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'The Heart is a Lonely Hunter' by Carson McCullers has several themes in the novel. One of those themes is Disability. Disability is like a blank screen on which able-bodied people project their own meanings based on their own needs, desires, fears, and experiences. Most of the time, we wander through life feeling alone and isolated, and we long for friendship and understanding. This was the issue for several characters in the novel. Each character has the need and desire to be understood, however, none of them ever truly are. The characters feel lonely and rejected, and their lives are in the search for friendship and understanding. Throughout this search they each find a shoulder to lean on in one man, John Singer.
John Singer is a deaf-mute and the characters turns to him whenever they need to talk. He becomes the one they turn to when compelled with the urge to vent their feelings. Singer is the one person in which they feel there will be no judgment, for he never actually understands what they say to him. They all have one common bond, whether they know it or not, and that is that in their own little ways, each has become an outcast. They have not been outcast form society as a whole, but they feel segregated from those around them. Although never verbally mentioned, it is because of this bond that the characters begin feel at ease when with Singer and slowly begin to open up, and start to feel understood and less isolated.
One of the most important characters that find comfort in Singer is the Mick Kelly. She is a gangly, boyish-looking girl and believes that she is alone in her misery. She spends time retreating to her "inside room" in order to cope with the fact that she is isolated and alone. Singer is the only person in the inside room, and she expresses to him all of her joys, fears and other emotionally driven thoughts. She feels as if she and Singer are sharing some sort of secret, and she trusts him more than any other person in her family. She all but falls in love with him, developing a near obsession, only claiming that this was a "different love" (McCullers 313), and that "it was not like anything she had ever felt in her life before" (McCullers 313). She wants to follow him everywhere" (McCullers 313), and even waits for him outside of his work, hiding so he will not discover what she has been doing. Mick knows that no matter what she tell Singer, not a single soul will ever find out about it, for he is unable to communicate normally. Because he can never verbally voice his thoughts or opinions, and is unable to pass, she slowly begins to open up and feel less isolated in the world. Mick and Singer share an unspoken bond, and "the way she felt about him came on her slowly, and she could not think back and realize just how it happened" (McCullers 242). Her other passion, besides Singer, is music. She has allowed music as well into the inside room as a way to escape as well. ". . . all the time -- no matter what she was doing -- there was music. Sometimes she hummed to herself as she walked, and other times she listened quietly to the songs inside her" (McCullers 98). Her love for music allows her to be comforted when those times of isolation come about, and also her friendship in Singer ignites an alliance with a fellow outcast which helps her cope with these feelings.
Another character who finds comfort in Singer's silent ways is Jake Blount. He appears almost nightly in the New York Cafe drunk, rowdy and talking to everyone and no one all at once. He is almost desperate to find someone to talk to, someone to whom he can relate his fears and joys to, and someone to understand him that he just speaks to everyone at the same time. He speaks so often that it is "as though a dam inside him has broken" (McCullers 25) and the "words come out of his throat like a cataract" (McCullers 17). During one meeting, Blount says to Singer that he is "the only one in this town who catches what I mean . . . because I know you understand the things I want to mean" (McCullers 23). He, too, has found a friend in Singer, and feels that he is one of the very few people who "know." Blount assumes that Singer understands all that is said to him, and Singer never once gives him reason to believe otherwise. Despite this assumed understanding, Singer writes of Blount as being "crazy" and tells Antonapoulos that Singer thinks that "he and I have a secret together but I do not know what it is" (McCullers 215). His despondent attempts at understanding have left him even more alone and misunderstood.
Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, one of the few well-educated African-Americans during this time also develops a connection with Singer. Dr. Copeland enjoys talking to Singer because he believes that..
"truly he was not like other white men. He was a wise man, and he understood the strong, true purpose in a way that other white men could not. He listened, and in his face there was something gentle and Jewish, the knowledge of one who belongs to a race that is oppressed"(McCullers 135).
Copeland feels united by the fact that they both seem oppressed, and he turns to him when distressed, or frustrated about telling others the "truth." Because of his intelligence level and education, he is set apart from his family and people and Singer allows him to have a sense of belonging once again. He listens to the ideas and thoughts of Copeland and lets him express them freely without judgment.
Even through all of this Singer is the one others turn to when needing to be understood, Singer himself also had the desire to be accepted but there is no one for him to turn to. His one friend in the world, another deaf-mute, Spiros Antonapoulos, seems to be the only person who he can really "talk" to even though he never fully comprehends what is being said to him. Singer tells him everything that is on his mind, and in his letter to Antonapoulos he tells, "I do not understand, so I write it to you because I think you will understand" (184). When discussing his desire to see Antonapoulos, Singer tells him "I am not meant to be alone and without you who understands" (185). Singer has the same connection with Antonapoulos that the others feel toward him.
McCullers writes of how her characters are always searching for something to fill their feelings of loneliness and rejection without ever truly finding it. After the one person Singer feels is the only one he can "talk" to passes away, he wanders around in a state of disbelief and shock. The same is for the others when Singer decided to take his own life after realizing he could not continue if Antonapoulos was not there. They are not sure what to do with themselves because for so long they depended on Singer as a figurative rock, and now he is no longer there. Each character continues to search for that something that will help them in their journey to find acceptance and understanding, slowly learning to stand on their own two feet.