The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is a classic work of Southern Gothic fiction focusing on the human struggle to communicate the self.
Set in an unnamed mill town in late 1930s Georgia, the story revolves around a deaf-mute and the various lonely characters who come to take an interest in him.
John Singer lives with another deaf-mute, a Greek called Antonapoulos. The friendship is rather one-sided, but Singer seems happily oblivious of this fact. The pair have lived this way for ten years when Antonapoulos’ behaviour becomes erratic, leading his cousin to send him to a lunatic asylum far away.
Singer moves into a boarding house owned by the Kelly family. He regularly eats at a café run by Biff Brannon. Brannon enjoys observing the various people who eat there, including Jake Blount, a newcomer to the town with a drink problem and strongly communist ideals. After chatting to Singer all evening, unaware that he is deaf, Blount injures himself in a drunken rage. Brannon lets him stay the night.
Next we meet Mick Kelly, the teenage tomboy daughter of the family that own Singer's boarding house. Mick spends her days looking after her young brothers Bubber and Ralph. She has a passion for music which is frustrated by a lack of resources.
Lastly we meet Dr Copeland, a philosophy-reading black doctor. He is exasperated that his own family and other black people in the town don’t strive to raise themselves above the menial jobs they are expected to perform. His daughter, Portia, works in the Kelly boarding house and is perfectly content with her simple lot. Singer is the first white person Dr Copeland feels treats him as an equal.
Soon Brannon, Blount, Mick and Dr Copeland are all visiting Singer regularly to confide in him. They seem to see in him whatever they want to see, and the fact that he never answers them only heightens his appeal.
After abandoning a party she herself has organized, Mick overhears a Beethoven symphony on a radio in a rich neighborhood. It leaves her feeling very emotional. She seems to have a considerable musical gift, and she tries her hand at composition.
Four tragedies follow. Brannon's wife dies. Dr Copeland’s youngest son, Willie, is sent to prison after getting in a fight. Copeland also discovers that he has tuberculosis. Mick’s little brother, Bubber, shoots another child in the head with a BB gun, impoverishing their family with private medical bills.
Singer misses his friend Antonapoulos badly, and goes to visit him. Antonapoulos accepts his generous gifts but offers little in return.
The Copelands receive news that Willie has been harshly treated in prison, and his feet have had to be amputated. Dr Copeland goes to speak to a judge, but a racist guard beats him and locks him up. His health degenerates further.
Mick has sex with a Jewish boy from her neighborhood. Afraid that his mother will find out what he's done, he leaves home.
Blount drunkenly stumbles into Dr Copeland’s sick room and they get into an argument about Marxism.
Mick is encouraged to leave school and take a menial job as her family begins to struggle financially.
Singer goes to visit Antonapoulos again but, on arriving at the hospital, is told he is dead. Devastated, he travels home and shoots himself.
The four remaining characters all react differently to Singer’s death. Dr Copeland is still unwell and feels hopeless. Blount is angry and leaves town. Mick feels cheated and worn out by work. Brannon continues to run the café, dismissing Singer’s death as an unsolvable riddle.