McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
The New York Café owner is different—he is not just like the others. […] He thinks he and I have a secret together but I do not know what it is. […] I like her to come and see me. […] She knows I am deaf but she thinks I know about music. […] The black man is sick with consumption but there is not a hospital for him to go to because he is black.
Unlike the others, Biff does not go to Mr. Singer to talk about his passions, but rather to ask questions and contemplate. He notices that Singer “sat very still with his hands in his pockets, and because he did not speak it made him seem superior. What did that fellow think and realize? What did he know?” Unlike Jake and Dr. Blount, who are convinced that they “know” and that Singer does too, Biff is aware of his own ignorance. He looks to increase his knowledge through others, but he is not feverish about it. Mick, too, is looking to learn (primarily from the radio playing classical music Singer buys for her) but she is young; it’s only natural. The fact that Biff is an adult man but still open-minded and curious is more unusual, and more important.
To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what McCullers is after. Only once do all four characters meet at the same time, in Singer’s room, a coincidence and, strangely to him—and to me as well—have nothing to say to one another. It’s as if they don’t want to disrupt their special status by sharing it with others; they are willing to forgo connection to avoid discomfort. Perhaps McCullers is trying to say that this is a failure, that they must reach out to one another to achieve some change to the status quo. Or maybe she’s illustrating the impossibility of connection. Either way, what we are left with in the end is neither political action nor inaction, but rather facilitation.
McCullers ends the novel with Biff. His wife has died. His niece has been shot in the head but lives on. Singer, his friend and customer, is also dead. And yet Biff is still not bitter. He is still watching. He asks himself: “Was he a sensible man or was he not? And how could this terror throttle him like this when he didn’t even know what caused it?” Biff is as scared and uncertain, but he’s able to carry on while others’ very certainty stops them in their own paths. The last scene has Biff raising the awning to his New York Café to greet another day. He’s not explicitly fighting oppression, or capitalism, or racism, or fascism, or anything, and yet his opening the café supports the interpersonal connections that might eventually serve to combat those things. The New York Café is where Jake and Mick meet Singer. It’s open 24 hours a day not so that Biff can make money, but so that he can provide a refuge and community center of sorts to the people of his town.
Whether or not she intended to, McCullers aligns herself, and all writers, with Biff. Through books we can speak, listen, and connect in a way that we usually don’t in real life. By writing truthfully and tenderly about alienation, about the ways in which the rare people who care deeply meet and speak but never communicate, McCullers has forged that connection.
Emily Burns Morgan is a writer, editor, and professor in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Raleigh Review, Killing the Angel, and The Montreal Review, among other publications.