Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Miss Lonelyhearts, the male writer of advice to the lovelorn on the New York Post-Dispatch. The lovelorn column, considered a necessity for the increase in the paper’s circulation and regarded by its staff as a joke, becomes an agony to its writer as he sees that the letters he receives are genuine cries for help from the very depths of suffering. In an attempt to escape the pain of the realization that he is the victim of the joke rather than its perpetrator, he turns in vain to drink, to lovemaking, and to a vacation in the country with a woman who loves him. Finally, in the delirium of illness, he imagines himself identified with the Christ whose image has long haunted him. As the handicapped Peter Doyle approaches his room, Miss Lonelyhearts runs toward him with arms outstretched to receive him in his healing embrace. His gesture is mistaken for an intended attack, and he is shot.
Willie Shrike, the feature editor, who is Miss Lonelyhearts’ boss. He turns the knife in Miss Lonelyhearts’ agony by his unending mockery of the desperate cries for help in the lovelorn letters and of the attempts at escape with which people delude themselves.
Mary Shrike, Willie Shrike’s wife, whom Miss Lonelyhearts tries in vain to seduce.
Betty, a girl who is in love with Miss Lonelyhearts. Hoping to cure...
(The entire section is 330 words.)
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West wrote that Miss Lonelyhearts is like a comic book, with each chapter a square in which many things are happening at once. Indeed, the characters are portrayed with a cartoonist's spareness of traits. Yet in face of the novel's central issue of suffering and coping with it, each character can be seen to have a focus of suffering and a successful or unsuccessful method of staving it off. Also, each character affects Miss Lonelyhearts' crisis and quest for a universal solution, as well as representing part of the Depression world that West observed, and relating to figures in literary history. As these multiple functions derive from often sparse detail, the characters — even when unrealistic as in Shrike with his "triangular face like a hatchet" — prove to be comic but complex figures in the tragedy.
Miss Lonelyhearts, himself with no given name, at first accepting his column as a joke, then obsessed with the correspondents' suffering, feels pained by every falsity that touches them (and himself) in the spiritual wasteland of the Depression. But whatever he tries to do, Shrike ("butcher bird," actually a part of Miss L in West's early drafts) insists that nothing is really true. Although this opinion keeps Shrike's life full of pains, the pain proves him consistently right and therefore most right. Similarly, each character, although pained, will not give up his belief. And the suffering expressed in the anonymous, archetypal letters from...
(The entire section is 261 words.)