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Miss Lonelyhearts

Nathanael West

Study Questions and Essay Topics

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Quiz

Study Questions

Discuss Miss Lonelyhearts's frustrations as a writer.

Miss Lonelyhearts's job as an advice columnist enslaves him. He is unable to write advice representative his earnest Christian beliefs, and instead dispenses pedestrian sentiments about hope. Even his uneducated readers write with more panache than he does. He is completely controlled by corporate interests: his job was originally a circulation-stunt, and Shrike tells him not to prescribe suicide in a column—not because it is depressing advice, but because it will reduce circulation by one reader. Even the inhibiting syntax of journalism seems to infect Miss Lonelyhearts's thinking and the novel's overall style. Moreover, it is impossible to miss the title in his name. Known as "Miss Lonelyhearts" and working as the author of a typically female advice column, he is constantly emasculated. West never gives us Miss Lonelyhearts's real name; other characters such as Shrike call him that, or do not call him by any name at all. It is no wonder that Miss Lonelyhearts particularly identifies with Peter Doyle; similarly defeated by his job and dominated by the mannish Mrs. Doyle, he seeks companionship with another virtual eunuch.

What is the role of the speakeasy in Miss Lonelyhearts's life?

The subliminal pun in "speakeasy" jumps out when we witness Miss Lonelyhearts's great unease in the speakeasy. While he "writes easy," passing off simplistic sentiments in his column, Miss Lonelyhearts certainly does not "speak easy" among his friends or around Shrike. In fact, it is hard to come up with a valid reason for Miss Lonelyhearts's frequent visits to the neighborhood speakeasy, other than his desire for alcohol and respite from work. The speakeasy presents a jungle of the objectionable: Miss Lonelyhearts often faces mockery at the hands of Shrike, his friends criticize him and trade vicious stories of rape, and he is even punched in the face. Yet, in this den of sin he also finds his first human connection—with Doyle. Though Miss Lonelyhearts purportedly strives to be Christ-like, he frequents this illegal venue for alcohol—though this is not necessarily another example of Miss Lonelyhearts's failure to live up to Christian ideals. While the Bible obviously does not encourage excessive drinking, it does not outlaw it either—Jesus turned water into wine, after all—and Prohibition is merely an arbitrary law made by the American government. However, the fact that man abused alcohol enough to merit a law against it—and the fact that man devised illegal ways around his own laws—demonstrates the potentiality of sin at the speakeasy.

Sex figures prominently in Miss Lonelyhearts, especially as a weapon. Discuss.

The first letter we see addressed to Miss Lonelyhearts is from a woman whose husband forces her to bear him children despite the extreme pain it causes her. The second is from a nose-less girl who longs for a boyfriend, and the third is from a boy whose deaf and dumb sister has been raped. These letters introduce a world of sexual inequity and iniquity—a tone that the rest of the novel maintains in its depiction of men and their brutality, from Miss Lonelyhearts's friends, who glowingly speak of the benefits of rape, to Miss Lonelyhearts's own verbal abuse of Betty. However, West flips gender-dominance as well. Shrike may exaggerate his claim that his wife, Mary, beats him, but there is no doubt that the manly Mrs. Doyle physically and verbally abuses the crippled Doyle.

Despite these exceptions, male violence against women is the primary focus of the novel's sexual politics, and the root seems to be fear. Miss Lonelyhearts's friends enjoy the tales of rape perpetrated against literary women because, as failed artists, they resent their more successful female counterparts. In Miss Lonelyhearts's many letters about domestic abuse, the men take out their anger on their wives over their own inadequacies. On less volatile ground, West also takes an interest in the act of seduction, which typically figures as a narcissistic, selfish endeavor. Shrike seduces Miss Farkis as he makes an extravagant speech condemning religion. Miss Lonelyhearts frequently attempts to seduce Mary, and his desire is never greater than when they are outside the door to her apartment, her husband right inside. Mrs. Doyle nearly takes Miss Lonelyhearts's head off when she forces him onto her after she has gotten rid of her husband—and this directly after calling Miss Lonelyhearts and Doyle "fairies."

Suggested Essay Topics

Discuss the significance of stones and rocks in Miss Lonelyhearts.

How do Miss Lonelyhearts's preoccupations with order coincide with his views on religion? Note Betty's status as a symbol of order to him.

How does Miss Lonelyhearts react to grotesques? Consider especially when he meets grotesques or the innocent face-to-face.

Does West romanticize the country? Or does he critique the underside of the pastoral world?

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