NEA Big Read
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

by Carson McCullers

The dimensions of a work of art are seldom realized by the author until the work is accomplished.

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

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 novel?
  2. Discuss Doctor Copeland's strange relationship with his daughter, Portia. "Willie and Highboy and me have backbone," Portia tells her father in Chapter 5, "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 is 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 1930s? 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 that the mute would always understand whatever they wanted to say to him. And maybe even more than that." 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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