Why are we lonely? There are more people in the world now than there have ever been. If you really wanted to, most of us could meet a hundred people a day only a few miles from our homes, but does any of us suppose that we would find among them any really kindred soul, even if we tried for a hundred years? The diversity of people is both our wonder and our tragedy; our personalities, our goals, our experiences are too different to really eradicate loneliness. We want desperately to communicate, to share ourselves, but we talk past each other, wanting to be understood but not seeking to understand.
John Singer, the central character--I wouldn't say protagonist or main character, exactly--of Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is genial and kind, and also a deaf-mute. He is talked at because he cannot talk back, and in him everyone sees a perfect companion. He acts as a lightning rod for loneliness, attracting the most isolated souls in his small Georgia town: Biff, a restaurant owner whose wife has recently died; Mick, a young girl who dreams of a career in music; Jake, a manic revolutionary who rails about social injustice.
My favorite, though, is Doctor Copeland, a black doctor obsessed with what he calls his "strong, true purpose," the education and advancement of his race. Except for Singer, Copeland is the novel's most achingly tragic character:
When he was seventeen years old they had sent him north with eighty dollars hidden in his shoe. He had worked in a blacksmith's shop and as a waiter and as a bellboy in a hotel. And all the while he studied and read and went to school. His father died and his mother did not live long without him. After ten years of struggle he was a doctor and he knew his mission and he came south again.
He married and made a home. He went endlessly from house to house and spoke the mission and the truth. The hopeless suffering of his people made in him a madness, a wild and evil feeling of destruction. In his heart there was a savage violence, and once he grasped the poker from the hearth and struck down his wife.
Copeland feels acutely the suffering of his people, but he cannot connect with the suffering of individuals, not even his own family. He cannot understand their religiosity or their refusal to take up the mantle of the "strong, true purpose" at the expense of their own lives. When his son-in-law loses his legs from being abandoned in a freezing prison cell, he finds that his erudition and understanding have not equipped him to do anything, or even commiserate with his daughter. He rants to Singer about justice and equality, but like the others he can only figure out how to communicate with himself.
Singer enjoys the company of these people but is baffled when, the four of them coming to visit him at once by sheer chance, they cannot get along together. For his part, he cares most for his deaf-mute friend Antonapoulos, who has been shipped off to a mental ward. What the others make of Singer, Singer makes of Antonapoulos, holding him dear even though he is clearly mad:
This was the friend to whom he told all that was in his heart. This was the Antonapoulos who no one knew was wise but him. And as the year passed his friend seemed to grow larger in his mind, and his face looked out in a very grave and subtle way from the darkness at night. The memories of his friend changed in his mind so that he remembered nothing that was wrong or foolish--only the wise and good.
It is also the Antonapoulos who "got drunk and threw a bowl of macaroni in his face." The Heart is a Lonely Hunter suggests that there is something fundamentally tragic about being human, that we are stuck in a cycle of projecting ourselves onto those around us and despairing to find that those projections are proven false. Most horrifyingly it suggests that Singer is right when he suggests that Antonapoulos is wise, though not in the way that Singer believes: that true wisdom comes from throwing off the need for human companionship, which inexorably fails, and embracing the primitive joys of feeding, sleeping, and emotion without reason or language.
Would it be easier for the characters of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter if they could step outside of themselves and see the folly of this cycle? The novel is conspicuously (appropriately?) mute on the subject. The existence of the novel itself, though not the experience of the characters, suggests that it is possible, but on the other hand it does not alleviate the essential tragedy of watching it happen.