Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Generally considered Nathanael West’s masterpiece, Miss Lonelyhearts is an intense indictment of the false promises of twentieth century America. Originally, West had envisioned writing a novel in the form of a comic strip, and this idea is evident in the use of brief chapters with illustrative titles. The novel, as with all West’s novels, is concerned with identity through dreams. The Christ dream is a key theme in Miss Lonelyhearts.
As the novel opens, Miss Lonelyhearts, the young male writer of a newspaper advice column, can no longer ignore the misery of his correspondents and obsessively pursues some sort of control or order in life. The fraudulent guarantees and false dreams offered by religion, by nature, and by the media only lead to terrible destruction. Miss Lonelyhearts dies locked in an embrace with the disabled and impotent Doyle, one of his correspondents.
The grotesque characters in the novel are represented as nonhuman symbols. The editor Shrike’s name is that of the bird that kills its victims by spearing them on thorns. His name is also similar to the word “shriek.” Shrike’s endless caustic speeches impale Miss Lonelyhearts in his quest for Christ-like compassion. Shrike’s wife Mary is represented by breasts, but rather than nurturing, the breasts are teasing. Mary hides a medal in her cleavage and flaunts her breasts as she discusses her mother’s terrible death from breast cancer. Betty,...
(The entire section is 417 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1507 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Miss Lonelyhearts, the author’s first major novel, stands as West’s most critically successful, influential, and representative work. The short novel clearly reflects West’s pessimistic view of the world and his characteristic narrative technique, employing graphic and often surreal visual images in describing characters and events. The work’s expressionistic approach, coupled with its nihilistic outlook and sardonic tone, foretold the existentialism of 1960’s writers and became recognized as an early example of black comedy, serving as a model of stimulation to such American writers as Carson McCullers, James Purdy, Flannery O’Connor, and John Hawkes.
Miss Lonelyhearts is the pseudonym of a bachelor newspaper columnist assigned to advise the lovelorn, whose desperation he first finds amusing. His initial attitude fades as he becomes obsessed with his correspondents’ misery, cynically illuminated by the city editor, and sees his own helpless condition in that of his supplicants.
He embarks on a self-perceived Christ-like pilgrimage to attain salvation for himself by helping the hopeless. His messianic quest only serves to exacerbate the impotence of his own relationships and alienates him from those around him who view such a search as insanely futile. When his perceptions of reality become increasingly surreal, he meets a ludicrously ironic death as he intervenes in the life of one lovelorn supplicant whom he...
(The entire section is 592 words.)