The Big Read Blog (Archive)

A Deaf Perspective on John Singer

May 9, 2011
Washington, DC


Book cover courtesy of Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin, New York.

When Washington, DC, decided on Carson McCullers?s novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter as their Big Read selection in 2009, Gallaudet University knew that it wanted to be involved. The book featured a major deaf character, John Singer, who is a confidant to other characters in this Depression-era story that confronts issues of class, race, and, of course, loneliness.

Gallaudet University?which offers a high quality education and non-academic support to deaf and hard of hearing people?in fact kicked off the Big Read events at its Elstad Auditorium. I recently had the chance to interview Jim McCarthy, an instruction and reference librarian at the Gallaudet Library, who hosted a panel discussion on the novel as part of The Big Read events in 2009 and served as moderator for the four deaf undergraduate students who read McCullers?s book.

NEA: Why did the author choose the title The Heart is a Lonely Hunter? What is the importance of the title?

JIM MCCARTHY: Although I can't say what the author's motivation was, it seems to refer to the fact that most of the characters suffer from a sense of isolation and spend their time speaking to the main character in order to find some sort of connection. The "hunter" seems to refer to someone who is searching for something.

NEA: Can you please tell me your opinions about the deaf character, John Singer?

MCCARTHY: He is a surprisingly sympathetic deaf character, given that this novel was written in 1940, which was not a period in which deaf people were understood and accepted in mainstream society. His deafness---or at least muteness---appears to be a device that allows him to work as a "blank slate" on which the other characters project their own understandings of his responses---or lack thereof---to their needs. However, it also provides an interesting counterpoint to the other characters: as lonely, alienated, or confused as they are, they are at least more able to connect with other human beings in this town than Singer will ever be---because they can speak and hear.

NEA: What did you find most interesting or impressive in the novel?

MCCARTHY: I reread the book for The Big Read. It had been several years since the last time, and I realized as I made my way through the plot that there were many, many layers of meaning. The emotional depth to the story is quite astonishing, especially given that McCullers was in her early 20s when she wrote it. Diana Gates, our Deaf Collection Librarian, also participated on the panel, and she said that she always seemed to find something new every time she read it. I agree with that statement.

NEA: Do you know the reason why the hearing author wrote about a deaf character in this interesting plot? Had she met deaf people before?

MCCARTHY: As far as I know, she'd never met any other deaf people prior to writing about this novel---but don't take my word for it. Her reasoning for making Singer a deaf-mute remains mysterious, but I suspect it is for the reason mentioned above: it turns Singer into a blank slate that the other characters can project their own feelings and perceptions on without danger of being disabused of their own assumptions and provides an ironic reflection of their inability to find a way to develop meaningful relationships with others.

NEA: Do you have any additional comments about the book?

MCCARTHY: I would just say that this book stands quite admirably on its own merits as a novel---it's an astoundingly sensitive portrayal of several people who are searching for a way to render their lives meaningful in some way. It's also important as a depiction of what life can be like for a deaf individual who's relatively isolated in the community where he or she lives. And this, of course, is one of the essential elements of this book's greatness. If John Singer were not deaf, would this novel have been as powerful? I can't think of any way in which it could have.

Despite the fact that McCullers described John Singer as a character of sadness and isolation, the book had an interesting effect in some positive ways. Historically, deaf people were viewed as functionally illiterate, but the novel showed something very different that Singer could read and write. He also worked as a professional silver engraver.

Also, some hearing people began to get involved in the deaf community because of the novel. A Gallaudet hearing professor expressed that she wanted to help deaf people after reading the book when she was a teenager. In fact, she later found out Singer?s narrative was very rare, but she felt the book actually led her to work closely with the deaf community and encourage deaf people to become educated and empowered.

McCullers?s book helped do away with myths about the ?tragedy? of being deaf. Despite his loneliness, Singer is still a sympathetic character and has important interaction with the hearing characters around him. Indeed, deaf people can proudly show who they are and be able to coexist with the majority around them.

To learn more about Carson McCullers and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, please visit The Big Read website.

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