Considered a Southern Gothic classic, McCullers addresses the struggles of poverty and race in a 1930's mill town, focusing on several characters and explored by way of short episodes.
A great deal of ink has been spilt over various observations and theories related to this book, so I'll not try to add too much to the pot, but record my general thoughts.
Much of the book seems to focus on a mute, named John Singer, and much of the writing about the book focuses equally upon him. Singer provides a sort of moral underpinning to the other figures, his muteness providing them a blank canvas upon which to paint their impression of who he is. Of course, their ideas tend to reflect their own feelings and needs more than their understanding of who he actually is. The author is quite careful to refuse the other characters any true knowledge of him with the exception of minor observation by Biff. While much attention is paid to the idea of Singer as the center of the novel, he's a center like the center of a wagon wheel: the hole is important, but the spokes do the work.
Mick Kelly will surely be the figure a majority of readers will connect with, a young tomboyish girl who provides a mini-Bildungsroman to the novel, and surely you'll be expected to remember the author was twenty-three at the time of publication, making comparisons more or less inevitable, if partly misplaced.
Jake Blount, written by many (including Wikipedia) as being "an alcoholic labor agitator" is a more interesting character than that, mostly from making me wonder if the author wrote him from more personal experience of someone she knew, and that he seems to present classic Alcohol-Related Psychosis symptoms, possibly a thiamine deficiency, and dropping in on Blount later in life would almost assuredly present a splendid case of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. If anything, I find the author's positioning of Blount in the racial hierarchy of the community to be one of the more condemning (and possibly ignored) features of the book.
Dr. Copeland is a far trickier subject of study, and while interesting, I wonder if it's not also the weaker character for the author, along with Portia, his daughter. Of course, we're expected to know a little Shakespeare here, and she doesn't disappoint..except of course that I find the portrayal of the Copeland family a little one-dimensional in general. Oh hell, she was 23, right? Still, Portia exists more as a device despite the stereotyping, providing us with a Cassandra in addition to a couple of Portias. Yes, I realize that Portia is likely based upon a specific person, a cook she knew, but since when does being acquainted with someone real prevent any of us from applying a stereotype when we desire to?
Biff Brannon is far more juicy, really providing us with the observer/narrator that must represent at least a smidgen of authorial omniscience. In VQR, Louis D. Rubin finds almost the opposite results in comparison, finding Dr. Copeland to be the most complete character in a generally excellent article on the author's work. However for me, Brannon is filled with all sorts of ambiguity: personal, general, sexual. Though there's clearly autobiographical elements to the Mick character, I find Brannon to be the closest thing to our author in disguise. And while much is made about the "feminine" behaviors (to include aprons, perfume, and maternal impulses) representing confusion of sexuality, I suspect that Brannon is more of the blend of androgyny and semi-asexuality that his author almost assuredly shared (McCullers' brother apparently said quite strongly that she wasn't gay but asexual, and that sex ruined friendship and love) Brannon's attraction to a very androgynous Mick early in the book leads me to feel this even more. Contrary to confusion, I find Biff's use of perfume a more nostalgic impulse than act of sexual confusion. There are quite a few easy and obvious comparisons between Mick to the author herself, but I suspect this is almost an act of self-observation via dissociation. Mick is who the author must seem, but Biff is who the author must feel like.
I am indebted to the aforementioned Rubin,
and to Virginia Spencer Carr's 'Understanding Carson McCullers.'