This beautifully moving novel was McCullers’ first. It takes place in a mill town in Georgia in the 1930s, and primarily follows the character of John Singer, a deaf mute man, and the people who are drawn to him. This group—Mick Kelley, a very poor young girl whose head is filled with music; Dr. Copeland, an African-American doctor slowly dying of tuberculosis, whose idealism has alienated him from his community; Jake Blount, a drunk carnival worker, who tries to preach a message of Marxism; and Biff Brannon, a widowed café owner. Singer’s muteness enables this group of outcasts to confide in him, filling in his character in whatever capacity best suits them. Mick, who suffers from hunger and poverty, both confides her secret fears and dreams in him, as well as relying on his radio to bring her the classical music with which she is consumed. Dr. Copeland, who gave his children names like Portia and Karl Marx, works tirelessly ministering to people with lungs weak from mill work who can’t afford to pay him; Singer is the first (and only) white man who has ever treated him simply as another person, not another black person. Jake recovers from a nasty drunk in Singer’s room, and continues to confide his class-based frustrations to him. And Brannon, especially once his wife dies, finds Singer’s room to be a place of comfort.
Though all of these characters consider Singer to be their closest friend, the only person with whom Singer similarly pursues a friendship is his former roommate Antonapoulos, a deaf-mute man who falls ill and is eventually institutionalized after his illness changes him, leaving him mentally unstable. Singer spends his life devoted to his friend, regularly spending his vacation travelling to see the Greek (as he is often referred to) at the hospital, despite Antonapoulos’s apparent disregard for his friendship. Singer signs and signs to Antonapoulos, without ever receiving a reciprocal acknowledgment. At the end of the novel, Singer travels to the hospital only to discover that Antonapoulos is dead. Encountering three other bowler-hatted deaf-mute men in a bar near the hospital, Singer tries to join them, but is politely excluded from their conversation. After this encounter, Singer returns home and kills himself.
As the novel takes place in the 1930s in a small southern mill town, poverty is a disturbing fact of life. McCullers gives unromanticized details about the extent of poverty, noting not only the lengths to which the poor must go in order to eat anything, but also presents rather straightforward information about what poverty like that faced by the Kellys looks like:
Money was the main thing. All the time it was money, money, money. They had to pay through the nose for Baby Wilson’s private room and private nurse. But even that was just one bill. By the time one thing was paid for something else always would crop up. They owed around two hundred dollars that had to be paid right away. They lost the house. Their Dad got a hundred dollars out of the deal and let the bank take over the mortgage. Then he borrowed another fifty dollars and Mister Singer went on the note with him. Afterward they had to worry about rent every month instead of taxes….Bill had a job in a bottling plant and made ten dollars a week. Hazel worked as a helper in a beauty parlor for eight dollars a week. Etta sold tickets at a movie for five dollars” (238).
From there, she explains who pays for what, and how even lunch has become a luxury, and how “sometimes she and George were downright hungry for two or three days” (239). By the novel’s end, Mick has left school and taken a job at Woolworth’s, a step which she realizes even as she’s making it is closing off any other future possibilities, that she is being “trapped by something….Once they were used to the money coming in it would be impossible to do without again. That was the way things were” (318).
While Jake identifies the root of the area’s economic problems on capitalism in general, he also sees this poverty as a particularly regional one: “At least one third of all Southerners live and die no better than the lowest peasant in any European Fascist state….Who owns the South? Corporations in the North own three fourths of all the South….For under this system pigs are valuable and men are not” (298). It is in this way that the theme of poverty is tied to larger themes of regionalism and racism in the novel, as demonstrated by a conversation between Jake and Dr. Copeland. In response to Jake’s monologue about the inherent inequalities of capitalism, Dr. Copeland responds, “you are giving no attention to the very separate question of the Negro….it is impossible to see the full situation without including us Negroes” (298). Jake continues to talk about Fascism, to which Dr. Copeland replies, “So far as I and my people are concerned the South is Fascist now and always has been” (299). In fact, the rise of European Fascism allows for several characters to make comparisons between Fascist anti-semitism and American racism. Once again, Dr. Copeland: “The history of my people will be commensurate with the interminable history of the Jew—only bloodier and more violent” (299). Throughout most of his life, Dr. Copeland has believed in an ideology of uplift. As his friend Marshall Nichols explains, “it behooves us to strive with care and not endanger this amicable relationship already established. Then by gradual means a better condition will come about” (293). After his son loses his legs because of mistreatment in prison, and he himself is beaten and jailed after trying to find justice for his son at the courthouse, however, Dr. Copeland begins to question his methodology. Unfortunately, by the time he makes this realization, his health is so deteriorated that he leaves the town to be taken care of by his extended family in the country. He leaves Jake with a message of solidarity, that social change will only come from working with others—and it is such solidarity which Jake seeks at the novel’s end, solidarity through the type of community which Jake is sure is unique to the South.
And finally, in terms of my own research, there are some interesting points about ugliness and beauty in women (or, more specifically, girls). For most of the novel, Mick is described as a tomboy, wearing boy’s shorts and with hair in constant cowlicks. Occasionally—such as for her prom party—she dresses up in her sisters’ clothes and wears make-up, but in these scenes she often appears almost as in drag. The sexual awakening she experiences with Harry, however, marks something of a turning point in her appearance, as shortly after this scene—in which Harry haltingly admits, “Listen here. I think you’re so pretty, Mick. I never did think so before. I don’t mean I thought you were very ugly—I just mean that—“ (273)—Mick takes on the adult responsibilities of a job at Wooltworth’s, to which she starts wearing stockings and jewelry, more properly inhabiting the costume of a woman. After her physical intimacy with Harry, Mick is sure that the changes she has undergone can be read from her face; she is sure that her sexuality must be marked on her body. However, her mother’s response to her physical appearance in this scene is only to tell her to “Quit frowning like that, Mick. You’re coming to the age where you ought to fix up and try to look your best you can” (278).
Even more intriguing are the changes which happen to Baby, Biff’s niece and child performer, whose beauty is destroyed in a freak gun accident. Her (former stage) mother Lucile confides to Biff that,
If a child is kept clean and well cared for and pretty then that child will usually be sweet and smart. But if a child is dirty and ugly then you can’t expect anything much. What I’m trying to get at is that Baby is so shamed over losing her hair and that bandage on her head that it just seems like it makes her cut the buck all the time. She won’t practice her elocution—she won’t do a thing. She feels so bad I just can’t manage her (231)
Once again, there is a connection between inner and outer virtue, and in this configuration it’s not a person’s moral character which shines through to her outer appearance, but rather the outer appearance which influences the inner character. The surface is understood to be a marker of the inside—to Mick, who assumes that an inner change must be marked on the outside, or to Lucile, who thinks that changes to physical appearance affect the character inside. It would be interesting to compare the behavior of Baby to that of Dorothy Allison’s Shannon Pearl, whose physical disfigurement seems to have given her a horrid character.