The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
by Carson McCullers
Where It All Goes Down
Mid-Sized Town, Georgia; 1939-1940
In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, the unnamed town is the entire world. Everyone's trying to escape – from economic, physical, mental, and spiritual hard times – but no one can get the job done. Basically, the town is a snapshot of a troubled region and country. And while we never see the outside world, we certainly see its effects: the racism and poverty of pre-World War II America treat our cast as puppets, playing with their lives in some pretty cruel ways.
The fact that the town doesn't have a name is a crucial detail. It can really be any Southern town in this era: the pre-Civil Rights, Jim Crow South of segregation and inequality. We see frequent images of poverty, violence, and suffering all over the town. And all of our main characters are directly impacted by all this real-life drama.
Because this book is highly episodic – meaning that it's broken up into smaller, individual stories – we end up getting a bunch of different micro-locations as settings. This focus on very specific locations (as particular as one room!) helps to emphasize some of the other themes in the novel: isolation, loneliness, entrapment. There's just an overall feeling of suffocation throughout the book, be it from the stifling Southern heat or the tiny rooms and houses to which people are confined.
Okay, now that we've cheered you up a bit, let's take a closer look.
Mick's house is often described as particularly suffocating and overcrowded, and we get a strong sense of Mick's restlessness and nervous energy in scenes where she is stuck at home:
Mick did not want to go back into the rooms where the family stayed. And she did not want to have to talk to any of the boarders. No place was left but the street – and there the sun was too burning hot. She wandered aimlessly up and down the hall and kept pushing back her rumpled hair with the palm of her hand (1.3.124).
The time she spends wandering the streets is like a breath of fresh air (both literally and figuratively!). It also lets the reader breathe a bit, too, don't you think?
Sunny Dixie Show
Themes of suffocation crop up again at Jake's place of work, the Sunny Dixie Show. This place has something of a nightmare quality about it, like the abandoned set of a horror film. Jake – again, along with the reader – often feels a sense of entrapment and dread there:
Jake was always alert. Beneath the gaudy gaiety of the show, the bright lights, and the lazy laughter, he felt something sullen and dangerous (2.12.45).
And now for something completely different: more themes of suffocation and dread! This time we're at Doctor Copeland's home. Copeland's house has some notable parallels to Mick's in certain scenes, namely where other people are involved. However, when Copeland is alone, or at least alone with Portia, his house takes on a very different vibe that reflects his character: dark, quiet, and lonely. First, let's check out Casa Copeland when it's not jam-packed:
Far from the main street, in one of
the Negro sections of town, Doctor Benedict Mady Copeland sat in his
dark kitchen alone. [...] Although the night was very hot, there was a
small fire in the round-bellied wood stove. Doctor Copeland sat close to
it, leaning forward in a straight-backed kitchen chair [...] (1.5.1).
Pretty calm, right? Almost peaceful? Pretty unusual for a non-Singer-related location. Plus, details like the "straight-backed" chair represent Copeland's own severe personality.
But when Copeland's pad is filled with people, it becomes much more like the other locations in the book and isn't immune to themes of poverty and overcrowding:
Doctor Copeland stood in the center of the front room near the tree. He was dizzy. He shook hands and answered salutations with confusion. [...] The air thickened and voices grew louder. Faces whirled about him so that he could recognize no one. (2.6.42).
Biff's New York Café
Biff's New York Café is really the major social location of the book – we meet and part from most of our main characters at this local hot-spot. It even gets its own lovely chapter. Unlike some of the more personal spaces, the Café is one of the few places people can come to breathe on occasion:
The place was still not crowded – it was the hour when men who have been up all night meet those who are freshly wakened and ready to start a new day. The sleepy waitress was serving both beer and coffee. There was no noise or conversation, for each person seemed to be alone (1.2.132).
Calm, yes, but notice that even in this social place, "each person seemed to be alone." You know you're in a book of isolation and loneliness when even the local gathering hole can't bring people together.
It always comes back to Singer, huh? His room at Mick's boarding home is actually really different from a lot of the other places in the novel. It's quiet, it's clean, it's very rarely crowded, and bonus, it has a radio. This space is a safe haven, a refined and civilized space in a very uncivilized world.
But in the end, this civil space is symbolically shattered by despair and violence via Singer's suicide. Hmm, a formerly safe place is destroyed by the world in all its horror… sound familiar? Maybe like wartime locations?
That leads us to our last setting-related point. McCullers published this book in 1940, when Europe was falling to Nazi conquest and America was only a year away from entering World War II. We get constant little reminders throughout the book – from depictions of poverty and racism to mentions of Hitler on the news – about the world outside this little Southern town. No matter how isolated it is, this town is definitely (and sadly) a product of its historical context.