Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

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.