Miss Lonelyhearts

by: Nathanael West

Motifs

Newspaper Form

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.