Miss Lonelyhearts finds it difficult to write his agony column for the New York Post-Dispatch: The letters are not funny, and there is no humor in desperate people begging for help. “Sick-of-it-all,” for example, with seven children in twelve years, is pregnant again and ill, but being a Catholic, she cannot consider an abortion and her husband will not leave her alone. “Desperate,” a sixteen-year-old girl, a good dancer with a good figure and pretty clothes, would like boyfriends, but cries all day at the big hole in the middle of her face. She has no nose; should she commit suicide? “Harold S.,” fifteen years old, writes that his sister, Gracie, age thirteen and deaf, unable to speak, and not very smart, had something dirty done to her by a man, but Harold cannot tell their mother that Gracie is going to have a baby because her mother would beat her up. Willie Shrike, the paper’s features editor and Miss Lonelyhearts’s tormentor, is no help at all: Instead of the same old stuff, he says, Miss Lonelyhearts ought to give his readers something new and hopeful.
At Delehanty’s speakeasy, where Miss Lonelyhearts goes to escape his problems, his boss still belabors him about brooding and tells him to forget the Crucifixion and remember the Renaissance. Meanwhile, Shrike is trying to seduce Miss Farkis, a long-legged woman with a childish face. He also taunts the columnist by talking of a Western sect that prays for a condemned slayer with an adding machine, numbers being their idea of the universal language.
Miss Lonelyhearts’s bedroom walls are bare except for an ivory Christ nailed with large spikes, and the religious figure combines in a dream with a snake whose scales are tiny mirrors in which the dead world takes on a semblance of life. First, he is a magician who cannot move his audience by tricks or prayer; then he is on a drunken college spree with two friends. Their attempt to sacrifice a lamb before barbecuing it, with Miss Lonelyhearts chanting the name of Christ, miscarries when the blade breaks on the altar, and the lamb slips out of their bloodied hands. When the others refuse to go back to put the lamb out of its misery, Miss Lonelyhearts returns and crushes its head with a stone.
One day, as he tries to put things in order, everything goes against him; pencils break, buttons roll under the bed, shades refuse to stay down, and instead of order, he finds chaos. Miss Lonelyhearts remembers Betty, who could bring order into his world, and he goes to her apartment. Yet he realizes that her world is not the world of, and could never include, the readers of his column; his confusion is significant, and her order is not. Irritated and fidgety, he can neither talk to her nor caress her, although two months before she had agreed to marry him. When she asks if he is sick, he can only shout at her; when she says she loves him, he can only reply that he loves her and her smiling through tears. Sobbing that she was feeling swell before he came over and now feels lousy, she asks him to go away.
At Delehanty’s, he listens to talk of raping a woman writer, and as he gets drunker, he hears friends mock Shrike kidding him; but whiskey makes him feel good and dreams of childhood make the world dance. Stepping back from the bar, he collides with a man holding a beer. The man punches him in the mouth. With a lump on his head, a loose tooth, and a cut lip, Miss Lonelyhearts walks in the fresh air with Ned Gates.
In a comfort station, they meet an old man with a terrible cough and no overcoat, who carries a cane and wears gloves because he detests red hands. They force him to go to an Italian wine cellar. There they...