Miss Lonelyhearts

by Nathanael West

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Places Discussed

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Miss Lonelyhearts’ home

Miss Lonelyhearts’ home. Home of the newspaper advice columnist whose pseudonym is “Miss Lonelyhearts.” It is an apartment with little furniture and bare walls except for an ivory Christ figure nailed to the wall with large spikes, a calmly decorative symbol that plays a crucial role in Miss Lonelyhearts’ regeneration. Early in his quest to assuage the grief and misery of his readers and vent his frustration, Miss Lonelyhearts accepts a proposal of seduction by Fay Doyle, one of his letter writers. Fay is repelled physically and in every other way by her husband, the physically challenged Peter Doyle. Miss Lonelyhearts’ room is also the setting of some reciprocal visits by Betty, his innocent, loyal, but not-too-bright girlfriend, to whom he had earlier proposed marriage.

Park

Park. Public park near the newspaper office that is presumably a little nook in Central Park, given the reference to a Mexican War obelisk at one end. This location provides the occasion for a scene in which Miss Lonelyhearts and a colleague, Ned Gates, find a man, who they believe to be a homosexual, sitting on a turned-down toilet cover in a comfort station. Miss Lonelyhearts, in whose mind the stranger represents all the desperate, broken-hearted, disillusioned letter writers who seek his advice, decides to brutalize the old man. The park, then, in addition to being a refuge for him, is also a place of turmoil.

Post-Dispatch city room

Post-Dispatch city room. Miss Lonelyhearts’ workplace, where some thirty letters from readers await his reply daily. It is not a particularly congenial place, not only because of the steady dose of his readers’ misery but also because his superior, Willie Shrike, orchestrates many practical jokes at Miss Lonelyhearts’ expense.

Delehanty’s speakeasy

Delehanty’s speakeasy. Prohibition-era bar that is a gathering place for the lonely; located close to the newspaper office and small park where Miss Lonelyhearts frequently stops to escape the concrete jungle of New York. The speakeasy is located in the cellar of a brownstone building, which differs from its neighbors in that it has an armored door. It is a gathering place for other news reporters from the Post-Dispatch. Willie Shrike, who derides Miss Lonelyhearts’ advice but nevertheless urges him to try to increase the paper’s circulation with his piece, is a frequent visitor. It is also the setting where Peter Doyle—an advice seeker like his wife Fay—is introduced to Miss Lonelyhearts. In the end, it is on the stairs leading to Miss Lonelyhearts’ room that the gun in Doyle’s hands explodes, and both roll part of the way down, the Christ-obsessed Miss Lonelyhearts and the nearly redeemed Doyle caught in deadly embrace.

Although New York City does not appear to be quite as sordid as Los Angeles is in Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), the picture of Peter Doyle dragging his lame foot up and down stairways as he reads gas meters is a reminder that the American Dream was not for everyone, even during the so-called Roaring Twenties.

Literary Techniques

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Called a "moral satire" and a "moral detective story," the book rearranges a good many techniques to create its own vision. The effaced narrator fills out the barren style with grotesque and surrealistic imagery and jokes that undermine what a reader takes for granted. In addition, as West said, "Violent images are used to illustrate commonplace events. Violent acts are left almost bald." This distortion of common expectation tends also to cast doubt on the novel's world even while individual bits of it are implacably vivid — a paradox which mirrors Miss...

(This entire section contains 259 words.)

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Lonelyhearts' confusion. Psychology used like myths rather than as explanation undermines preconceptions about characters' thoughts and motives; the characters, thinned of cliche, consist almost entirely of insights. So, too, comic wit, joking, and irony, especially Shrike's, are used to deny comfort, not — as is normally expected — to reinforce it. In a sort of parody of place, Miss Lonelyhearts's church becomes a speakeasy and a "comfort station" in the park. Tortured bits of religion appear throughout — sacrificing a lamb, eating crackers, Shrike as Grand Inquisitor, Miss Lonelyhearts as Savior. At times, a metaphor can control a whole passage, bypassing ordinary reassuring reference points. The terse colloquial style in which these complexities are presented defies the reader's disbelief: Any falsity in such ordinary dress must be obvious and easily understood. The book exhibits a perfectly executed ambiguity. As a result of all this, the reader comes to share the book's tone of desperate frustration. By using these techniques, West wrote a "lyric novel" expressing a single mood in every feature.

Social Concerns

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West's primary focus was the spiritual suffering of the Depression, the people's despair and purposelessness, and the culture's inability to relieve the pain. W. H. Auden wrote of "West's disease." The victims have inner lives of wishes and daydreams but no outer reference to connect them to — no way to measure progress or test discipline, no way to work toward asserting themselves; thus their weakness worsens. Typically, Depression people escaped into movies, historical novels, dance marathons, and jigsaw puzzles, without facing their disillusionment with America's promise. West's characters, beyond this escapism, have no homes, no sense of community, no link with the past, no love beyond sexuality, and no confirming external references in their lives. And West's message that even "the Christ dream" will not solve the problems, although pessimistic, is undeniable in its own terms.

The situation and the disease, being circular, admit of no cure but apocalypse — a violent outburst that will kill the cycle. Apparently, there needs to be not merely an opiate, but some form of revolution to cure the suffering. In the absence of a cure. West's pained humor shows that the illusions used to cope — Miss Lonelyhearts' hysteria; Betty's natural blind innocence; Fay Doyle's elephantine sexuality; the cynicism of Shrike, Miss Lonelyhearts' boss; the letter-writers' pathetic pleas, and Pete Doyle's sexual morality — remain inevitable.

The male advice columnist Miss Lonelyhearts, as a "priest of our times," is in the center of this dilemma between the necessity of illusions and their falseness. His religious experience is based on William James's Varieties of Religious Experience and Starbuck's Psychology of Religion; as West noted, "Chapt. 1 — maladjustment, Chapt. 3 — the need for taking symbols literally . . . Chapt. 4 — deadness and disorder, Chapt. 5 — self-torture by conscious sinning." Miss Lonelyhearts re-enacts an ancient aspiration amid the pains of the twentieth century.

Literary Precedents

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West's works follow in the tradition of the most famous deadly serious satirist, Jonathan Swift, who wrote, besides Gulliver's Travels, "A Modest Proposal" (1729) for improving the British treatment of the Irish by having them raise the Irish children for meat. Swift follows the tradition identified with the Latin satirist, Juvenal.

Miss Lonelyhearts, as a holy fool, is also represented in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Kammazov (1879-1880), A Raw Youth (1875), The Idiot (1868), and Crime and Punishment (1866); in Voltaire's Candide (1759); and in Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story "Gimpel the Fool" (1957).

Franz Kafka gives a similar intense, unnatural, disordered, violent effect using similar incredible-but-convincing imagery and a similarly deadly-serious humor. Dashiell Hammett, e.g., in The Maltese Falcon (1930), is noted for his similarly harsh stylization.

The barren world of West's books resembles that in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922). West's use of images is like that of the Imagists, including Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. A possible model for Homer's hands in The Day of the Locust (1939) is Wing Biddlebaum of the short story "Hands" in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919).

Adaptations

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Although West did not work on it in Hollywood, Miss Lonelyhearts was eventually adapted into a B motion picture, Advice to the Lovelorn (20th Century Pictures, 1933), with little resemblance to the book. The movie It Could Happen to You (Republic Productions, 1937) is a similarly distant B adaptation, combining A Cool Million with Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here. The Day of the Locust (Paramount, 1975) was a well-received big-budget movie earning several Oscar nominations.

Bibliography

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Andreach, Robert. “Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts: Between the Dead Pan and the Unborn Christ.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Miss Lonelyhearts”: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas H. Jackson. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. Analyzes the Pan-Christ antagonism as the unifying principle of West’s novel and the central paradox of twentieth century life, in which paganism violates one’s conscience and Christianity violates one’s nature.

Barnard, Rita. “The Storyteller, the Novelist, and the Advice Columnist.” In The Great Depression and the Culture of Abundance. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Contextualizes Miss Lonelyhearts in the mass-media, commercial culture of the 1930’s, and discusses West’s critique of popular art forms.

Light, James F. Nathanael West: An Interpretive Study. 2d ed. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1971. Claims West’s compassion for people whose dreams have been betrayed fuses form and content in Miss Lonelyhearts. Describes the novel’s imagistic style, and briefly summarizes its critical reception.

Martin, Jay. Nathanael West: The Art of His Life. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970. An indispensable biographical and critical source. Asserts that the dominant issue in West’s life and art is the loss of value. An appendix documents West’s screenwriting career.

Martin, Jay. Nathanael West: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. In addition to West’s own essays and reviews by his contemporaries, this volume includes essays that study textual revisions and religious experience in Miss Lonelyhearts.

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Critical Essays