The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
by Carson McCullers
Analysis: Writing Style
Revealing and Dialect-Filled
It's All in the Details
This novel thrives on vivid descriptions of entire character worlds. We get all the gritty details: bodies, thoughts, feelings, senses, people, places – everything is knit together to give us a full sense of each character.
To see how this works in terms of style, let's check out Mick:
Mick pushed her broken front tooth with her thumb. [...] And maybe one of these days she might be able to set aside a little for a secondhand piano. Say two bucks a week. And she wouldn't let anybody touch this private piano but her – only she might teach George little pieces. [...] But then suppose some week she couldn't make a payment. So then they would come to take it away like the little red bicycle? And suppose she wouldn't let them. Suppose she hid the piano under the house. (3.3.14)
Within one paragraph we're completely immersed in the inner world of Mick Kelly, and her rambling, almost panicky thoughts clue us in to her anxious state of mind. Mick's life is pretty much summed up in her thoughts here: music, money, George, and worry. The repetition of the word "suppose" shows how Mick's thoughts can run away from her – it's a cross between the overactive imagination of a child and the totally stressed-out panic of a grown-up.
And how about this: we'd argue that the novel's style evolves along with the characters. Check out this passage from earlier in the novel, which shows just how much Mick has grown and changed:
High school was swell. [...] Shop and Algebra and Spanish were grand. English was mighty hard. Her English teacher was Miss Minner. Everybody said Miss Minner had sold her brains to a famous doctor for ten thousand dollars, so that after she was dead he could cut them up and see why she was so smart. (1.1.31)
That's a pretty different kid talking, don't you think?
And one last thing: the style of each chapter reflects its main character. Mick's chapters sound like Mick – we get frequent repetition of "plans" and "music," slightly rambling thoughts and a lot of slang. Meanwhile, Biff's chapters sounds like Biff, filled with rhetorical questions and short sentences. Jake's chapters tend to jump around erratically and abruptly shift to new topics. And Doctor Copeland's chapters use the most elaborate diction, or word choice, which reflects his own extensive education. Pretty cool, if we do say so.
In this very Southern novel, there are some very Southern ways of communicating: basically, we get a strong sense of local color and atmosphere through the speech of these characters. And bonus, each character adds their own flair, telling us a little bit about that specific character. For example, Copeland's deliberately cultured words make him stand out from the other African Americans in the book:
"You don't care if the collards is just cooked in meat, do you?"
"It does not matter."
"You still don't eat nair meat?"
"No. For purely private reasons I am a vegetarian, but it does not matter if you wish to cook the collards with a piece of meat." (1.5.18-21)
Copeland even goes so far as to restate Portia's words in "proper" English, like that grammar stickler we all know who always goes around correcting people. (Portia takes it about as well as most people would, knocking her dad off his high-horse later in the chapter.) If anything, Copeland's speech gets even more elaborate when he's challenged: it's pretty clear that he's using his education as a defense mechanism.
Our other character's speech patterns don't set them apart quite as much as Copeland's, but they are definitely still significant. Let's take a look at Biff. His fragmented thoughts and often terse words mirror his own confused state of mind and the way in which he constantly tries to sort out problems:
"Or maybe it's curiosity I mean. You don't ever see or notice anything important that goes on. You never watch and think and try to figure things out. Maybe that's the biggest difference between you and me, after all." (1.2.18)
We'll end our style discussion with the always-entertaining Jake. His rambling, furious speech is a pretty good indicator of his anger and near mania:
"Shut up, you!" Else I'll snatch your arm off and beat you black with it," Blount bawled. He hunched over close to the mute and his voice dropped to a drunken whisper. "And how come? Why has this miracle of ignorance endured? Because of one thing. A conspiracy." (1.2.83)
Jake really runs the gamut from low-brow to high-brow with his speech, one second sounding like he's about to start a bar brawl, the next like he's delivering a speech at a Communist rally. In this way, Jake sums up the book's style, which morphs and changes depending on which character is in the spotlight.