McCullers adopts an omniscient author pose as completely as the anonymous teller of fairy or folk tale, her sentences as rhythmic, martial, unequivocal as their subjects are opaque, suggestive, unnerving. They get inside your mind-corners like sand into your clothes and sandwiches on a windy day at the beach. Similarly, characters like Mick, superficially unattractive as people, soon fill my heart to bursting with love and sympathy. Mick’s fervent love for music and her desperate need to be sometimes alone, sometimes with others who can recognise her, are tragic and touching, yet can’t appear the least cloying in the aridity of McCullers’ prose and the harsh, rough texture of the lives she portrays. The impression is one of absolute control over atmosphere, but I never feel manipulated
McCullers always has orginal themes or an original angle on classic themes. Here, genius frustrated is explored tragically through Mick’s obvious gift and passion for music, which she has the narrowest possible opportunities to express and develop. I of course found it tempting to see this as a loss to the whole world but more importantly her hindrance hampers her self-actualisation, saps her effervescent mental energy and destroys her natural ecstasy. Mick is truly confined in a society that cannot offer what she needs to flourish.
Gender is another theme that McCullers approaches rebelliously aslant, asserting through restaurant owner Biff that ‘everyone is both sexes’ and demonstrating that there is little difference between male and female folks. Biff, and another male character, Antonapoulos, are both pictured sewing or knitting, and this weaving work draws attention to certain stereotypically ‘wifely’ or feminine aspects of their characters such as cooking for other men, having a skilled attention to detail and visual design, and a desire to care for children. McCullers unwrites the borders of gender by offering the vision of male competence in these areas, and by showing them at weaving work she perhaps suggests that men must do the work of bridging the gender gap and battleline carved out by (heteronormative settler colonial white supremacist capitalist) patriarchy, healing and combining genders as they bring together threads.
Biff bent close over his sewing and meditated on many things. He sewed skillfully, and the calluses on the tips of his fingers were so hard that he pushed the needle through the cloth without a thimble.
(Why must men do this feminist work? Because women already do ‘men’s work’ and occupy ‘male’ roles. Such roles are vaunted while ‘female’ roles are denigrated, and men rarely enter them. Only last week a woman commentator on a film awards event said ‘if you want to be taken seriously, don’t wear a ridiculous frock’. I dispute that it is feminist not to wear silly frocks. Feminism will have achieved something when a person wearing a ‘silly frock’ is ‘taken seriously’)
Having first met Mick climbing a roof in her shorts, I struggled to imagine her in long dresses, and almost felt that these less practical garments symbolised the constraints on her creativity, though this was not directly suggested.
The corrosive effect of poverty is another heartbreakingly illuminated theme; the outcome of a casual, ill-starred flaring of Mick’s brother’s incipient enculturation into male violence is economic tragedy. The episode is striking to me because I come away with the sense of Bubber’s innocence. McCullers thus crafts a highly complex situation that indicts the wider culture and the razor thin edge of the wedge of complicity. The aftermath gives weight to the terrible sense of dissolution in this portrait of the South, the waste and dissipation of energy embodied perhaps most poignantly by the politically ennervated Jake struggling with futile rage.
Fighting this dissolution is Dr Copeland, a black medical doctor (and vegetarian) tormented by the plight of black people in the South; mostly living in poverty, inadequately housed and ill-fed, they suffer from poor health and die young, wearing down the doctor’s optimism. Yet his torment is exacerbated by his inability to spread the commitment to ‘uplift’ the community through mutual support and education. He feels fury and loneliness at the internalised white supremacy expressed by his father-in-law:
‘I reason I will get to stand before Jesus with all my childrens… and kinfolks and friends and I say to him “Jesus Christ, us is all sad coloured peoples.” And he will place his holy hand upon our heads and straightway us will be white as cotton.’
The book contains some less gloomy images of black life, such as Dr Copeland’s pleasant house, where he holds a Christmas party, and his daughter Portia’s relationship with her brother and husband, who support each other and go out together for fun on Saturday nights, the men dressed in white suits – what a vision!
While for me Mick was by far the most compelling character and the story’s true centre of gravity, the narrative revolves more centrally around John Singer, an intelligent, generous and sociable deaf man who takes lodgings in Mick’s family’s guest house and eats in Biff’s restaurant. Since John does not speak, but is an attentive and sympathetic audience, all the other characters over-interpret his comprehension of them and project their wishes onto him. This device allows the reader to appreciate the severity of deprivation and the depth of needs that this society somehow functions with, but Singer has deep preoccupations of his own, quickly removed from the scene of the action but never ceasing to work on him. Singer’s love for his friend is almost farcical in its wasteful intensity; when he wrote the letter mentioning a conference event where he might meet other deaf people who he could sign with I almost groaned out loud at his ‘of course I could never go without you’. But what business is it of mine? The heart is a lonely hunter.