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Miss Lonelyhearts

Nathanael West

"Miss Lonelyhearts on a Field Trip"

"Miss Lonelyhearts and Mrs. Shrike"

"Miss Lonelyhearts in the Dismal Swamp" and "M.L. in the Country"

Summary

Miss Lonelyhearts sits at his desk, thinking of scene involving grisly newspaper headlines and his readers, who spell out his name with clamshells. The co-worker who wrote Miss Lonelyhearts's column yesterday, Goldsmith, comes over and shows him a letter from an "admirer." It is from a thirty-two-year-old woman named Fay Doyle who says she is unhappily married to a "cripple." She has seen Miss Lonelyhearts in the speakeasy, wants his advice about her married life, and has therefore included her phone number. Miss Lonelyhearts throws away the letter and ignores Goldsmith's recommendation that he impregnate the woman to increase circulation. He returns to writing another column of clichés, then thinks again of his readers building his name out of old pieces of precious junk. He takes out Mrs. Doyle's letter and thinks that if he believed in Christ, he would consider adultery a sin and could easily answer the letters.

Miss Lonelyhearts calls Mrs. Doyle from a phone booth, the interior of which is covered in obscene drawings. She answers; he introduces himself and tells her to meet him in the park, near the obelisk. He finishes his column and goes to the park to wait for her, looking at the skyscrapers and thinking about how skyscraper-building Americans break stones "hysterically, desperately, almost as if they knew that the stones would someday break them."

The large, brutish Mrs. Doyle arrives. Miss Lonelyhearts takes her to his apartment for a drink. She kisses him a few times, but he keeps retreating. They have sex. Afterward, she tells him about her older, crippled husband, and says that her daughter, Lucy, is not his.

Mrs. Doyle recounts the story of how she came to marry her husband. She used to live below the Doyles and would mercifully take the crippled Doyle to the movies. Impregnated by another man, she asked Doyle to give her money for an abortion but, lacking the necessary funds, they decided to get married instead. After Lucy was born, she tracked down Lucy's father, who would not take responsibility for the child. Although Doyle had always pretended he was Lucy's father, Mrs. Doyle one day informed her daughter about her real, no-good father. When Doyle discovered this, he tried to beat his wife, but she fought back, hurting him and kicking off a chain reaction of tears. Frightened without knowing why, Miss Lonelyhearts assures Mrs. Doyle that her husband loves her and Lucy, and that she is pretty.

Analysis

Miss Lonelyhearts's first full-blown confession that he does not believe in Christ—an attitude previously hinted but never spelled out—clarifies his moral difficulty. Miss Lonelyhearts is exaggerating somewhat, as he seems to half-believe in Christ. He wants to emulate Christian ideals, but never seems able to accept them into reality. His meeting with Mrs. Doyle sets the stage for an inevitable conflict of his Christian faith. He tries to use Christian morality to dissuade himself from calling her, but his lust is too great and his faith too weak. Highlighting this is the phone booth from which he calls her, in which obscene drawings not only point to the motives of Miss Lonelyhearts's call—sex, which his desire to meet at the phallic obelisk makes especially clear—but also show how all his contact is marked by obscenity of some kind, be it sexual, cynical, or violent.

Fay Doyle is given the title of "Mrs. Doyle," while Mary Shrike, also caught in an unhappy marriage, is known only as "Mary." While Miss Lonelyhearts feels little remorse about taking Mary from her husband, he feels much more guilty about doing so with Mrs. Doyle. Accordingly, West addresses her as "Mrs." to constantly remind us of her status as a wife. What her title also accomplishes, of course, is put into sharp relief the fact that Miss Lonelyhearts is a "Miss," and thus seems smaller than Mrs. Doyle in both title and physique. She is the one who pursues him, who "drag[s]" him to bed, who fights back against her husband—while we have earlier seen Miss Lonelyhearts not react to a punch in the speakeasy. His emasculation is never greater than with Mrs. Doyle, and his unexplained fright stems not so much from guilt over wronging Doyle—yet another grotesque he has abused, albeit indirectly—but from being with a woman much more powerful than he.

Miss Lonelyhearts's comment about Americans and their penchant for breaking stones recalls the previous symbolic associations with stones, such as Shrike's "daily stone" that resides in Miss Lonelyhearts's gut, or as the weapon used to kill the sacrificial lamb. Whatever the stone represents—possibly an admission of sin as the stone that Miss Lonelyhearts cannot cast, perhaps a bloody instrument of mercy in the sacrifice—it is undoubtedly a permanent, cold, strong force of nature that man has tried to defeat and shape to his own violent purpose. In the novel's chronological progression, the stones do seem to inflict more cruel damage. In the episode of the lamb, Miss Lonelyhearts amends the botched sacrifice by knife with the stone—a harsh death, to be sure, but one borne from mercy. With the "daily stone," Shrike wants Miss Lonelyhearts to shape the stone into false hope for the readers—a seemingly harmless action, but the product of a cynical, faithless age. Finally, skyscrapers seem like a march toward progress, but are actually towering testaments to man's desire, quite literally, to scrape the sky and violently attack nature itself.

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