Literature Study GuidesMiss LonelyheartsMiss Lonelyhearts And The Clean Old Man Summary

Miss Lonelyhearts | Study Guide

Nathanael West

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Miss Lonelyhearts | Miss Lonelyhearts and the Clean Old Man | Summary



Kicked out of Betty's place, Miss Lonelyhearts finds himself on the street again. He feels as if "his heart were a bomb, a complicated bomb that would result in a simple explosion." This explosion would "wreck the world."

Miss Lonelyhearts returns to Delehanty's speakeasy. His friends are there, and one of them is complaining about female writers. He describes how a female writer is punished for becoming "literary." Eight or so men take her "into the lots one night ... They ganged her proper," he says. A similar anecdote is then told about a female writer who starts writing in the hard-boiled detective genre. She is punished similarly and "they didn't let her out for three days."

At this point Miss Lonelyhearts "stopped listening." He thinks his friends know they are being childish, "but did not know how else to revenge themselves." Miss Lonelyhearts sees his friends as disappointed believers in art.

The men begin talking about Miss Lonelyhearts, and he pays attention again. They repeat criticisms Shrike has made about his religious beliefs. Miss Lonelyhearts considers how alike his friends and Shrike are. "Like Shrike, the man they imitated, they were machines for making jokes."

He again loses interest in his friends' talk and turns to his memories. He was 12 and his younger sister was eight. They were waiting for their father to come home. "Made sad by the pause between playing and eating," he goes to the piano and plays something by Mozart. His sister dances to the music.

Miss Lonelyhearts thinks about children dancing. He imagines all the children in the world "gravely, sweetly dancing. He then bumps into a man at the bar and gets punched. Later Miss Lonelyhearts discovers he has a loose tooth and a bump on his head. He grows angry.

Miss Lonelyhearts leaves the speakeasy with a friend, Ned Gates. It is snowing outside. They go to a public toilet in the park. They accost an old man who is sitting in a stall without doors. Ned says, "If you can't get a woman, get a clean old man." They old man is frightened but then starts laughing. Miss Lonelyhearts is angered by his helplessness: "Miss Lonelyhearts fought off a desire to hit him."

Ned and Miss Lonelyhearts go to another speakeasy, dragging the old man along with them. Ned insists the old man tell his life story. Ned says he is Krafft-Ebbing and Miss Lonelyhearts is Havelock Ellis, two pioneering and widely discussed sexologists of the time. Ned asks the old man, "When did you first discover homosexualistic tendencies in yourself?" The old man protests. His pitifulness angers Miss Lonelyhearts, who joins in pressuring him.

Ned suggests dropping the interrogation, saying, "The old fag is going to cry." Miss Lonelyhearts keeps the pressure on and the man does start to cry. Miss Lonelyhearts twists the old man's arm, not stopping even when he screams. Someone puts an end to the torture by hitting Miss Lonelyhearts over the head with a chair and the chapter ends abruptly.


Miss Lonelyhearts's friends seem also to be newspapermen. He excuses their deeply violent and mean-spirited talk about women by saying, they "did not know how else to revenge themselves." It might seem they are seeking revenge on women writers for entering the field of writing. Maybe Miss Lonelyhearts's friends are mad about that, but they seek revenge for a different reason. In college, "and perhaps for a year afterwards," Miss Lonelyhearts's friends "had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end." With the collapse of these beliefs Miss Lonelyhearts's friends have nothing. Disappointed by art and beauty, they do not turn to worldly pleasures: "Money and fame meant nothing to them. They were not worldly men." Instead they turn to despair, bitterness, and the worst type of sexual fantasies. Their disappointment does not excuse their hateful talk. But it shows West creating a complex motive for their compulsive trash talking. Like Shrike they are "machines for making jokes."

Amidst these cynical men Miss Lonelyhearts recalls a memory of innocence and beauty. He went to the piano "voluntarily" for the first time and played Mozart. Thus Miss Lonelyhearts must have had piano lessons as a child. But on this one evening he played spontaneously, not compelled by parents or teachers. This spontaneous impulse to create beauty arises in a moment of sadness. Twelve-year-old Miss Lonelyhearts was "made sad by the pause between playing and eating." In the rough and tumble life of a child there was a moment of stillness, and that moment contained sorrow. Even now he thinks of children dancing "gravely, sweetly dancing." This scene and this memory give some idea of Miss Lonelyhearts's dreams. Not the ones he has at night but dreams in the sense he speaks of to his letter writers in the first chapter: "Life is worth while, for it is full of dreams." Miss Lonelyhearts's visions contain a note of deep and troubled sadness.

With the "clean old man" Ned and Miss Lonelyhearts switch between bullying the man about likely being gay and threatening to sexually assault him. They pose as two sex researchers who were well known in the early 20th century: Krafft-Ebbing (1840–1902) and Havelock Ellis (1859–1939). In 1886 German psychologist Richard, baron von Krafft-Ebing, published Psychopathia Sexualis, a long catalogue of atypical sexual practices. In 1897 British physician Havelock Ellis published Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Both these works documented the fact many people had sex with partners of the same gender. Such people were "homosexualistic," to use Ned Gates's mocking word. These were books about sexual pathology, not guides to actions. As part of their stereotypical macho language, Ned and Miss Lonelyhearts seem to take the view that "homosexualists" should be punished.

As with everything done in imitation of Shrike, Ned's and Miss Lonelyhearts's undertaking is presented as a cruel joke. Ned sings out a witty remark: "If you can't get a woman, get a clean old man." He seems to be talking about perhaps resigning oneself to a male sex partner, as a kind of second-best option. But in the light of the hateful talk about women at the start of the chapter, Ned's remark could mean something else. When there are no women to bully, Ned and Miss Lonelyhearts turn to a lesser man, an old man with "homosexualistic tendencies." They aren't seeking a sex partner. They're looking for another type of target. At the time West wrote the novel, some attitudes toward sexual behavior had changed a great deal but the old ways and views could still persist, and be expressed in scorn and violence as well.

In this chapter Miss Lonelyhearts again displays the emotional logic of "Miss Lonelyhearts and the Big Fat Thumb." In that chapter he was angered by Betty's helplessness, which reminded him of a kitten. In this chapter the old man reminds him of "a small frog" he once "accidentally stepped on." He felt a moment of pity for the frog. But "when its suffering became real" to Miss Lonelyhearts, "his pity had turned to rage and he had beaten it frantically until it was dead." Rapidly switching between pity for the old man and rage, Miss Lonelyhearts twists the old man's arm. In this moment the old man stands for all Miss Lonelyhearts's sick and miserable letter writers: "He was twisting the arm of Desperate, Brokenhearted, Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband."

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