In a small unnamed town in the American south lives a deaf-mute named John Singer. For 10 years, he had a comfortable life living with his deaf-mute friend Spiros Antonapoulous. Antonapoulous begins acting out, and is sent away to an insane asylum by his cousin. Singer is alone, until other people in the town begin to gravitate towards him and spill out all their troubles. There’s Mick, a teenage girl who lives in Singer’s boarding house; Biff Brannon, proprietor of the New York Café; Dr. Copeland, a black doctor; and Jake Blount, an alcoholic communist. The novel is set over the course of about a year and a half and focuses on the lives of these five characters.
The title gives us a big clue about one of the major themes of the novel: loneliness and heart-ache. Everyone has their own troubles to deal with, and these characters are no different. Mick’s family have been struggling to make ends meet since her father lost his job due to an accident. She spends her time fantasising about far-off countries, or thinking about music. All this is on top of the normal stresses associated with growing into adulthood. Biff Brannon would like to be a father, but he and his wife never had any children and have grown cold and distant. He spends most of his time working, but still they have money troubles. Things become even worse when his wife dies. Dr. Copeland is educated and intelligent, but he has a burning need to save the black people from the crushing injustices that they live under. Because of his single-mindedness, he has become estranged from his family and community. Jake Blount is also determined to help and educate people, but his enemy is capitalism. Unfortunately, he is an alcoholic with anger issues, so he has great difficulty in getting people to understand his position.
These four characters don’t interact much–their main connection is through Singer. Singer is an attentive listener and becomes a confident for them, while also becoming something of a mythical figure to the rest of the townsfolk. Mick talks about her “inside room and outside room”–the inner and outer world. Most people do not get to fully and truly express what is inside them; they feel awkward and scared of harsh judgement. Because he doesn’t talk and appears to listen to everything they say, everyone concludes that Singer is deeply intelligent and understands their troubles. They all interpret him in their own way: he’s Jewish; he’s Turkish; he understands the plight of the worker’s, or black people:
Each man described the mute as he wished him to be.
Despite all these friends and admirers, there is no one left to listen to Singer, not since Antonapoulous was taken away. Talking about one’s troubles is a way of lessening them, and because Singer cannot let his out, they begin to fester. His only outlet are his unsent letters to Antonapoulous, but it’s not quite the same without some sort of human feedback. From his letters we learn that Singer is not the messiah figure he appears to be. He doesn’t understand half of what Blount or Copeland or the rest say to him, but he smiles politely because being with anyone is still better than being alone.
There is one other figure who seems to hang over much of the novel: Karl Marx. During the Christmas party, Dr. Copeland diverts the discussion away from Jesus to try and educate his community about the ideas of Karl Marx. Karl Marx is one of the most important philosophers associated with communism. He critiqued the capitalist system which put wealth over people, and which invariably led to a few owning most of this wealth, while the majority laboured for scraps. Jake Blount is another character who is deeply influenced by Marx’s ideas. Both of them agree that the south in particular is a place of terrible inequality and poverty, though Copeland believes that it is more than just a class issue, that the problems of black people must also be taken into account. One of Marx’s theories was alienation, which is the “process whereby people become foreign to the world they are living in.” Due to living in an unequal and miserable world, the average person, the worker, begins to feel like they have no control over their life and destiny. Mick and Brannon, doomed to work with little hope of achieving their heart’s desires, seem to embody this concept quite well.
Recommended for people who enjoy: the American South; multiple main characters; sadness; Marxism.