Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The "Ironic Parable of Fascism" in the Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The "Ironic Parable of Fascism" in the Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Article excerpt

Although Carson McCullers referred to her novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, as "an ironic parable of Fascism," critics have not taken her statement seriously, (1) either because it seems too general a reference to the social and economic conditions of the novel or because it appears too restrictive in terms of the theme of isolation. (2) Considerable evidence, however, suggests the probability that politics was a motivating factor in the genesis of the novel and that the parable is a key not only to broader implications in the theme but also to the tight construction McCullers claimed and reviewers have so often questioned. (3)

Shortly before beginning work on the novel, the author expressed some desire to become politically active and even attempted to start a magazine for this purpose. (4) In an outline written for her publisher, she specified as causes for man's "inner isolation" a "wasteful short-sighted society" and an "unnatural social condition." (5) The text itself has hundreds of political allusions, casts two major characters as social and political idealists, and devotes a section to the debate of alternative reforms. (6) Finally, the dream tableau, which critics agree is central to the meaning of the novel, may, with its pyramidal structure, be construed to designate the democratic hierarchy just as legitimately as it may the religious one so often cited. (7)

Perhaps the most logical way to approach this novel is as a parable, for its context clarifies such mysteries as the function and meaning of Antonapoulos, (8) its structure is clear, and its theme is specific. The parable has a conventional protagonist pitted against specific forces, but develops in thematic patterns rather than in traditional plot formation, treating successively the ideas of the nature of government, the failure of democracy, and the condition of freedom. The thematic patterns are delineated by situation and setting and dramatized through character and action. The parable's theme is an affirmation of the democratic process, but its implications are the universal problems of illusion versus reality and the nature of man himself. It not only supports but also greatly strengthens the theme of isolation. Far from being restrictive, it extends the dimensions of pathos already perceived.

Implicit in the parable are the assumptions of a historical debate which had raged since the late nineteenth century, and a conclusion to that debate in the idea that governmental systems should periodically undergo redefinition. (9) Briefly, in the decade of the thirties, the rapid growth of technology and corporate power had created inequality between labor and management which, coupled with economic depression and continuing inequities between racial and social classes, left the individual virtually helpless. Strong governmental intervention was indicated, but opposed, perhaps because of people's reluctance to abandon traditional ideals. Yet the trusted bulwark of American freedom, the Jeffersonian concept that that government is best which governs least, had become a political anachronism. Thus, in ironic contrast to the European situation of de facto Fascism which denied liberty through force, American democracy denied liberty through default. Government in this parable therefore is represented by a deaf mute, and the instrument of oppression is the sound of silence, an image which McCullers introduces in her opening chapter where no word is spoken.

The author's decision to objectify the negative force of government as John Singer was the turning point in the construction of the novel, (10) for it provided a means of dramatizing the image of silence and created a concrete symbolic structural device for the parable.

Singer, who is seen by most reviewers as the pivotal character of the novel, (11) achieves that status because the eye of every other character is on him. Minor characters who remain nameless except as they are associated with various ethnic, business or agricultural groups, think he is one of them, and major characters believe him sympathetic to the social, economic or political interests they pursue. …

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