave you with some food for thought (we couldn't resist): if Mick left her "inside room" more often, would people be able to get to know her as she truly is? And why does she hide herself in that room in the first place?
Okay, we'll take a stab at it. Mick might create her inner room in order to protect herself and her dreams. In fact – as much as we'd like to claim a moment of brilliance - Mick pretty much lays this out for us:
"Some things you just naturally want to keep private. Not because they are bad, but because you just want them secret." (1.3.36)
Mick hits on the emotional and mental aspects of secret keeping, but our buddy Biff takes it a step further and identifies an important physical component:
He was thinking that in nearly every person there was some special physical part kept always guarded. (1.2.125)
Biff pretty much hit the nail on the head with this one, especially in relation to Mick. Our girl has just hit puberty, which introduces a whole host of issues for her to deal with and, of course, causes her to grow even more secretive. The exploration of sexuality and self is major part of Mick's story. The impulsive Mick rushes forward in that exploration of her sexuality, largely out of ignorance, and nearly derails her entire life when she has sex with Harry way before she's emotionally ready.
"We got to understand this" Harry said.
He cried. He sat very still and the tears rolled down his white face. She could not think about the thing that made him cry. An ant stung her on the ankle and she picked it up in her fingers and looked at it very close. [...]
She dug a hole in the ground with her finger and buried the dead ant. (2.11.109-10, 13)
What's going on here? Well, Mick is focusing almost exclusively on the ant, which she kills and then buries, as a way of dissociating herself from what's just happened. In the aftermath of what happened with Harry, Mick's developmental future is a big question mark. That experience, combined with her horror over a series of real-life tragedies (Baby's shooting, Willie's torture) cause Mick to shut down. Her rich inner life seems to grind to a halt and her deadening, numbing job at a department store seems to destroy her spirit. Mick had to grow up way too fast.
Okay, protecting her dreams – great. But let's not forget what her dreams are: yep, music and travel. And here's a little riddle for you: what do those things have in common? Awesomeness, yes. But also: the possibility for escape. In fact, in one of the very first scenes in which Mick is present, she is trying to rise above her surroundings – literally – and escape from reality. She climbs onto the roof of a house that's being built:
Five minutes later Mick stood up and held herself very straight. She spread out her arms like wings. This was the place where everybody wanted to stand. The very top. But not many kids could do it. (1.3.3)
Understanding Mick's desire to escape helps us make sense of her obsession with foreign travel and music. She wants to be transported to another, better, world, both literally (via travel) and figuratively (via music and the emotional impact it has on her).
And just one more note on music: music makes Mick feel alive and free. Listening and composing are transportive and transformative experiences for her: it turns her into something more than Mick Kelly, Vocational school student:
It didn't have anything to do with God. This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In this hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her – the real plain her.
[...] The whole world was this music and she could not listen hard enough. (2.1.128-29)
Music allows Mick to access her real, true self. Deep, we know.
Bridging the Gap
The problem with all of this is that Mick can't – or won't – communicate these dreams to anyone other than Singer (who, by the way, isn't so great with communication himself). Mick is practically a musical prodigy, but she won't let anyone know about it. Why the stink not? Because she's young and naïve? Because she's stubborn and fussy? We don't really find out.
Instead of mature communication, Mick is more prone to outbursts – verbal, physical, and emotional:
She thought a long time and kept hitting her thighs with her fists. Her face felt like it was scattered in pieces and she could not keep it straight. [...] I want – I want – I want – I want – was all that she could think about – but just what this real want was she did not know. (2.1.129)
Portia may have accused Mick of not knowing how to love, but Mick's real problem is that she has trouble expressing it the love (and other feelings) she does have.
We feel like we've been ragging a bit on Mick. Let's take some time to look at one of her best qualities (one which can actually explain away some of her faults, too): she's a sensitive soul. Check out this scene between Mick and her dad:
He felt like he wasn't much real use to anybody.
She understood this while they were looking at each other. It gave her a queer feeling.[...]
"I know you're in a hurry. I just hollered to say hello."
"No, I'm not in any rush," she said. "Honest." (2.1.16-19)
Talk about perceptive. Mick isn't a heartless, selfish, uncommunicative person. She is sensitive toward her dad when it matters most. And hey, a teenage girl who gets moved by Beethoven must have a pretty sensitive soul. And music absolutely put her more in touch with that side of herself. Unfortunately, but the novel's end, she's lost that music:
But now no music was in her mind. That was a funny thing. It was like she was shut out from the inside room. Sometimes a quick little tune would come and go – but she never went into the inside room with music like she used to. (3.3.13)
Without her music (and her sensibility and desirability, in Biff's eyes), what's left?
Mick is one of the best teenage characters in literature. Growing up can be really painful and awkward (we know, we've been there). Mick experiences all the angst and drama of being a teenager, but that angst is compounded, or made worse, for her because of serious real-life concerns. In that way, she becomes part of a legacy of teen heroines – blazing potential, huge screw-ups, and crazy transformations sum up her life in the story. See The Catcher in the Rye and My So-Called Life for two very different (but valid) examples. (Oh, and Mick also has strong autobiographical ties to Carson McCullers, who by all accounts led a very tumultuous life.)
From the Top
And we're back to where we started. Mick's response to all of her issues – angst, sexuality, communication, the harshness of growing up – is to develop a very rich inner life filled with hope for the future. But of course, this means that Mick is left to fight her personal demons on her own. Not a shocker in this book, that's for sure.Timeline