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[222] The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers


“How Singer had been before was not important. The thing that mattered was the way Blount and Mick made of him a sort of home-made God. Owing to the fact that he was a mute they were able to give him all the qualities they wanted him to have.” [232]

In was 1938. In a Georgia mill town, John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulos are two mutes who have no other friends, and except when they work they are alone together. After Antonapoulos is sent to the asylum for public indecency, Singer takes up a room at a boarding house owned by the Kellys. Three times a day the deaf man eats at New York Cafe, where he befriends the owner Biff Brannon, who later becomes a widower; Mick Kellys, a 12-year-old girl who aspires to be a musician; Dr. Benedict Copeland, the idealistic African-American doctor who is estranged from his family because he denounces God; and Jake Blount, an alcoholic agitator who hopes the working class will understand that they have been oppressed and need to fight for their rights.

Mister Singer was different from any other man, and at times like this it would be better if other people would let him manage. He had more sense and he knew things that ordinary people couldn’t know. [179]

For almost a year these neighborhood acquaintances have paid visits to the deaf man on a regular basis. Not only have their company taken Singer’s mind off his loneliness in Antonapoulos’s absence, his inability to respond to their pleas gives these people a sense of trust that they can confide in him even issues so sensitive as racial inequality and injustice. For example, Dr. Copeland, stricken with consumption, cannot be treated at a good hospital because he is black. Jake Blount risks his life breaking up racial riot at Dixie Show. Whereas religion has reduced to a self-delusion, all four people feel compelled to establish some guiding principle or God. That John Singer has embodied their hopes, along with his blank-state quality and a quiet understatement, has rendered him a quasi-God figure—one that both inspires and comforts. For the deaf man, who does not possess the insolence of all the white race, has come to stand for all that these characters believe in their own minds.

By midsummer Singer had visitors more often any other person in the house. From his room in the evening there was nearly always the sound of a voice . . . There was truly none of the quiet insolence about this (white) man. [90-91]

In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers, with her keen observation and senses, has risen above the tension of her time and milieu to embrace black and white humanity. The writing captures a feeling so tense as conspiracy and menacing or as the deadly quiet before a catastrophe, like a racial clash and violence described in few occasions in the book. McCullers has lent a voice for those who are forgotten, oppressed, rejected, and exploited. In narrating the struggles and enunciating their profound loneliness she has not only communicated their feelings but also gives them dignity.

359 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] McCullers wrote this American classics when she was only twenty-three. Richard Wright was astonished by her ability “to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.” This is her first novel and surely will not be my last reading of hers.

[196] Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell

gonewind1She stood up straight and looked at the house on the hill. She had thought, half an hour ago, that she had lost everything in the world, except money, everything that made life desirable, Ellen, Gerald, Bonnie, Mammy, Melanie, and Ashley. She had to lose them all to realize that she loved Rhett—loved him because he was strong and unscrupulous, passionate, and earthly, like herself.” [946]

How long does it take someone to realize love shown to him (her)? Under the hand of Pulitzer Prize winner Margaret Mitchell, the epic novel takes its not-so-beautiful but obstinate heroine through unimaginable changes that Civil War had wrought on all Southerners. One war, two loveless marriages, many fatalities. It was in Southern women, most vehemently and conspicuously through Scarlett O’Hara, that the deep hatred the war engendered came to nest for real in the years of Reconstruction. Through poverty, widowhood, and starvation of these women, one can perceive the hard truths of the war firsthand. Although the Civil War and its aftermath might not be as Mitchell has portrayed in Gone with the Wind, the book allows one to bath in the pleasures of reading itself.

Tara is Scarlett O’Hara’s world—sheltered, privileged, prim, and ordered. Her entire nature shines with the joy of being pretty and sought after and frivolous in the early chapters and one can see her character darkening gradually throughout the novel. From a proud eighteen year old who lives in the bubble and whose primary concern is one Ashley Wilkes, a man whom Rhett designates right-on as someone lost in time. Someone whose delicate and intellectual faculty is no use for his time. Someone who is not forward at the moment nor is he hopeful in the future. Scarlett rises to meet challenge after challenge as the war destroys the entire world she was born to as a daughter of the South. Therefore, the war that liquidates her from comfort makes her who she is: someone who strives at all expense (even if it means cotton-picking) to reclaim the lost security and luxury.

Hunger gnawed at her empty stomach again and she said aloud, ‘As God is my witness, the Yankees aren’t going to lick me. I’m going to live through this, and when it’s over, I’m never going to be hungry again. No, nor any of my folks. If I have to steal or kill, as God is my witness, I’m never going to be hungry again. [426]

In the midst of interminable hardship, she continues to focus on what she must do to create an image of herself as successful and desirable. In her determination to do what it takes to survive, and to protect her family, she assumes leadership and becomes a fierce taskmaster. When a Yankee soldier appears in Tara, she has no scruple about killing him.

Although survival has dictated many of her choices, Scarlett might have gone too far as she is prepared to lie in order to achieve the success she craves. She persuades Frank Kennedy to marry her with the ulterior motive of sing his money to launch a lucrative business. She literally cuts corners morally when necessary to insure economic well-being and financial stability. She spares no moment of hesitation to consider feelings and scruple. Later she borrows money from Rhett Butler to buy a sawmill and demonstrates her gift for deceptive business practices. Even Rhett, who is known for speculating money and bankrolling prostitutes, concedes that Scarlett O’Hara wants money more than anything in the world. While she collaborates with the occupying army and prospers by embracing pragmatism and eschewing honor, Scarlett might have overlooked her loss in human relationship, as Rhett has foreshadowed.

‘Yes, I want money more than anything in the world.’
‘Then you’ve made the only choice. But there’s a penalty attached, as there is to most things you want. It’s loneliness.’ [635]

Scarlett has laid herself open to criticism so often in small matters throughout the novel. Long has breached are the traditional etiquette and behavioral code that her mother has so punctiliously inculcated in her. When she decides to marry Rhett, shortly after Kennedy’s death, the face of the town is set against her. Whatever her birth and family connections were, she is now in the category of a turncoat, a traitor. It dawns on her the importance of allies and her lack of them. While she loses most of her contacts, Melanie, whom everyone loves and respects, remains on her side. But Scarlett’s enduring fantasies for Ashley, and Melanie’s forbearance only amplify the meanness, the two-faced disloyalty, and the hypocrisy that are in Scarlett.

The cynicism of Rhett Butler becomes the pillar of the New South. That he never lets an opportunity pass in order to mock the pieties and abstractions of Southern patriotism has formulated a sense of rationality in the novel. But despite all his victories, his personality dramatically arcs—his wounded masculinity is what dominates and haunts the book. His greatest flaw is making the mistake of falling in love with Scarlett O’Hara, who only chases after someone who doesn’t exist, except in her imagination. She only comes to term with her true feelings, which she lacks throughout the book, and acknowledges emotions as strength, only a tad too late. Her long journey to become a person who is capable of love seems ironically fruitless.

Did it occur to you that I loved you as much as a man can love a woman? . . . I loved you but I couldn’t let you know it. You’re so brutal to those who love you, Scarlett. You take their love and hold it over their heads like a whip. [952]

In this vividly written novel, with interesting characters and unforgettable crises, Margaret Mitchell has given us an epic. While the language might be different from that of Faulkner, Joyce or Morrison, Gone with the Wind will certainly stay with readers for many years to come because of its reader readability. It’s what critics might call a timeless American classic. It muses on that reflection sometimes can be the only chance of happiness in the memory of what was promised to us.

960 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

Reading Notes on Gone with the Wind
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

Notes on Gone with the Wind (4)

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

gonewind1I won’t comment on anything that is beyond this week’s mark, page 616. So far I still cannot say I cotton up to Scarlett, who although has helped her family survive Civil War, is quite a capricious personality. To the eyes of people she makes money in a very unladylike, unsavory manner and therefore she meets cold shoulders everywhere she goes. Out of monetary convenience she marries Frank Kennedy who would help pay taxes for Tara and buy the sawmill. I give her credit for being so engrossed with the job of making Tata produce

What about Melanie? She doesn’t do much nor does she complain about the troubles of the war. In a way, Melanie is able both to appreciate the pragmatism of Scarlett O’Hara in the wake of the war and to appreciate the tenuous, absolutist hold her husband, Ashley Wilkes, keeps on the South’s chivalric code of honor. Part Four is a transition in regard to shedding light on the Ashley Wilkes that Scarlett does not know before.

‘It’s a curse—this not wanting to look on naked realities. Until the war, life was never more real to me than a shadow show on a curtain. And I preferred it so. I do not like the outlines of things to be too sharp. I like them gently blurred, a little hazy.’ [497]

‘I had sheltered myself from people all my life, I had carefully selected my few friends. But the war taught me I had created a world of my own with dream people in it. I taught me what people really are, but it didn’t teach me how to live with them. And I’m afraid I’ll never learn.’ [498]

‘My little inner world was gone, invaded by people whose thoughts were not my thoughts, whose actions were as alien as a Hottentot’s. They’d tramped through my world with slimy feet and there was no place left where I could take refuge when things became too bad to stand.’ [499]

I would not go as far to call Ashley Wilkes a coward. Ashley Wilkes is the foil to Rhett’s dark, realistic opportunism. He might live in a wrong time in which his talents and predilection don’t do him any good: he excels at hunting and riding, takes pleasure in the arts. Scarlett’s idealization of Ashley slowly fades as time goes on, after the end of Civil War, that she has outdone most the men in bravery and effort to sustain and subsist, she finally realizes that the Ashley she loves is not a real man but a man embellished and adorned by her imagination.

Whereas Rhett and Scarlett survive by sacrificing their commitment to tradition, Ashley cannot or will not allow himself to thrive in a changed society. He sinks even lower as he sacrifices his honor—the only thing he still values in himself—by accepting charity from Scarlett in the form of a share in her mill.

Notes on Gone with the Wind (3)

gonewind1War has ravaged the south and edged closer to Atlanta. After Atlanta has fallen, Scarlett harbors the hope that she will return to Tara to be with her parents were it not for the fact that Melanie, whom Ashley has entrusted to her care, is pregnant. meanwhile, the headbutting exchanges between Rhett Butler and Scarlett continue to entertain me. Her contradictory emotions, dictated by her pride, are the momentum of her wrestle with Rhett. He loves her being headstrong and independent, but she hates been seen through:

Scarlett was silent, embarrassed, for Melanie’s condition was not a subject she could discuss with a man. She was embarrassed, too, that Rhett should know it was dangerous for Melanie. Such knowledge sat ill upon a bachelor.
‘It’s quite ungallant of you not to think that I might get hurt, too,” she said tartly.
His eyes flickered with amusement.
‘I’d back you against the Yankees any day.’
‘I’m not sure that that’s a compliment,’ she said uncertainly.
‘It isn’t,’ he answered. ‘When will you stop looking for compliments in men’s lightest utterances?’
‘When I’m on my deathbed,’ she replied and smiled, thinking that there would always be men to compliment her, even if Rhett never did
‘Vanity, vanity,’ he said. ‘At least, you are frank about it.’ [325]

She might be snapping at Rhett but she is testing the water to see how far she can go and secretly entertains that this is what Rhett likes about her.

‘No? But then you lack the impersonal viewpoint. My impression has been for some time past that you could hardly endure Mrs. Wilkes [Melanie]. You think her silly and stupid and her patriotic notions bore you. You seldom pass by the opportunity to slip in some belittling remark about her, so naturally it seems strange to me that you should elect to do the unselfish thing and stay here with her during this shelling. Now, just why did you do it?’
‘Because she’s Charlie’s sister—and like a sister to me,’ answered Scarlett with as much dignity as possible though her cheeks were growing hot.
‘You mean because she’s Ashley Wilkes’ widow.’
Scarlett rose quickly, struggling with her anger. [325]

Secretly and desperately she longs for the note in man’s voices that presages a declaration of love. But that heightening anticipation never delivers because Rhett Butler would fling at her a sarcastic remark that annihilates the softening dynamics. Not to mention she will flare up and remember that awful humiliation of the day he witnessed her slapping Ashley.

War might have transformed Scarlett, or she is forced to conform to the cruel reality of sustaining not only her life but everyone who is dependent on her. Forgotten are all the luxuries and beaus who might pay courtship to the self-centered Scarlett. The true testimony of her “metamorphosis” comes when, at wit’s end and that the doctor has his hand full attending to wounded soldiers, that she and the salve girl Prissy are to deliver Melanie’s baby.

Although she finds grief in returning to Tara, it dawns on her that Tara is her fate, her fight, and she must conquer the battle. Until now, Scarlett has never occurred to me as heroic, although she is the heroine of the novel.

What was past was past. Those who were dead were dead. The lazy luxury of the old days was gone, never to return. And, as sarlett settled the heavy basket across her arm, she had settled her own mind and her own life. [407]

“They were all afraid of her sharp tongue, all afraid of the new person who walked in her body.” [411]

Notes on Gone with the Wind, Part 1
Notes on Gone with the Wind, Part 2

Further Reading, Who’s Also reading GWTW:
Book Bath: Week 1
Kiss a Cloud: Gone with the Wind, Part 1
Kiss a Cloud: Gone with the Wind, Part 2
Life is a Patchwork Quilt: Gone with the Wind, Part 1
Life is a Patchwork Quilt: Gone with the Wind, Part 2
You’ve Gotta Read This: Gone with the Wind, Week 1
You’ve Gotta Read This: Gone with the Wind, Week 2

Please leave me a link to your posts on the novel. Don’t worry about falling behind in reading. I want you to enjoy what you’re reading.

Reading Ravi Howard, More Southern Literature

liketreesRavi Howard’s Like Trees, Walking takes me to Mobile, Alabama, where the beautiful natural marine phenomenon called jubilee sets the scene of the novel’s opening. What is a jubilee? According to Wikipedia, is the name used locally for a natural phenomenon that occurs sporadically on the shores of Mobile Bay, a large body of water on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. During a jubilee many species of crab and shrimp, as well as flounder, eels, and other demersal fish will leave deeper waters and congregate—in large numbers and very high density—in a specific, shallower coastal area of the bay. Mobile Bay, where the novel is set, is the only body of water where the regular appearance of this phenomenon has been documented.

Apropos of the time of the opening, most jubilees occur in the hours immediately preceding dawn. Contrary to the festive event that usually takes on the aspect of a joyous community beach party, the book opens with a shocking event that alarms the entire community. Nineteen year old Michael Donald is found lynched. Michael’s friend Paul, who is the narrator’s brother, has discovered his friend’s body hanging on the branches next to a burned cross.

It didn’t make sense. Michael went to Murphy High School, graduated with my brother. He played ball at the rec center. He went to school everyday and church on Sundays. The shock of finding out somebody was dead was only magnified when you found out how. Of all the ways I’d heard of, seen. Lynched. People didn’t get lynched in 1981. My questions came faster than I could find the words to ask them, and I tried to sort through it as the pain in my hand throbbed. [19]

I’m engrossed in this book that explores the complexities of the American South. Speaking of the the south, I have to pick up Gone with the Wind again because p.414 is due at the end of this week, I have exactly a hundred pages to go.

Notes on Gone with the Wind (2)

gonewind1Rhett both infuriate and beguile Scarlett. The more their dramatic interaction advances, the more it reminds me of Pride and Prejudice. Rhett Butler, who ships in goods by boat and is rumored to be estranged by his family in Charleston, is rashly designated a speculator. Like Darcy, the community has adopted a negative impression of Rhett Butler and sharpens into a particular resentment.

“So Rhett consorted with that vile Watling creature [a prostitute] and gave her money. That was where the contribution to the hospital came from. Blockade gold. And to think that Rhett would have the gall to look a decent woman in the face after being with that creature! And to think that she could have believed he was in love with her!” [247]

Scarlett still bears the hope to be with Ashley even he has been married to Melanie for two years. When Ashley comes home for Christmas in 1863, Scarlett becomes acutely aware of the privileges Melanie holds as his wife. The day Ashley leaves, Scarlett again reveals her feelings to him, hoping Ashley will break down and allow himself to reveal he loves her, too.

But one cannot deny Scarlett’s slight longing for Rhett Butler’s courtship. She secretly reflects that it would be so exciting to have Butler in love with her and admitting it and begging for a kiss or a smile. As to why he hasn’t made any further advances, Butler is waiting for her to grow up a little more—waiting for her memory of Ashley Wilkes to fade. Meanwhile I find their headbutting exchanges very entertaining, paving the way for their ultimate recognition of love.

“Indeed!” she cried, taken aback and now determined that he should take some liberty. “I don’t even intend to kiss you either.”
“Then why is your mouth all pursed up in that ridiculous way?””Oh!” she cried as she caught a glimpse of herself and saw that her red lips were indeed in the proper pose for a kiss. “Oh!” she cried again, losing her temper and stamping her foot. “You are the horridest man I have ever seen and I don’t care if I never lay eyes on you again.” [243]

The novel is set against the Civil War, but I’m not completely convinced young Scarlett, an eighteen year old, could have dealt with death, marriage, fire and war like she has demonstrated with dignity and calm. Maybe Margaret Mitchell wants to portray a Scarlett who always remains a child at heart. When the novel begins, she resents serious matters such as sickness or war, merely seeing them as impediments to having fun. Even when she grows more accepting of life’s practicalities, Scarlett insists on being the center of attention.

Notes on Gone with the Wind (1)

gonewind1Like any long epic novel of a daunting size, it takes determination and courage to make that first step. The rainy day really did me a favor by confining me indoor. I did not intend to read 155 pages on the first day of the read-along but the I was just indifferent to time’s passing. I know the novel is set against Civil War, but Margaret Mitchell doesn’t give an exact time. It wasn’t until Ellen O’Hara, believing Scarlett to be pining away from a broken heart, sends her to Atlanta to Charles’ elderly aunt Aunt Pittypat and Melanie in an attempt to raise her spirits—Part Two of the novel.

Going back to re-read the opening, at Tara, the O’Hara plantation in Georgia, with Scarlett O’Hara flirting idly with Brent and Stuart Tarleton, the twin brothers do talk about the upcoming war which has no interest to Scarlett. According to the twins, the Yankees had already been shelled out of Fort Sumter “the day before yesterday” (which occurred on April 13, 1861), leaving the impression that the date of the opening is probably April 15, 1861.

The point is that before a clear perception of the timeline, Mitchell has jumped into painting Scarlett’s character. She is not the usual girl who grows up to be some man’s husband and remains at ease. She simply doesn’t succumb to any means used to raise her to be a typical Southern woman, neither to her mother’s soft-voiced admonition nor the constant carping of Mammy, Scarlett’s nurse from birth.

“No girl in the County, with the possible exception of the empty-headed Cathleen Calvert, really liked Scarlett.” [101]

“To Mammy’s indignation, her [Scarlett] preferred playmates were not her demure sisters or the well-brought-up Wilkes girls but the negro children on the plantation and the boys of the neighborhood, and she could climb a tree or throw a rock as well as any of them.” [75]

The most unforgettable scene is, of course, the confrontation between Scarlett and Ashely, when she pulls him into the library and confesses her love. The best is yet to come. The unreceived Rhett Butler, resting on a couch during the emotional scene, sees Scarlett throw a bowl across the room in anger after Ashley leaves. Surprised by his presence, Scarlett tells Rhett that he is no gentleman, and Rhett responds by telling her that she is no lady.

“It is bad enough to have an afternoon nap disturbed by such a passage as I’ve been forced to hear, but why should my life be endangered?” [131]

Rhett is impressed by her fire, thus cementing the saga that soon will unfold. I’m dying to know what will make of this potential odd couple. In the next post, I’ll talk more about Scarlett and this “feminized world” that she hates. What about you? What hits you during your reading?