Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter definitively settles the argument, if there ever was any, as to whether sadness can be beautiful. It shows not only that it can be, but that it is.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter succeeds by being a profoundly sensitive and astute study of human emotion and loneliness. That McCullers wrote it when she was twenty-three illustrates her preternatural abilities as an observer of the troubled and forlorn.
I have the modern sensibility's preference for a firm story arc with clearly defined elements, so I found that plot was not the strong point of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. It drifts across a Georgia mill town in the grip of the Great Depression, gently coming to rest on the very separate spheres of several isolated characters whose worlds gently collide but never fully intersecting. There’s Mick Kelly, the teenage girl whose growing pains are made more acute by her family’s desperate poverty. There’s Doctor Copeland, an icy and rigid African-American doctor separate from his community – and even his own family – by his strictness and rigor. And lastly, there is Singer, the mysterious deaf-mute upon whom everyone projects their own needs and wants. Together, these characters create an engaging psychological landscape of great clarity and depth.
McCullers' strength is that her observations are consistently perceptive yet always gentle. There is never the suggestion that anyone she writes about is unredeemable; lost, perhaps, but never worthless. To say she is sympathetic is possibly a mischaracterization; “graceful” and “compassionate” might be better word choices.
My quick Google search on McCullers reveals that she died young after leading a pretty sad life. I hope it would be some consolation to her to know that this, arguably her most famous work, is a contribution to the world that has yet, in my mind, to be successfully imitated.