There is some tough competition for "most tragic figure" in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. But we have to say: Willie almost certainly takes the cake.The themes of injustice and loss just crystalize in his prison-story-gone-wrong. Especially because of the hints we get about him personally – that he's generally a fun-loving guy – this makes his tragic fate pretty tough to follow.
While in prison for major assault, Willie manages to anger some white guards. The solution? The guards string up him and his two friends by their feet in a freezing-cold shed. After three days, when the guards come to release the boys, Willie's feet have to be amputated.
Willie himself never tells the story of what happened to him. We first hear about it, along with Doctor Copeland, from Portia. Later, Jake interrupts Willie before he can tell the story himself. In a way, not hearing the story from the kid himself helps to emphasize his status as a victim. Willie is left broken, questioning what happened to him and not getting any answers:
Willie felt the stumps of his legs with his dark, strong hands. "I just wish I knowed where my f-f-feets are. That the main thing worries me. The doctor never given them back to me. I sure do wish I knowed where they are." (2.13.29)
On the micro level, Willie is a victim of prison cruelty, but in the bigger picture, he's a victim of the terrible effects of racism, poverty, and injustice. He's got a bad case of the inescapable bad luck that negatively affects all the characters in the book.
And we'll leave you with this question: is Willie is more of a device than a full-fledged character? Is his story just a catalyst for other characters' emotional development or does he stand on his own?