In a small Georgia mill town in the 1930s, a tall figure who is always immaculately attired draws other people to him like a magnet. His name is John Singer and this attraction he has for others may seem odd or unlikely to an outside observer since Singer himself can neither hear what others are saying nor speak in reply to written communication. Although others are drawn to him, he considers only one other person in town to be his actual friend: his equally deaf mute roommate Spiros Antonapoulos.
Following a prolonged illness Spiros began to exhibit signs of mental instability which resulted in his being committed to the state insane asylum on the order of his cousin. Following this loss, Singer take a room the town’s boarding house run by the Kelly family. Mick Kelly, a young teenager with dreams of finding fame as a musician, establishes a bond with Singer. Biff Brannon, owner of the New York Café where singer enjoys meals every day is also drawn to Singer along with a drifter named Jake Blount and black doctor named Benedict Mady Copeland.
Each of these lost souls find in Singer something transcendent and unusual during the difficult times of the Great Depression. Unable to communicate with speech, they see in his gentle disposition, attentive eyes and kind smile the transmission of a profound empathy with their individual struggles and a profound wisdom not dependent upon the conventional limitations of language as the means of communication.
On the other end of this transmission stands Singer whose language disabilities reaches far deeper into his soul. Although the other may feel that they are receiving something special through his friendship, his loneliness and alienation actually intensifies because of an intense self-awareness that despite their perceptions, he really is not capable of helping them out with own particular difficulties which have led to their own sense of loneliness and alienation.
Mick associates her joy of music with the serenity found in Singer’s face. Jake’s efforts to rouse a worker revolution against the evils of capitalism seem to fall on deaf ears except in the case of the one person who is literally deaf; only Singer alone seems to understand his passion. Singer is just one of many who are sick, weak, handicapped or disabled to which Biff turns in an effort to make a connection with others. And for Dr. Copeland, Singer is more than mere symbol upon which he imprints a mythic connotation; he is the first white person to ever offer his help to the black doctor, unbidden and with no strings or expectations attached.
Such emotional investment in another person carries the risk for potential consequences and each of the lonely people drawn to Singer must are forced to face that potential when Singer commits suicide after learning that Spiros has died while all alone and feeling abandoned in the mental asylum. Clinging to Singer’s radio like a talisman, Mick makes the decision give up school so she can help her family by taking a job at the five-and-dime store. Jake Blount’s passion results in his getting into a violent brawl which prompts his decision to leave town when he learns he the police are searching for him. Dr. Copeland, facing his own mortality as a victim of tuberculosis, make the decision to go live with family out in the country. And Biff wakes up each day waiting to see what new glimpse into humanity has café will attract and still puzzling over why so many of those people seemed fated to a life of loneliness and desperation.