50 pages 1 hour read

Carson McCullers

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1940

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Summary and Study Guide


The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) is a Southern Gothic novel written by Carson McCullers, one of the most prominent American literary voices of the 20th century. Set in a small unnamed town, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter captures the spiritual isolation and loneliness of five ordinary people in the deep American South in the 1930s. McCullers is known for her contributions to the development of the Southern Gothic subgenre, and her novels feature themes of race, industrialization, and the cultural changes that challenged the Southern way of the life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was McCullers’s debut novel. An instant bestseller, it launched her iconic literary career.

This guide was written based on the 1st Mariner Books edition of the novel published in 2011.

Content Warning: This guide references vocabulary from the original work relating to disability and race that is considered offensive. This guide also includes discussions of alcoholism, death by suicide, police brutality, and racism.

Plot Summary

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter follows the intertwined stories of five people in a small Southern town.

John Singer, an intelligent and kind man who is deaf, becomes lonely when his only friend, Spiros, who is also deaf, is committed to a psychiatric hospital. John starts eating at a local café-bar, where he befriends the owner, Biff, and a new man to town, Jake, who struggles with alcoholism. John’s patience, kindness, and listening ear endear people to him. He moves into a local boarding house, where he meets the owner’s 12-year-old daughter, Mick, a courageous and precocious girl. A Black woman named Portia works at the boardinghouse, and she helps her father, Dr. Copeland, connect with John so John can advise Dr. Copeland on a patient who is deaf.

All of the characters in this novel are lonely in their own ways. Dr. Copeland has driven most of his family away through his strict opinions, Jake struggles to keep his life on the straight and narrow, Biff and his wife live at an emotional distance from one another, Mick feels alone even though she’s surrounded by lots of people, and John misses his friend Spiros.

As the year goes on, Dr. Copeland, Mick, Biff, and Jake continue to visit John. Although John can read their lips and understand their words, he can’t understand why they get so caught up in their ideas. His conversations with his new friends are one-way: He misses Spiros because it’s been a long time since John has used sign language to express his own thoughts and feelings.

Mick enters high school and switches her shorts for skirts. She starts learning piano and practicing her own music. Biff’s wife dies suddenly, and Jake continues to obsess over the injustices he sees in his society. Bubber, Mick’s younger brother, accidentally shoots a little girl in the head. She survives, but Bubber is never the same.

Dr. Copeland’s life changes when his son Willie loses his feet to gangrene after suffering from torture and abuse at the hands of prison guards who incarcerated him for a public brawl. Dr. Copeland, traumatized by this news, goes to the courthouse to seek justice for his son. Instead, Copeland is arrested on false accusations of being drunk and belligerent. The white police officers beat him and keep him in jail for the night. The filthiness of the jail and the trauma of the abuse changes Dr. Copeland’s entire mindset about how to advocate for justice and equality in the Black community. Dr. Copeland falls ill, and Jake gets in a heated argument with him about how to bring about social change.

Mick undergoes formative experiences that lead her into adulthood. She has sex for the first time and gets a job to help her family’s dire financial situation.

John visits Spiros at the psychiatric hospital but discovers that Spiros has died. Afterward, John experiences depression and dies by suicide.

Portia arranges for Dr. Copeland to move to her grandfather’s farm and recuperate with his sons. He remains impassioned about the Black community but has a difficult time communicating his thoughts. Mick decides to stick to her job and holds on hope that she can raise enough money for her own piano. Jake leaves town, searching for his next destination. Biff has a revelation that what informs the human experience ought to be love.

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