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The Heart Is a 
Lonely Hunter 





Carson McCullers* 

The Heart Is a 
Lonely Hunter 


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Published by 

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Washington, D.C. 20506-0001 
(202) 682-5400 

Works Cited 

Carr, Virginia Spencer. The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers. 1975. New York 

Carroll & Graf, 1985. 

McCullers, Carson. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. 1940. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1961. 


David Kipen, NEA Director of Literature 

Sarah Bainter Cunningham, PhD, NEA Director of Arts Education 

Writers: Molly Thomas-Hicks with Ted Libbey for the National Endowment for the Arts, with a 
preface by Dana Gioia 

Series and Image Editor: Liz Edgar Hernandez for the National Endowment for the Arts 

Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington D.C. 

Photo Credits 

Cover Portrait: John Sherffius for the Big Read. Page iv: Chatsworth, Georgia, Courtesy of Georgia Archives, 
Vanishing C ieorgia Collection, mur037; book cover, courtesy of Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin, 
New York. Page 1: Dana Gioia, image by Vance Jacobs. Inside back cover: © Bertmann/Corbis. 

Table of Contents 

Introduction 1 

Suggested Teaching Schedule 2 

Lesson One: Biography 4 

Lesson Two: Culture and History 5 

Lesson Three: Narrative and Point of View 6 

Lesson Four: Characters 7 

Lesson Five: Figurative Language 8 

Lesson Six: Symbols 9 

Lesson Seven: Character Development 10 

Lesson Eight: The Plot Unfolds 11 

Lesson Nine: Themes of the Novel 12 

Lesson Ten: What Makes a Great Book? 13 

Essay Topics 14 

Capstone Projects 15 

Handout One: The Golden Age of Radio 16 

Handout Two: The Southern Gothic Literary Tradition 17 

Handout Three: The Limits of Human Communication 18 

Teaching Resources 19 

NCTE Standards 20 

■ *i 




i LONEU H' N|M> 


"The town was in the middle of 
the deep South. The summers 
were long and the months of 
winter cold were very few. 
Nearly always the sky was a 
glassy, brilliant azure and the sun 
burned down riotously bright." 

— from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter 



^m 4*)' 

■ V 






National Endowment for the Arts 


Welcome to the Big Read, a major initiative from the National Endowment 
for the Arts. Designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American 
culture, the Big Read hopes to unite communities through great literature, 
as well as inspire students to become life-long readers. 

This Big Read Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to lead you through 
Carson McCullers' classic novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Each lesson 
has four sections: focus topic, discussion activities, writing exercises, and 
homework assignments. In addition, we have provided capstone projects 
and suggested essay topics, as well as handouts with more background 
information about the novel, the historical period, and the author. All 
lessons dovetail with the state language arts standards required in the 
fiction genre. 

The Big Read teaching materials also include a CD. Packed with interviews, 
commentaries, and excerpts from the novel, the Big Read CD presents 
first-hand accounts of why McCullers' novel remains so compelling six 
decades after its initial publication. Some of America's most celebrated 
writers, scholars, and actors have volunteered their time to make these 
Big Read CDs exciting additions to the classroom. 

Finally, the Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with 
interviews, booklists, timelines, and historical information. We hope this 
guide and syllabus allow you to have fun with your students while 
introducing them to the work of a great American author. 

From the NEA, we wish you an exciting and productive school year. 

£3^a Mjteta. 

Dana Gioia 

Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts 

National Endowment for the Arts 


Day One 

FOCUS: Biography 

Activities: Listen to the Big Read CD. Write 
an essay on why McCullers might have 
chosen to begin the novel with a strong 
portrayal of companionship. 

Homework: Part One, Chapters I -3 
(pp. 3-53). * 


Day Two 

FOCUS: Culture and History 

Activities: Read Handout One. Discuss how 
radio might have affected the social, political, 
and cultural climate of the 1 930s. 

Homework: Part One, Chapters 4-5 
(pp. 53-90). 


Day Three 

FOCUS: Narrative and Point of View 

Activities: Discuss McCullers' use of multiple 
points of view. Rewrite the beginning of the 
novel from first-person point of view. 

Homework: Part One, Chapter 6 and Part 
Two, Chapters I -2 (pp. 90- 1 34). 


Day Four 

FOCUS: Characters 

Activities: Read Handout Two. Discuss the 
ways that The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter can be 
considered a Southern Gothic novel.Write an 
essay on a secondary character who serves as 
an antagonist to Mick Kelly or John Singer. 

Homework: Part Two, Chapters 3-5 
(pp. 135-181). 


* Page numbers refer to the 2000 Mariner Books edition of 
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. 

Day Five 

FOCUS: Figurative Language 

Activities: Describe music that sounds like 
"little colored pieces of crystal candy." Write 
a paragraph examining how the title of the 
novel serves as a metaphor. 

Homework: Part Two, Chapters 6-7 
(pp. 1 8 1 -223). 


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Day Six 

FOCUS: Symbols 

Activities: Analyze the symbolism of Mick's 
violin, the radio, and Willie's harmonica. 

Homework: Part Two, Chapters 8- 1 
(pp. 223-263). 


Day Nine 

FOCUS:Themes of the Novel 

Activities: Discuss themes of isolation, racism, 
and communication. 

Homework: Part Three. Begin working 
on essays. 


Day Seven 

FOCUS: Character Development 

Activities: Read Handout Three. Discuss the 
actions, reactions, and body language of each 
person visiting Singer's room. Examine the use 
of epistolary writing. Write a letter from one 
character in the novel to another. 

Homework: Part Two, Chapters 11-13 
(pp. 264-305). 


Day Ten 

FOCUS: What Makes a Great Book? 

Activities: Explore the qualities of a 
great novel. 

Homework: Work on essays. 


Day Eight 

FOCUS:The Plot Unfolds 

Activities: Discuss the major turning points in 
the novel. Examine the ways McCullers 
integrates the lives of the characters in order 
to create a fictional world. 

Homework: Part Two, Chapters 14-15 
(pp. 305-326). 

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The authors life can inform and expand the readers understanding of a 
novel. One practice of examining a literary work, biographical criticism, 
looks through the lens of an authors experience. In this lesson, explore the 
authors life to more fully understand the novel. 

Lula Carson Smith McCullers grew up in Columbus, Georgia, a mill 
town hit hard by the Great Depression. Many consider Mick Kelly, the 
wistful young girl in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, to be the most 
autobiographical character she ever created. McCullers' father worked as a 
watch repairman while her mother nurtured her daughters great love for 
music, believing wholeheartedly that Lula Carson would one day achieve 
fame. And, like Mick, the tomboyish author dreamed of escaping small- 
town life. 

Discussion Activities 

Listen to the Big Read CD. Students should take notes as they listen. Ask them to 
present the three most important points they learned from the CD. To go more 
in depth, you might focus on the reflections of one of the commentators. 

Photocopy the Readers Guide essays "Introduction to the Novel" (p. 3), "Carson 
McCullers 1 9 1 7- 1 967" (pp. 5-6), and "The Depression Era South" (pp. 8-9). Divide 
the class into groups. Assign one essay to each group. After reading and discussing 
the essays, each group will present what they have learned. 

Writing Exercise 

The novel begins,"ln the town there were two mutes, and they were always 
together. Early every morning they would come out from the house where they 
lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work." Based on what the students 
learned from the CD, ask them to write a paragraph on why McCullers might 
have chosen to begin the novel with this strong portrayal of companionship. 

23 Homework 

Read Part One, Chapters I -3 (pp. 3-53). Prepare your students to read two or 
three chapters per night in order to complete the book in ten lessons.The first 
three chapters introduce us to John Singer, Biff Brannon, and Mick Kelly. 


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Culture and 

Cultural and historical contexts give birth to the dilemmas and themes at 
the heart of the novel. Studying these contexts and appreciating the intricate 
details of the time and place can assist us in comprehending the motivations 
of the characters. In this lesson, use cultural and historical contexts to begin 
to explore the novel. 

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published in 1940, just as America 
emerged from the Great Depression, the worst economic collapse in the 
country's history. During the 1930s, radio became an essential part of the 
country's daily life. Through regional and national programming, the 
general public gained access to free news, music, and other entertainment. 

Discussion Activities and Writing Exercise 

Photocopy and distribute Handout One. Explore the music of Arturo Toscanini and 
the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Clips of many performances are available on the 

Like many American households in the late 1930s, Mick Kelly's family in The Heart 
Is a Lonely Hunter does not own a radio. Mick eavesdrops at her neighbors' 
windows during the warm Southern evenings, hoping to hear her favorite shows. 

She learned a lot about music during these free nights in the summer-time. 
When she walked out in the rich parts of town every house had a radio. All the 
windows were open and she could hear the music very marvelous. After a while 
she knew which houses tuned in for the programs she wanted to hear (p. 1 02). 

Ask your class to imagine a world without radio, television, or the Internet. Have 
them write three paragraphs describing the way radio has changed our world. 
Encourage them to consider the social, political, and cultural effects, as well as the 
way radio might have affected someone in the 1930s, like Mick, who had never 
enjoyed easy access to music, news, and entertainment. 

R3 Homework 

Have students read Part One, Chapters 4-5 (pp. 53-90). In these chapters we are 
introduced to two additional main characters, Jake Blount and Dr. Benedict Mady 
Copeland. In many ways, Copeland and Blount are parallel characters. Ask your 
students to think about ways in which their worldviews and philosophies of life are 
similar, and how they differ. 

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and Point of 

The narrator tells the story, with a specific perspective informed by his or 
her beliefs and experiences. The narrator can be a major or minor character 
within the novel. The narrator weaves her or his point of view, including 
ignorance and bias, into the telling of the tale. A first-person narrator 
participates in the events of the novel, using "I." A distanced narrator (often 
not a character) does not participate in the events of the story and uses 
third person (he, she, they) to narrate the story. Often an all-knowing 
character, the distanced narrator can be omniscient, able to read the minds 
of all characters within the novel. Ultimately, the type of narrator 
determines the point of view from which the story is told. 

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter employs a third-person narrator who does not 
participate in the novel's action, but has access to the private thoughts and 
actions of the characters. McCullers shifts perspective from one character to 
another using limited omniscient point of view. Third-person narration also 
allows the author to choose the distance from which we view the action as 
we are taken inside the mind of a character or shown only what we would 
see if we were a fly on the wall. 

Discussion Activities 

Each of the first five chapters is told from the point of view of a different 
character: John Singer, Biff Brannon, Mick Kelly, Jake Blount, and Dr. Copeland. Read 
the section "Major Characters" from the Reader's Guide, then discuss the ways 
McCullers uses the narrative lens by examining the following scenes. 

In the novels opening lines, Singer and Antonapoulos walk "arm in arm down the 
street to work." How close do students feel to the characters? Now examine the 
scene in Chapter 3 where Mick vandalizes the new house. "She stood in the 
middle of the empty room and stared at what she had done.The chalk was still in 
her hands and she did not feel really satisfied. She was trying to think of the name 
of this fellow who had written this music she heard over the radio last winter" 
(p.37). Do the students feel closer to Mick than they do to Singer? If so, how does 
McCullers achieve this? As the novel progresses, why might it become important 
that we feel closer to some characters than others? 

Writing Exercise 

Ask students to choose one character that has appeared so far. Have students 
rewrite the first scene of the novel in first-person point of view from the 
perspective of this character. What equips their character to tell the story? Have 
them reflect on why this story might be better told from multiple perspectives. 

n Homework 

Have students read Part One, Chapter 6 and Part Two, Chapters I -2 (pp. 90- 1 34). 
Ask them to begin thinking about what motivates the characters. What does each 
of them want? 


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The main character in a work of literature is called the "protagonist." The 
protagonist often overcomes a weakness or ignorance to achieve a new 
understanding by the work's end. A protagonist who acts with great courage 
may be called a "hero." A protagonist of dubious tenacity and questionable 
virtue is an "antihero." Readers often debate the virtues and motivations of 
the protagonists, in the attempt to understand whether they are heroic. The 
protagonists journey is made more dramatic by challenges presented by 
characters with different beliefs. A "foil" provokes the protagonist so as to 
more clearly highlight certain features of the main character. The most 
important foil, the "antagonist," opposes the protagonist, barring or 
complicating his or her success. 

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter defies the conventions of literary fiction. The 
novel does not follow a straightforward, linear plot, nor does it focus most 
closely on the actions of a single individual. The novel examines the lives of 
five main characters and their struggle against isolation and despair. 
McCullers' empathetic portrayal of the various personalities highlights their 
differences as well as the common adventure of the human experience. 

McCullers intentionally crafted a composite cast of characters whose stories 
converge rather than focusing the readers attention on a single protagonist. 
Literary scholars debate which character, John Singer or Mick Kelly, is the 
true "protagonist" of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. McCullers compared 
Singers character to the hub of a wheel; most of the action of the novel 
revolves around him. Yet Mick Kelly's journey toward adulthood gives the 
story its trajectory. 

Discussion Activities 

Photocopy Handout Two. Discuss the ways The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a 
"Southern Gothic" novel. How important is setting in the novel? Which characters 
are "grotesques" and what, if any, unpleasant aspects of society do they represent? 
Do they meet McCullers' goal of creating grotesque characters whose physical 
incapacity symbolizes a spiritual void? 

Writing Exercise 

Choose a secondary character who serves as antagonist to either John Singer or 
Mick Kelly. How is this person important to the story? Does the antagonist make 
the main character appear stronger, or more flawed? How might this be important 
as the novel progresses? 

Q Homework 

Have students read Part Two, Chapter 3-5 (pp. 135-181). Ask them to pay close 
attention to the passage in Chapter 5 when Mick goes to her "inside room," and 
to consider what we learn about her character during that scene. 

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Writers often use non-literal language to invite readers to visualize events, 
view internal conflicts, glimpse social themes, or grasp abstract concepts like 
beauty, truth, or goodness. An author uses figurative or non-literal language 
to stretch our imaginations, challenging us to decode the references and 
meanings bound within images, similes, metaphors, and symbols. Such 
devices require a reader to participate actively in the novel, as the reader 
begins to (implicitly or explicitly) interpret non-literal elements of the tale. 

Carson McCullers' writing style tends to be straightforward and unadorned, 
but sometimes uses figurative language to describe emotion. 

A metaphor compares one thing to another. By revealing similarity, 
metaphors provide insight to a character, an event, or an issue. Metaphors 
do not use the words "like" or "as." Here, McCullers uses a metaphor to 
describe Mick's private thoughts and feelings: 

She sat down on the steps and laid her head on her knees. She went into the inside 
room. With her it was like there was two places — the inside room and the outside 
room. School and the family and the things that happened every day were in the 
outside room. Mister Singer was in both rooms. [...] The songs she thought about 
were there. And the symphony (p. 163). 

A simile expresses the resemblance between different things, and usually 
begins with "like" or "as." McCullers uses a simile to describe how music, 
like candy, affects Mick: 

There was one special fellow's music that made her heart shrink up every time she 
heard it. Sometimes this fellows music was like little colored pieces of crystal candy, 
and other times it was the softest, saddest thing she had ever imagined about (p. 35). 

Discussion Activities and Writing Exercise 

The reader is privy to Mick's private thoughts and feelings as well as her public 
reactions. Why would McCullers want us to see what is in Mick's "inside room?" 
Ask your students to describe music that sounds like "little colored pieces of 
crystal candy." McCullers consciously chose to have Mick think of music as candy. 
Why is this comparison appropriate? What does it reveal about Mick's personality? 

Metaphorical titles provide clues to a novel's meaning. Ask students to write a 
one-page essay on how the novel's title informs our understanding of the book 
Can a person's heart be like a hunter? Is the word "lonely" important? Would 
another adjective (such as weary, hungry, or fierce) have the same effect? Ask 
them to suggest other metaphors and similes that could describe the novel or 
one of its characters. 

n Homework 

Read Part Two, Chapters 6-7 (pp. 181 -223). What special present does Singer give 
to his four friends? How does each of them react? What do their different 
reactions reveal about their personalities? 


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Symbols are interpretive keys to the text. The craft of storytelling depends 
on symbols that present ideas and point toward new meanings. Most 
frequently, a specific object will be used to reference (or symbolize) a more 
abstract concept. The repeated appearance of an object suggests a non-literal 
or figurative meaning attached to the object - above and beyond face value. 
Symbols are often found in the novels title, at the beginning and end of the 
novel, within a profound action, or captured by the name or personality of a 
character. The life of a novel is perpetuated by generations of readers 
interpreting and re-interpreting the main symbols of the novel. By decoding 
symbols, any reader can reveal a new interpretation of the novel. 

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is structured as if it were a fugue, a 
composition in which themes are stated by each voice in succession, 
building to a unified whole. From Micks ambition to become a professional 
musician, to Singers purchase of a radio, to the soulful wail of Willies 
harmonica, musical symbols inform the readers understanding of the 
characters and help set the overall tone of the novel. They represent 
characters' feelings, motives, and ambitions. 

Discussion Activities and Writing Exercise 

Use the following references to examine symbols. Students can discuss their 
responses in groups or craft written responses. 

Mick's violin: (Part I , Chapter 3) 

Mick tries unsuccessfully to build a violin out of a broken ukulele. "It seemed to 
her as she thought back over the last month that she had never really believed 
in her mind that the violin would work. But in her heart she had kept making 
herself believe. And even now it was hard not to believe a little" (pp. 46-47). 
Discuss how the violin symbolizes Mick's musical aspirations. How might the 
thwarted attempt at building the violin foreshadow Micks future? 

Music and the radio: 

Mick's fascination with music mirrors her determination to venture beyond small- 
town life toward a larger world. When Singer buys a radio for his room, Mick asks 
if she can "come in and listen sometimes" while he is at work. How is the radio a 
symbol for Mick? How is it a symbol for Singer? Why would Singer buy a radio he 
cannot hear? What does this say about his desire to connect with the people who 
visit his room? 

Willie's harmonica: 

Dr. Copeland's son.Willie, always carries a harmonica. McCullers uses Willie's "sad 
and empty" music to symbolize Dr. Copeland's mood as he listens to the footsteps 
of his children walking away (p. 90). After Willie is hurt, does his music come to have 
additional meaning? What purpose does it serve? 

EJ Homework 

Have students read Part Two, Chapters 8-10 (pp. 223-263). 

National Endowment for the Arts THE BIG READ • 9 



Novels trace the development of characters that encounter a series of 
challenges. Most characters contain a complex balance of virtues and vices. 
Internal and external forces require characters to question themselves, 
overcome fears, or reconsider dreams. The protagonist undergoes profound 
change. A close study of character development maps the evolution of 
motivation, personality, and belief in each character. Still, the tension 
between a characters strengths and weaknesses keeps the reader guessing 
about what might happen next, affecting the drama and the plot. 

At the beginning of the novel, Mick Kelly, an idealistic young girl, dreams 
of becoming a great musician, an inventor, and a world traveler. As the 
novel unfolds, we witness Mick's journey toward maturity. Mick childishly 
frightens her brother, Bubber, after he accidentally shoots Baby, but later 
consoles him. When her relationship with Harry becomes sexual, Mick 
assures him that it was not his fault. "I wasn't any kid," she says, "But now I 
wish I was, though." Later, she bravely offers to quit school and take a job 
at a local department store to help her poverty-stricken family. By the 
novel's end, she assumes responsibility for payments on Singer's radio and 
maturely considers ways she might be able to afford a piano one day. 

Discussion Activities and Writing Exercise 

Read Handout Three. All the main characters experience failures to communicate. 
They feel isolated and alone. Each has something he or she desires above all else. 
Each has something he or she loves most and, by the end of the novel, each 
suffers a loss. Ask your students to consider the ways love, desire, and the struggle 
against loneliness compel the characters to act as they do. 

Read aloud the section of the novel when all the characters gather in Singers 
room on the same night (pp. 2 1 0-2 1 2). Look closely at the actions, reactions, and 
body language of each person. How do these responses help define our 
understanding of each? 

The "epistolary" form, telling a story through the use of letters, allows an author to 
convey a characters viewpoint without the interference of other characters. In 
Part Two, Chapter 7, John Singer writes to Antonapoulos,"The others all have 
something they hate. And they all have something they love more than eating or 
sleeping or wine or friendly company" (p. 2 1 5). Ask your students to choose a 
character in the novel other than John Singer, then write a letter from this 
character to another person in the novel.What does their character love and 
hate? How does the character feel about those around him or her? 

2J Homework 

Have students read Part Two, Chapters 11-13 (pp. 264-305). Ask your students to 
review the novel and identify two important turning points. Which characters 
were most affected? Why? 


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The Plot 

The author artfully builds a plot structure to create expectations, increase 
suspense, and inform character development. The timing of events, from 
beginning, to middle, to end, can make a novel predictable or riveting. A 
plot, propelled by a crisis, will reach a climax, and close with a resolution 
(sometimes called denouement). 

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter does not conform to a traditional plot 
structure. McCullers wrote the novel just as she would have composed a 
piece of music, arranging each voice so that the effect was a unified theme, 
examining the way disparate lives converge in order to attempt to 
understand the commonality of humankind. 

Discussion Activities 

Use the homework assignment from the last lesson to have students present the 
most important turning points in the novel. Some of the turning points are Alice's 
death at the beginning of Part Two; Portia telling Dr. Copeland about the 
amputation of Willies legs; Singers purchase of the radio; and Mick's decision to 
take the job at Woolworth's in order to help her family. Ask students to refer to 
key passages from the story, explaining why the turning points they identified are 
the most significant. How do these turning points provide a general arc or 
trajectory to the story? Can you identify the rising action, climax, and resolution 
to the story? 

Writing Exercise 

The novel, told from multiple viewpoints, closely examines the lives of five main 
characters. How does McCullers integrate the lives of these characters into the 
plot? Does the use of multiple narrators fail to create a coherent plot? If so, how? 
If not, why not? 

HI Homework 

Have students read Part Two, Chapters 14-15 (pp. 305-326). In tonight's reading, 
your students will come to the novel's climax — the death of Antonapoulos and 
Singer's subsequent suicide. Without giving these developments away, ask them to 
consider why Singer reacts as he does. Are they shocked by his actions? Why or 
why not? 

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Themes of 
the Novel 

Profound questions raised by the story allow the character (and the reader) 
to explore the meaning of human life and extract themes. Themes 
investigate topics explored for centuries by philosophers, politicians, 
scientists, historians, and theologians. Classic themes include intellectual 
freedom versus censorship, personal moral code in relation to political 
justice, and spiritual faith versus rational commitments. A novel can shed 
light on these age-old debates by creating new situations to challenge and 
explore human nature. 

Discussion Activities and Writing Exercises 

Use the following questions to stimulate discussion or provide writing exercises in 
order to interpret the novel in specific ways. Explore the statements The Heart Is 
a Lonely Hunter makes about the following: 

• Isolation: "Each evening the mute walked alone for hours in the street [. . .] in 
his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces 
of the very sorrowful or the very wise. But still he wandered through the 
streets of the town, always silent and alone" (pp. 1 2- 1 3). 

1. What is McCullers saying about loneliness? Is there something noble in 
keeping oneself apart? Why or why not? 

2. John Singer's disability creates a communication barrier. How are the other 
characters separated from society? Are these things within their control? 

• Racism: Dr. Copeland tells a group of students, "Some of you young people 
here this morning may feel the need to be teachers or nurses or leaders of 
your race. But most of you will be denied. You will have to sell yourselves for a 
useless purpose in order to keep alive. [. . .] The time will come when the 
riches in us will not be held in scorn and contempt" (pp. 1 93- 1 94). 

1 . What does Dr. Copeland blame for the racist society in which he lives? 
Does he accept any responsibility? 

2. What values does Dr. Copeland believe will combat discrimination? What 
does he see as the black community's "greatest need?" 

• Communication: When Portia tells her father about the amputation of 
Willie's legs, Dr. Copeland says,"l am deaf. [. . .] I cannot understand." 

1. Why does he react in this way? What is McCullers illustrating by Dr. 
Copeland's inability to accept what he has heard? 

2. Examine other examples of situations in which the novel's characters cannot 
communicate effectively. Are the barriers to effective communication self- 
imposed, or are they influenced solely by society? Why? 

[TJ Homework 

Have students finish reading the novel. Ask them to begin their essays, using "Essay 
Topics" at the end of this guide. Outlines are due at the next class. 

I 2 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


What Makes 
a Great 

Novels illustrate the connections between individuals and questions of 
humanity. Great stories articulate and explore the mysteries of our daily 
lives while painting those conflicts in the larger picture of human struggle. 
Readers forge bonds with the story as the writers voice, style, and sense of 
poetry inform the plot, characters, and themes. By creating opportunities 
for learning, imagining, and reflecting, a great novel is a work of art that 
affects many generations of readers, changing lives, challenging 
assumptions, and breaking new ground. 

Discussion Activities 

Ask students to make a list of the characteristics of a great book. What elevates a 
novel to greatness? Ask them to discuss, within groups, other books they know 
that include some of the same characteristics. Do any of these books remind 
them of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter 7 . Is this a great novel? 

A great writer can be the voice of a generation. What kind of voice does 
McCullers provide through the stories of the five main characters? What does this 
voice tell us about the concerns and dreams of McCullers' generation? How does 
this voice represent the Depression-era South? 

Have each group choose the single most important theme of the novel. Ask a 
spokesperson from each group to explain his or her decision. Write these themes 
on the board. Are all the groups in agreement? 

Writing Exercise 

If you were the voice of your generation, what would be your most important 
message? Why might you choose to convey this in a novel rather than a speech or 
an essay? What story would you tell to get your point across? 

Have students work on their essays in class. Be available to assist with outlines, 
drafts, and arguments. Have each student partner with another to edit outlines 
and/or rough drafts. Provide students with characteristics of a well-written essay. 

EJ Homework 

Students should work on their essays. See "Essay Topics" at the end of this guide. 
For additional questions, see the Reader's Guide "Discussion Questions" (pp. 1 4- 
1 5). Turn in rough drafts for the next class. 

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The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, 
as do the Discussion Questions in the Readers Guide. Advanced students can come up with their 
own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided 

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis — that is, an assertion — about the 
novel. This statement or thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. 
The thesis and supporting reasons should be backed by references to the text. 

1 . Mick Kelly separates her private thoughts and 
feelings from the ones she shares with friends 
and family by thinking of them as "inside" and 
"outside" rooms. By the novel's end she is "shut 
out from the inside room." Is Mick's inability to 
reach this private space a necessary part of 
maturity? Why or why not? As she matures, has 
Mick given up her musical ambitions? What, if 
any, are the signs of hope at the end of the 

2. Discuss Doctor Copeland's strange relationship 
with his daughter, Portia. "Willie and Highboy 
and me have backbone," Portia tells her father, 
"This here is a hard world and it seem to me 
us three struggles along pretty well." Would 
you characterize Portia as a strong person, or a 
weak one? How does she treat her father? Do 
you feel she's fair to him? If so, why? If not, why 
not? How do Dr. Copeland's views of family 
and society differ from Portia's? 

3. Of all the characters, Jake Blount is the most 
prone to violence and outburst. What 
motivates him? Are his political beliefs based on 
sound principles, or is he simply reacting against 
the social and economic challenges of the late 

1 930s? Is he capable of initiating the social 
change he proposes, rather than simply talking? 
Why or why not? Have students support their 
argument with passages from the text 

4. Throughout the novel, Singer serves as a 
symbol of hope to the other characters. At the 
end of Part One, McCullers tells us,"Mick Kelly 
and Jake Blount and Doctor Copeland would 
come and talk in the silent room — for they felt 
the mute would always understand whatever 
they wanted to say to him. And maybe even 
more than that" (p.94). Discuss what each 
character wants most, and the ways in which 
they project this desire onto Singer. What is the 
significance of Singer's name? How does his 
inability to speak affect the way he listens? 
Ultimately, does his disability bring him closer 
to the other characters or separate him from 
them? How does the way characters listen (or 
refuse to listen) to each other affect our 
understanding of them? What might McCullers 
be trying to say about human communication? 


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Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read 
community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, a student assembly, 
or a bookstore. 

1 . Invite a historian (or someone who lived during 
the Depression, or the beginning of the Civil 
Rights movement) to meet with students to 
talk about the era of the novel. Prepare a 
collective series of questions in advance and 
use these as a way to generate a conversation. 
Have students take their new knowledge back 
into an interpretation of the novel. Did this 
information change the way they understand 
the novel? The discussion can take place in the 
library, a student assembly, or a bookstore. 

2. McCullers adapted some of her novels and 
short stories for the stage. Find a local theater 
teacher-artist to work with your class. Arrange 
students in groups of four. One volunteer 
should act as director and be responsible for 
coaching. The other three should take on roles 
and act out a scene.They can use dialogue from 
the book, but are welcome to invent their own 
where appropriate, making sure to stay in 
character. Have students perform the scene at 
a local library or bookstore. After each scene, 
have the director explain their choices. 

Explore the cultural period of the 1930s by 
creating radio shows that provide in-depth 
information on what was happening in the 
following artistic communities: music, theater, 
visual arts, photography, and dance.Teams of 
students can focus on different artistic 
communities, also creating advertisements that 
reflect the period. Perform the radio shows for 
an audience or record the shows to share with 
your community. If possible, create podcasts of 
these radio shows. Have classmates write 
reviews of the shows. 

Mick Kelly plans a fancy party at her house. 
Assisted by some research, plan a party that 
simulates the kind of gathering kids would have 
had in the 1930s. Students can dress the part. 
Plans can include a theme, menu, music playlist, 
and dance styles. Vary this project by putting 
Mick into the current generation.What would 
the party entail? Use this event to celebrate the 
Big Read. 

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The Golden Age of Radio 

In the darkest hours of the Great Depression, 
reassurance and a little distraction came from a 
surprising place - out of thin air. Radio, invented 
by the Italian physicist Guglielmo Marconi at the 
end of the nineteenth century, had developed into 
a viable broadcast medium by the third decade of 
the twentieth. Americas first radio station, KDKA 
in Pittsburgh, went on the air November 2, 1920. 
By 1 923 the first radio network had been set up, 
and by 1926 the Radio Corporation of America 
(RCA) and Westinghouse had created the National 
Broadcasting Company (NBC), whose Blue and 
Red networks would come to dominate Americas 


During the 1930s, radio became an essential 
part of the country's daily life. Through local 
and network programming, radio allowed the 
general public access to news, music, and other 
entertainment at the flip of a switch, free of charge 
so long as one could afford the cost of a receiver. 
For the first time in American history, people 
from all walks of life and in every region of the 
country found themselves participating in the 
same experience at the same time, whether they 
lived in rural communities or big cities. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president from 1933 
to 1945, used radio to deliver "fireside chats" that 
edified and inspired the public. Nothing in the 
nations history had prepared its citizens for the 
economic hardships of the Great Depression or the 
international crisis of the late 1930s, when Hitler, 
Mussolini, and the Japanese pushed the world 
toward war. President Roosevelt spoke simply 

about issues relevant to the lives of all Americans: 
unemployment, the economy, national defense, 
and, ultimately, the need for America to enter 
World War II. Americans gathered around the 
radio and listened. 

Radio sought both to educate and to entertain. 
Musical variety shows were popular, as were serial 
comedy shows like Amos 'ri Andy, which had a 
national audience estimated at 40 million - one 
third of the American population. Radio dramas 
were popular too, and the power of the new 
medium to persuade was thrillingly demonstrated 
on October 30, 1938, when the young Orson 
Welles produced a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' 
novella The War of the Worlds and delivered it in 
the style of a live news report. Thousands of 
Americans who tuned in late panicked, believing 
Martians were really attacking America. 

During this golden age of radio, broadcasters 
maintained a strong commitment to "high culture" 
in their programming. In 1937, after the celebrated 
conductor Arturo Toscanini stepped down as 
music director of the New York Philharmonic, 
NBC created an orchestra especially for him to 
lead, and began a series of regular broadcasts from 
Studio 8H in Manhattan's Rockefeller Center. For 
1 7 years, until the maestro retired, these broadcast 
concerts were among the most listened-to 
programs on American radio. 

I 6 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


The Southern Gothic Literary Tradition 

Gothic fiction is a literary term for a genre whose 
prevailing mood is terror or suspense, whose setting 
is an isolated castle or monastery, and whose 
characters include a hero beset by mysterious or 
threatening forces. The predecessors to modern 
horror, gothic novels use ghost stories, madness, 
vampires, and perversity to develop a pleasant sense 
of fear in the reader. From the 1 790s through the 
nineteenth century, gothic literature comprised 
everything from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar 
Allan Poe's macabre stories to Mary Shelley's 
Frankenstein and Bram Stokers Dracula. Only in 
the early to mid-20th century did such writers as 
Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Tennessee 
Williams and William Faulkner use it to explore 
less supernatural, more earthly monsters, thus 
pioneering what came to be called the "Southern 
Gothic" literary tradition. 

The "grotesque," one of the key components of 
Southern Gothic writing, portrays deeply flawed 
characters, decayed, claustrophobic settings, or 
sinister events, often linking them to racism, 
poverty, or violence. Though grotesque characters 
or situations can sometimes be hard to take, 
carefully applied they allow talented writers to 
exaggerate their material without betraying it. The 
grotesque can also comment on unpleasant aspects 
of society without appearing overly preachy. 

McCullers used grotesque characters to illuminate 
universal truths about the human condition. 
She said, "Love, and especially love of a person 
who is incapable of returning or receiving it, is at 
the heart of my selection of grotesque figures to 

write about — people whose physical incapacity is 
a symbol of their spiritual incapacity to love or 
receive love — their spiritual isolation." 

Hasty critics eventually began applying the gothic 
label carelessly to all Southern fiction, mistaking 
every idiosyncrasy of character or setting for the 
grotesque. McCullers reacted against the overuse 
of the "Southern Gothic" label in an essay titled 
"The Russian Realists and Southern Literature." 
For her, the roots of Southern fiction were 
firmly planted in realism, and didn't depend on 
supernatural incidents or mysticism. She admired 
such Russian novelists as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy 
and thought they had a lot in common with 
Southern writers, since citizens in both Russia and 
the South were defined largely by social class arid 
their relationship to the land. 

At its best, Southern fiction applies gothic elements 
within a framework of social realism. This fiction 
avoids stereotype by creating unusual characters, 
and imbues them with qualities that cause the 
reader to examine the world of the novel and the 
human experience more closely. 

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The Limits of Human Communication 

In the original outline for The Heart Is a Lonely 
Hunter, McCullers described the novel as "man's 
revolt against his inner isolation and his urge to 
express himself as fully as possible." Not 
surprisingly, the delicate balance between hearing, 
listening, and understanding crops up again and 
again in the novel. Originally titled The Mute, 
the book is populated with characters who struggle 
to express their feelings and, for various reasons, 
fail. Some characters are hampered by a physical 
disability, while others fail at effective 
communication simply because they are 
incapable of connecting emotionally. 

In the novel's opening scenes John Singer 
and Spiros Antonapoulos, both deaf, share a 
comfortable life together. After work each day, 
the men return to the home they share. Singer 
relates the day's events to his friend through sign 
language, his hands forming "the words in a series 
of swift designs," but the childish Greek has little 
to add to the conversation. 

After Antonapoulos is committed to an asylum, 
Singer lives alone in a society in which he can't 
fully communicate. The friendships he forms with 
his hearing neighbors are tenuous at best, in part 
because they, taking for granted that he will adjust 
to the hearing world, make little effort to 
accommodate him. 

The longer Singer is away from Antonapoulos, the 
greater his sense of isolation. During his visits with 
Antonapoulos, Singer does most of the "talking," 
with little interaction from his friend. Similarly, 
though the other characters talk constantly to 
Singer, he responds infrequently and reveals little of 
himself Singer reads the lips of Jake Blount, Biff 

Brannon, Dr. Copeland, and Mick Kelly, but feels 
little connection to what they are saying: 

At first he had not understood the four people at 
all. They talked and they talked — and as the 
months went on they talked more and more. He 
became so used to their words he understood 
each word they said. And then after a while he 
knew what each one of them would say before he 
began, because the meaning was always the same. 

Ordinary verbal communication in The Heart 
Is a Lonely Hunter often results in failures and 
misunderstandings. Though Biff, Jake, Dr. 
Copeland, and Mick visit Singer for months, 
when they all happen to meet in his room 
halfway through the novel, they are incapable 
of communicating with each other, and address 
themselves "mainly to the mute." Ironically, Singer 
responds by writing a long letter to Antonapoulos, 
though he knows his friend is "unable to make out 
the meaning of words on paper." 

Ultimately, none of the characters in The Heart 
Is a Lonely Hunter gets through to any of the 
others. Human communication proves ineffective 
and unsatisfying. McCullers' tender, complex 
portrayal of diverse characters illustrates the innate 
need for people to communicate. Each character 
yearns to share his or her inner thoughts with 
another person, but they fail because of the 
limitations they find, both in others and within 


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Carr, Virginia Spencer. The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of 
Carson McCullers. 1975. New York Carol & Graf, 1985. 

Savigneau.Josyane. Carson McCullers: A Life. Translated by 
Joan E. Howard. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001 

Egerton.John. Speak Now Against the Day.The Generation 
Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South. New York 
Knopf, 1994. 

Other Resources: 

Carson McCullers Collection 
This collection at the Harry Ransom Humanities Center, 
University of Texas at Austin, includes manuscripts, 
correspondence, and photographs reflecting the life and 
literary career of McCullers. 

Web sites 
The Carson McCullers Project. A site devoted to 
McCullers, including a biography, bibliography, photographs, 
chronology of her life, and a synopsis of many of her works. 

Columbus State University's Carson McCullers Center for 
Writers and Musicians is located in McCullers' hometown 
of Columbus, Georgia.The Center operates a museum in 
McCullers' childhood home and provides residencies and 
fellowships for writers and musicians.The Web site has 
photographs, a detailed biography, and a complete 
bibliography of McCullers' work 

Information about the development of radio programs, 
as well as comments on the socio-political environment 
of the age. 

Part of the American Memory Collection of the Library 
of Congress, these photographs were created by a group 
of U.S. government photographers.The images show 
Americans in every part of the nation. In the early years, 
the project emphasized rural life and the impact of the 
Great Depression. 

National Endowment for the Arts 


NCTE Standar 

National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards' 

1 . Students read a wide range of print and non- 
print texts to build an understanding of texts, 
of themselves, and of the cultures of the United 
States and the world; to acquire new 
information; to respond to the needs and 
demands of society and the workplace; and for 
personal fulfillment. Among these texts are 
fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary 

2. Students read a wide range of literature from 
many periods in many genres to build an 
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., 
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human 

3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to 
comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate 
texts.They draw on their prior experience, 
their interactions with other readers and 
writers, their knowledge of word meaning and 
of other texts, their word identification 
strategies, and their understanding of textual 
features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, 
sentence structure, context, graphics). 

4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, 
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, 
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a 
variety of audiences and for different purposes. 

5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as 
they write and use different writing process 
elements appropriately to communicate with 
different audiences for a variety of purposes. 

6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, 
language conventions (e.g., spelling and 
punctuation), media techniques, figurative 
language, and genre to create, critique, and 
discuss print and non-print texts. 

7. Students conduct research on issues and 
interests by generating ideas and questions, and 
by posing problems.They gather, evaluate, and 
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., 
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to 
communicate their discoveries in ways that suit 
their purpose and audience. 

8. Students use a variety of technological and 
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, 
computer networks, video) to gather and 
synthesize information and to create and 
communicate knowledge. 

9. Students develop an understanding of and 
respect for diversity in language use, patterns, 
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, 
geographic regions, and social roles. 

1 0. Students whose first language is not English 
make use of their first language to develop 
competency in the English language arts and to 
develop understanding of content across the 

I I . Students participate as knowledgeable, 

reflective, creative, and critical members of a 
variety of literacy communities. 

I 2. Students use spoken, written, and visual 
language to accomplish their own purposes 
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and 
the exchange of information). 

This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and develop 
your application of the curriculum. 

20 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

In a swift radiance of illumination 
he saw a glimpse of human 
struggle and of valor. Of the 
endless fluid passage of humanity 
through endless time. And of 
those who labor and of those 
who— one word — love." 


from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter 


J — 1 ( 




■ 1 


•••>;: INSTITUTE 0/ 

—•.?.. Museum .library 
• .•".•• services' 

The Big Read is an initiative of the National Endowment 
for the Arts designed to restore reading to the center of 
American culture. The NEA presents The Big Read in 
partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library 
Services and in cooperation with Arts Midwest. The Big 
Read brings together partners across the country to 
encourage reading for pleasure and enlightenment. 

A great nation deserves great art. 

The Big Read for military communities is made possible by