Literature Study GuidesMiss LonelyheartsMiss Lonelyhearts And Mrs Shrike Summary

Miss Lonelyhearts | Study Guide

Nathanael West

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Miss Lonelyhearts | Miss Lonelyhearts and Mrs. Shrike | Summary

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Summary

The next day Miss Lonelyhearts lies on the bed in his rented room, suffering from a headache and a hangover. Shrike calls because Miss Lonelyhearts has not shown up at work yet. Miss Lonelyhearts feels confident Shrike won't fire him for missing work.

He goes out and eats breakfast in a cafeteria. He walks in a park and notices a "Mexican war obelisk," a tall war monument. The monument looks "swollen and red," and he imagines it "spout[ing] a load of granite seed." He realizes he hasn't yet tried sex as a cure for his problems.

There is a problem, though. "He knew only two women who would tolerate him," Betty and Mrs. Shrike. He decides to try Mrs. Shrike, since Betty is mad at him. He thinks about Mrs. Shrike. He can make her sexually excited, but he cannot feel any excitement himself. "Like a dead man, only friction could make him warm or violence make him mobile."

Typically his meetings with Mrs. Shrike are disappointing. She likes to make him look at her breasts by asking him to look at the medal she wears on a necklace. But she refuses to have sex with him. Still, he calls her up, and she tells him to meet her at her place. He expects Shrike will be there, but he goes anyway.

When he arrives Shrike is there. "Come in, come in, homebreaker," Shrike says in his jokey way. Miss Lonelyhearts tries to go for a good comeback: "You're an old meanie who beats his wife," he says. Shrike replies, "It is Mary who does the beating." Then Shrike talks at length about how he suffers. Mrs. Shrike is "selfish," he claims; she is unwilling to have sex with him.

Mrs. Shrike appears and invites Miss Lonelyhearts into her bedroom, to watch her get dressed. Then they go to a nightclub called El Gaucho. Everything is Spanish-themed, and Mrs. Shrike responds to this: "Mary immediately went Spanish." By "going Spanish" the narrator means she acts in a way she imagines as exotic and Spanish: "her movements became languorous and full of abandon." Then Miss Lonelyhearts thinks about the nightclub: "Guitars ... exotic foods, outlandish costumes—all these things were part of the business of dreams."

He asks to see the medal she wears. She leans over the table toward him but he can't see what the medal says. She speaks of her mother, who died of breast cancer. "She died leaning over a table," Mrs. Shrike says. She leans over the table to demonstrate her mother's death, but Miss Lonelyhearts still can't read the medal.

She talks to him about her life and her father, but he doesn't pay attention. He thinks about how everyone tells this kind of story, about the family they came from. "Parents are also part of the business of dreams," he thinks. After her story about her father, Miss Lonelyhearts succeeds in finding out what is on Mrs. Shrike's medal. It commemorates winning the 100-yard dash at Boston Latin School.

Analysis

Mrs. Shrike's first name is Mary. Thus the two women Miss Lonelyhearts knows are Mary and Elizabeth (Betty). These are also the names of the important women in the story of Jesus, according to the Gospel of Luke. Elizabeth is the mother of John the Baptist, a prophet who foretold the coming of Jesus. Mary is the mother of Jesus.

By using these names for the women in Miss Lonelyhearts's life, West invites comparisons between Christ and Miss Lonelyhearts. However, these are only comparisons. Miss Lonelyhearts is never perfectly Christ-like. Comparing Miss Lonelyhearts and Christ is not the end of understanding this novel. It is the beginning. Readers still have to decide why West created a dead, angry, hungover Christ. Perhaps he wants to show a scale of human suffering outstripping even Christ's capacity for solace.

Sometimes in romantic heterosexual love, the woman is described as a mystery, an endlessly fascinating mystery, because her secrets can never be fully known. The one unknown about Mrs. Shrike is the inscription on her medal. But Mrs. Shrike turns out to be a bit of a one-note mystery. At the end of the chapter Miss Lonelyhearts sees the medal is just a meaningless memento from a high school sports event. Mystery solved. So much for Mrs. Shrike.

But on the way to solving the mystery West makes a comparison between Mrs. Shrike and her dead mother. Miss Lonelyhearts is intrigued by Mrs. Shrike's breasts. This is their one sexual act, the display of her breasts. West could have had Mrs. Shrike's mother die of anything but chooses to have her die of breast cancer. He also has Mrs. Shrike pose in the same way her mother died, leaning over. Perhaps Mrs. Shrike is compared to a dead woman, to show the connection between Miss Lonelyhearts and Mrs. Shrike can only be a dead end.

As if to compensate for her dead mother, whose life-sustaining, succoring breasts were cancerous, Mrs. Shrike romanticizes her father. Miss Lonelyhearts considers making up stories about one's parents is also "part of the business of dreams." In a way it is a sympathetic insight, showing compassion for people who need to explain why they are as they are. But it is also a cold insight. Miss Lonelyhearts is saying families are as commercialized, tawdry, and false as the Spanish décor of the El Gaucho nightclub.

In the nightclub episode the word gay is used many times, especially by Mrs. Shrike. When she proposes going to the El Gaucho nightclub, she says, "Let's go where we can dance. I want to be gay." When they arrive she announces she likes the place, saying "It's a little fakey, I know, but it's gay and I so want to be gay." Miss Lonelyhearts doesn't just let the topic drop. He draws her out on it, asking, "Why do you want to be gay?" To which Mrs. Shrike replies, "Every one wants to be gay—unless they're sick."

Mrs. Shrike answers as though the meaning of gay were obvious. She might mean "high-spirited and happy," but the word has other senses. And the word was not without sexual meanings long before that. In the 19th century gay could refer to men and women enjoying lewd behavior. At that time the term gay young blade once meant a rakish, carousing man, though not necessarily a homosexual one. The sense of gay as meaning homosexual, especially in reference to homosexual men, was not firmly established as a preferred term until the 1960s. But the homosexual meaning of the word was not unknown before the 1960s, even if not in widespread use. In 1933 the Dictionary of Underworld Slang, gay cat was defined as "a homosexual boy." In 1938 Cary Grant used it in the movie Bringing Up Baby (1938). Asked why he was wearing a woman's frilly negligée, Grant's character says, "Because I just went gay all of a sudden!"

If Mrs. Shrike means "happy," West might not have repeated the word so many times. In the previous chapter, "Miss Lonelyhearts and the Clean Old Man," male homosexuality is presented as a second-best preference, in the absence of women. As Ned says, "If you can't get a woman, get a clean old man." There are other striking examples of close, male-to-male contact in the novel. For example, Miss Lonelyhearts and Doyle hold hands on two occasions, prompting Mrs. Doyle to scorn them as "a couple of fairies." In this chapter "gay" seems to mean "happy" for Mrs. Shrike. But it also refers to the trace of another life Miss Lonelyhearts seems aware of but unable or unwilling to be made happy by.

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