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Miss Lonelyhearts

Nathanael West

"Miss Lonelyhearts Returns," "M.L. and the Cripple," and "M.L. Pays a Visit"

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

"Miss Lonelyhearts Attends a Party," "M.L. and the Party Dress," and "M.L. Has a Religious Experience"

Summary

"Miss Lonelyhearts Returns"

Miss Lonelyhearts and Betty return to the city a few days later. He knows he is not cured, as he has not been able to forget the letters. He watches the crowds in the streets, musing that men use dreams to defeat their misery but that dreams have been made "puerile" by the media. He realizes that he, too, dreams—about Christ—but fails at it because of lack of humility. He vows to be humble. At work, he decides to write his column without reading his letters. He starts writing about how Christ died and suffered for humanity, but then stops, feeling his writing is too vain.

Miss Lonelyhearts opens a bulky letter and reads. The writer—naming herself "Broad Shoulders"—tells a rambling story about how she and her husband sank into debt. Her husband abandoned them and was arrested for refusing to support her and their two children. She gave him another chance, but he beat her, threatened her life, slowly grew insane, and pawned off all their valuables. After she gave him an arrest warrant for non-support, he left again. For income she was forced to bring back a boarder she had been putting up before, but the man now tries to have sex with her. She asks Miss Lonelyhearts for any advice, then explains "dont think I am broad shouldered but that is the way I feel about life and me I mean."

"Miss Lonelyhearts and the Cripple"

Miss Lonelyhearts avoids Betty, as she makes him feel "ridiculous" and he is trying to practice humility. Goldsmith invites him to a drink and is so surprised by Miss Lonelyhearts's humility he believes him to be sick. At the speakeasy, Shrike mockingly inquires about Miss Lonelyhearts's faith, then mock-accuses Goldsmith of being a nasty skeptic. The bartender tells Miss Lonelyhearts that a man at the bar named Peter Doyle wants to see him. Doyle, whose foot is crippled, comes over and buys them a round of drinks. When Doyle tells Shrike about his job as meter-inspector, Shrike gets offended and leaves with Goldsmith.

Doyle tells Miss Lonelyhearts that Mrs. Doyle said he should invite Miss Lonelyhearts to dinner if he ran into him. Miss Lonelyhearts accepts, and later invites Doyle into the back room. Miss Lonelyhearts studies Doyle's face, which looks like a composite of different faces. Doyle inarticulately speaks for a while before handing Miss Lonelyhearts a letter he has written him. In the letter, Doyle tells Miss Lonelyhearts about his disability and job and repeatedly asks what the point of it all is. After Miss Lonelyhearts finishes reading, he accidentally touches Doyle's hand under the table, instinctively retracts his own hand, then clasps Doyle's hand firmly. Doyle is at first embarrassed, but soon they relax and silently continue to grasp hands.

"Miss Lonelyhearts Pays a Visit"

Miss Lonelyhearts and Doyle leave the speakeasy, drunk, with Doyle thinking about his plight and Miss Lonelyhearts about his newfound humility. Doyle curses his wife and foot with the name of Christ. Miss Lonelyhearts helps him into his house, where Doyle sees his wife and begins cursing. Mrs. Doyle takes her husband in and playfully gooses Miss Lonelyhearts. They have dinner, during which Mrs. Doyle flirts more with Miss Lonelyhearts, who tries to remember how he felt while holding hands with Doyle and attempts to think of a message he can communicate to the couple.

The after-dinner drinks make Mrs. Doyle more open with her advances, which bothers her nervous and self-conscious husband. When he awkwardly protests, she hits him with a newspaper. He plays the role of a dog, growling, getting on the floor, and finally tearing open Miss Lonelyhearts's fly. When the couple fights, Miss Lonelyhearts tries to remind them of their love. Mrs. Doyle angrily leaves for the kitchen, and the two men hold hands again. When she returns, Mrs. Doyle mocks the two as "fairies."

Miss Lonelyhearts speaks his message, in which he urges Mrs. Doyle to promote her husband's strength, but he knows that his reluctance to speak about God reduces his advice to the level of worthlessness of one of his columns. He then talks of Christ, but feels he does so with Shrike's voice. He closes his eyes, then reopens them when Doyle says "I love you" to his wife and kisses her. Mrs. Doyle grudgingly forgives her husband and sends him out for more liquor. After he leaves, she resumes trying to seduce Miss Lonelyhearts, sitting in his lap, trying to kiss him, and forcing his head between her breasts. When she gets more forceful, he hits her repeatedly and then leaves.

Analysis

Miss Lonelyhearts's affirmation that Christ died and suffered for humanity is almost turned into a joke when followed by the letter from "Broad Shoulders." Her poignant name captures the suffering she bears on a daily basis, nearly paling the crucifixion in comparison to the cruelty of the modern world. Her letter is a virtuoso narrative of misery, yet another detailed, depressing account of male abuse and female helplessness. Earlier, Miss Lonelyhearts had defined his readers' letters as "inarticulate" suffering, but this is not completely true. West writes the letters in a style that, while ungrammatical and at times infantile, explores in devastating depth the emotional torture Miss Lonelyhearts's readers endure. Consider how Doyle's incorrect substitution of "no" for "know" makes the negativity of life that much more glaring. Miss Lonelyhearts may be able to intellectualize his readers' problems, but his readers feel them, and it is this bridge that separates them and denies his attempts to help.

It is only through non-intellectualization, through simple human contact and humility, that Miss Lonelyhearts finally makes a breakthrough when dealing with a grotesque. He picks a good one, too: Doyle is the first true grotesque we encounter in depth. His face, which Miss Lonelyhearts likens to a composite of ill-fitting faces, is an appropriate symbol of grotesqueness. Doyle is at once his own person and like so many other grotesques, an individual symbol of universal deformity and suffering. Moreover, he is unaware at some level of his own pain—he does not know his wife has had sex with Miss Lonelyhearts—but he is all too conscious of the pointlessness of life and of his impotence in the matter. He is similar to Miss Lonelyhearts, as both are virtually castrated men: Miss Lonelyhearts by his "Miss" title, Doyle by his crippled foot, and both by their depressing jobs. Perhaps it is this identification that sparks Miss Lonelyhearts's Christ-like action of expressing his love and humanity to Doyle—an action recalls Miss Lonelyhearts's earlier moniker of "leper licker."

Miss Lonelyhearts fails again when trying to rejoin Doyle with his wife. It is a project doomed from the start: Miss Lonelyhearts contradictorily gloats to himself about his humility, Doyle hates his wife and, as we already know, Mrs. Doyle returns the favor. Miss Lonelyhearts's first speech about love is, as he admits, too restrained and superficial, his second one too hyperbolic. As with previous failures at Christ-like behavior and love—the sacrificial lamb, Betty, the frog, the old man—he beats, either physically or emotionally, those he cannot help. This time, Miss Lonelyhearts's beating of Mrs. Doyle takes on charged gender implications. She has just called him a "fairy," and he identifies with her symbolically castrated husband (she even hits him with a newspaper, just as Miss Lonelyhearts has been hurt by working on his newspaper), and is clearly overwhelmed by her powerful, manly physique. While Miss Lonelyhearts has previously been repulsed by accounts of violence against women, this is his first physical confrontation with a female, and Mrs. Doyle is the perfect foil for his emasculated rage.

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