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 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...
(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.)