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Miss Lonelyhearts

Nathanael West

"Miss Lonelyhearts and Mrs. Shrike"

"Miss Lonelyhearts and the Clean Old Man"

"Miss Lonelyhearts on a Field Trip"

Summary

Hung over, Miss Lonelyhearts wakes up in bed in the afternoon and tells Shrike on the phone that he will try to come to work. He takes a bath and drinks some whisky, but neither one warms his heart. He goes out for food. Though it is now too late to go to work, he knows that Shrike will not fire him, as Shrike values him as an easy target for his jokes. Miss Lonelyhearts thinks about the time he had tried to get fired by advocating suicide in a column; Shrike had reminded him that telling a reader to commit suicide would be bad business sense, as it would decrease circulation by one reader.

Miss Lonelyhearts walks to the park and watches the shadow of the Mexican War obelisk expand. He thinks of the things he has used to try to warm his heart today—hot water, whisky, coffee, exercise—and suddenly remembers sex. The only woman besides Betty who will tolerate him is Mary Shrike. He enjoys Mary's kisses, which she gives him because she hates Shrike, but he acknowledges that Shrike still has the upper hand, as Mary will not sleep with anyone but her husband.

Miss Lonelyhearts decides to call Mary after having a few drinks at the speakeasy. There, he looks at a poster of a naked girl and thinks of Mary's breasts, but he cannot get excited. He calls her and she tells him to come over, as she has had a fight with Shrike. He buys a bottle of Scotch and goes to her apartment, where he is not surprised to find Shrike at the door. Shrike invites him in and comments on Miss Lonelyhearts's advances towards his wife. When Miss Lonelyhearts accuses Shrike of beating his wife, Shrike says that the opposite occurs, and that Miss Lonelyhearts is not the only one who suffers. He says his wife has selfishly fought to remain a virgin and claims that he raped her. Mary comes into the room and tells Miss Lonelyhearts to join her in the bedroom. He does, and Shrike leaves the apartment. Miss Lonelyhearts relates the discussion to Mary, who says that Shrike lets her go out with other men as long as it saves him money.

Miss Lonelyhearts and Mary go to a Spanish restaurant, where the romantic, dreamy atmosphere depresses him. He asks Mary to sleep with him, but she refuses and instead tells him about her mother who died when she was young. Miss Lonelyhearts stops listening and thinks about how often people discuss their parents. The two leave in a cab, where he coldly caresses her after she again rejects the idea of sleeping with him. At the door to her apartment, they kiss but she is afraid to stop talking, as Shrike will have heard the elevator and know they are kissing. As Miss Lonelyhearts kisses Mary's body and unclothes her, she rattles on about her parents. She says if Shrike is not inside she will let Miss Lonelyhearts in. Miss Lonelyhearts hides behind the elevator shaft before Shrike comes to the door and looks into the corridor.

Analysis

As in previous episodes, Miss Lonelyhearts's emotional sensitivity when it comes to the relationships of others—he reproves Shrike for beating his wife, even though Shrike contends this is not the case—does not translate to his own life. He also uses Mary as a sex object, ignoring her conversation as he does so frequently to others. His desire is probably heightened by the fact that she is his boss's wife. West's symbolic use of the phallic war obelisk in the park fuses images of violence and sex, a marriage seemingly always present in the lives of the grotesques.

It is worthwhile noting the similarities between the structure and aesthetics of Miss Lonelyhearts and that of newspapers. West calls our attention to this similarity when he writes that Mary "speaks in headlines"—unemotional, information-packed sentences. Much like Hemingway, another journalist-turned-novelist, West was undoubtedly suspicious of the newspaper format as an aesthetic style, with its clipped syntax and cold diction. The episodes of Miss Lonelyhearts are transcribed almost as newspaper articles, and any cold or distant sensation we may take from the novel may come from the matter-of-fact manner in which West recounts the tale. However, West compensates for this distanced style with the gritty personal letters of the grotesques. As in Sherwood Anderson Winesburg, Ohio—another work by a former journalist in which the main character is a journalist, in which each chapter concentrates on one of the small town's residents—the letters in Miss Lonelyhearts have the feeling of an unedited "letters to the editor" page. They are subjective, rambling, intimate accounts—the exact opposite of most newspaper articles.

The letters also expose the cracked façade of "the business of dreams," a phrase West uses here twice. West refers more generally to the American Dream, the belief that anyone can move up the economic and social ladder in America. Much American literature after World War I, especially during the Great Depression, criticized the morality and illusory nature of the American Dream. While West is no exception, he does hold a more broadened judgment. In the restaurant, West writes that Miss Lonelyhearts "had learned not to laugh at the advertisements offering to teach writing, cartooning, engineering, to add inches to the biceps and to develop the bust." Rather than simply condemn those who succumb to the temptations of advertisements, Miss Lonelyhearts classes them with his readers—desperate souls yearning to break free from their grotesque trappings. As a writer who has sold out his earnest beliefs, Miss Lonelyhearts is clearly trapped inside the morally dubious, greedy American Dream. His past attempt to get fired by recommending suicide in a column is a morbidly witty example of this entrapment. Shrike stops Miss Lonelyhearts not because suicide is an immoral and disheartening prescription from an advice columnist, but because it will cut into the newspaper's sales.

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