If you're a Shakespeare buff, the name Portia should sound familiar. In Julius Caesar, Portia was Brutus' strong wife, who refused to accept her husband's dismissive answers about his role in Caesar's assassination.
The Portia in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter maintains this strong-woman persona. She also takes on the role of emotional commentator, contrasted to the more logical commentary provided by the ever-thoughtful Biff. Oh, and she's a prophet to boot. Portia makes freakishly accurate predictions about the people around her:
"Mick, now – " said Portia, "She a real case. Not a soul know how to manage that child. [...] Something going on in her all the time. I haves a funny feeling about that child. It seem to me that one of these days she going to really surprise somebody. But whether that going to be a good surprise or a bad surprise, I just don't know." (1.4.108)
In fact, Portia's entire story largely revolves around three other people: Mick, her father, and her brother, Willie. Why is Portia's story so dependent on those around her? She's a complex, fascinating individual in her own right, yet she plays a supporting role in the novel. What gives?
We'll hazard a guess on that one. There's something majorly missing from Portia's character that would otherwise allow her to be a main player: a connection with Singer. (Yep, it always comes back to that guy.) To earn star billing in this novel, characters have to be one of Singer's "regular" visitors. The fact that Biff, Mick, Doctor Copeland, and Jake rely so heavily upon Singer reveals a lot about who they are and about what they have in common: a lack of contentment and a whole lot of questions about their own identities.
Unlike the four Singer-groupies, Portia does not struggle as much with who she is. She has a sense of certainty in her identity, in her family, and in her religious faith. This doesn't mean that she's perfectly content. In fact, life throws her a lot of curve balls in the novel: she has to deal with Willie's incarceration, the Kellys' poverty (and her subsequent irregular paycheck), and her father's difficult personality. But none of these events shake Portia's faith in God, her family, her heritage, or herself. She knows who she is, and she's proud of it:
"Us talk like our own Mama and her peoples and their peoples before them. You think out everything in your brain. While us rather talk from something in our hearts that has been there for a long time. There's one of them differences." (1.4.70)
Our lady Portia fills a whole lot of roles for the Kelly family: she's part comic relief, part soothsayer, and part mother to the misguided Mick and the younger Kelly boys. In a way, this places Portia in a pretty stereotypical role. Historically, African Americans were often portrayed as figures of "fun," as friendly servants for white people, or as figures tied to superstition, religion, or mysticism. (Source.)
The fact that Portia plays these stereotypical roles tells us a lot about the society in which she lives. Bottom line: she has very limited options as a young black woman in the Jim Crow south. But unlike her father, she doesn't fight her place in society; instead, she finds some level of contentment in that place.
But even with all that, Portia never loses her individuality. Her feisty attitude and strength of character assert themselves most clearly against her father.
"A person can't pick up they children and just squeeze them to which-a-way they wants them to be. Whether it hurt them or not. Whether it right or wrong." (1.4.72)
You tell him, Portia. No one can express these fabulous thematic ideas and manage to bring Doctor Copeland down to size like his daughter. But at the same time, she's actually living out a lot of what her father preaches – intelligence, insight, and wisdom. She just does it in her own way, and not as her father tries to dictate.
A quick note on Portia's husband: he exists. Yep, that's right. Portia is so heavily defined by her role as a Copeland that Highboy tends to recede into the background of most scenes, and the fact that Portia is married is almost incidental at times.
"You see – us haves our own way of living and our own plan. Highboy – he pay the rent. I buys all the food out of my money. And Willie – he tends to all our church dues, insurance, lodge dues, and Saturday Night. Us three haves our own plan and each one of us does our parts." (1.4.14)
The collective living arrangement she has with her husband and her brother makes Portia's devastation over what happens to her brother Willie even more tragic. Willie's torture and subsequent amputation nearly destroys Portia emotionally and by the novel's end, she has been deeply scarred by her grief:
"Just as soon as I able to say it I going to tell you."
Portia sat motionless in the chair, her eyes moving slowly form one corner of the wall to the other. Her arms hung down limp and her legs were twisted loosely about each other. (2.10.11-2)
Even in her grief, Portia continues her role as emotional storyteller.
Portia recedes into the background by the novel's end, which is really more of a commentary on Doctor Copeland's distracted state of mind than on Portia herself. After falling apart over Willie, Portia seems to resume as normal a life as possible.