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Miss Lonelyhearts

Nathanael West

"Miss Lonelyhearts and the Clean Old Man"

"Miss Lonelyhearts and the Lamb" and "M.L. and the Fat Thumb"

"Miss Lonelyhearts and Mrs. Shrike"

Summary

Miss Lonelyhearts goes to the speakeasy and meets some friends, one of whom complains about the number of female writers in the world today. The others suggest rape as a solution, and tell stories of literary women who are put in their place by violent sex. Miss Lonelyhearts stops listening, thinking how his friends have lost their way: "...they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything. Money and fame meant nothing to them. They were not worldly men."

Miss Lonelyhearts drifts off into a reverie of himself as an assassin, but is interrupted by his friends, who call him a "leper licker" and criticize his approach to religion as too literary and personal. He smiles, however, and categorizes his friends as machines for making jokes. He remembers a childhood incident in which he played piano while his younger sister danced to the music. He continues to ruminate on children and dancing.

Walking across the speakeasy, Miss Lonelyhearts accidentally bumps into a man, who punches him in the mouth. Miss Lonelyhearts then finds himself in the back room with a bump on the back of his head. He considers asking Shrike to transfer him to the sports department. His friend Ned Gates and he leave the speakeasy and head through the snow to the park. Inside the park's comfort station they see an old man on a toilet. He is scared and asks them to leave. Miss Lonelyhearts presses Gates to leave with him, but Gates wants the old man to leave with them. They pull the giggling, submissive old man outside, where Miss Lonelyhearts restrains his impulse to hit him.

The two bring the old man to a nearby Italian cellar where, against the old man's wishes, they drink whisky. They ridicule him, calling him a homosexual and a pervert, stifling his attempts to hit them with his cane. Miss Lonelyhearts feels much like a time he had accidentally stepped on a frog: after initially feeling pity at the frog's suffering, his pity transformed into a violent rage that he was unable to help the frog in its obvious pain. Miss Lonelyhearts pretends to be a psychologist and interrogates the old man for his name, age, and life story. Gates tries to get him to stop. The old man cries and Miss Lonelyhearts twists his arm, feeling like he is twisting the arms of all his readers. Miss Lonelyhearts gets hit from behind with a chair.

Analysis

In the discussion Miss Lonelyhearts's friends have about female writers, West brings to the fore an issue that subliminally surfaces in our minds every time we hear Miss Lonelyhearts's name mentioned: his professional emasculation. Miss Lonelyhearts is virtually a female writer himself, both by name and his status as an advice columnist—a job often reserved for maternal, Ann Landers types. We are reminded he is a male only when he is referred to in connection with the words "he" or "his," but even then it is hard to overlook the ever- present "Miss" preceding his name. This emasculation contributes to Miss Lonelyhearts's overall bitterness and frustration and also explains his unease in the company of men at the speakeasy, where he even loses a one-sided brawl. In fact, West capitalizes on the pun in "speakeasy." While Miss Lonelyhearts may "write easy," scribbling digestible banalities in his column, at the speakeasy he does not easily share in the banter of his friends—though much to his credit.

The fact that Miss Lonelyhearts is effeminized, however, does not mean he inherits the stereotypical female qualities of sensitivity, as we have seen in previous episodes. While he disdains his friends' gleeful accounts of rape, he seems to have no qualms about beating up the old man from the park. Miss Lonelyhearts's failure to live up to his self-proclaimed Christ complex is concentrated in his abusive handling of the grotesques and the weak. As in "Miss Lonelyhearts and the Fat Thumb," he proves himself unable to give love to others in his personal life. However, he is not as detached as the heartless Gates is, either. When Miss Lonelyhearts inquires about the old man's life story, he truly is interested in some respect, just as he is interested in his readers' stories. But he also takes out his anger on the old man—and, by extension, his readers—because he knows he cannot do anything to help them with their misery. Miss Lonelyhearts therefore pities the grotesques at the same level that Christ pities the meek—but without any of Christ's powers to heal. This position of impotence, much like his emasculated profession, frustrates and enrages him and, as evidenced by his beating of the old man, seems to be getting worse. Whereas Miss Lonelyhearts was merciful in his murder of the lamb years ago, he discovered his capacity for violence in his murder of the frog, and has now transferred his anger to humans.

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