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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and gender identity

Though I doubt it was a major topic when Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter appeared, in 1947, I would guess a lot of readers have commented in recent years about the sexuality and the "queer" aspects of this novel - far ahead of its time in so many ways, and in particular in the examination of the borders and boundaries that separate (and unite) genders. At the center of the novel is Mr. Singer, who is deaf and mute, and who is the confidante of all the major characters - a truly mysterious literary protagonist in that he "says" almost nothing - but the other characters confide in him and, as one notes somewhere in the novel, they project onto him, the make of him whatever it is that the wish to see their confidante. What we see, however, is a man who has a deep homoerotic attachment to the only other male who is mute in the city, Antanoupoulos - who in the first chapter is taken away and held as an patient in a state mental hospital; Singer is terribly lonely and sad w/out A., and builds his whole life around his visits to the hospital, in which he showers A with (unappreciated) gifts. Similarly, one of the other main characters, the widowed restaurant owner, Biff Brannon, has a gruff, manly appearance with a beard so dark it's almost blue, but in secret he has many "feminine" traits and tastes - he sews, collects dresses, and seems alarmingly obsessed with the young (boyish) girl who visits the diner, Mick. Mick is perhaps the most dynamic character in the novel, and the one all readers will associate w/ McCullers herself. Mick in a sense crosses genders over the course of the novel; when we first meet her she seems like a stereotypical young boy, right down to her name - it was actually hard for me to remember that Mick was young girl - but over the span of the narrative she enters high school (at age 13) and transforms, and eventually goes on a long bike ride with her handsome but up-tight next-door neighbor (a h.s. senior); the journey that starts out as a friendly outdoor adventure transforms (like the novel itself) when they swim in a wild stream, and then have sex. They're both surprised and ashamed afterwards - the Edenic references are pretty obvious - and the boy decides to leave town and to later send for Mick and offer to marry her. Wow, a pretty desperate character. Throughout, it appears that McCullers is exploring, questioning, various aspects of sexual attraction and identification, always in subtle ways - the sex scenes such as they are are extremely discrete, even by 1940s standards - with the overall idea that sexuality is a range and a spectrum, not a fixed idea, but that societal pressures, expectations, and prejudice force so many, especially in her time, to lead quiet lives of desperation.

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