Miss Lonelyhearts

by Nathanael West

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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, Miss Lonelyhearts’ fiancée, is likened to nature and to a serene Buddha, but her calm innocence seems to invite violence. West writes that Betty is “like a kitten whose soft helplessness makes one ache to hurt it.”

The Doyles’ identity seems almost subhuman. Although Fay Doyle is associated with ocean imagery, she is more like some terrible beast from the sea. Her sexuality is terrifying; her thighs are likened to “two enormous grindstones.” Her destructive powers are further illustrated when she hits her husband, who is disabled, with a rolled-up newspaper as he is pretending to be a dog. Ultimately Fay drives Peter Doyle to murder in his attempt to regain his degraded masculinity.

Images of sensory deadness pervade the novel. This deadness defines the sickness of modern times. Miss Lonelyhearts takes place in a world where all suffer from the awareness that consciousness cannot convert wishes into desires. Mastery over chaotic life forces has been achieved through assault upon and inhibition of the senses. Miss Lonelyhearts shows how resistance to and self-defense against the absurd lead only to violence.

Summary

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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...

(This entire section contains 1507 words.)

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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 tell him they are sex researchers Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing and insultingly mock him with taunts of homosexuality. When Miss Lonelyhearts twists his arm—imagining it is the arm of Desperate, Broken-hearted, or Sick-of-it-all—the old man screams, and someone hits the columnist with a chair.

Instead of going to the office after Shrike phones him, Miss Lonelyhearts goes to the speakeasy; he knows Shrike finds him too perfect a target for his jokes to fire him. Needing a woman, Miss Lonelyhearts phones Mary, Shrike’s wife, whom he has never seduced. Mary hates her husband and uses Miss Lonelyhearts to arouse Shrike. At a nightclub, in a cab, and at Mary’s apartment door, Miss Lonelyhearts tries to talk Mary into sleeping with him; Shrike opens the door, however, ending that scheme.

The next day, Miss Lonelyhearts receives a letter from Fay Doyle, unhappily married to a “cripple,” asking for an appointment. Although Miss Lonelyhearts first throws the letter away, he retrieves it, phones her to meet him in the park, and takes her to his apartment. In the intervals of making love, she tells of her married life and her child Lucy, whose father is not her husband, Peter Doyle.

Physically sick and exhausted in his room for three days, he is comforted by Betty, who tries to get him to quit his Lonelyhearts job. He says he had taken the job as a joke, but after several months, the joke escaped him. Pleas for help had made him examine his own values, and he became the victim of the joke. While Betty suggests that he go to the country with her, Shrike breaks into the room and taunts him to escape to the South Seas or with hedonism, art, suicide, or drugs. Shrike ends by dictating an imaginary letter from the columnist to Christ.

After he has been ill for a week, Betty finally persuades Miss Lonelyhearts to go with her to her aunt’s Connecticut farm. They camp in the kitchen, sit near a pond to watch frogs and deer, and sleep on a mattress on the floor. They walk in the woods, swim in the nude, and make love in the grass. After several days, they return to the city. Miss Lonelyhearts knows that Betty has failed to cure him; he cannot forget the letters. He vows to attempt to be humble. In the office, he finds a lengthy letter from Broad Shoulders, telling of her troubles with a crazy husband.

About a week later, while Shrike is pulling the same familiar jokes at Delehanty’s, the bartender introduces Miss Lonelyhearts to Peter; Fay wants the columnist to have dinner at the Doyle’s. After labored conversation, Peter gives him a letter about his problems: He must pull his leg up and down stairs for $22.50 a week; his wife talks money, money, money; a doctor prescribes six months’ rest.

As they leave the speakeasy, very drunk, to go to the Doyle house, the cripple curses his wife and his foot. Miss Lonelyhearts is happy in his humility. When Fay tries to seduce the columnist, he fails to respond. Meanwhile, her husband calls himself a pimp and, at his wife’s request, goes out to get gin. Failing to find a message to show Fay that her husband loves her, and disgusted by her obscene attempts to get him to sleep with her, Miss Lonelyhearts strikes her again and again before he runs out of the house.

Following three days of illness, Miss Lonelyhearts is awakened by five people, including Shrike and his wife, all drunk, who want to take him to a party at the editor’s home. Betty is one of the group. Shrike wants to play a game in which he distributes letters from Miss Lonelyhearts’s office file and makes taunting comments. When the columnist can stand it no longer, he follows Betty out, dropping unread the letter given him, which Shrike reads to the crowd. It is from Peter, accusing Miss Lonelyhearts of trying to rape his wife.

Miss Lonelyhearts tells Betty he has quit the Lonelyhearts job and is going to look for work in an advertising agency. She tells him she is going to have a baby. Although he persuades her to marry him and have the baby instead of an abortion, by the time he leaves her, he does not feel guilty. In fact, he does not feel, because his feeling, conscience, sense of reality, and self-knowledge are like a rock.

The next morning, Miss Lonelyhearts is in a fever. The Christ on his wall is shining, but everything else in the room seems dead. When the bell rings and he sees Peter coming up the stairs, he imagines the cripple has come to have Miss Lonelyhearts perform a miracle and make him whole. Misunderstanding the outspread arms, Peter puts his hand in a newspaper-wrapped package as Betty comes to the door. In the struggle, the gun Peter carries goes off and Miss Lonelyhearts falls, dragging the cripple with him.

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