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Miss Lonelyhearts

Nathanael West

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Miss Lonelyhearts

Miss Lonelyhearts concedes he has a "Christ complex." As if his status as moral and spiritual guide to his readers were not enough, clues to his Christ- like status abound: he hangs a figure of Christ up on his walls, Shrike mockingly compares Miss Lonelyhearts to Christ, and Miss Lonelyhearts's face even resembles a minister's. His personal life, however, falls far below these Christ-like expectations. He concedes he has never allowed religious "hysteria" to overtake him, and he claims at one point that he does not believe in Christ. The novel tracks Miss Lonelyhearts's grappling with this Christ-identity, generally proceeding along this course: when he reads his letters and thinks abstractly about the grotesques—as when he pities them for their belief in dreams—he astutely diagnoses their misery; however, when he is directly confronted with those who need love in his own life, he is unable to provide it.

A perfect example of this disconnect is Betty, whom Miss Lonelyhearts has guiltlessly avoided after his marriage proposal, feeling he has been "fooled" by her love. When he returns to her, he berates her for her concern about his health. Even more telling is Miss Lonelyhearts's reaction to his own impotence in helping those who need it. He slaughters the lamb after it escapes the bungled sacrifice by bashing its head with a stone—a brutal killing, certainly, but merciful. Then, when he accidentally steps on a frog at another point, his sense of pity soon transforms into a rage as he continues to pulverize the animal. Miss Lonelyhearts is reminded of this event as he interrogates the old man, and the reason is clear: Christ-like only in his ability to feel for the weak, but not in his ability to perform miracles, Miss Lonelyhearts helplessly watches this grotesque. His pity is soon transformed into anger as he twists the old man's arm.

Only when Miss Lonelyhearts meets Peter Doyle and holds his hand does he experience his first moment of profound human connection—most likely because he feels guilty for having had sex with Mrs. Doyle. However, it is unfair to say that guilt is the only motivation for his holding hands with Doyle. Miss Lonelyhearts identifies especially with Doyle, whose crippled foot and submission to his powerful wife may remind Miss Lonelyhearts of his own virtual castration as an advice columnist subservient to Shrike. Miss Lonelyhearts's final days complete his Christian ascendance, as they include many symbolic events of Christ's last days, though out of sequence. Miss Lonelyhearts spends three days in bed (like Christ's three days being dead), he is pulled to Shrike's party (a sort of Last Supper), he has a religious awakening in which he communicates directly to God, and he is martyred when Doyle shoots him.

William Shrike

If Miss Lonelyhearts is the novel's Christ-figure, then Shrike is its anti- Christ (his name almost sounds like "Christ" backwards), an arrogant, cold, grandiloquent cynic. He embraces the Renaissance values of debauchery and indulgence, allows his wife, Mary, to go out with other men if it saves him money, and cheats on her with Miss Farkis and presumably other women. Shrike uses a "dead pan" face to obscure his own emotion, and his exploitative actions hint that he may not have any emotions at all. Indeed, he created Miss Lonelyhearts's job as a circulation stunt; when Miss Lonelyhearts prescribes suicide to a reader, Shrike warns him against driving down circulation. Above all, Shrike mocks Miss Lonelyhearts's Christian faith, frequently making Miss Lonelyhearts the butt of his jokes as he compares him to Christ.

Shrike's party at the end of the novel brings out his deepest resentment of Miss Lonelyhearts; supposedly holding the evening in Miss Lonelyhearts's honor, it is all a Judas-like attempt to betray him by reading out Doyle's denunciatory letter. However, Shrike may not be so far from the grotesques he so thoroughly mocks. While his complaint that Mary has fought him to retain her virginity is hardly worthy of sympathy, Shrike does say, with seeming earnestness, that she beats him. This may simply be another of his tricks, but his lengthy speeches, a welcome departure from the novel's stark, journalistic style, do often criticize—albeit mockingly—the lifestyles he endorses. Perhaps there is a simple desire for true love even in Shrike—which would make him the most grotesque of all the novel's characters.


Intriguingly, Miss Lonelyhearts once refers to Betty as "Betty the Buddha." This tag makes some sense, as to him she symbolizes order, just as Buddhism promotes inner peace. However, Buddhism also advocates the philosophy that life is suffering, and that detachment from desire is the only way to achieve Nirvana, a heightened state of spiritual wisdom. "Betty the Buddha," on the other hand, only tries to run away from suffering—she whisks Miss Lonelyhearts away from the chaotic city to the restful countryside—and she clearly has strong desires, for Miss Lonelyhearts and the country especially. Having few problems of her own, Betty acts as a naïve foil to Miss Lonelyhearts's spiritual crises. She thinks his taking an advertising job would solve all his problems. Furthermore, she acts according to trite, movie-cliché conventions at the end of the novel, when Miss Lonelyhearts gallantly proposes marriage to her again after she reveals she is pregnant. If anything, Betty resembles less Buddha and more Eve, as her virginal status—before Miss Lonelyhearts sleeps with her at the end of the country visit—and apple- eating in the country attests.

Fay Doyle

Mrs. Doyle is perhaps the most virile person in Miss Lonelyhearts. She is physically imposing, pursuing Miss Lonelyhearts and ordering him around in their sexual entanglements. Indeed, she has a penchant for emasculating the men in her life. It is not difficult for her to emasculate her crippled husband, Doyle, whom she married out of convenience; the dominant-submissive nature of their relationship is made clear when she hits him with a newspaper and he plays the role of the dog. Fay later calls Doyle and Miss Lonelyhearts "fairies" when she sees them holding hands. She then sends Doyle out for liquor while she violently attempts to seduce Miss Lonelyhearts. While Mrs. Doyle has had a difficult life, her selfish, brutish desires—and her essential dishonesty, capped by her claim that Miss Lonelyhearts has tried to rape her—make her far less deserving of sympathy than the other grotesques in the novel.

Peter Doyle

Doyle, with his crippled foot and face that resembles a composite photograph, is a sort of universal grotesque. He is also the grotesque with whom Miss Lonelyhearts has his first meaningful contact, as the two grasp hands in the speakeasy and at Doyle's home. In his letter to Miss Lonelyhearts, Doyle repeatedly asks what the "point" of life is, synopsizing the question all the other letter-writers seem to be asking. But Doyle, emasculated in his marriage to Fay, also kills Miss Lonelyhearts in a symbolic crucifixion. Doyle loses his faith in Miss Lonelyhearts twice: first when he believes his manipulative wife's claim that Miss Lonelyhearts tried to rape her, and second when he mistakes Miss Lonelyhearts's embrace on the stairs for an attack. Just as Jesus suffered for the sins of man, so does Miss Lonelyhearts die for the sins of Doyle—and all the grotesques.

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