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The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Carson McCullers

Study Questions and Essay Topics

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Study Questions

What importance does music play in the novel?

Music has a twofold significance in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. First, music is important in the structure of the novel as a whole. McCullers herself referred to the book as though it were a piece of music; she described it as a three part fugue, and discussed the work's "themes" and "contrapuntal themes" that alternately harmonize and contrast with each other. It is as though each character's voice within the text is a different musical instrument that contributes its own unique tone and style to the work as a whole.

Music itself has significance within the text itself as well. Mick Kelly's biggest passion is music; for her, music is representative of her ambitions for a greater life. At the beginning of the novel, Mick tries to build a violin, but because she has limited resources she must use the body of an old ukulele, stringing it with a patchwork of strings from various other instruments. Mick is crushed when she realizes that her creation will never work as a violin should; this realization foreshadows the fact that Mick's poverty will continually thwart her dreams. At the end of the novel, when Mick takes a job at Woolworth's to help support her family, she must give up both the music lessons she has started taking from a girl at school and the free time and energy she has used to devote to writing down the music in her head.

What various roles does John Singer play in the text?

Singer plays two contradictory roles: on the one hand, he is an object of universal hope and human faith who is comparable to some sort of god; on the other, he is an ordinary man who suffers from the same loneliness and desire for human connection that all the other main characters experience. The primary reason Singer is burdened with both roles simultaneously is that he is mute: his inability to speak, coupled with his kind nature, allows his four desperate visitors to project whatever qualities they wish onto him, and allows each individual to cultivate his or her own worshipful and mistaken assumptions about him. Furthermore, because Singer is mute, he cannot speak to many people in the world; he is restricted to conversing with those who understand sign language. Interestingly, the same physical quality that makes Singer a confidant makes it difficult for he himself to make human connections—which is why he in turn worships Antonapoulos.

What role does violence play in the novel? Does it have any greater significance?

Most of the violence in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter arises from various individuals' frustrations with their interactions with the surrounding world. Dr. Copeland once struck his wife with a hot poker when he was in a rage about the helpless condition of black people. Jake Blount beats his head and fists against a brick wall at the beginning of the novel because he feels that nobody understands his socialist views. Mick Kelly bites her knee and scratches her leg the first time she hears a Beethoven symphony. Biff Brannon beats up a man who beats his sister-in-law, Lucile Wilson. John Singer shoots himself upon learning that his best friend, Spiros Antonapoulos, has died.

McCullers portrays violence as the natural occurrence when human passion conflicts with—or cannot be understood by—the outside world; and she sees such a lack of understanding as an inevitable part of human life. Although McCullers's idea is not an entirely hopeless view of the world, it is also not a very optimistic one. All of her characters are somewhat fanatical in their approach to their goals and aspirations; they are not balanced people.

Suggested Essay Topics

Explain the significance of the title The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

Is it important that the novel is set in the South, or could the story have taken place anywhere? Use examples to explain.

Choose any two of the five main characters and compare and contrast them. In what ways are they similar? In what ways do they differ? How do these similarities and differences operate within the novel as a whole?

Do you think the lives of the main characters in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter would change drastically if Singer did not commit suicide at the end of Part Two? Why or why not?

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