West, Nathanael. Miss Lonelyhearts.
The novella is set in New York City, some time during the Prohibition Era (1919–33). The protagonist is a middle class college-educated man of twenty-six, referred to as Miss Lonelyhearts for the name of the column that he writes for the New York Post-Dispatch. The column is supposed to provide advice to the readers who write to the paper about their troubles. Miss Lonelyhearts receives about thirty letters every day. At first he thought the job was a good joke but now he finds the letters no more amusing. He seeks for a sincere answer to persuade his correspondents, as well as himself, that ‘[l]ife is worth while’ (p. 1).
‘Miss Lonelyhearts, Help me, Help Me’
Miss Lonelyhearts receives a letter from Sick-of-it-all, a mother of seven who underwent two difficult kidney operations and suffers from severe pains since the birth of her last two children. Her strictly Catholic husband does not accept that she should have no more children and so she is now pregnant again. Another letter is written by Desperate, a sixteen-year-old girl who was born without a nose and cannot find any boyfriend. ‘Ought I commit suicide,’ the letter concludes (p. 3)? Yet another letter is signed Harold S., a fifteen-year-old boy whose deaf and dumb sister Gracie, aged thirteen, was raped. The brother fears that she might be pregnant but hesitates to tell the mother because she would punish her unloved daughter severely.
‘Christ [is] the answer,’ Miss Lonelyhearts concludes but he cannot use this one because Christ is also ‘Shrike’s particular joke’ (p. 3). William Shrike, the feature editor of the paper, takes delight in deriding Miss Lonelyhearts’s religious inclinations. He even composes a mock prayer to Miss Lonelyhearts, proclaiming advice columnists to be ‘the priests of twentieth-century America’ (p. 4). Miss Lonelyhearts, with his grave appearance of a New England puritan, is certainly a good target for such jokes. Shrike suggests that Miss Lonelyhearts come with something new and hopeful rather than with the old religion. He dictates Miss Lonelyhearts the beginning of the column: ‘Art Is a Way Out’ (p. 4).
‘Miss Lonelyhearts and the Dead Pan’
From his office Miss Lonelyhearts goes directly to Delehanty’s speakeasy, a bar selling illegal liquor. He crosses a little park and is depressed by seeing no signs of spring and regeneration despite the season: ‘The decay that covered the surface of the mottled ground was not the kind in which life generates’ (p. 4). The park needs a drink as much as its observer and Miss Lonelyhearts thinks of watering the soil with the tears of his correspondents.
At Delehanty’s Miss Lonelyhearts meets Shrike who addresses him with an excited speech. Despite his elaborate rhetoric, Shrike’s facial features remain unmoved, like that of a dead pan lecturer. Shrike advises Miss Lonelyhearts to give his readers stones rather than daily bread. ‘Forget the crucifixion, remember the Renaissance,’ Shrike insists and praises the age where supposedly no brooding but enjoying took place (p. 5). Shrike accompanies the explanation of his worldview by a practical demonstration when he is joined by the large and manlike Miss Farkis. ‘America has her own religions,’ Shrike continues and produces a newspaper clipping from his wallet (p. 6). The article describes a religious ritual in which an adding machine will be used. Shrike dismisses all the religions of the world in favour of his own self-centred concept. ‘I am a great saint,’ he declares and shamelessly shows off his ruthlessness and cynicism (p. 7). He caresses Miss Farkis while talking and when he finishes, he ‘[buries] his triangular face like the blade of a hatchet in her neck’ (p. 8).
‘Miss Lonelyhearts and the Lamb’
Miss Lonelyhearts leaves the speakeasy and retires to his one room bachelor flat. The room is meagrely furnished, the walls are bare but for an ivory Christ removed from the cross and nailed directly to the wall. Miss Lonelyhearts opens Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and reads in it an urge ‘to love the whole world with an all embracing love’ (p. 8). The name of Christ stirs hysteria in him, which makes the dead world around him seem more alive.
Miss Lonelyhearts falls asleep and dreams about being a magician performing tricks with doorknobs. Then he turns into a preacher and leads his congregation in washing in the Blood of the Lamb. The dream then takes him back to his old college dormitory where he argues with his mates Steve Garvey and Jud Hume about the existence of God. They are drunk. When they run out of whisky, they go to the market to get some applejack. Jud suggests getting a lamb and roasting it. Miss Lonelyhearts agrees but insists on sacrificing it to God first. They march with the lamb, singing an obscene version of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’. Miss Lonelyhearts works himself into frenzy and strikes but the knife slips and breaks on the improvised stone altar erected for the ritual. The wounded lamb escapes. Later Miss Lonelyhearts returns alone to find it and end its suffering. He crushes its head with a stone and leaves the corpse under a bush.
‘Miss Lonelyhearts and the Fat Thumb’
Miss Lonelyhearts ‘[finds] himself developing an almost insane sensitiveness to order’ (p. 10). He seeks to force a regular pattern on his experience and the surrounding objects to orientate himself in the disordered world. He is frustrated by the chaotic teeming of the streets which cannot be given any meaning. He thinks of Betty whom he has not seen for two months, since he had proposed to marry her: ‘She had often made him feel that when she straightened his tie, she straightened much more’ (p. 11). He once thought that Betty could include him in her world and impress a final order on his life but he does not think so any more.
Miss Lonelyhearts pays Betty a visit to relieve his tension. When she opens the door, his tongue turns into a fat thumb and he is unable to speak. He gets annoyed with Betty’s failure to comfort him. Her Buddha-like position on the couch and patient calmness irritate him. He does feel guilty about having planned their life together and disappearing, ‘he [is] merely annoyed at having been fooled into thinking that such a solution was possible’ (p. 12). He starts acting nasty to provoke Betty but she dismisses his viciousness as sickness. ‘No morality, only medicine,’ he explodes and declares that he is not sick (p. 13). His trouble is his ‘Christ complex’, his being ‘a humanity lover’ and finding himself incapable of making the humanity more humane (p. 13). In the midst of his anger, Betty tells Miss Lonelyhearts that she loves him. He claims the same. She then begs him to let her alone.
‘Miss Lonelyhearts and the Clean Old Man’
From Betty, Miss Lonelyhearts goes to Delehanty’s. There is a group of his friends drinking and complaining about the number of female writers. They tell brutal rape stories ‘suggesting that what they all [need is] a good rape’ (p. 14). It is their way of dealing with frustration, they do not know how else to revenge themselves for the loss of their belief in Beauty, the belief that they lost after they had left college. The men turn their attention to Miss Lonelyhearts and poke fun at his religious beliefs. They call him an escapist and warn him that there is no chance to escape. Miss Lonelyhearts realizes that the insensitive jokes are their way of defence, the men represent to him mere unthinking ‘machines for making jokes’ (p. 15).
Miss Lonelyhearts recalls his sister when she was eight and himself when he was twelve. He once sat down to a piano deliberately to escape his boredom and his sister danced gravely to his play. Still in the speakeasy, Miss Lonelyhearts accidentally collides with a man and is assaulted by him when he turns to beg his pardon. ‘What in Christ’s name was this Christ business? And children gravely dancing,’ Miss Lonelyhearts muses (p. 16)? ‘He would ask Shrike to be transferred to the sports department’ (p. 16).
Miss Lonelyhearts is joined by Ned Gates. Both very drunk, they leave the bar to get some fresh air. They enter a comfort station to warm themselves up. There is an old tubercular man whom Gates approaches: ‘If you can’t get a woman, get a clean old man’ (p. 16). With the help of Miss Lonelyhearts, Gates drags the frightened man to another speakeasy. Gates introduces himself as a scientist named Krafft-Ebing and his colleague as Havelock Ellis. Gates presses the man, one George Bramhall Simpson, to tell his life story. The old man is unwilling to cooperate and Miss Lonelyhearts starts to beat the story out of him: ‘He was twisting the arm of all the sick and miserable, broken and betrayed, inarticulate and impotent’ (p. 18). Miss Lonelyhearts continues until he is hit by a chair from behind.
‘Miss Lonelyhearts and Mrs Shrike’
The next day Miss Lonelyhearts wakes up only in the afternoon, feeling sick after having drunk steadily last night. He feels his heart as ‘a congealed lump of icy fat’ (p. 18). He does not arrive at work but there is no need to worry about being fired. He would not be dismissed as he is ‘too perfect a butt for Shrike’s jokes’ (18). He thinks of sex as the sought-for answer. Only two women can bear him, one of them being Betty and the other Mrs Mary Shrike. Mary hates her husband and therefore she is willing to return Miss Lonelyhearts’s caresses. She however keeps on refusing to sleep with him. Miss Lonelyhearts is unable of genuine excitement anyway: ‘Like a dead man, only friction could make him warm or violence make him mobile’ (p. 19).
Miss Lonelyhearts calls a cab to drive him to Mary and he is not surprised when he finds Shrike in the same car. Shrike is not ignorant of Miss Lonelyhearts seeing his wife but he is indifferent about it. Shrike feels like having a heart-to-hear talk with Miss Lonelyhearts. ‘You spiritual lovers think that you alone suffer,’ Shrike blames him and asserts that he suffers, too (p. 21). His wife was a virgin before marriage and she fought to remain one also after she had married. She claims that Shrike raped her. Shrike diagnoses her as sexually selfish.
Miss Lonelyhearts takes Mary to a fake Mexican place. He realizes that the place is a ‘part of the business of dreams’ and the guests visiting are the same dreaming people who write to his column (p. 22). He associates the falsity of the place with the lies of advertisements offering fulfilment of unrealistic dreams. Miss Lonelyhearts begs Mary to sleep with him. She casually refuses and tells him her life story instead. She talks about her mother’s death of breast cancer and about her father, a portrait painter, who treated his wife cruelly. Miss Lonelyhearts sees Mary home and they neck in the elevator: ‘He kneaded her body like a sculptor grown angry with his clay, but there was too much method in his caresses and they both remained cold’ (p. 24). Shrike lets Mary seeing men and even necking with them because when she returns home excited, she is more accessible to his amorous advances.
‘Miss Lonelyhearts on a Field Trip’
Miss Lonelyhearts sits at the table in his office and meditates about the world. It appears to him like a desert, ‘not of sand, but of rust and body dirt’ (p. 25). His column was written by Goldsmith the day before when Miss Lonelyhearts was absent. Goldsmith delivers him a letter from Fay Doyle, aged thirty-two, who is married unhappily to a crippled man and asks for a personal advice. She knows that Miss Lonelyhearts is a man, he was pointed out to her at Delehanty’s. As usually, Miss Lonelyhearts struggles with writing his column. ‘The best things in life are free,’ he begins but is unable to continue, unable to believe in what he writes (p. 26). ‘If he could only believe in Christ,’ everything would be easy, he thinks, but he ‘[remains] as dry and cold as a polished bone’ (p. 26).
After some moral struggle, Miss Lonelyhearts calls the number that Mrs Doyle included in the letter. They agree on meeting immediately. Miss Lonelyhearts takes Mrs Doyle to his flat where she seduces him. The large woman resembles a sea in which Miss Lonelyhearts nearly drowns. Mrs Doyle tells Miss Lonelyhearts her life story. She is married to a much older man who has been crippled since childhood. She married him when she got pregnant and the father of the child refused to give her money for abortion. Daughter Lucy was born. After some years Mrs Doyle demanded acknowledgement from her former lover, now a rich married man, but she did not succeed. She told Lucy the truth that her father was Tony Benelli and not Mr Doyle, who deliberately talks about Lucy as if she were his own daughter.
‘Miss Lonelyhearts in the Dismal Swamp’
Miss Lonelyhearts falls ill and spends several days in bed. He has a hallucination of himself being in the window of a pawnshop and trying to order the displayed things into geometrical shapes. None of the various shapes proves definitive until he starts making a gigantic cross. ‘Man has a tropism for order,’ he muses (p. 30). ‘The physical world has a tropism for disorder,’ so what follows is a constant struggle between man and nature (p. 31).
Betty learns about Miss Lonelyhearts’s illness and comes to nurse him. She believes that it would make him good to quit his current job. Miss Lonelyhearts tries to explain that he cannot quit and cannot forget the letters. At first he took the job as a joke but eventually he was forced to question and re-examine his former values. He realized ‘that the majority of the letters [were] profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, that they [were] inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering’ (p. 32). He found out that ‘his correspondents [took] him seriously’ (p. 32). Betty thinks that his problems are city troubles and suggests withdrawing to a rural idyll.
Shrike comes to visit Miss Lonelyhearts and overhears some of Betty’s talking. Miss Lonelyhearts does not welcome his presence, for ‘Shrike had accelerated his sickness by teaching him to handle his one escape, Christ, with a thick glove of words’ (p. 33). Shrike further elaborates on Betty’s vision of a rural idyll. He adds a series of other possible answers to Miss Lonelyhearts’s affliction. He proposes the South Seas and a life of pagan innocence and enjoyment. He follows with hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure. He also discusses art, suicide and drugs as the answer. The goal of the lecture leads to God, and Shrike finishes by dictating a mock letter from Miss Lonelyhearts to Christ, the ‘Miss Lonelyhearts of Miss Lonelyhearts’ (p. 35).
‘Miss Lonelyhearts in the Country’
Betty visits Miss Lonelyhearts every day. Miss Lonelyhearts seems to welcome his disease as a trick performed by his body to relieve his more profound sickness of the soul. Betty suggests for Miss Lonelyhearts to prolong his sick leave and spend a few days in the country. Betty’s aunt still owns the old farm house in Connecticut where Betty grew up and this is where Betty takes Miss Lonelyhearts.
Spring in the country brings a sense of freshness and cleanliness. Betty and Miss Lonelyhearts clean the abandoned house and manage to turn it into a quite comfortable nest. They seem to be enjoying themselves, though Betty turns down Miss Lonelyhearts’s sexual invitation, claiming that she is a virgin. The joyful mood of the couple contrasts to the decay that they encounter on their walk in the woods: ‘[I]n the deep shade there was nothing but death––rotten leaves, gray and white fungi, and over everything a funereal hush’ (p. 38).
‘Miss Lonelyhearts Returns’
Miss Lonelyhearts’s return to the city is marked also by the return of his depressed mood. Watching the unhappy crowds in the streets, he is overwhelmed by a sincere desire to help. He muses on the vanity of dreams: ‘Although dreams were once powerful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio and newspapers’ (p. 39). He realizes that his own share in the failure is his losing his faith in the Christ dream. He thinks this is because he lacks humility and decides to train this skill consciously. He attempts to write his column in this newly found style and begins: ‘Christ died for you. […] His gift to you is suffering and it is only through suffering that you can know Him’ (p. 39). He is unable to continue because ‘[w]ith him, even the word Christ was a vanity’ (p. 39).
Miss Lonelyhearts reads a long letter from Broad Shoulders, a woman unhappily married to a mentally afflicted soldier. Her husband is a lazy creature who fails to support his family. He even served a sentence for not providing for his children, an eight-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son. He beat his wife and threatened to kill her, she left him several times in fear for her life but always returned to give him another chance. Now her husband disappeared and she must support the children entirely on her own. She has to deal with the attempts of her lodger to seduce her but she cannot get rid of him because she needs his rent. She does not know what to do.
‘Miss Lonelyhearts and the Cripple’
Miss Lonelyhearts clings to his humility and believes that it demands from him to ignore Betty’s calls, which he accordingly does. Goldsmith invites him for a drink and Miss Lonelyhearts accepts. Goldsmith does not know what to make out of Miss Lonelyhearts’s striking new behaviour. He tells about his worries to Shrike, whom they come across in the speakeasy, but Shrike dismisses Goldsmith’s doubts: ‘Don’t call sick those who have faith. They are well. It is you who are sick’ (p. 43). Miss Lonelyhearts assumes a saint-like attitude and finds that Shrike’s jokes do not hurt him any more.
Mr Peter Doyle, the crippled husband of Mrs Doyle, joins Miss Lonelyhearts and tells him that his wife invites him for a meal. He talks about his problems, like his wife did before, but he is largely incomprehensible and Miss Lonelyhearts cannot make anything out of his complaints. Mr Doyle hands Miss Lonelyhearts a letter in which he explains himself. He wonders what it is good for, straining his one good leg in his job as a metre inspector for a gas company and hearing only demands for money from his wife when he comes home. Miss Lonelyhearts reads the letter and when he finishes, he sits with Mr Doyle in a quiet understanding, holding his hand compassionately.
‘Miss Lonelyhearts Pays a Visit’
Miss Lonelyhearts and Mr Doyle are very drunk when they take a cab to the Doyle’s. Mrs Doyle serves them a supper during which she untiringly flirts with Miss Lonelyhearts. The latter remains coolly unresponsive. Mr Doyle feels like a pimp, bringing home a man for his wife. Mrs Doyle reacts to this remark by hitting her husband with a newspaper. Mr Doyle starts acting like a dog, falling on all the four on the floor. Mrs Doyle is furious. Miss Lonelyhearts tries to calm her down: ‘He loves you, Mrs. Doyle; that’s why he acts like that’ (p. 49).
Miss Lonelyhearts has been formulating a message throughout the supper. He delivers it now, talking about the virtues of marital love and the comforts of religion: ‘Christ is love. […] Man was lost by eating of the forbidden fruit. He shall be saved by eating of the bidden fruit’ (p. 49). His speech is unpersuasive and rather hysterical. Out of loyalty, Mr Doyle however kisses his wife and tells her that he loves her. Mrs Doyle resumes her bossy behaviour to her husband and sends him out to get some liquor. When alone with Miss Lonelyhearts, she sexually assaults him. Miss Lonelyhearts struggles to get free and eventually hits her several times until she lets him go.
‘Miss Lonelyhearts Attends a Party’
Miss Lonelyhearts retires to bed where he stays for three days. His flat is invaded by a group of two women and three men, one of them being Shrike whose wife supposedly wants to fight Miss Lonelyhearts for insult. Shrike assaults Miss Lonelyhearts but fails, ‘as a wave that dashes against an ancient rock, smooth with experience, falls back’ (p. 51). Miss Lonelyhearts is dragged to a party in Shrike’s flat where a game called ‘Everyman his own Miss Lonelyhearts’ is to be played (p. 51). Shrike brings letters from Miss Lonelyhearts’s office, but Miss Lonelyhearts remains unaffected by the sight: ‘The rock remained calm and solid’ (p. 52).
The crowd in Shrike’s flat parts before him when Miss Lonelyhearts enters. Shrike introduces the key speaker in the manner of a circus-barker. The task of the players of the game is to respond one letter each, Miss Lonelyhearts will then diagnose the moral ills of the players based on their responses. Miss Lonelyhearts remains uninterested: ‘What goes on in the sea is of no interest to the rock’ (p. 53). When he receives a letter from Shrike, he drops it on the floor and leaves, following Betty whom he wants to show ‘the rock he had become’ (p. 53). Shrike reads the letter that Miss Lonelyhearts dropped as though seeing it for the first time. The letter is from Mr Doyle who abuses Miss Lonelyhearts for his supposed attempt to rape his wife. He did not call police but assures Miss Lonelyhearts that he will punish him himself.
‘Miss Lonelyhearts and the Party Dress’
Miss Lonelyhearts makes Betty accept his invitation for soda. He claims that he is quitting his job and looking for a new one in advertising. He does not lie deliberately, he only tells her what she wants to hear. Betty is pregnant. She thinks about abortion but Miss Lonelyhearts insists on marriage. They plan their future together. Miss Lonelyhearts however remains emotionless like a rock: ‘He did not feel guilty. He did not feel. The rock was a solidification of his feeling, his conscience, his sense of reality, his self-knowledge’ (p. 56).
‘Miss Lonelyhearts Has a Religious Experience’
Back in his bed, Miss Lonelyhearts gets feverish: ‘[T]he rock became a furnace’ (p. 56). He stares at the Christ on the wall, the only bright spot in his room where everything else is dead. ‘Christ is life and light,’ he thinks (p. 57). He shouts the name of Christ and feels delight, grace and identification with God whose will he accepts. He hears the door bell ring and sees Mr Doyle making his way up the stairs. He welcomes his appearance as a sign and rushes to embrace him, to make him whole again ‘as he, a spiritual cripple, had been made whole’ (p. 57). Mr Doyle shrinks from him and turns to escape. He tries to get rid of the package that he carries. The package is a gun wrapped in a newspaper. It accidentally explodes. Miss Lonelyhearts falls, dragging Mr Doyle to the ground with him, and the two roll down the stairs.
Form: The novella may be seen as a black farce in that it deals with a serious subject but treats it in a blackly comic manner. The title of the book refers not only to its protagonist but also very well captures its subject, which are the lonely hearts of all of the characters, their frustration with their lives and their more or less desperate attempts to get along in the hostile world around them. The world of the novella is an exceptionally cruel and merciless one. It is permeated by marks of decay and evidences of human suffering. The stories of the main characters are punctuated by anguished confessions of Miss Lonelyhearts’s correspondents, each of them describing an individual tragedy, be it reduction to extreme poverty or encounter with brutal violence. The plights of the characters are nearly always given a grotesque twist, so that the final result mingles laughter with tears.
Characters: The novella is preoccupied with crippled people, physically, mentally, or both. The characters are often portrayed as automatons, machines deprived of feeling and incapable of performing other tasks than those for which they were programmed (‘machines for making jokes’, p. 15). The novella works with imagery of deadness, coldness, numbness and torpor (Shrike’s face as a ‘dead pan’, p. 6; Miss Lonelyhearts’s heart as a ‘lump of icy fat’, p. 18; Miss Lonelyhearts’s tongue as a ‘fat thumb’, p. 11). The faces of the characters are reduced to geometrical shapes (Shrike’s triangular face, Mr Doyle’s square forehead); the characters are dealt with as objects (Betty as a ‘party dress’, p. 54); the desperate correspondents are known not by their proper names but by their telling common-name pseudonyms (Sick-of-it-all, p. 2; Desperate, p. 3; Broad Shoulders, p. 42).
Answers: The underlying theme of the novella is a quest for answers. Miss Lonelyhearts’s correspondents search for them most obviously, all their letters uniformly seek an answer to justify and relieve their suffering. All of the characters, major or minor, are in need of an answer to their apparently dissatisfying and unfulfilling lives. Unlike Miss Lonelyhearts’s correspondents and unlike Miss Lonelyhearts himself, the other characters tend to deceive themselves by believing that they have already found their answer. The answers that they have however prove to be of little help, therefore they are probably not relevant. Some of the inadequate answers are drinking, violence, false cheer, chastity alternating with promiscuousness, romantic love and love of Christ.
Religion: Miss Lonelyhearts successively tries all of the approaches in the list. His most natural response is seeking a refuge in religion, this however does not work for a number of reasons. The old religion seems to be too worn-out with use and little adjusted to modern condition, so that it fails to provide the sought-for comfort. Something new and hopeful is wanted to replace the defunct principles. Miss Lonelyhearts’s dream about the lamb illustrates how easy it is for a serious religious ritual to turn into perversion and for an earnest offering to decline into base brutality. Shrike’s exploitation of Miss Lonelyhearts’s faith strips religion of its dignity and makes Christian language sound obscene. The conclusion of the novella is a culmination and fulfilment of Miss Lonelyhearts’s Christ complex. Overwhelmed by an all-embracing love, Miss Lonelyhearts rushes to comfort an uncomprehending fellow human being. He not only fails to be of any help to Mr Doyle but by this action he also brings about his own final downfall.
AuthorWest, Nathanael. (1903 - 1940).
Full TitleMiss Lonelyhearts.
First PublishedNY: Liveright, 1933.
West, Nathanael. Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust. 1933. 1939. New York: New Directions, 1969.