The Heart is a Lonely (and Awesome) Hunter – A Southern Gothic Gem

She sat with her arms around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen… Now that it was over there was only her heart beating like a rabbit and this terrible hurt.

The Good:

  • Beautiful, lyrical prose
  • Atmospheric setting
  • Poignant historical depiction of racismThe_Heart_is_a_Lonely_Hunter_by_Carson_McCullers

The Not-So-Good: (okay, this part is really hard for me to write!):

  • Plot may be slow moving for some (it’s more about the poeticism of McCuller’s prose than an action-packed plot)
  • If you’re not into overtly political themes, you may not enjoy it
  • The ending isn’t happy.

So I first read the quote above about 3 years ago, and ever since then it has stuck with me. And so for my first post, I thought I’d review a book that is very near and very dear to my lonely hunter heart.

I do a lot of reading, so this statement is a bold one for me to make: I can honestly say The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is my favorite book of all time, and if you enjoy the southern gothic genre or simply great writing, I’d highly recommend reading it. There’s a reason it’s on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century. McCuller wrote this coming-of-age masterpiece when she was only 23 years old (which makes me wonder what I’m doing with my life at age 25).

The quote references main character Mick Kelly’s inability to fully express her love for music as well as her overwhelming emotion at what she recognizes as one of life’s most beautiful things (music). But I think McCuller’s prose extends more broadly here, and actually, its universality is part of what I love so much about it.

For me, it’s an expression of the frustration that goes with being overly curious and overly moved by beauty. If I applied it to my own life, it’d mean an interest in too many things, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge – a passion and fascination with the “symphony” that makes up the “whole world.” It’s about a person who just couldn’t possibly live long enough to experience everything she wants to experience.

But The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is much more than a personal finding-oneself treatise to adolescent angst.

If you’re not familiar with the term ‘southern gothic’, it can best be summed up as a genre with a dark vibe in a southern setting. The characters, as they are in this book, are often outcasts, and their stories usually take place in late 19th or early 20th century. While the plot is realistic, there’s often a mystical or even fantastical twist to the story. Often social, political, or philosophical themes underlie those events – as they certainly do in this book, which is one of the first books to explore racism written by a white female author.

I was first introduced to McCuller’s writing in A Member of the Wedding (another book I’d highly recommend – but that’s another story for another time) and in it, I was intrigued with McCuller’s remarkable ability to use language to produce an atmosphere that places the reader right in the midst of a dreamy, slow-moving Southern town. It’s like taking a long walk on a sticky, humid summer day – except, ya know, you don’t actually have to sweat. Everything just feels like it moves more slowly.

To my pleasant surprise, McCuller’s skill at using language to such effect only grew stronger in this book. Her prose, like the novel and the characters within it, is haunting, lyrical, and replete with poetic style. Although this book was published in 1940, the characters and themes within it are as relatable today as they were more than seventy years ago.

Because of my love for this book, I’m hoping to read more novels within this genre soon.

Any recommendations on other good southern gothic books I can sink my teeth into?


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