Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Failure of Christian Faith and Miss Lonelyhearts's Christ Complex
Miss Lonelyhearts openly admits he has a "Christ complex." He hangs a figure of Christ up on his walls, Shrike constantly makes mocking comparisons of Miss Lonelyhearts to Christ, and, as the guidance counselor to his many readers, Miss Lonelyhearts is given Christ-like authority to dictate spiritual commands to his audience. He even looks like a minister. But he tragically fails to live up to this Christian potential—he admits he has never allowed the "hysteria" of religion to overtake him, and even goes so far as to say at one point that he does not believe in Christ. The primary cause of his failure is outside Miss Lonelyhearts's control, however. The modern world is filled with sacrilegious cynicism (as epitomized by Shrike), unrelenting, inescapable misery (as his readers' letters attest), and abusive men (evident in the letters, Miss Lonelyhearts's friends, and even Mrs. Doyle). As a result, religion becomes either an afterthought, as with Miss Lonelyhearts's "decorative" Christ figure, or self-destructs, as in Miss Lonelyhearts's botched sacrifice of a lamb (see "Symbols" below).
Christ observed similar problems in his time, yet still preached universal love. Miss Lonelyhearts's main problem is that he perceives misery with Christ-like acuity, but never integrates unconditional Christian love into his personal life. Rather, he intellectualizes the problems of his readers and those around him, never connecting with them on the guttural level of the letters he reads. Moreover, whenever he encounters the "grotesques"—emotional cripples whose interior disarray is often projected into physical disfigurement, as with the nose-less girl and Peter Doyle—or anyone else who suffers, his inability to rescue them only enrages him. While he kills the sacrificial lamb in his youth out of mercy, over the course of the novel he also mistreats and verbally abuses Betty and violently injures an old man.
Miss Lonelyhearts finally does have a religious awakening by the end of the novel, uniting with God. He even goes through a series of events—three days of virtual death, a Last Supper, a resurrection—that approximate the end of Christ's life, though slightly out of order. Miss Lonelyhearts decides to use his column for his long-desired purpose, as a mouthpiece for earnest spirituality and love. When Doyle, the ultimate and universal grotesque, returns to kill him, thus avenging all the grotesques Miss Lonelyhearts has abused, Miss Lonelyhearts embraces the disabled man with love. But just as Miss Lonelyhearts practices what he preaches, Doyle's gun explodes and kills Miss Lonelyhearts. Miss Lonelyhearts dies for Doyle's lack of faith in him, much as Jesus was crucified for man's sins. The novel ends, then, on profoundly optimistic and pessimistic notes. West seems to say that one can potentially become a messiah, but that the rest of the cynical, faithless, and selfish world will never accept it.
Literary Frustration and Castration
West was a journalist as well as a novelist, and he knew well the frustrations of being forced to write against one's own will and conscience. The inception of Miss Lonelyhearts's job was a joke of sorts, a humorous exercise in conjunction with the miserable victims of the world. But, as Miss Lonelyhearts points out, he himself has also become a victim. While he means that his examination of his life has made him see that he, too, is miserable, he has been equally victimized by the inhibitions his writing places on him. He frequently attempts to inject his Christian beliefs in the column, but knows that neither Shrike nor the world will accept it. Instead, he churns out garbage, trite motivational remarks that do nothing to remedy the unyielding misery of his readers. His inability to say anything meaningful to them, ironically, makes him the loneliest of all.
But frustration is only part of Miss Lonelyhearts's routine. He is also emasculated, doing a job normally reserved for women—the Doyles even state in their letters that they are only writing him because they know Miss Lonelyhearts is a man—and with a feminine title adorning his name each time we read it. Perhaps this quasi-female identity sensitizes him to the abuse women in the novel suffer at the hands of men. He clearly identifies with Doyle, whose crippled foot marks him as another virtual eunuch. Furthermore, the second letter we read is from the nose-less girl, another example of absence leading to misery. Miss Lonelyhearts is even overshadowed, literally, by the Mexican War obelisk in the park, whose phallic grandiosity reminds him of and motivates him to have sex. But rather than embracing his femininity, he rebels from it, much as he often rebels from his half-formed Christly identity. Thinking that love is not the answer, he avoids, mistreats, and curses Betty. After Mrs. Doyle sees her husband holding hands with Miss Lonelyhearts, she ridicules the "fairies"; later the emasculated Miss Lonelyhearts beats her when she tries to seduce him. Miss Lonelyhearts is engaged in a constant battle with his masculinity and femininity, but only his acceptance of both genders in himself—and thus a transcendence of gender at the novel's end, demonstrated by his unselfconscious embrace of Doyle—makes him truly Christ-like.
The Great Depression and the Illusion of the American Dream
Critics have often read Miss Lonelyhearts as something of an allegory of America's Great Depression, which spanned the stock market crash of 1929 to the start of World War II. West makes the harsh economic climate a focal point in the lives of his readers. Many of the letters to Miss Lonelyhearts note that were it not for debt, lack of money for an abortion, or some other financial constraint, their hardship would not be as severe. Miss Lonelyhearts's job is also closely linked to money, especially corporate money. His column was invented as a circulation stunt; we learn that when he once recommended suicide to a reader, Shrike made him stop because it would decrease circulation by one reader.
Miss Lonelyhearts also frequently addresses the dreams of those around him, and is usually depressed by them, as he is in the overly romantic Spanish restaurant. However, he also says he learned that "all these things were part of the business of dreams. He 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." It certainly is a "business" of dreams, aspirations designed to sell and make the populace buy. As did many post-WWI writers, West criticized the foundations of the American Dream, the optimistic belief that anyone in America could advance in the social and economy hierarchy. What defines a "grotesque" for Miss Lonelyhearts or West—typically an emotional cripple whose physical appearance frequently symbolizes his interior state, such as Doyle or the nose-less girl—is a persistent belief in the American Dream, even in the face of endless hardship. But many of his readers have also given up hope that life can ever be painless—Doyle and "Broad Shoulders" among them—and their persistence makes them courageous figures. Miss Lonelyhearts criticizes his own dreams about Christ repeatedly throughout the novel, but it is clear by the end that the only way out of the nightmarish American Dream is through love. Doyle's unwillingness to accept Miss Lonelyhearts's final embrace, however, shows that singular action is not enough; we must all commit ourselves to universal love if personal love is to have an effect.
Miss Lonelyhearts is set in the world of newspapers, and its language and form is steeped in journalism. West, a journalist, knew intimately the emotional and aesthetic restrictions required by journalistic writing. The novel's tone mimes the shortened syntax and precise, objective diction of newspaper writing. The occasional departures—through dialogue or Miss Lonelyhearts's narrated thoughts—are breaths of fresh literary air, fleeting escapes from the stifling conditions of journalism. The ungrammatical, run-on letters Miss Lonelyhearts receives, too, are so markedly different from the ordered style of the novel that they feel like a separate "letters to the editor" page.
The shadow of journalism creeps into the characters' dialogue and action as well. Miss Lonelyhearts observes that Mary—perhaps as a result of her marriage to Shrike, whose cynical but poetic eloquence does not seem fitting for his profession—speaks in "headlines." Mrs. Doyle beats her husband with a rolled-up newspaper, and Doyle carries his gun inside one. The newspaper, therefore, kick-starts Miss Lonelyhearts's crisis of conscience and consummates his crucifixion.
The Sterile, Violent, and Disordered Environment
The environment in Miss Lonelyhearts runs through many transformations. Sterile and arid at first, it prompts Miss Lonelyhearts's half-joking wish for his readers to fertilize the soil with their tears. It also contains signs of violence; a shadow "pierced [Miss Lonelyhearts] like a spear." Miss Lonelyhearts notes the defense mechanism—a preemptive attack of sorts—that man employs in this violent environment, positing that man has broken stones for use in skyscrapers to prevent the stones from breaking him. Miss Lonelyhearts's real gripe with his environment, however, is not with its sterility or violence, but its teeming chaos. To him, Betty is the symbol of order, but even their getaway to the country is chaotic—the deafening sounds of the crickets at night are no less grating than those of people on the streets. The only tactic that works for Miss Lonelyhearts is religion. He frequently imagines religious imagery—either a cross or his Christ-figure—collecting, almost magnetically, the detritus of the modern world.
Miss Lonelyhearts's Sickness and Resurrection
West warns the reader in the first episode that Miss Lonelyhearts will get sick if he thinks too much about Christ. He eventually does get sick later in the novel, and his physical health after that roughly parallels Jesus' last few days, albeit in a different chronology better suited for a novel. After his sickness, he spends three days in bed—much like Jesus was dead for three days (many Biblical scholars mark the actual span as forty-eight hours, from Good Friday to Easter Sunday). Then he is virtually resurrected when people come to his apartment, and brought to Shrike's party, a Last Supper-type affair where Shrike (a Judas stand-in) tries to betray him. He escapes, however, and Doyle, who does not have faith that Miss Lonelyhearts is trying to embrace him, kills him. Miss Lonelyhearts is crucified, and with his death his Christhood is completed.
Stones and Rocks
West uses stones and rocks repeatedly in a variety of different contexts, defying simple definition or interpretation. Miss Lonelyhearts states the significance of stone to him when he reasons that man breaks stones "desperately, almost as if they [know] that the stones would someday break them." Violence is linked with the stone as a defense mechanism against nature, but the stone also takes on another natural association—that of cold insensitivity. Miss Lonelyhearts feels himself turning into a "rock" at the end of the novel, remaining emotionally dead even while he makes marriage plans with Betty (though his religious experience snaps him out of his stupor). But the stone also becomes a signifier of false hope: Shrike commands Miss Lonelyhearts to throw his readers their "daily stone" with his digestible advice column. When Miss Lonelyhearts tries to throw the stone that has formed in his stomach, however, he finds no target—perhaps a reminder of the Biblical phrase "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." The most graphic image of a stone occurs when Miss Lonelyhearts does throw one—on the head of the lamb after the botched sacrifice. He does so, however, out of mercy. This episode takes place in his youth, though, and demonstrates how far Miss Lonelyhearts's view of stone has fallen. His gesture may encapsulate all the above negative connotations of the stone—it is certainly violent, it is a way to end feeling, and the stone is thrown—but it is for an act of mercy, not destruction.
The lamb Miss Lonelyhearts sacrifices in his youth is an obvious symbol for Jesus. The Bible makes this symbolic link clear: just as Jesus died for man's sins, so does the unblemished, innocent lamb in a sacrifice. But when Miss Lonelyhearts tries to kill the lamb, the sacrifice goes awry, and the wounded animal escapes. West's implication is clear: religion fails in the modern world, and Miss Lonelyhearts cannot live up to his full Christian potential. Moreover, after the merciful Miss Lonelyhearts finally puts the lamb out of its misery, flies devour the lamb's carcass. The meek and innocent are not only killed these days, West shows in this account—which was originally intended to open the novel—but also brutalized.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!