Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719
Nathanael West is a tragic figure of American letters. He published four novels before his death in an automobile accident in 1940, and these novels did not meet with much acclaim during his lifetime. Subsequently, however, they were hailed as works of genius. West’s vision of America is one of darkly comic absurdity. His early death robbed American letters of a great talent.
West’s accidental death by modern, mechanical means has eerie echoes of his fiction. In his books, the modern world wrecks its inhabitants with a chilling indifference. Traditional orders of society have broken down, norms have vanished. West was criticized by his contemporaries; it was said that his books suffered for want of some “normal” characters to round out the absurd world West’s fictions present. In West’s fiction, a Murphy’s law of human fate rules the roost.
West had a cartoonists’ eye that exaggerated human tics, flaws, and failings. His writing is brilliantly focused and his vision intense. West appears to have been a prophet of post-World War II anomie and terror. No doubt this is why he was not appreciated until the 1950’s.
West depicts a world made absurd by the disappearance of traditional orders. The paradox of reading West is that one has so much fun while dealing with insoluble miseries and repulsive sufferings. The letters that Miss Lonelyhearts receives are, amazingly, funny. They are also repulsive, depressing, and profound. West thus creates great complexity of feeling in a simple, almost cartoonlike, narrative. His characters, for example, have been termed two-dimensional by detractors. His characters are sketches of human beings, distorted by simplification, and his technique highlights exactly those qualities that his tragicomedies require. His characters show character as fate; they are trapped in being exactly who they are. They remind readers of the figures of Greek drama, of myth, of biblical personages. West brings ancient concepts of fate into a modern context. Readers read about insoluble human misery, seeing it through the eyes of the compassionate Miss Lonelyhearts, yet at the same time are being made to laugh at it. This keeps readers uneasily aware of the absurdity of human life.
Additionally, Miss Lonelyhearts critiques capitalism. Much of the book’s cruelty has to do with what the worker suffers. West’s critique is also larger, less time-bound than that. It is the human condition readers are being offered, not simply the human condition under late-industrial capitalism.
An indication that the novel is more than a critique of capitalism is the theme of Miss Lonelyhearts’s identification with Jesus Christ. The theme of the novel, in a nutshell, is this: Christ will always be killed by those he tries to save. He cannot help himself, any more than they. West sees that it is the very nature of Christ, to be killed for attempting to be the Savior. Miss Lonelyhearts may be suffering delusions of grandeur in identifying with Christ—but then, the book implicitly asks, what was Christ himself suffering from? Miss Lonelyhearts, like Christ, has another name. West is saying that, in his world, one’s role is everything—what the workplace does not require, a person does not need. Other names in the book merit examination. Shrike, who tears savagely at Miss Lonelyhearts’s idealism, bears the name of a species of fierce bird, and has no other life. Miss Lonelyhearts plays Christ or is Christ, and meets with a similar end.
The alternatives to playing Christ are likewise fatal. Who would want to be Shrike, the soulless mocker? Apart from Miss Lonelyhearts, there is no one with whom readers can identify. Identification itself, as an act, appears to...
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be a mistake in the novel, yet it appears to be an irresistible human urge. This absurd condition stays unresolved in this novel, except through the power of the novelist’s art, which holds the paradox at a certain distance so that it can be recognized for what it is. West, who wrote scripts for the Marx Brothers, sees the comedy inherent in the way things go wrong, so that a distancing—and saving—laughter is never far away, even as readers consider the dark side. The callousness with which some critics reproach West is in fact inextricable from his vision and its realization through his masterly technique.