I was only a few chapters into The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when I knew it would break my heart. I just didn’t know how.

The book was building towards something. But what? What horrible thing will happen? And to who?

I knew it wasn’t going to end well. But I kept reading.

The story moves among a few isolated misfits and a couple of deaf mutes.  In the midst of the book’s loneliness were glimpses of friendship, love, and passion, and these moments helped me accept the impending heartbreak.

Some of the messages were on a grand scale: Help the poor. Fight for the underdog.The more intense messages (for me) came on a smaller scale. Keep a diner open all night even though it makes no money. Write letters to someone who can’t read. Listen to people even when you can’t hear.

Appreciate what you can hear.

For example, when a teenage girl hears Beethoven for the first time. She listens outside a window because she has no radio of her own:

“The outside of her was suddenly froze and only the first part of the music was hot inside her heart…She could not listen hard enough to hear it all…Which? To hang on to certain wonderful parts and think them over so that later she would forget – or should she let go and listen to each part that came without thinking or trying to remember?…The whole world was this music and she could not listen hard enough…The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen…This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all.”

Towards the end, the heartbreak came as expected…and for a moment I may have regretted the experience, but then on the final page came a moment of illumination that made me lose my figurative balance:

“Then suddenly he felt a quickening in him. His heart turned and he leaned his back against the counter for support. For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who – one word – love. His soul expanded. But for a moment only.”  
After my own “swift radiance of illumination” confirming what literature can do to me, I closed the book, sad but now steady again, and hopefully better from the experience.


McCullers, Carson. A Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1940