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The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Carson McCullers

Part Two, Chapter 2

Part Two, Chapter 1

Part Two, Chapters 3–4

Summary

This chapter is told from Biff Brannon's point of view. It is October, and Biff has installed a hot chocolate machine behind the counter of the café. Mick Kelly comes in three or four times a week to have a cup, and he sells it to her for a nickel instead of a dime.

Alice, Biff's wife, has been sick recently. One day, Biff hears a cry of pain from upstairs. He takes her to the hospital, where the doctors remove a huge tumor from her body. Alice dies within an hour. Biff looks at her carefully to remember the details of her face. When he goes home, he sews mourning bands on his suits and meditates. He then visits John Singer.

Biff goes to his sister-in-law Lucile's kitchenette and watches as she fixes her daughter Baby's hair. Lucile begins to discuss her big plans for Baby's future. She says that, in addition to the dancing and expression classes, she wants Baby to start learning how to play the piano. Lucile does not want Baby to grow up surrounded by the "common" children in the neighborhood.

Then Lucile and Biff discuss her ex-husband, Leroy Wilson. As baby is doing handstands and splits, Lucile comments that the girl looks a little like her father. Biff disagrees, and asks Lucile why she cannot forget about her ex- husband. Even though Leroy was an awful husband to her, she still thinks of him whenever the phone or the doorbell rings. Then Lucile asks Biff why, many years back, Biff beat Leroy up. Biff says Leroy had been bragging about how he used to beat Lucile and how afterward she would go out into the hallway and laugh so the neighbors would think they were just joking around. Biff encourages Lucile once again not to look back. Then the car for Alice's funeral arrives, and the three of them go to the funeral.

The next day Biff keeps the café closed, but that night he opens it up again and the locals stream in. Jake Blount sits at a table with Singer, and Mick plays the slot machine with Bubber. She eventually sends Bubber home. Biff thinks about how boyish Mick looks with her long skinny legs, and then he muses more broadly about how by nature people have both sexes in them. He thinks of his own maternal desire to have Baby and Mick as his own children.

Biff thinks about organizing his collection of old newspapers; tomorrow he is planning to organize them all chronologically, first by national news and then by local news. His mind turns to a memory of Alice when a song comes on the radio. Mick turns it off and goes over to hover near Singer and Blount. Singer invites Mick to sit down, which strikes Biff as odd—he does not know any other grown man that would invite a schoolgirl to sit at a table where two men were drinking beer. Biff wonders what Singer thinks and feels, and his curiosity about the matter is still bothering him when he goes to bed that night.

Analysis

Biff, like Singer, is largely a quiet observer of the scene around him. The fact that he reads the newspaper every day but never reacts positively or negatively toward anything he reads is indicative of his observer status. Biff merely collects the newspapers and files them neatly and methodically. This failure to integrate what he experiences or sees with what he feels is also evident in his own life: he never synthesizes past, present, and future in any way. He repeatedly recalls the same few memories, but he does not relate them to one another or to his life in the present. Instead, Biff responds primarily to individual, separate occurrences; he does not shape his own life through an active participation in the life surrounding him.

A perfect example of this is the fact that Alice and Biff address each other as "Mr." and "Mrs.", a pattern they began years before after an argument. The implicit formality of such naming highlights the distance that has grown between the two. To us, Alice remains in the background of the story, which is probably the role she has played in Biff's life as well. The two live opposite existences: when Biff is sleeping, Alice runs the café; when Alice is sleeping, Biff runs the café. Sometimes they work together in the later part of the day, but even then their paths do not seem to merge.

Biff's feelings for Mick are somewhat ambiguous: at times they appear sexual in nature, at other times fatherly. In any event, Biff appears unusually drawn to the girl. But since neither Biff nor the narrator explains where these feelings come from or what motivates them, they remain an unintegrated part of Biff that is never fully explained. Toward the end of the novel, when Mick has more fully entered adolescence, Biff appears more clearly to be attracted to her.

Biff does, however, have unusual sexual views. As he watches Mick at the table with Singer and Blount, he thinks about how androgynous she still looks despite her skirt and blouse. Biff then reflects that the two sexes are by and large the same; this can be seen in youth, before sexual organs develop, and in old age, when the infirmity accompanying advanced years gives each sex traits of the other (women losing their hair, men whose voices sound high and wobbly, and so on). Biff himself is impotent, at least with his wife. Generally, protective and kindly behavior toward women appears to have replaced any sexual pleasures he had in the past. In a bizarre twist, Biff himself becomes more feminine after Alice dies, as he starts to sew more and wears her perfume. Yet at the same time, he removes all of the "feminine frills" from the bedroom they once shared. It is difficult for us to synthesize these conflicting impulses in any reasonable way, as neither Biff nor the narrator reflects upon them.

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