John Singer, a tall man with gray eyes, and Spiros Antonapoulos, an obese man of Greek descent, are always together. Both men are deaf-mutes. They live together in a small two-room apartment. Every morning they walk to work together.
Antonapoulos works for his cousin, Charles Parker, who owns a fruit store; Singer works in a jewelry store as a silverware engraver. They meet on the street at the end of each day to walk home together. At home, Singer always talks to Antonapoulos with his hands about all that had happened in his day. Antonapoulos sits back lazily, seldom moving his hands at all except when he wants to eat, sleep, or drink. Aside from praying, these are the only signs Antonapoulos ever makes with his hands.
Each evening, Antonapoulos cooks and then Singer does the dishes while Antonapoulos sits on the couch. Sometimes the two play chess in the evening, but after the first few moves Antonapoulos typically gets bored, so Singer works the game out for himself while Antonapoulos looks on drowsily.
The two men have no other friends; aside from when they work, they are alone together. The town in which they live is in the middle of the Deep South. The largest buildings in the town are cotton mills, which employ most of the town's residents. Most of the people in the town are very poor.
The years pass quietly until Singer is thirty-two and has lived with Antonapoulos for ten years. One day Antonapoulos becomes ill. Singer cares for his friend for a week; the Greek recovers physically, but is changed in other ways. After his illness, Antonapoulos steals items from shops, urinates against public buildings, and bumps into people on the street. Singer uses up his savings on bail and court fees for Antonapoulos's offences.
One afternoon in November when Singer goes to meet Antonapoulos, Charles Parker says he has arranged to have Antonapoulos taken to an insane asylum. Singer protests, but the decision has already been made. All through the next week Singer feverishly signs to his friend with his hands. Singer packs the best things for Antonapoulos and accompanies him to train station where Charles Parker is waiting.
The weeks that follow Antonapoulos's departure do not seem real to Singer. In his dreams, his hands jerk because he is signing to his friend in his sleep. When spring comes, Singer starts to have trouble sleeping; finally he moves out of the apartment into a boarding house near the center of town. Singer walks through the center of the town each evening, silent and alone, and thinking about Antonapoulos.
McCullers makes her principal concern in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter—the individual's compulsion to revolt against isolation—evident from the start. Singer would do anything for Antonapoulos, even though his friend virtually never shows any sign of acknowledgment or appreciation for all that Singer does for him. For Singer, friendship with Antonapoulos is the most important thing in his life; when Antonapoulos is taken away, he is devastated.
The novel is narrated in the third person omniscient. Much of the narrative revolves around Singer and his interactions with four other characters who are introduced in the rest of Part One. Like Singer himself, the tone of the chapter is quiet and muted, and the action is understated. McCullers presents Singer's dilemma of losing Antonapoulos in clear prose, and Singer's two sections in Part One are almost entirely expository. McCullers manages to convey a sympathetic portrayal of each character even though the point of view appears to be rendered objectively through an omniscient narrator who is not a part of the tale itself.
McCullers also uses her portrayal of Singer and Antonapoulos's relationship in this section to indicate an idea that resurfaces again and again in the novel—the apparent lack of reciprocity. Just as the other characters later project onto Singer qualities that they would like him to have, so does Singer project onto Antonapoulos qualities for which we see little or no evidence. Everything Antonapoulos does indicates that he is a lazy, selfish boor who feels little interest in the world around him and little inclination to do anything at all. Singer, however, attributes great qualities to his friend: "Antonapoulos was always bland, and no matter what happened the gentle, flaccid smile was still on his face. In all the years before it had seemed to Singer that there was something very subtle and wise in this smile of his friend. He had never known just how much Antonapoulos understood and what he was thinking."
Interestingly enough, reciprocity does not prove necessary for any of the characters to find fulfillment in their relationships. In this chapter we can see that the relationship between Singer and Antonapoulos is very uneven, as Singer is always giving and Antonapoulos is always taking; indeed, Antonapoulos hardly even talks to Singer at all. Yet Singer is perfectly content with their friendship, and the ten years of his life he has spent with Antonapoulos seems to have been a happy time for him. Throughout the novel, reciprocity becomes even more unattainable and even more unimportant for the four other main characters. All of them see some aspect of themselves reflected in Singer, and though he often does not understand their passions or hatred and cannot speak to them, they feel deeply attached to him and are content in their delusion.